Fifteen years of writing and 10 books (most of them, bestsellers) later, Chetan Bhagat, one would assume, has gotten used to the bustle of a book release. To promote his 11th, India Positive, Chetan’s flying from one city to another. On Friday, he was in Hyderabad; in Chennai on Saturday; on Sunday, he reached Bengaluru.
Of this city hopping, he shrugs, “Yeah, it’s fine. This is what I do for a living,” seated on a lounge of a five-star hotel in Bengaluru. “For fiction, I usually go to malls and interact with the fans. There’s more crowd. But, non-fiction, it’s usually like this… It’s more comfortable,” he smiles.
India Positive is his third non-fiction book after What Young India Wants and Making India Awesome . It’s a compendium of his writings on various national issues. Chetan talks about how all his books, including his works of fiction, dealt with “issues” among other things in this interview.
Your first book was about three college students. Your latest is about a country of 1.3 billion people. Your target audience, clearly, has changed. Was this planned?
The first book was just me writing a story about my college mates, hoping it will get read by a few IITians. I never thought it will become so big. Now, I have a pan-India audience. So, obviously, I can now experiment more. I even have an audience that says, ‘whatever Chetan writes, we’ll read’. So, I could write on dolphins and they may pick it up. They are just interested on how I think, what’s my take on things. All my fiction novels are about national issues actually. In Five Point Someone , for instance, I didn’t intend to write about an issue but luckily I’d touched upon a big issue: education. I thought I should have a condensed version of my take on issues, which is India Positive .
So, at what point did you intentionally start writing about ‘issues’?
After the first book. I wrote [my second book] One Night at the Call Centre because I wanted to write about call centres. My third book, The 3 Mistakes of My Life was about Godhra violence and communalism. 2 States was on the North-South divide. Revolution 2020 is about private education.
Have you felt like going back to the Five Point Someone zone , where you don’t intend to write about an ‘issue’?
My last book, The Girl in Room 105, is a murder mystery. So, I am doing it. But I am older now. There’s a charm in being a buffoon in 25. But when you are 45, you should age a little gracefully. I am also not the same person I was. So, you don’t relate to those kind of frivolousness and you want to be a little more serious. Having said that, my books will always have humour.
Has it become difficult for you, over the years, to filter constructive criticism from trolls?
Criticisms used to bother me a lot. Five years ago, I was more sensitive. Maybe I was not secure about my position. It doesn’t bother me anymore. I have been writing for 15 years now. So, I know what I do. I know my weaknesses. But if there’s something positive, I have become better at taking it.
Can you mention some of your criticisms, which you think are valid?
When I wrote Half Girlfriend there were criticisms about the plot of an underdog boy of a small town trying to get a girl… so, I changed gears. I wrote a book called One Indian Girl, about a girl, who is an investment banker in New York. I changed the setting, changed the premise. I reinvented the Chetan Bhagat story. Then, there was this criticism that I am doing too many love stories. So, I wrote a murder mystery. Those all came from feedback.
Since the success of 3 idiots , almost all of your books have been converted to movies. Now, when you write fiction, do you write with the idea that it’ll be made into a movie?
Not at all. Readers read that way because there have been so many adaptations now -- they think ‘this book will also become a movie’. I have to make sure readers enjoy the book and it becomes a bestseller. If I have to make a movie, then I can adapt it into a screenplay, I can change things. Why should I think about the movie while writing the book? I write what I want to write.
What books do you read?
I read a lot of mysteries, especially over the last few years. Agatha Christie… I revisited Sherlock Holmes to see how it was actually written; I’d read it as a casual reader but now I read it as a writer. I like non-fiction. I read [Nassim] Nicholas Taleb’s books. I am reading a book called Skin In the Game , then there’s this book called Locked Room Mysteries.
Where do you get your ideas from?
People. Because I write columns, because I write about national issues. I do motivational talks, events. I am plugged into India more than other writers. So, I get a sense of what happens in the country. I travel. I was in Bihar. I saw the state of English there… that’s how Half Girllfriend got written.
You might get a lot of ideas for a book. How do you decide which idea gets turned into a book?
What I do is, if there’s something that hits me and I keep thinking about it... So, there’ll be 50 ideas, initially. But after a month, I’ll only be thinking about five. After three months, only one. Then, it will crystallise in my head.
Can you explain your writing process? Has it changed over the years?
I plan my books. My plots are tied, it’s a page turner. I think about the themes, the stories. I do this for about six months. The writing process takes another six months. The editing process comes after this. End to end, it takes about one and a half to two years. This is the frequency of my books. Over the years, it’s become more efficient. But writing never gets easier.
Can you say how it has become effecient?
You know where you can go wrong. You know that a particular story will get stuck at a particular point. During the last book, The Girl in Room 105 , it was a whole new challenge. In romance, it’s okay if the story meanders a bit. But in a murder mystery, everything has to tie beautifully at the end. Clues have to be planted. People have to feel a satisfying finish. That was a big challenge for me. And I had to do a lot of back and forth to get that right. But I am writing now another murder mystery. I know better now. I know I should plan better. I know I will get stuck in the middle, go back and all that.
The next book will be a murder mystery too?
Yeah. People liked [the last book]. They liked the Sherlock Holmes kind of approach… but also with a bit of fun, not too serious, not gory. So, I might have some fun doing that again.
Do you want to intentionally change the genres you write?
I want a Chetan Bhagat genre. I don’t want to be in a genre. I want to find a genre. It’s very hard actually to put my books in a genre. Are they romance? Are they social issues? Are they humour? It’s a Chetan Bhagat book. And, you’ll know it if you have read the book.
You were one of first writers to succeed in the genre, what's now called commercial fiction. Now we seem have a plethora of writers in that genre. Do you think it's easier for a new writer to succeed in that genre now?
In some ways, yes. There’s definitely an acknowledgement for popular fiction now. When I started out, people didn’t believe in that category. But in some ways, it’s difficult for new writers because there’s a lot of content -- data has become cheap. You have Instagram, Youtube, and people are spending an insane amount of time on their phones. There’s only so much free time. Reading is not going away. But it is reducing. So, when it reduces, the incentive to try someone new and give them a chance, reduces. So, you’ll be like ‘I am only going to read only three books this year, I might as well read the biggest ones.’ That does concern me a little bit.