Rajeev Balasubramanyam Interview: “I suppose, like most writers, I was a reader first”

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Author, traveller, and meditation specialist Rajeev Balasubramanyam was kind enough to take the time to talk me through his work, its enduring popularity and the role meditation plays in his creative process.

What is your background in writing and how did you come to define your writing style?

I suppose, like most writers, I was a reader first, and discovered that what comes in must come out. The more I read, the more I needed to write. My father used to tell me stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata when I was little. He was a superb storyteller, and very funny. He gave me a real delight in telling stories, an understanding that a story could be wondrous, hilarious, serious, heart-breaking, exciting, frightening and silly all at the same time, but that the storyteller’s job was to make sure the reader remained absorbed, that so long as the story goes on, the writer has to own the reader’s attention. I’m not sure if I can define my writing style, but this is the source of my approach.

Tell me about the books you have published currently. What are the central themes and how did you come to write them?

My latest book is STARSTRUCK, a collection of interlinked narratives each one of which ‘stars’ a celebrity. It began with a story called ‘The Day George Bush Sr. Came to Use the Bathroom’, a surreal comedy about an apolitical husband with a highly political, Muslim wife, who has a night of drunken laughter with Bush that goes awry. I tremendously enjoyed taking the form of someone so famous and turning him into a character – he became a symbol, an archetype, like the gods in those epics I was told as a child. So I did it again, with David Beckham, and then again with Tony Blair, and ended up writing ten of them.

Your books have received really wide critical acclaim and won awards. What do you believe is the secret behind your success as an author?

All I can say is that I have total commitment to what I do and the idea of doing anything else is unthinkable. This is a very dangerous attitude, all single-minded attitudes are, but what it means is that while failure is inevitable, so is picking myself up and trying again.

How do you go about researching your books? What information do you feel is essential before you settle in to writing a new piece?

I don’t need to get the facts exactly right to write my first draft, I just need to have a feel for what I’m writing about, a sense of it, so that I can describe it without feeling like a fake. Without this, it’s hard to have a sense of solidity behind the writing, a sense of confidence, which is essential to keeping the reader under your spell. As for my research methods, I guess they’re the same as everyone else’s, but the really valuable research has been accidental, has come from life experiences, almost all unplanned.

Alongside your writing, please tell me about your other interests and works. How do the experiences you gain, or have gained in the past, influence your novels?

Over the last ten years, I’ve been very committed to meditation. I sit for two hours a day and spend ten or twenty days a year on retreat, sometimes more. It has, without question, changed my life. Like a lot of writers, I’m very sensitive, which often felt more like a curse than a blessing, but meditation has given me an awareness and an equanimity that I couldn’t find anywhere else. Two years ago I was awarded a fellowship from the Hemera Foundation, for writers and artists with a meditation practice. I ended up wandering the length and breadth of the United States, going from meditation centre to meditation centre and writing about it in my online diary, AMERICAN PILGRIMAGE, which is still on-going and can be found on my website. Some of these experiences helped inform my new novel, which is in the finishing stages right now.
Where do you take your inspiration? Are there any rituals you do to get yourself in the mood for writing?

Well, meditation, obviously, but not much else. I used to have rituals, but the older I get the busier I seem to be, so now I just try to sit down and do it. The important thing is never to stop reading, no matter how busy I am, even if it’s only half an hour or an hour a day.

What genres and authors do you enjoy reading yourself? How do the books you read influence your own writing?

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books by American writers and have really enjoyed the experience, discovering several new writers alongside some of the big hitters: Celeste Ng, Coleson Whitehead, Mira Jacob, Emma Cline, Junot Diaz, Jade Chang, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others. For reasons I’m not sure of, I’m now turning to contemporary African fiction, realising there are several writers from that continent I’ve been meaning to read for years but haven’t read: Imbolo Mbue, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, Chigozie Obioma. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit I’m reading my country or continent, as I frequently get irritated that literature is so often categorised in this way, but maybe I should just accept that nation still matters, as much as I might dislike it.

Everything I read influences me, but once in a while a book comes along that seems to just set me on fire. I remember this happened with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami, years ago, and the first time I read Borges, and most recently with A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, and The Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It’s always hard to say what effect such books have on one’s own work; sometimes they become a part of you, you can almost feel them living within you; sometimes they don’t, no matter how much you love them; and sometimes you simply don’t know.

If you could collaborate with a writer, either alive or dead, who would it be and for what reason?

I wrote a film script recently with my girlfriend and really enjoyed it, and I hope we find time to write another. I can’t really think of collaborating with anyone else.

Have you got any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?

My new novel, Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss, and the novel I have planned for after this, of which I’ve already written an early draft. I needed some time to figure out where to take this project, and I think I have.

Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to later in the year?

Hari Kunzu and Zadie Smith have never novels, which I’m looking forward to. I don’t know if David Mitchell has a new book soon, but it seems about time and I always look forward to whatever he writes. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Girl, the sequel to A Suitable Boy, was supposed to be out a while back, but I’ve heard nothing for a while. And Arundhati Roy’s second novel is on its way, I believe. All exciting prospects.

Many thanks to Rajeev for talking to me; you can read all about his latest work HERE.

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