One was a writer all along. Another was drawn to it as a teenager. Authors Joanna Kavenna and Adam Foulds, who were in the city, talk about their experiences in the world of words

Joanna Kavenna and Adam Foulds are discussing writing over coffee. “I was just telling him that I like Sarnath Banerjee’s writing. He’s very ironic,” says Joanne while Adam explains that he grew up with Indian literature. “R.K. Narayan, Rohinton Mistry… reading these authors was a particular kind of experience. I had an image of India in my imagination for a long time and finally coming here is like a 3-D sensation, and everything is magnified and more real.” Granta authors Joanna and Adam are on a three-city tour of India, and in Chennai recently, they participated in an interaction with readers about their writing. Adam also held the workshop Creating Characters.

A writer throughout her life, Joanna wrote plays, poems, novels right from school. “I didn’t see how writing could become a career because nobody in my family wrote. I thought I’d become an academic and went to Oxford to study. There, I found that so many people wanted to be writers that it could become a career. My first book, The Ice Museum, a travelogue, came out in 2005. I have written three other novels since,” she says. In 2008, Joanna was awarded the Orange Prize for New Writing and her work has also appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, The Guardian, The London Review Of Books and The Telegraph.

Wild interests!

Adam set out with varied interests — wildlife photography, birding, science... “When I was 15, my teacher asked me to write a poem. I knew then that this was what I wanted to become,” he says. “I wrote only poetry for many years. When I was in my 20s, I started writing more prose. I got a Masters degree in writing and did a bunch of jobs and finally got published in 2007.”

Adam has two published novels — About These Strange Times and The Quickening Maze. The Broken Word is a narrative poem set in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising. He has received The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year, Costa Poetry Prize, Somerset Maugham Award, South Bank Show Prize for Literature, Encore Award and the European Union Prize for Literature. His second novel, The Quickening Maze, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009.

Granta’s latest issue has an excerpt from Joanna’s upcoming novel Tomorrow, which spans the life of a few characters over 20 years. “It starts in the 1990s, before the digital age, when they are young and you watch them grow. You also watch the world go through a complete change, a technological shift and see how the characters handle it. They also get involved in the geo-political situation,” she says.

The book draws on her experiences. Adam’s recent novel In The Wolf’s Mouth is set during the World War II in Sicily after the allied invasion. “It is an attempt at figuring the unmanageable complexity of war, making peace, and is inspired by all the modern attempts at social reconstruction as in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Adam. “This kind of writing needs a respect for historic truth but as a novelist, you can’t be bound by this respect. You honour it in essence, I guess. It also takes a lot of research, hard work, and you spend a lot of time making it a part of your imagination so that when you write, you write freely and naturally.”

Finding one’s voice

Joanna believes that developing a distinctive style is about going through three phases. “There is a saying that there are three phases in a writer’s case. First you imitate, second you despair because something you are trying to work with isn’t working out and third you push on with it and own it. When you do this, you find your voice, you can’t mark it, but it still has all your influence. I guess this is a way to pay back your debts to writers you have read,” she explains. “I have an ironic tone in my books. And while writing my first book I realised that I repeated phrases and words a lot.”

Adam talks of his descriptive style. “I’m committed to capturing the tactile and sensory experience, the accuracy of details. When I write about war and conflict, I want to bring into picture the physical experience of being there and give the reader an ultimate level of reality. The writing I like most is where poems and prose converge, like D.H. Lawrence, where the result is intense, concentrated and musical. That’s what I strive to do with my writing.”