The market for short stories, especially in the UK, is considered difficult, even impenetrable for a debut author. How did you manage to get a book deal based on a collection of short stories, and why did you choose to make your debut with a collection rather than your novel?
I’ll be honest with you. I think there was a lot of interest because I was exploring a world that hasn’t been written about a great deal. Once my agent circulated the manuscript of The Gurkha’s Daughter among her publishing contacts in London and we realized that we were in a position to choose, I made a list of requirements I wanted my publishing contract to adhere to. The first among these requirements was that the short-story collection be published before the novel. Why? Because I wrote the collection first, and it needed to be published first. I was tired of the entire world telling me to write a novel, tired of pundits who claimed no publishing house would pick up a collection of short stories from a debut author. After the deal was signed, many well-meaning people declared we were committing publishing suicide by bringing out the collection of short stories first.
Could you describe how writing became a career for you?
Writing just happened. I have always known I was a decent writer but didn’t consider writing as a career until very recently. I moved to New York after three years at a Midwestern university and soon enough realised that the world of advertising sales—the kind where I claimed I had appointments all day and would disappear to watch movies or read—wasn’t for me. I quit my job and traveled around a bit. When the enthusiasm for travel fizzled, and questions about what I was doing with my life from well-wishers increased in frequency as well as hostility, I started writing. It was an easy way to legitimise doing nothing. One thing led to another, and a fortuitous meeting with an agent later, I had a book deal. I have been incredibly lucky and try to remind myself of that every day. I’ll continue as a writer until the day I get bored of it. So far, it’s been good to me. I like the fact that I don’t have to wake up before noon, but this lack of structure may be the one thing about writing that I will hate tomorrow.
The Gurkha's Daughter was very successful and now Land Where I Flee is also garnering acclaim. How do you feel about being called the ‘harbinger of the resurgence of the short story’ and the ‘next big thing in South Asian fiction’? Your books have also done well commercially with both of them being on South Asian bestseller lists simultaneously. Would you rather be critically acclaimed or commercially successful?
See, I have learned not to take these labels seriously. You say you are flattered and move on with life. The Gurkha’s Daughter was a collection of short stories—you know the lowly, ill-treated short story form—and it did well critically and commercially, so I understand where a lot of these labels come from. I have always wanted a combination of critical acclaim and good sales. I’ve been lucky. I am not going to pretend I would have been happy with critical acclaim but only seven people all over the world reading my book.
The intertextuality between your novel and the collection of short stories is subtle. There’s a reference made to Kaali, the servant with the bad lip in The Cleft, one made to Gita from the title story, and several others throughout the novel. Is there a reason behind these references?
I thought it would be fun to give a shout out to a few of my favorite characters from The Gurkha’s Daughter. It was a wink to serious readers of my books. There’s no other reason for the intertextuality to exist.
In the novel, you have focused on a part of India that hasn't been written about much in Indian-English literature, and in a sense, you have become a writer who represents a certain corner of India. Is this burden?
In the beginning, there was this desire to focus a lot of my energy on the culture, the food, the mannerisms, the clothes. And then I quickly realised that describing a Nepali outfit for six pages doesn’t a good story make. Sure, you can do that, and it’s great fun to do it, but I’d rather concentrate on the story. That’s why I write fiction—to tell stories. I don’t do it to call attention to the plight, sufferings and struggles of my people. I don’t do it to let the world know how rich my culture is. Of course, I feel for my people. Of course, I am proud of where I come from. I want the world to know about the Bhutanese refugee situation. I think the demand for the state of Gorkhaland, Nepali-speaking people asking for a separate state, is legitimate. But do I employ fiction to throw light on these issues? No. I write fiction to tell stories. It’s as simple as that. I may use various other kinds of writing—essays, long-form journalism, columns—to bring attention to issues I care about. The burden becomes greatly reduced when you keep telling yourself why you write.
The response from people has been fantastic, overwhelming, gratifying. People who have been herded out of Bhutan especially send me the sweetest messages about my book bringing attention to their illegal ejection. I understand fiction is serving a purpose beyond storytelling here, but that was never my plan. If my work is doing some good somewhere, it’s wonderful, but I don’t write fiction with the purpose of engendering world peace.
You are 29 and have two successful books behind you. Could you tell us a bit about the kind of discipline that goes into your writing?
I am the least disciplined writer on earth. In fact, I am the least disciplined person on earth. I do nothing for days, weeks and months, and then one day inspiration strikes. How it comes about is still a mystery. I cancel all my appointments, I isolate myself from friends and family, and I write and write and write. Before I know it that burst of productivity will disappear, so I know better than to let go of it. I have written for sixteen-hour stretches only not to write for months after that. How I have managed to complete two books is as much a mystery to me as it is to people close to me. I’ve tried everything—writing a certain number of words a day, rewarding myself at the end of a productive day—but it’s futile. Forcing myself to write just doesn’t work for me. Just as there’s very little discipline in the act of writing, there’s also very little discipline in my craft—creating outlines, bullet-pointing and creating character sketches aren’t for me. Characters fly away, plots meander and the story or the chapter becomes very different from what was planned. I sit down, I type, and I don’t know what journey my characters will take. My first draft is always lousy—full of ellipses, inundated with superfluous commas, plenty of places with “use better words for” cuteness. I have a core group of readers, and each one is more ruthless than the other, with whom I share all my drafts.
I don’t think a book ever feels finished. Writing a book is such a long, drawn-out process that when you come to the ending, it’s almost anti-climactic.
Prajwal Parajuly’s novel, Land Where I Flee, will be published in hardback in the UK by Quercus this week.