Anita Nair has just published her fourth book of fiction, Lessons in Forgetting, a tale of a cyclone expert and a corporate wife set in urban, cosmopolitan Bangalore. She talks to Mint about this very here and now book and her literary evolution. Edited excerpts:
Is it easier writing the fourth book? How did your past writing contribute to ‘Lessons in Forgetting’?
I was a very cautious writer in the beginning. I didn’t know if I had the stamina to innovate with form like I finally did in Lessons in Forgetting. So just to find what I could and could not do, I started a collection of short stories and that was like swimming in the shallow end of the pool. It didn’t change the content in any form but in terms of structure and taking risks, it was easier. With the first novel, I was a little more confident and I allowed myself to flex my fingers a little bit. But the breakthrough was Ladies Coupé. What I realized with that book was that I like using literary devices, I like structuring the book around a metaphor. In Lessons in Forgetting, it was cyclones, it helped visually to translate the form into the metaphor structurally. In Ladies Coupé, the idea was about the pauses in a train journey. My other book, Mistress, was written around a dance performance. I didn’t know if I had the gumption to write about something unpredictable like a cyclone. When I began writing the book, I kept telling my editor and my agent that I am going to bring in a cyclone but I don’t know how. But it fell into place.
How did you start ‘Lessons in Forgetting’?
There is an interesting genesis to the book. I had finished Mistress and I thought I was all written out and done. I thought I needed a long break before I found anything worthwhile to say. So I set about writing a nice, gentle easy book. That was the book I wanted to do. I started that in October 2006, with the chapter on the wine launch. Then I thought, what am I doing with myself? Three years down the line I would ask myself why I wasted three years doing this. So I used that Page 3 party scene as a tool and turned it around to something else.
Meera, your protagonist, is a corporate wife and throws the perfect parties. Is she based on you?
I wish I was as organized as Meera. I haven’t had people over in my house for six years. I am scared of entertaining.
This is your first work of fiction after a four-year gap. What took you so long?
I only began writing it in 2006. I now find that a year or two years after every book is spent promoting the book in various parts of the world. It’s impossible to write another during that time, because you lose the thread. I need to write on a daily basis to keep the momentum going. So when I come back, I have to rediscover the rhythm in my head and that takes time. In between, I also had some other commitments. I wrote a children's book and a book of essays, Goodnight and God Bless. So, at least, two out of my last five years have been devoted to other things.
How long do you write every day?
I first wait for the house to clear out. I still write with a fountain pen. I fill it up and write till the ink finishes. Also, I stop before I finish a train of thought, so that I can take it from there the next day. There is a writer and the process of being an author—contracts, publishers, interviews, etc., and that takes a couple of hours every day. Even though the actual writing is about 2 or 3 hours a day, when I am in the middle of a novel, my mind does not stop. I am constantly thinking of my characters.
Who do you read?
I read everything from nice and easy chick lit to historical fiction to memoirs to highbrow literary fiction. I only don’t read fantasy and science fiction.
Tell me three recent books that have blown you away.
I really loved this series on Julius Caesar by Conn Iggulden. He writes of Caesar as an inner-city investment banker. When he is particularly stressed, he goes for a run. It’s hilarious.
I just started Achmat Dangor’s Bitter Fruit. Read about 20 pages and it’s amazingly good. I also enjoy Fannie Flagg of Fried Green Tomatoes fame. Her books just grab you—they are not intense books, but they kind of clutch at your heart in a certain way.