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Payal Dhar interview

Payal Dhar‘s first novel, A Shadow in Eternity, a young adult fantasy novel, was recently published by Young Zubaan

Q: You recently published a fantasy novel aimed at children/young adults.
How has the experience been? Do you think there’s a market for
speculative fiction already, or is it a potential market?

Ans: There is already a thriving market for fantasy. It’s not just the Harry Potter phenomenon – fantasy has existed for decades, though Potter has now made it ‘fashionable’, for want of a better word. That, actually, is a double-edged sword really – with SFF flooding the market, it *is* a great time for the genre; but plenty doesn’t ensure quality, and right now there is also a lot of ordinary work floating around.

Q: What are your primary influences? Are there any Indian ones?

Ans: I guess I am a fan of fantasy fiction – Terry Pratchett, Robert Jordan, Tamora Pierce, Jonathan Stroud, J.K. Rowling, Douglas Adams, and more. I’m not really sure how exactly the idea of creating a different, parallel reality first struck me; perhaps it was mainly the influence of Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Indian influences – well, no, I can’t recall any.

Q: Stock question, but why fantasy?

Ans: I find it easier to do than “real life”. It’s my world and I get to play god – creating a world, making rules for it. It is fun, and that is my main motivation for writing.

Q: Have you tried to get your book published internationally (apologies
if this has already happened and I just haven’t heard)? What has that
been like? Have international SF agents/publishers been receptive to
the concept of a South Asian writing genre fiction, traditionally a
Western preserve?

Ans: Haven’t really interacted with international publishers or agents apart from the early days when I was sending my manuscripts to any publisher in any corner of the world who were willing to accept unsolicited material. But whether they were receptive to South Asians writing fantasy is not something I would be able to gauge. To be honest, I think I got turned down because my work just wasn’t good enough. Though, of course, I wouldn’t exactly expect them to say, “Sorry, we don’t feel receptive to the concept of a South Asian writing genre fiction, so we can’t publish your work!”

Q: When you’re writing, do you feel any pressure to be distinctively
Indian in some way?

Ans: Nope.

Q: Do you feel SF/fantasy has a future in India? Why, either way?

Ans: While not assuming that I can speak for the reading masses, personally I see no reason why it should not have a future, seeing that it has a thriving present! I read a lot of fantasy and I know many people who do. We are always on the lookout for new books and authors, be they Indian or foreign. Good writing, believeable characters, a gripping storyline are all a reader really wants, and the SFF genre is no different from any other.

Q: Internationally, a lot of speculative fiction aimed at the age group
you’re looking at ends up being part of a cross-media franchise – TV,
books, merchandise. There’s no history of this in India, but do you
think it’s possible eventually, or are the worlds of TV/film and books
in India too isolated for this to happen unless something fundamental
changes about the markets in question?

Ans: It will take some time for that to happen, I guess, and before that our idea of fiction for a younger audience needs to undergo a sea-change. Unfortunately, in India we are a bit too concerned about what children should read/watch, and not overly concerned at projecting a realistic world to them in a manner that they can understand. Also, for a lot of people, Indian books (for children) mean mythology or designer history. While that does have its place, there is nothing in the market to reflect the way society has changed, nothing that an Indian child can read and individually relate to, nothing that will help them understand the world around them.

I suppose what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is that fiction for the younger age group has yet to come of age; cross-media franchising comes later down the line. Also, that the worlds of commercial/popular TV/film and books are too isolated from each other is a valid point. Comparatively few Indian books seem to get adapted as (commercial) films here. (And perhaps therein lies the answer to why Bollywood churns out trash with such reliable regularity…!!)

Q: In fiction aimed at adults, SF/fantasy tend to be seen as low-caste,
but in the world of children’s publishing, the most popular books in
recent times always seem to contain speculative elements. Do you think
this is because children are seen to be more accepting of
non-identifiably-real-world situations, or because the childrens’ book
market is now large enough for it to have its own rules – or is it
something different entirely?

Ans: I am not really sure about this as most fantasy readers I know are actually adults and most ‘classical’ fantasy authors write primarily for a mature audience. Witness Tolkien,Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Douglas Adams, Robert Jordan, Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, George R.R. Martin to name just a few. Some of these can, of course, be read across all ages – Robert Jordan and Terry Pratchett are widely read by teenagers as well as adults, just as it would be erroneous to call JK Rowling an exclusively children’s author. But someone like George R.R. Martin is most definitely not meant for children, with his graphic descriptions of violence. Similarly for Stephen King (apart from one kids’ book).

To call these authors low-caste, one would have to redefine the term!

Here, it is easy to confuse the nose-in-the-air literary critics and real readers. Literary analysts could well look down upon fantasy and science fiction as being non-reflective of real world society and situations. But fantasy has – and will continue to have – a dedicated following among its readers/fans of all ages, just as any other genre does. At the end of the day, the readers matter more.

Q: What sort of children’s fantasy/SF would you like to see coming out of
India? And what do you think writers in the genre in this country
would do best to avoid?

Ans: Like I said before, good narration, memorable characters and an interesting story work for any genre. My biggest complaint with Indian authors writing for children is that they have a particular idea of what children *should* read and not what they *want* to read or even need to read. As a result, we get a very sanitised depiction of the world, glossing over whatever is uncomfortable. I’d like to see that change. I’d like to see a Jacqueline Wilson or Judy Blume come out of India.

Then again, there is a lot of very good fiction available for children, even if it is not by Indian authors. Having been a wierd and withdrawn kid (and now adult!) who spends most waking hours reading, I know that anyone (children as well as grown-ups) who wants a good read just goes and gets a book that sounds interesting. They don’t say, “I will only read something by an Indian author.” On the other hand, what does sometimes matter is, you don’t find anything to identify with – your self, your surroundings, your society. It isn’t a crippling disadvantage, though, and doesn’t spoil the fun of reading, which is the main thing.

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About Samit Basu

Writes books, comics, films, other stuff.

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