Siddhartha Deb on how the city refined his ‘inbuilt shit detector’ and made him a more honest writer
Siddhartha Deb, professor of creative writing and author of two previous books of fiction, has made a much talked about foray into non-fiction with The Beautiful and the Damned. But much of this talk is centred on the defamation suit filed against Deb and his publishers in India by Arindam Chaudhuri’s Indian Institute of Planning and Management. Here, though, Deb talks about his need for a desk and window, his love for his first typewriter, and the over-abundance of writers at New York cafés.
Q Where do you write?
A Desks are useful, and I have had one, in some form or another, for the three books I’ve written. Windows are nice too, as is a “room of one’s own” as Virginia Woolf puts it. But Woolf, I believe, had money, probably from India. I, for the most part, have not, and have therefore to be slightly open about what kind of room I might find myself in as I work on a book. I can’t write anywhere, especially if it has strong associations that are not writing related. This seems to be true of the office I was given at the New School last year, where in spite of the presence of a desk, computer, and chair, I found myself inevitably thinking of grading papers or making class plans.
Q Do you write longhand or use a computer?
A I started longhand, cursive, and then used an Olivetti portable typewriter, which was my first true possession, bought with my salary as a sports subeditor at The Statesman. It was a beautiful pale blue, and very heavy, and I certainly never wrote anything good on it. I used office computers in Delhi, lab and hand-me-down computers in New York, spent too much money on Windows laptops, and finally switched to Macs. For the non-fiction book, I used a superb writing programme called Scrivener. I also use handwritten notes which I scribble down, depending on what is available, on either ‘legal pads’ (or that’s what they’re called in the US) or on a thin, wide, black Moleskin notebook where I record my daily appointments and tasks.
Q Do you write in cafes?
A When I first came to New York and was writing my novel The Point of Return, I wrote some of it in cafés (and some at the university computer lab). I don’t write in New York cafés anymore. They tend to have too many people pretending to write novels, and too few people pretending to read novels.
Q When do you write?
A I used to be a late-night person and wrote till two or three in the morning, but middle age and fatherhood took care of that. Now, I usually write in the morning, a little in the afternoon, and in the evening if I’m on a deadline.
Q Do you write in intense chunks, or is your writing time spread out evenly over the year?
A For a book, it’s different. There’s usually an intense, concentrated spurt of writing that can stretch from four to nine months. This is a stage where I write for six or seven days, take a couple of days off, and then get back to it again. For the last book, for which I had a rather pleasant fellowship at Harvard, I’d get in around 10 or 11 in the morning at my office and work till 6 or 7 pm.
Q Do you exercise when you write?
A I usually went to the gym afterwards [after writing till 6–7 at Harvard-Radcliffe], and then returned to my room for dinner. This may sound rather corporate, but I can assure you that I tried hard to keep my radical credentials alive. I was suitably disgruntled at fellowship lunches, I drank three to four cups of coffee every day, I smoked half a pack of American Spirit cigarettes at the Radcliffe back porch, which inevitably led to a tilting of heads from some Boston Brahmins on the lawn across. I am grateful to the Pakistani fellow Humaira Shahid for joining me on these smoking breaks.
Q How do you relax when you are writing? Television, movies, books, cooking, etcetera?
A Also, when I returned to my room in the evenings, I watched episodes of The Wire on my laptop to shake off the corporate vibes: “Omar comin’, yo!”
Q How many drafts do you (usually) write?
A I rewrite and revise constantly, polishing earlier chapters even as I work on a new one (it’s a nice way of switching to an easier gear). But the drafting and revising process is cyclical, so as I approach the end, I tend to have a fairly solid first draft, especially structurally. That complete first draft might go through another five or six rounds of polishing before I send it off.
Q How do you react to your editor’s opinions? Do you insist on a particular editor?
A There’s not a whole lot of changes editors make to what I send in, maybe mostly in the nature of line edits. There don’t seem to be that many great editors around these days. I am, however, in awe of Mary Mount, who acquired my first novel and had the faith to take on this non-fiction book when few other editors would bite. I listen to Mary very carefully, and I do the same with Mitzi Angel, who is my American editor. They are real editors in the sense that they care deeply about books and have worked with a wide range of writers. As I get older and write more, I have a quicker sense of which editing battles are worth losing as well as a far clearer sense of what I’m trying to achieve.
Q Which is easier to write, non-fiction or fiction?
A Non-fiction is easier to write in the sense that it depends quite a bit on the research and reporting. It has limits, with fewer ways to reach transcendence, but also with fewer ways to go wrong. Fiction is much more of a gamble, at least in my mind, but I love the sense of adventure and terror it offers.
Q You live in New York. It has a reputation for being a city of writers. Would you say that it is a city that makes writing easier?
A New York helped me a lot in the beginning. It freed me from the sense of self-doubt that had been foisted upon me in Calcutta and Delhi, mostly by the Indian elite, and I think it did so because I arrived there at a time when India was a bit of a blank space on the map (as it is not now, for better or for worse). It created a steep learning curve. Since it’s an incredibly ruthless place, and since India is nothing if not ruthless in terms of hierarchies, I was well placed to learn things about becoming a writer. I got to know ambitious writers among my peers, and the feeling of competitiveness as well as camaraderie they evoked pushed me along. I learnt to work with editors, and that was a big thing. It helped me refine the instrument that every good writer needs, what Hemingway called an ‘inbuilt shit detector’, so that I can be honest with myself and know what part of my writing is exactly that, shit.
I’d have a more comfortable, more feted life if I lived in Delhi or Calcutta, but it would be easy to float along on that, maybe even to get lost in it. At the same time, sometimes it feels as if I need New York less. After more than a decade here, I have perhaps learnt most of the lessons it had to teach me and must now spend quite some time fending off the New York lessons—the self-absorption, the apoliticalness, the addiction to craft minutiae, the lack of aesthetic ambition—I must not learn. I know the difference between the image of the writer or artist clogging the airwaves of the city—Woody Allen in Manhattan—and the more complex reality of both writing and the world. I don’t need to feed off the energy of the city in order to write in quite the same way as I did earlier, and I have a far better sense of myself, insh’allah, as a writer. I’ve learnt the work habits, the research methods, and even some of the social mores that one must presumably possess in order to not end up on the streets. I think I could pack all these lessons into a bag and leave for the mountains and still be able to write.
Q You teach writing at the New School. Do you think writing can be taught?
A I’m less sceptical about teaching writing than I was before. Some aspects of reading and thinking can certainly be taught, and these two things are vital to writing.
Q How much of your time is taken up by promotional activity? Do you resent it?
A I am not the most sophisticated seller of my work in terms of promotion, partly because I don’t know how and partly because I don’t care. But I’m grateful, for instance, that this book is being published well, and that there are questions like these to answer. But all the interviews and readings certainly kill the possibility of any real writing this year, and it’s hard not to resent that somewhat, even as one counts one’s blessings.
Q Do you enjoy doing interviews?
A Well, interviews done by email, they can feel like filling up a railway reservation form. You’re encouraged to put down all the data while withholding all character. Still, I do realise that talking about the book is in great part talking about the reality of a very hierarchical India, and I can’t feel too bad about having added my small voice to the few small voices willing to challenge received ideas about superpowerdom.