The making of a story

(from left) Mukund Padmanabhan, Amitava Kumar, Colm Toibin, Philip Hensher and Nilanjana Roy. Photo: V. Ganesan  

What does it take to write a story or even a non-fiction book? How much of it is drawn from personal experiences? It was to discuss exactly this that four authors — Nilanjana Roy, Amitava Kumar, Philip Hensher and Colm Tóibín — came together with Mukund Padmanabhan, Editor, The Hindu Business Line, on the second day of The Hindu Lit for Life.

“I don’t deal very well with sadness as an emotion. I can write out of anger, but there was a time when I went through a period of unaccustomed sadness. I think it affected my work as well,” said Nilanjana, while talking about how her book, The Wildings, came about. “At the time, I was writing on gender for The New York Times, and when I looked back at it, I realised how rich the work was, but at the same time, very grim. Till one day, I realised that I needed to find a way to recover. In retrospect, I think that I write for survival.”

The authors also discussed about how sometimes it was the story that chose them, rather than the other way around. Philip Hensher said, “I’d never written historical novels; in fact, I didn’t even like them. But I was fascinated by the First Anglo-Afghan war. For once, I found that it was more of an effort to not write the novel than to actually write it. Sometimes, the story just calls out to you. For me, a novel always makes a particular music. It’s a very difficult thing to describe. When I’m getting to the end of a novel, I can hear the sound of the last few pages. I just have to fill the sound of that with something that makes sense.”

While the other authors choose the medium of fiction to convey their thoughts, Amitava Kumar chooses to go the non-fiction way. Talking about his book, A Matter of Rats, he said, “I am interested in narrative non-fiction. How does one draw upon what surrounds you and what newspapers say, to present it in a novel way?”

“Doesn’t fiction have the capacity to go beyond reality, the way non-fiction cannot?” asked Mukund. To which Colm replied, “There was a huge controversy about child abuse, especially by priests. I was following it and writing about it as a journalist. But I realised that there was a story that was not being told — but it’s not a piece that a journalist could write. After all, who would give him interviews about the abuser?”

While Amitava agreed with this, he said, “But I do want to wave the banner of non-fiction for a brief moment. After the Delhi rape incident, the father of the girl said that when he saw his daughter in that condition, his first thought was ‘How will I have the money to take the body back? That’s what poverty does to you.’ In this respect, non-fiction delivers a certain sense of reality that fiction cannot. It can give it narrative form.”

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 5:28:32 AM |

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