‘I find crime writing very calming’: author Nilanjana S. Roy on her new noir novel Black River

Interview with author Nilanjana S. Roy on her new novel ‘Black River’

The former journalist says ‘Black River’ gave her the time and space to think about what’s been happening in the world around us

Published - December 13, 2022 06:15 pm IST

Nilanjana S. Roy is the author of two award-winning fantasy novels — The Wildings (2012) and The Hundred Names of Darkness (2013), both poignant and insightful tales that take readers into the strange and intriguing world of cats in Delhi. The Girl Who Ate Books (2016) is a sumptuous collection of Roy’s musings on life as a bibliophile coupled with articles about Indian writing in English.

A former journalist, she helped set up the Indian publishing house Westland Books as its first chief editor, and writes a regular column about books and the reading life for the London-based Financial Times. Her latest novel, Black River, is a thrilling and riveting crime noir, written tenderly and elegantly. Roy has begun work on her next novel, which she hopes to finish in a year. Edited excerpts from a Zoom conversation:

Is there more to the title, ‘Black River’, than what seems obvious — the black waters of the Yamuna?

Black River is a straightforward reference to the Yamuna. I have an affection for the colour black; black for me stands for a lot of depth, a lot of layering, opacity, a time for contemplation, a time to think about what’s been happening in the city, and I hope a little bit of that comes through in the title.

The book has been described as a murder mystery, psychological thriller, a noir novel. Isn’t it also a portrayal of social realism?

I don’t think I put labels on it, which is strange, given that I spent a lot of my time as a reviewer and critic trying to slot literature into various boxes. I look at these labels with interest because each one of them has some reality to it. To me, it is a book not just about a murder but two things that have happened in the aftermath of the murder. It is about the investigation but also about justice. And what you were talking about social realism, it’s absolutely there. Maybe it is influenced by some of the films I grew up watching.

In crime fiction, there’s the English Agatha Christie tradition, the American hard-boiled gumshoe, the Scottish tradition, which is the crime novel as social commentary. Does Black River fall under the Scottish tradition?

I don’t think it is Scottish, although it is influenced a little bit by some of these traditions you mention. It is very Indian at heart and influenced somewhat by Scandinavian and Japanese freedom with the form.

In this novel, there are no heroes, and it is not a novel with the detective as a hero or with the bereaved as the heroic figure. I hope, if I’ve done my job right, people will find a certain amount of empathy and compassion in what is ultimately a very human story.

Tell us about the research. What was the most challenging part of the book?

I think the challenging part might surprise you. There is a class barrier; you just hope that you can overcome your own perspective and backgrounds of privilege; they need not be a burden, but they do affect the way you see the world.

You can’t write top-down, you have to be level with your characters. For the research, I did a lot of reading about the Yamuna, the butchers, who played an important part in the book, and the police, in part I’ve been doing that research unwittingly all these years while covering the gender beat as a journalist.

How has your journalistic background influenced your fiction?

The two are nothing like each other. In journalism, your fidelity is to the truth; you are not there to grandstand, whether you are writing a book review or a bigger essay. The facts matter much more than your opinion. With fiction, it is like stepping into this world that has its own life and energy. A large part of the challenge and joy of being a fiction writer is trying to hold on to everything that is going on. You are literally living in a different world.

Do you see yourself writing more crime fiction?

I hope so. I find crime very calming. Crime tells you everything, I’m going to live here for a little while. Not just murders but crime tells you what you care about, enough to disrupt, enough to be aggressive. Through a crime story you can tell so much more. I love it.

Noir novels typically lend themselves easily to movies?

I haven’t actually thought about that. To me, it was a novel first and foremost. If it happens it would be fantastic. I’d love to see it in a different form, a podcast or a film, and I think this is a book that might be doable in that manner. But it would have to be somebody else’s vision.

There seems to be a surfeit of books by Indian writers in English. How do you see the publishing scene in India?

I think English is beginning to take its space as the one of the many (languages), which is not such a bad thing at all. The publishing scene is more vibrant than people know. It is pretty hard to get published in the West these days; they have their own writers, and as with politics and history, when countries go through an insular time, after Brexit or something of that sort, their publishing houses also become a little cautious, less likely to open their doors.

But, it is wonderful to see a lot of writers emerge, who are not from the most privileged circuit, whose backgrounds are a lot humbler, a lot more middle class. But we are still keeping out so much talent. It has no place to grow.

The interviewer is a Bengaluru-based independent journalist and writer.

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