I was pleasantly surprised when HarperCollins informed me that 45,000 copies of Johnny Gone Down (JGD) were sold in less than a week of its release on 10 May because if I had written with any form of prevailing commercial wisdom in mind, this was definitely not the right novel to write!
Peripatetic: Bajaj’s inspiration came from his experiences in the year he went backpacking.
Only a portion of the book is set in India and the protagonist’s journey from being a genocide survivor in Cambodia to a Buddhist monk in Thailand to a drug lord in Brazil to a Silicon valley millionaire to other surreal situations doesn’t fit into the adolescent urban Indian “Boyz n Girlz Hangin’ out Der” fiction (I say this with no condescension since I place my first novel, Keep off the Grass, in the same category) that is doing so well in Indian publishing right now.
In that, I guess JGD’s success is less a credit to my writing and more a reflection of the ever-expanding Indian reading tastes and curiosity to experiment with new genres—as long as the novels are pacy and readable.
My inspiration to write Johnny Gone Down came from a year I had taken off to go backpacking between jobs. I was travelling on a dime, staying in youth hostels and dormitories, and I saw and heard about the incredible events in the countries I visited. Some of these stuck, such as the Pol Pot genocide in Cambodia, the favelas of Brazil, the evolution of Buddhism in South-East Asia, the drug mafia of Colombia and found their way into the novel. A more evolved writer would perhaps have used these as inspiration for an epic historical novel. But my sole literary ambition was to stay within the boundaries of a racy, fast-paced paperback but try to stretch and give it the nuance and emotional richness of a literary novel. As I read the passionate reader reviews on blogs now, I think Johnny Gone Down has been able to achieve this task with some measure of success. The Indian protagonist is very identifiable and the bizarre, almost surreal events that characterize his 20-year intercontinental journey are very pacy. Yet the book seems to have communicated a lasting, lingering thought about the joy of living a big, interesting life and about how a life lived without a measure of adventure is perhaps one not lived at all. In any case, while the verdict may have been delivered on its commercial success, the jury is still out (and I think will deliberate for a while) on its literary merits.
Regardless though, I’m proud of this novel more because it’s more in line with the kind of books I want to write. A lot of credit for this also goes to my editors at HarperCollins, V.K. Karthika and Neelini Sarkar. The relationship between an author and an editor can often be a tenuous one, but in my case, inputs from such experienced editors helped me figure out my own motivations for writing better. I think I understood my characters and story in a lot more depth because of the editing process which I think has led to a more honest novel. Overall, the publishing process has been delightful for me this time over. It also helped that Harper bought the novel within a few hours of submitting the manuscript versus the few months it took the first time.
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