In Conversation Books

‘Books can talk for the author’: Anees Salim

Anees Salim

Anees Salim

Seven novels, four major accolades including the Sahitya Akademi, three nominations: Anees Salim completed a decade in Indian English Fiction in 2021. The year also marked the publication of his new novel, The Odd Book of Baby Names, a German translation of Vanity Bagh , and the announcement of his next novel, The Bellboy . He is now busy writing another and we caught him in the middle of a hectic schedule. Excerpts from an interview:

In strong spurts, at intervals, that’s been your publishing pattern...

Shortly after The Small-town Sea was published, I found myself unable to write. Not that I felt empty. I had stories and characters inside me but for some inexplicable reason I could not bring myself to create or craft anything the way I wanted. It was an uncertain period for the storyteller in me.

But slowly I regained the rhythm and started to work on an idea that had been with me for a long time and The Odd Book of Baby Names was born. Then I wrote The Bellboy . And now I am writing another one. I guess I have rediscovered the writer in me, and I feel somewhat relieved.

You have this image of a recluse. With your books reaching audiences abroad, is it time to reconsider?

My interaction with the world is limited to print and social media. I use both the mediums to remind people that my books exist. I don’t believe in the concept of building an image for the author. Books can talk for the author and, in my case, other than what my books say, I don’t have much to talk about. Having said that, let me add that my views can change in the future. Sometimes I am surprised by how my outlook changes.

For instance, as a boy I wanted radio stations to play sad music when I died. As an aspiring writer, I wanted my obituary to appear on the front page. Now I pine for a quiet burial. Even my neighbours should not know about my passing until a few weeks have passed. So time changes the way you look at life, and one day I might make myself less inconspicuous. But I don’t think I will do that with any pleasure.

I don’t know if I should change myself because of the overseas deals. I interact with my U.K. editor every second day, and I have promised to meet her in the first half of 2022. I just hope I won’t have to do anything more than a few one-to-one meetings.

How has the response been to translations of your works?

My books have been translated into several Indian languages. But frankly, I don’t keep track of their performance. I have a feeling that my translated works don’t get much media attention in India. Literary magazines in regional languages are yet to take a serious look at my body of work.

Can you tell us more about The Bellboy ?

The Bellboy is set in Kerala. It is about a 17-year-old boy from a disappearing island who ventures out to the mainland to work as a bellboy in a lodge where people usually come to die. It traces his life on the mainland and the way he loses his way in the world. The book will be published in the U.K. in September 2022 and in India in November.

How have you experimented with background and form, especially in The Odd Book of Baby Names?

I usually leave towns and cities unnamed in my books, or give them fictitious names. Real names don’t work for me, they seem to restrict the movements of my characters.

I created Mangobagh (in the The Vicks Mango Tree ) by gluing many places together. You will find a bit of Hyderabad, a bit of Lucknow, a bit of Delhi and several other cities in that. But any place with the backdrop of a beach is definitely my hometown, though I have left it unnamed in The Blind Lady’s Descendants and The Small-town Sea . The Odd Book of Baby Names has a different setting, and I leave it to the readers to call the city by any name they like. But I have sprinkled the story with enough clues about the setting. As to form, I was convinced that only multiple voices would work in a book which has not just two sides to the story but nine.

How do you research the backdrops for your novels?

The places I have lived in help me create the backdrops. But there is more to it. When I travel, I invariably carry home the memories of some places. They may not be clean or pretty places, but they stay with me. It can be a village, a highway, an island, a beach, or just a cul-de-sac. They haunt me until I weave them into my stories.

For instance, The Small-town Sea has a secret beach, and people who pay a visit to my hometown often ask me for directions to the secret beach. The secret beach does exist, but not in my hometown, not even in India. It is in another country and I vividly remember staying a whole day there until it was too dark to see the sea. I felt a string go taut in my chest when it was time for me to leave.

Sometimes places stay with me not as visuals but as sounds. About three years ago, I wandered around a pine forest in Greece, and the sound of birds, not entirely pleasant, stayed in my head until I could write about it (a music that equalled the sound of 100 maracas) in The Odd Book of Baby Names .

Do awards matter?

Awards do matter. Awards bring money to writers, but more than that, awards earn them new readers. Why an award, even inclusion in a longlist will have an immediate impact on sales. They help readers generate a reading list and inspire writers to write more.

How has your writing changed in the last decade?

I don’t make any conscious effort to make one book different from the other. The seed of each book comes with its own style. The Odd Book of Baby Names is entirely different from all the other books I have written so far. In this, I have tried to experiment with my craft a bit, and when I realised that it was getting too experimental I edited some 40 pages away.

Tell us something about your work in progress .

It is about a 35-year-old man who lives with his demented mother and keeps himself engaged with a game he played in his childhood.

The interviewer is a writer, editor, trainer and translator who works in English and Malayalam.


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Printable version | May 20, 2022 11:54:14 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-can-talk-for-the-author-anees-salim/article38272851.ece