CHAT Getting wordsmiths to part with a few words for the camera is not always easy, reveals veteran journalist Sunil Sethi, who has just published a collection of some of his memorable interviews. PARVATHI NAYAR reports

“Good fun!” grins Sunil Sethi, describing his current schizophrenic existence as interviewer and interviewee — as presenter of NDTV's weekend literary show, ‘Just Books', and as the author of The Big Bookshelf, a compilation of 30 such interviews with famous writers. In town to launch the book at Landmark, where he was in conversation with Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Sethi says that culling 30 from over 300 interviews — the TV show started in early 2005 — was “a damn tough call”.

Sethi, born in 1954, was drawn to journalism from his college days and worked extensively in the print media prior to his literary talk show host avatar. Life as a ‘new media' TV journalist who chases ‘old media' words and wordsmiths, represents a nice absurdity.

Initially it presented problems on how to make the show “visually engaging,” but ‘Just Books' won its own constituency. “This isn't a country to be underestimated for its literary potential.” The show owed much of its popularity to Sethi's go-getting attitude: “Go get the story that no one else can get. As E.M. Forster said, ‘The trouble with opportunities is not that they don't come. It is that they are not punctual.'”

Now interviews come looking for him, but “in the early days, I chased them hard,” he chuckles. The chase is a story in itself, whether it was “‘kidnapping' Umberto Eco on his way to dinner at the Italian Ambassador Antonio Armellini's home, to do an interview in the Ambassador's study,” or “smuggling a letter fervently pleading my cause into Nadine Gordimer's hotel room”. The Ambassador's wife and the hotel manager, respectively, were co-opted as aides in Sethi's cause.

In other cases, persistence paid. “Many authors — Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Aravind Adiga — will not do TV. I had asked Anita Desai for an interview many times but she is camera-shy. Finally it was in 2006, at Turin, when she was being honoured with a prestigious Italian literary award, that she consented. To make her feel more comfortable, we filmed the interview in a garden in autumnal bloom, and she opened up so beautifully, as nuanced and elegant in her speech as she is in her prose.”

Of life and letters

“Preparedness is all” is his favourite mantra, despite which, mishaps can occur. For example “I had carefully picked the location along the outer wall of Humayun's tomb for the Vikram Seth interview, then the camera batteries failed and the light was fading…” Tense moments passed; eventually, replacement batteries were got, a mutual friend passing by distracted Seth — and the show went on.

As the TV show went on “I opened it up as a sort of literary ‘adda', as a show of life and letters where people from different walks of life are featured, be it Javed Akhtar talking about writing movie songs or Amartya Sen discussing the nature of justice.” The interviews selected for his book offer some indication of this approach, featuring Indian superstars (Chetan Bhagat), Indians abroad (Salman Rushdie), acclaimed Pakistanis (Mohsin Hamid), Indianised foreigners (William Dalrymple) and non-Indian literary giants (Orhan Pamuk), among others.

Such classifications, however, don't sit well with Sethi: “A writer is a writer. It doesn't matter where you come from, if you've got a story to tell, write it.” The magic of writing, he says, should open up the world for you rather than limit you with notions of geography.