Manuscript help, book reviews and author interviews
Ashok Banker is a delight. He is one of India’s most popular and prolific authors, and he is gracious, friendly and forthcoming. Despite his amazingly loaded schedule, he took time off to be ‘interviewed’.
Q : I read somewhere that you take 30 years to gestate an idea. What is the method to your process? How do you file away your research, thoughts and ideas?
A: Each idea has its own journey. Some start as a life experience, others as a factoid that sparks off a thought process, some start as a character without a story, still others as a story in search of characters. Some take a few years and pop up, crisp and ready to eat. But mostly for me, the vast majority of the books that stay with me and are really worth pursuing, start with an emotional insight. Some glimpse into the heart and condition of a particular human being, whether in the ancient past, or out of mythology, or history, or even contemporary life, that I connect with powerfully. Once that happens, that emotion stays with me. I nurse it, feed it, grow it. I don’t write down anything and even if I do, it’s just to help make it real, to look at the words and help add a visual aspect to the moment. What I really do is start a mental and emotional file, a kind of compartment in my brain (and heart) into which I keep adding little details, observations, thoughts, factoids, research, over the years. For a book to reach the point where I want to write it, it has to be strong enough to survive that many years. Like a sapling that grows to be a tree. For every one that actually becomes a book someday, I get about a thousand others that don’t live that long. I also don’t finish every book I start, and I don’t publish every book I write. So if you look at my published body of work, which is 42 books counting Ten Kings, then you’ll see that I have about fifty odd books which I didn’t offer for publication for various reasons, another couple of hundred (at least) which I didn’t finish, and another few thousand that I never got round to writing or never will. It’s an organic natural process and it requires me to carry around all those thousands of mental (and emotional files), some wafer thin others massively thick, filled with enough detail and observation and insight to make a whole book someday. And one day, if a book is ready, I just sit down and start writing and when I look up a few days or a couple of weeks later, there it is, a full book, ready to be published. If I like it well enough to offer for publication!
Q: You have a great body of work as a writer and are an avid reader. What is on your bookshelf currently?
A: LoL! Seriously? I’m not an avid reader, I’m a gluttonous reader! I stopped visiting actual bookstores years ago because I would feel like buying and reading the whole store. I go through periods where I read everything I can on a certain subject or genre or whatever strikes my fancy. At my peak periods, I burn through four or five books a day (in younger days it could be as many as ten or twelve books a day, nonstop). But even in my leanest reading periods (when I’m really busy or not able to sit down for long enough due to meetings and work commitments) I still manage at least a book a day. I tried mapping my reading on Goodreads once and got past 18,000 books I was certain I’d read and then gave up because there were still thousands more and it was making me want to read ten times that number. Right now, I’m reading all the Bengali romance novels I can find – in English translation of course. That’s my current fix.
Q: Did you learn sanskrit to read all the epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata and even the Rig Veda?
A : My mother tongue is English, literally. As in my mother was half-British, and English was the only language spoken in my family. I had to really struggle with even Hindi in my teens and it was only till after I was married and into my late twenties that I got some grasp of Hindi. I had zero exposure to Hinduism growing up. We were an Anglo-Indian Christian household and I knew more Urdu, Arabic, Farsi, French, German, Italian than any Indian language. But I did hear a lot of Tamizh in childhood, since my grandmother was British (as in White Caucasian Anglo-Irish) but born in Sri Lanka so she spoke fluent Tamizh, and so did my first ayahs. Since Tamizh (or Tamil as most people call it) is the closest language in the world to Sanskrit, perhaps that exposure helped me subconsciously. But eventually when I began retelling the epics, I learned to read Sanskrit simply by actually reading it. You have to remember, unlike most Indians, I never grew up hearing the stories that most desis hear, about Ram and Krishna and Durga, etc. We celebrated Christmas and Easte, I went to church and read the Bible. My first literary attempts were based on the Bible and Quran. I never watched the mytho shows like Ramayana or Mahabharata in childhood. I was probably the only child out playing when they were on air on Sunday mornings! So whatever I learned was in the process of reading the original Sanskrit epics. Does that mean I know Sanskrit now? Nope. Not a word. But can I read it and figure out what it means? Absolutely. To the extent, that I am often able to translate phrases and words that are not in the existing English translations. I have consulted with Sanskrit scholars and they tell me that I have found nuances and details that those translations failed to catch. Why? How? I have no idea. You tell me! I just write the stuff!
Q : It is difficult to capture the nuances of languages when you write/translate them into another language. Your books seem to retain the flavor! How do you manage that?
A : I have no clue. I guess I care enough about the people in the stories (to me they’re not characters, they’re people) that I want to know what they mean, feel, think. And so I try to get into the mind and heart and body and soul of those people. When you do that, you see beyond the obvious. It’s like things that are unsaid between two people in a relationship are always far more meaningful than the words they use. A mother may simply raise a finger and stare at her kid and the kid instantly knows what she means without her saying a word. I “see” those details and nuances. How? Again. I have no answer for that. I just do. I am like the kid who looks at the words of these great ancient forefathers of our culture and I “see” what they mean rather than the literal words being used. I suppose it’s some kind of super-empathy at work.
Q : What is your typical work day like?
A : Wake up, read poetry. Before the brain can get into gear and start being logical for the day. Poetry keeps me in that “inspirational” state which I try to stay in 24/7. Erotica also works in the same way. Again, don’t ask me why. It’s like morning coffee to some people – I don’t drink or need coffee (or stimulants or alcohol barring the rare glass of white wine) but erotica and poetry have the same effect on me. Breakfast. Then I write a bit while checking and replying to email and messages. Then it’s off to the gym, which I can’t live without. I LOVE exercising. Then back home, early lunch, write, write, write, read, read, read. Family time is all through the day, depending on what each of us is doing. I don’t have a closed-door system – anyone can walk in anytime (including the maids) and interrupt me. I need the interruptions because I’m too focused. Without interruptions I’d write a book a day I think! (Well, close enough, I have written books in three days, and they’re considered among my best books – but don’t ask me which ones!) Then a walk with Willow, our basset hound, then back home and write, write, write, read, read, read. Then watching something, usually a recorded show from American television. Right now, it’s Ray Donovan, The Good Wife, Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones. Or a movie. Those are my workdays. On other days, there are meetings interspersed throughout. Friends. Family. Outings. Restaurants. Movies. Plays. Travel. My only constants are gymming and reading (no matter where I am or what I’m doing). I don’t write everyday and rarely for more than a few hours a day. It’s important to write to live not the other way around.
Q : You are getting ready to write the screenplay for Mahabharata for the big screen. How is that different from writing a book?
A : Actually, I completed the screenplay for Mahabharata for Disney last year (2013). It’s currently in the final draft and goes into production next year (2015). They didn’t hire me just to adapt my Mahabharata series but because both Sid (Siddharth Roy Kapur, Producer and Head of Disney India) and Gattu (Abhishek Kapoor, Director of Rock On, Kai Po Che) knew that I write screenplays too. Over 600 at last count, mostly for television but also a lot of unproduced films and ghost-written films. I approach screenplays completely differently from books – I dial back to zero. Start from scratch. Tell the story for the medium – in the case of the Mahabharata, it’s for a 3D widescreen big budget two-part 6 hour feature film epic version of Vyasa Mahabharata. The goal is to make the definitive Mahabharata feature version, to not repeat a single scene or dialogue that you have ever seen or heard before, to make it lyrical, beautiful, stunning, emotionally powerful and connect with people watching it today, here and now. To blow you away while staying true to the spirit and substance of the original epic, but also show you the Mahabharata as you have never experienced it before—and perhaps never will. It was a fantastic challenge and I’ve really enjoyed doing it. The fact that they paid me a bucketload helped because it enabled me to spend a lot more time and care on honing and crafting each scene, each moment, each line of Sanskrit – it’s in Hindi and Sanskrit by the way. Neither of which I know, but yet that’s how I’ve written it.
Q: You write across genres – history, fantasy, crime and contemporary fiction and non-fiction. How do you switch gears to orient your mental and emotional energies when you begin writing in one genre?
A: A story is a story. It goes where it wants to go. It has its own journey. My job is to follow it, and like a reporter embedded in a war zone, describe as accurately (but eloquently) as possible what I see, hear, feel, sense and experience all around me. If it takes me into noir, or scifi, or fantasy, or wherever, I follow. It’s all a journey taken by people living experiences that are real to them, and therefore, real to me. In the world of story where they live, there are no genres, no categories, no separate shelves in bookstores, there are only people and their stories. I tell them all, without discrimination and find the tools required to help me tell them.
Q : Do you write more than one book at a time?
A : Yes. Anywhere from ten to thirty different books or screenplay projects all at the same time. As I said, I have a problem of over-focusing. It’s like a laser beam. I need to keep deflecting, distracting, and diverting myself so I spread the concentration around. Multi-task. Maybe that’s why I was bi-dexterous as a kid (capable of using both hands independently to do different tasks, like playing two separate chess games at once, or writing different things with each hand at the same time). Again, I don’t know how or why and I don’t question it.
Q : Why did you choose Rig Veda for retelling of stories?
A : Who am I to choose? It chose me. It’s a great story and I don’t understand why a Hindu Indian didn’t choose to tell it long before me. After all, it’s been around for over 5000 years!
Q : Who is your favorite character in Ten Kings, Dasaraja? And why?
A : The grass. It watches and exists and breathes and lives and grows. As men die, go to war, wound, cut, bleed, scream. And it continues growing, living, breathing. Is that too existential? Maybe. But to me, it’s so hair-raising to think that the mountains, the rivers, the land has seen all of human history pass by in the blink of an eye. It helps to remember how insignificant we truly are, and how the great world itself is the only great thing that exists in its own right.
Q : Is there a ritual you follow before you sit down to write?
A : Try to distract and delay myself as much as possible. Because the instant my fingers hit that keyboard, it’s like pages appear on the screen and I look at them and read them and wonder, What is this? Who wrote this? Where did this come from and why?
Q : What next?
A: Another book, another script, another blade of grass.