“Fiction is my first love”
The Mumbai-based literary diva and social commentator took on a new role two years ago with Shobhaa De Books, the new imprint from Penguin India. She returns to fiction with her new title Sethji that hits the stores this month. The highly individualistic style diva, who invented a colourful way of writing, continues in the same vein with her new literary offering.
In her early 60s, De’s affair with words keeps her occupied with different genres and styles – with her blogs, columns and tweets. And she joined 39 women from across the globe as a Veuve Clicquot woman this year. The champagne brand, which celebrates the 40th year of its Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman Award this year, selected her as one of the ‘courageous, audacious, creative’ women and as a tribute, a vine will be named after her which will then produce one of the house’s prestigious cuvees. De has a freewheeling interaction with Verve.
After so many years and so many works, does a new title still excite you?
Definitely. I’m like a kid with every new work. I am returning to fiction after a long time. With each book, there are always new readers. You actually find a different constituency every time. Each new book finds a younger generation of readers that has the means and the interest to buy books and to read them. They read the book without any of the earlier baggage, with a fresh mind. And I love it when that happens.
How does a novel take shape in your mind?
For me, it is always the character first – the character which will drive the novel has to be born inside my head. It must be very obstinate and refuse to go away as happened with Sethji. In fact, Sethji actually happened inside my head 13 years ago. I discussed it with David (Davidhar) who was the editor in chief then. But in the meanwhile all the non-fiction happened because I felt I could always go back to fiction – it’s my first love. But, at that time things were changing rapidly and as a journalist I couldn’t wait to chronicle all that. Finally the pesky Sethji said ‘It’s my time now’. Today, the timing is perfect because of what he represents. But again that was not something that was planned, it was intuitive. I felt like writing the book, I started writing it a year and a half ago and now here it is.
Your earlier works of fiction like Socialite Evenings, Starry Nights or Sultry Days dealt with a different world. Is politics a new domain for you?
It is in terms of fiction, but not otherwise. I have been writing political columns for 20-30 years. I don’t think in contemporary India anyone can afford to be apolitical or disengaged with the system. It is such that it draws you in and makes you take a position. I just wish more people would speak out because it’s really the silence of the majority that is always the issue rather than the strident voices of the minority.
Have you ever experienced a writer’s block?
Touch wood, I have never experienced one – not on any day of my life. I write every day – it could just be my blog or my diary or my column. I have never felt that I have nothing to say, I’m blank or that it has all dried up. There’s just so much in life – it’s so vibrant, energising and energetic – how can you run out of stories? It’s not possible.
As a writer which role do you cherish most – novelist, blogger, twitterati or columnist?
I value my blog a lot. I’m very possessive about my blog because it’s my space completely. I control it and it is not monetised. My blog is not about how many visitors it is going to attract. It’s my space, it’s so democratic and I post all the comments – even the most hateful, hate-filled negative ones. I do not filter any comments.
What about your books?
Books have a kind of permanence and significance. When I look back at those 17 titles and come to a bookstore, I still see them around. They are like living creatures and I do not know in whose home they will go. Columns are more about topicality – they are like a daily workout which keeps you on your toes and keeps you alert because you cannot afford to make a mistake, you cannot afford to make a careless comment in your column. So you learn discipline as you have to say what you want in 800 or 1200 words.
Did you find any particular work challenging to pen?
Each book comes with its own set of challenges, but I don’t see it as a challenge really. It is more like a catharsis for me. It is as if I occupy different spaces, get under the skins of different characters. It is all about getting out of yourself – it is fantasy, it is vicarious wish fulfillment.
Would you pick any one novel as your favourite?
Socialite Evenings was the first book. It will always remain special. It’s like having your first child – you listen to your mother, your grandmother, your neighbours and your family tell you about it but nothing compares with the experience itself.
How much of yourself goes into your creations and your characters?
You do not create characters out of thin air unless you’re writing science fiction or your writing is complete fantasy – even then Harry Potter was based on people JK Rowling knew and grew up with. Her new work A Casual Vacancy is based on her earlier life in the village. So, it is ultimately a composite of things you have seen and the ones you literally create.
Are you amused when people try to figure out which character is who in real life?
It’s amusing when people actually come up to me and discuss this. For instance an outspoken Delhi personality came up to me at a high-profile event and said, ‘I believe I feature in your book and you have trashed me to pieces.’ I told her, ‘You flatter yourself.’
In your columns, you often come out strongly on people you know socially. How do they react?
That is my job. I’m not there to do PR and my comments are all remarks about people in the social and public domain and their actions in their public life, it’s not about what’s going on in someone’s private space or bedroom.
What attracts Gen Next to books?
Regardless of age and of the demographics, a good story is a good story. An interesting tale will always find readers. And it must be original. Originality is a prerequisite for any for any writer – a spelling error here or there can be fixed but no one can put a story or characters into your head.
Any other work planned soon?
Not soon. I’ll give myself a break. When I want to start something new, I pick a nice day. I am superstitious so I normally start a project on the seventh of a month which is my birthday. Or I may do it on one of my children’s birthdays.
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