Writers@Work: Jeet Thayil

(Jeet Thayil is a poet, librettist, editor and musician. His first novel Narcopolis was published by Faber & Faber in 2011. It’s also on this year’s Booker longlist.)

What were the first words/books you remember reading? And the first books you remember reading that made you think of writers?

My father always had books in the house and as a child I devoured the usual classics, Robinson Crusoe, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island and so on. And I read The Bible as a literary text. In my early teens I had a parallel education in books such as Catch 22, The Tropic of Capricorn, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, Lolita, The Naked Lunch and others. My uncle, who was obsessed, there’s no other word, by Baudelaire, introduced me to Les Fleurs du Mal; and that, as they say, was that.

Have you always written on a Mac? Do you use writing software—Scrivener etc? Do you write poetry differently from prose, or is it the same blank page/screen for both? And did you write on different Macs for different books?

In 2001, before the September 11 attacks, I won a New York Foundation for the Arts poetry award. I was living on Christie Street, on the Lower East Side, five minutes from Chinatown, five minutes from the East Village, five minutes from Soho, five minutes from everywhere. The award gave me a chunk of change and I did two things with the money. I bought an iMac, the first version, with the floating screen on a white half-globe, a lovely futuristic object that Apple no longer manufactures. The second thing I did was to move to the Upper East Side, a mistake any way you look at it. In any case, I wrote Narcopolis on the iMac. I write poetry longhand, but edit on the screen. I’m writing this on a laptop, which I bought earlier this year. It helps when you’re traveling.

What do you need in order to write well? Silence? A view from the window? No view from the window? Music? A Murakami-style run first? 

 A cup of coffee.

Who are the most subversive writers you’ve read? 

The poets: good poets are all subversive in some way. I grew up on the French poets, who were so subversive they made it the norm; and the Americans, the twentieth century Americans, that is, because modern American poetry wouldn’t know subversive if it came up and inserted a large metallic object in its collective poetic rectum. So to speak.

And what makes a writer subversive at all? 

Some kind of early psychological wound. Or boredom.

In retrospect, when you look back at The Satanic Verses readings and the reactions, was there anything about that episode that left a lasting impact on you? (Link: Jeet on the readings at the JLF)

Yes, I learned never to underestimate the venality of strangers.

What did writing a novel give you that was different from writing poetry?

More room to work out my obsessions and a wider readership. It’s a sad fact that an Indian poet does not have much relevance in his society, particularly an Indian poet writing in English. Why this is not the case for Indian novelists writing in English I have no idea, but there you have it. And it’s absolutely unfair, considering how good the poets are, and considering that they are in most cases better, or at least more linguistically adventurous than the novelists.

Why is it that the people at the margins of a city—the addicts, the dropouts, even the poets—are always the most interesting? Did you see Narcopolis as a book about addiction, primarily? Was it about lost or forgotten histories?

I wanted to write a secret history of Bombay, the opiated history, but the novel ended up being a monument to the forgotten, the poor and the marginalized, the voiceless, the dead, the lovely ghosts.

The novel I’m working on at the moment is set in New York and New Delhi, though neither of those cities has any claim on me. There’s something about Bombay, even today, even in its degraded modern version that makes it an easy place to become attached to.

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