World Storytelling Day | Four authors tell us what they love and loathe to read, their ideal literary party guests, and more

We caught up with Shehan Karunatilaka, Geetanjali Shree, Christopher Kloeble and Janice Pariat to spill the beans on their craft

Updated - March 22, 2023 10:16 am IST

Published - March 20, 2023 02:20 pm IST

(L to R) Shehan Karunatilaka, Geetanjali Shree and Janice Pariat.

(L to R) Shehan Karunatilaka, Geetanjali Shree and Janice Pariat.

Booker winner Shehan Karunatilaka does not enjoy reading romantic fiction as he finds the genre too “predictable”. German novelist Christopher Kloeble stays away from reading crime fiction given the influx of crime novels in Germany. International Booker-winning author Geetanjali Shree avoids social media, the beast that keeps us engaged and distracted all at once, while poet and author Janice Pariat finds comfort in the occasional cat video on Instagram.

On World Storytelling Day (March 20), we catch up with these four diverse storytellers to tell us more about their books and craft. What are these authors themselves reading, and what are the little luxuries they allow themselves when writing? Who would they like to hang out with at a dinner party? Edited excerpts:

Shehan Karunatilaka

Booker-winning author of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida

Shehan Karunatilaka

Shehan Karunatilaka | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Bedside reading

I read about seven books at the same time. Something I enjoy, then a classic, a non-fiction, a book not aimed at my demographic... So, at the moment, there is Ashok Ferry’s The Unmarriageble Man, Armistead Maupin’s More Tales of the City and I just finished Elizabeth Gilbert’s sequel to Eat, Pray, Love, which is Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. Also, Factfulness by Anna Rosling Ronnlund, Hans Rosling and Ola Rosling. And Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby.

Writing quirks

I light a candle. I have coloured lights, a bit of purple and magenta. I put on a playlist, usually instrumental, either classic or jazz or sometimes movie soundtracks. I am surrounded by instruments, so every now and then I go strum my guitar or have a dash on the drums. When you play music, it’s like meditation. I just try to stay in the room for as long as possible and put things down on paper. I also allow myself a glass of wine or scotch after writing. Just a glass, else it’s a slippery slope.

All-time hits

The Chronicles of Narnia as a child. Later, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.

Genre-play

I read detective fiction and horror fiction for pleasure. I never got into spy thrillers and books on espionage. But the gaping hole is romance fiction. I find romcom movies predictable, but my wife tells me zombie films are also predictable: everyone gets infected and dies. So, it’s a matter of taste. I think it’s good to read books not aimed at your demographic.

Ideal literary party guests...

I’d invite Robert Louis Stevenson, Dorothy Parker just because she was great at parties, and Kurt Vonnegut.

Best translation recently read

Sri Lankan Tamil author Shobasakthi’s works.

Most under-read author

He’s not under-read but I’d like Carl Muller to be read more widely, especially his Burgher trilogy.

Reader’s block?

You need to allocate time to reading. And if you’re struggling, pick up another book. I read for at least an hour every morning.

Creative process

I sleep at 8 p.m. Then I wake up at 4 a.m. and write till 8 a.m. since no one is shouting, the phone isn’t ringing. It’s tough but you have to do it every day, except perhaps Sundays.

Geetanjali Shree

International Booker Prize-winning author of Tomb of Sand

Geetanjali Shree

Geetanjali Shree | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Bedside reading

My life is about whizzing around the country right now.

Writing quirks

Solitude is the luxury I allow myself when writing. I throw everyone else out of the room. I take a little walk sometimes and listen to music.

All-time hits

I didn’t have a single favourite book either as a child or later, but I have a lot of books I love. When we were growing up, we had a lot of Hindi magazines at home. Sinbad the SailorAlibabaVikram Aur Betaal and MahabharatPanchatantra, and later Enid Blyton in school. I loved reading.

Genre-play

I admire poetry a great deal, I am in awe of it. I’m not able to read as much as I’d like to — that’s a great regret. I’m mostly into fiction and not as much into non-fiction and even less into very academic works.

I greatly admire contemporary Hindi writers such as Vinod Kumar Shukla, Krishna Sobti and Nirmal Verma. I also like Chinese literature, Temur Kutsia, David Malouf, a lot of Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera, it’s endless...

Ideal literary party guests...

My guest list would depend on my mood. In earlier times, I would say Nirmal Verma and Krishna Sobti and now I’d say Abdulrazak Gurnah. He’s a fine, sensitive soul.

Best translation recently read

You can’t evaluate anything until you read the original and the translated work. I think any translation which reads complete in itself is a good book. I read Paul Zacharia and his writing comes across very well in translation. This new book Valli (by Sheela Tomy) is excellent.

Reader’s block?

I am not on social media, so I am not distracted. And the more I hear about it, the more I want to stay away from it. But there is such a glut of books and writers in the world that sometimes confuses you, and you don’t know where to begin. So, I often have a pile of books that I want to read and set them aside: books in my language, books in translation, world literature, other Indian literature. Sometimes I read two books together.

Creative process

I’m a day person so I like to work through the day. I like to be with it through the office hours if I can, although one doesn’t always have that luxury. I like serendipity to play a role in my writing process. I believe I am carrying my stories and my concerns and my world with me, so I want to be in a place where they will find their voice.

Christopher Kloeble

German playwright, scriptwriter and author of The Museum of the World

Christopher Kloeble

Christopher Kloeble | Photo Credit: Valerie Schmidt

Bedside reading

Geeta Rahman at Championship Point by Saskya Jain.

Writing quirks

I guess, not writing.

All-time hits

As a child, The Neverending Story by Michelle Ende. There are too many books I have liked as an adult. One of the first books I read about India or anything to do with India was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children because it connected so much with a writer from Germany.

Genre-play

I like most genres. If someone sets out to write something and achieves it, that’s fine; I don’t mind romantic stories or horror stories. I don’t really enjoy crime. That probably has to do with the fact that we have an enormous amount of that in Germany.

Ideal literary party guests...

I’d invite Fyodor Dostoyevsky, James Baldwin and Heinrich Heine.

Best translation recently read

Benyamin’s Goat Days and more recently, Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag.

Most under-read author

So many. I was always fond of Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s writing. And from Germany, Olga Grjasnowa.

I haven’t actually had reader’s block. I am sure it exists but I always wonder whether people just don’t know how to solve some problem with what they’re reading or whether they’re just lazy.

Creative process

Yes, it’s basically getting up and writing as soon as possible. Which is getting harder as we have two children.

Janice Pariat

Writer, poet and author of Everything the Light Touches

Janice Pariat

Janice Pariat | Photo Credit: Samuel Sawian

Bedside reading

Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life. It’s a book that changes the way you see the world and are in the world. I am also currently obsessed with Shirley Jackson, so a whole pile of her books.

Writing quirks

I like to watch cat videos. They are the ultimate distraction, aren’t they? So, yes, utterly mindless but sweet videos on Instagram. And I always keep a candle on my writing desk. It smells nice and changes the air around you.

All-time hits

To be honest, I come from an oral tradition of storytelling, so I listened to a lot of stories. My favourite storyteller as a child was my nanny who used to tell the most fantastic stories. As an adult, the book that really changed me was Pranay Lal’s IndicaIt’s the greatest adventure story ever told, it’s the story of our planet. It was so gripping.

Genre-play

I am trying to move, as a writer and reader, beyond genres, and just write or read because it appeals to me or resonates with me in some way. And there are books that do that.

Ideal literary party guests...

Shirley Jackson. I am sure she’d be a delightful dinner guest, she’s so sharp and intelligent and witty. I would also invite a poet from the hills back home, Soso Tham, the first Khasi poet who wrote in text. He wrote a lot about the landscape we come from. And I would invite Easterine Kire. Her poetry is so powerful and deceptively simple.

Best translation recently read

The Paradise of Food by Khalid Jawed does the most incredible of things — it pushes the boundaries of what a novel can do, what a character can do in a novel. I am also deeply interested in translations that exist between orality and the text. Many of us come from places where literature is produced as spoken literature. I wish we would acknowledge that. Otherwise, it would seem like we have no stories.

Most under-read author

If I take any names, they would feel really bad! Maybe I’ll choose someone dead: Soso Tham.

Reader’s block?

I have a reader’s block every time I write. I cannot read other novels while I’m writing a book. I can’t have other writers’ voices in my head other than my own because I need to hear the voices of my characters really clearly, lucidly, and that has to stay with me for a sustained period of time. I don’t read any fiction while writing a book.

Creative process

Every book and every literary project I’ve embarked on has been different because the demands of each are different. So, it’s a process that constantly changes in some ways and allows you to learn something as a writer, as a person and also about the project you are undertaking — the limitations, the challenges. The process is continuous but I do think that there are some overlaps perhaps in all the writing I’ve done, which is that it begins with a title. I cannot start without a title. It is the beating heart or window that allows me to define the space behind the title. If you drop a stone into a pond, there is a point at which the stone touches the water and the ripples ripple out. For me, any kind of writing involves finding the point where the stone touches the water.

I love the meticulousness of Jeet Thayil’s writing — the kind of rhythm and pace that his sentences evoke on the page. They are very beautifully crafted. I love Sharmistha Mohanty’s work. She’s genre-less. She writes beautifully. I have also greatly enjoyed the writing of Robin Wall Kimmerer.

radhika.s@thehindu.co.in

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