The Displaced Nation

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LOCATION, LOCUTION: Jeet Thayil on bringing location to life in a semi-dream state

Jeet Thayil

Clockwise from top: author photo Jeet Thayil; book cover art “Narcopolis”; author photo JJ Marsh

In this month’s “Location, Locution”, expat crime writer JJ Marsh interviews Jeet Thayil, author of  Narcopolis.

Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India, in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter, librettist and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry: These Errors Are Correct (Tranquebar, 2008), English (2004, Penguin India, Rattapallax Press, New York, 2004), Apocalypso (Ark, 1997) and Gemini (Viking Penguin, 1992). He is also the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008). His first novel, Narcopolis (Faber & Faber, 2012), won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize 2013. He currently lives in Berlin.

Which came first, story or location?
I knew Narcopolis would be set in Bombay. I started with that city and that period in mind. It was about telling a story that hadn’t been told before, in a way that Indian fiction doesn’t really tell stories. Unsentimental, brutal and beautiful. When I realised that was what the book would be like, it revealed itself to me.

What’s your technique for evoking the atmosphere of a place?
When I was working on Narcopolis, I would work till very late at night, go to bed, wake up and start on it again, without really thinking. I found that when you’re in that oneiric, half-oneiric state, still slightly in the dream, very interesting things would happen. I’d come up with things I’d never have thought of later in the day. I was astonished about how much I remembered from that time, 25 years earlier, when I had no idea I would write a novel, when I was not exactly in the clearest of mental states. I was also surprised how unhealthy it was, the process of remembering.

A negative experience?
Absolutely. It was the opposite of cathartic.

Which particular features create a sense of location? Landscape, culture, food?
All of those. I’m a big fan of crime fiction, the bloodier the better. I’m addicted to crime thrillers. That, and poetry, is what I read on a daily basis. I’m sure a lot of that atmospheric noir milieu seeped into Narcopolis.

That’s curious. Not a link I would have made. I was going to ask you if you had a guilty reading pleasure, but you obviously don’t feel guilty.
Not at all. I hold those books up proudly on the train.

How well do you need to know the place before using it as a setting?
I’ve set poems in places I’ve never been to, and that can be a huge liberation. I think the worst is to know a place glancingly. To visit a place for a few days, get a false sense of it and then try to write about it. It might even be better to have never been there than read a guide about it.

Because it’s too superficial?
I think so. Either never go there or have been there too long.

Which writers do you admire for the way they use location?
I mentioned my love for crime writers and the way they do exactly that, evoking streets and cities and ambiance. But I’m also tremendously fond of the fiction that’s set in the opposite of cities: William Trevor, Henry James, E.M. Forster. Writers that do evoke a sense of place but often in the most mysterious and indirect of ways.

Next on Location, Locution … JD Smith, author of Tristan and Iseult (12th-century Cornwall) and Overlord: The Rise of Zenobia (3rd-century Syria), to be released in early 2014.

 * * *

JJ Marsh grew up in Wales, Africa and the Middle East, where her curiosity for culture took root and triggered an urge to write. After living in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Dubai, Portugal and France, JJ finally settled in Switzerland, where she is currently halfway through her European crime series, set in compelling locations all over the continent and featuring detective inspector Beatrice Stubbs.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post!

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