Jerry Pinto’s book, Em and the Big Hoom, has been making waves since its publication. Somewhere between a memoir and fiction, the book is at once moving, gripping, and honest, and Pinto’s voice resonates with an ever increasing number of readers. Now, Em and the Big Hoom finds itself on the shortlist for The Hindu Literary Prize, 2012, and Pinto answers a few questions about his book, his love for books and his need to write.

How did Em and the Big Hoom start? And when did it start? Lastly, why did it start?

Em and the Big Hoom was the very first book I started writing. I believe it had something to do with reading. If you read enough, if you love books enough, eventually you want to see your name on the spine of a book. When I started the book, I was very young but I believed that it might help me deal with my demons. I had just learnt the word ‘catharsis’ and I felt it was such a beautiful word that it had to be true. So it began with the first words that I put down in my quest to turn myself into that mythical person: the author, the writer, the poet.

This version then is a palimpsest in which there are traces and lines of the many versions that I wrote before it. I like to think they all added up to this one but I am fairly sure that some were just trial runs.

There are other books by you, over 10 non-fiction books with your name on them. And now, this transition to fiction, how was it? What was different?

I think fiction and non-fiction are useful categories for librarians and for the police. I don’t think any of my novelist friends ever escapes from the tyranny of the possible. I don’t think any of my non-fiction-writing friends ever escape from the demands of the narrative. In the end, you need to write the book inside you, and as you write it you discover whether it is fiction or non-fiction.

Since the publication of Em and the Big Hoom, you have taken the literary world by storm. You’ve been to several festivals, been part of several book readings. How has the experience been? What have you taken away from them?

I have spent the last year working on Adil Jussawalla’s prose as well so it hasn’t just been one mad whirl of festivals. I only mention this because he has a beautiful piece which deserves to be better known where he asks: Who reads us?

This is the answer that festivals offer. Writers work in isolation and then send their work out into the world. They must then trust that the reader is out there and will pick up their books, read their work, co-invent the world in between the pages, unpack it, make it their own. The reader then becomes a somewhat mystical figure, half-real, half-legendary. Is she there? Does she exist? Will she deign? Will she respond? These are the questions that wake you up in the middle of the night.

At a literary festival, you meet your readers. That’s what matters. Suddenly, there’s comity, there are faces and moments of empathy. And yes, some misunderstandings too.

At the core of this book is your family, but what the book is really about is open to interpretation. You are the writer, of course, but as a reader, what is Em and the Big Hoom about, for you?

Thank you. I am glad that you feel that what the book is really about is open to interpretation because if there is a single unitary interpretation, it wouldn’t be much of a book. I meant what I said about a book being co-invented each time someone reads it. We read books but that’s not what we do, as reader. We also read onto books the passions and predicaments of our own lives; we read into them, mining for clues to how to live our lives, looking for signs that we are not alone, that what we have done has been done before, what we have suffered has happened to others; we read past them into the life of the author and the details and the reviews and all the other paraphernalia of literary critique, we fetishise books and we worship them and we hate them and we reject them and they can enrage us. We are an odd tribe, book readers, book lovers, book writers. I am happy to be part of this odd tribe.

Have you read the other books on the shortlist for The Hindu Literary Prize? Any favourites?

I think it’s a very strong list and there are many good contenders. I don’t envy the judges their task.

(The Hindu Lit for Life 2013 will take place in Chennai on February 16-17, 2013. The winner of The Hindu Literary Prize will be announced at the festival on February 17)

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