Interview with Vikas Swarup

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First off let’s talk about the new book. Does the idea for The Accidental Apprentice just spring from wanting to tell a story about Indian corruption and political problems or was there another reason behind it?

After having done a polyphonic narrative in Six Suspects, I wanted to revert to a strong first person voice, like in Q&A. I thought it would be an interesting idea to explore contemporary India through the prism of a young woman’s journey to discover herself. Since my protagonist Sapna Sinha is an ordinary girl who is suddenly made an extraordinary offer, you could also think of it as a 21st century take on the old Cinderella story, except Cinderella is now being offered the CEO-ship of a ten billion dollar company rather than Prince Charming. It is also a play on all those business books about the 7 or 10 habits of effective people, great CEOs etc. I am glad that it has resonated with readers as well.

How does you life function as a diplomat/writer?

For me work comes first and writing comes second. Unlike other writers with day jobs who are able to write in the crevices of the day, I can only write when I have a clear horizon in front of me, meaning several hours without any interruptions. So I usually write on weekends and holidays. I try to strike a balance between my life as a writer and my role as a diplomat.

You wrote the novel Q&A, which went on to become the international hit film Slumdog Millionaire. How did your life change after that? Did you take part in the making of the film?

When I wrote my debut novel Q&A in 2003, I had no idea that it would find a world-wide readership, with translations now in 44 languages, or that it would be made into an Oscar winning film. I thought it was a very “Indian” book and only readers in India would be able to relate to it. But I guess it has appealed to readers across the world because the themes and the emotions evoked are universal and the underlying message is a simple one – of creating your own luck, of the underdog beating the odds and winning!

The success of the book has not changed me, but perhaps it has changed people’s perception of me. Earlier I was known as a diplomat, now increasingly as a writer. I personally prefer to call myself a diplomat who writes. My life has certainly become much more hectic after Slumdog because of the demands from my various publishers and media organisations all over the world.

My role in the making of the film was limited to providing inputs on the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy.

Since you are a full time employee as a diplomat, do you ever get time to just devote to writing, like going on a book tour or doing appearances as an author?

Whenever a new book comes out I do take a few days off to promote it. Unfortunately I cannot contemplate taking leave for a full month and going on a lengthy book tour, but I do manage to meet the expectations of my publicists.

Are there any talks of Six Suspects or The Accidental Apprentice being translated into film?

Six Suspects had been optioned for a film by Starfield Productions and the BBC. The Accidental Apprentice has also been optioned for a Bollywood film. Now I’m waiting for an offer from Hollywood!

Did your career as a writer branch out after your career as a diplomat had already been established or did aspire to be a writer since your younger years?

I never dreamt of being a writer. No one in my immediate family has written a novel, though my grandfather and father have written several books on law. But I was always a voracious reader and that fascination with books perhaps led me eventually to try my hand at fiction.

You’ve been posted in a wide variety of countries. Which has been your favorite to work in/write in?

I have enjoyed all my postings. The great advantage of living in a foreign country as a diplomat for three years or more is that you get a much deeper understanding of a country and its culture than you would as a tourist visiting that country for a week. And then there are the usual perks of being a diplomat – getting invited to exclusive events and functions and gaining access to some of the world’s most influential leaders. I remember attending President Clinton’s second inauguration in Washington DC, meeting Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, playing a cricket match in Blenheim Palace in the UK, and hearing Sarah Brightman sing at the world famous Todaiji temple in Nara. But my fondest memories are of exploring the natural and man-made wonders in distant lands and interacting with the locals, trying to comprehend their values and mores. In a subliminal way, my life in Turkey, the US, UK, Ethiopia, South Africa and Japan has influenced my writing, though the subject matter of all three books of mine has been India.

Indian literature is pretty renowned in the world. Who are some of your favorite authors from your home country?

I have been greatly influenced by the earthy writings of Premchand, who wrote in Hindi. Khushwant Singh’s A Train to Pakistan is also a perennial favourite. Among contemporary writers I like Vikram Chandra’s style.

I think this is an exciting time for Indian fiction. Indian writers are breaking out of the traditional mould of writing and experimenting with new themes and new concepts. Alongside the usual family sagas, we now also have science fiction fantasy and graphic novels as part of the mix. Perhaps all this is part of a new resurgence.

To bookend that last question, do you have any favorite films from Indian cinema?

Oh several. But I will mention just one: Sholay(1975), India’s own spaghetti Western.

Do you have any favorite novels or books from 2014 you’d like to share with your fans?

I recently read The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J.K Rowling) and quite enjoyed it.

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