There is a precision to Manu Joseph’s writing which simultaneously provokes and delights. It reveals itself most in his instinct and ability to surgically cut through the superfluous and the dishonest, grasping at the heart of human foibles and hubris, the small triumphs and tragedies of our lives and what seems to resonate deeply, in an exploration of life itself as farce.
A self confessed torturer of ideas, Manu Joseph, author of the bestselling novels: Serious Men, The Illicit Happiness of Other People and Miss Laila Armed and Dangerous, talks to Nandini Sen Mehra, Contributing Editor, Creative Sparq about the interplay of instinct and craft, equanimity in the face of both rejection and success, his creative method and the need to stay true to oneself.
Since you are a widely-read columnist and journalist, what interests you specifically about writing fiction?
Both journalism and fiction attempt to transmit a certain understanding of the world. In journalism the craft is in substantiation. Even columns contain this element — of substantiation though this may not be very obvious. Substantiation is a trick and one of the most overrated concepts of our age that is in the heart of both journalism and academic papers. Substantiation is not meaningless or charlatan just that it is a trick, that’s all. Fiction tries to transmit a certain understanding of the world through persuasion, which is more complex, difficult and fun. Fiction, too, is a trick, but it never denies that. In fiction you can arrive at the whole point of characterisation without the farce of being factual.
If the point I want to make on half a page is that only an addict has purpose in this world, I can arrive at this point by showing a total drunk crossing the road very very carefully. I can make this scene very tender, funny and very real. I can derive my confidence from my own observations of drunkards crossing the road but I do not have to be worried about any facts, any substantiation; I don’t have to even worry (much) about the absolutism in the statement — that ONLY the addicts have purpose. In fact, my reader immediately knows that I mean not only alcoholics but all addicts, including those who are addicted to love and life — the whole point of the scene is that we find purpose only when we are addicted to something. All this is beyond the possibilities of journalism. You can come close though if you have a wise editor, but only close.
Many amateur writers or avid readers wonder about the creative process of their favourite authors. Could you tell us a little bit about how your stories come about and your creative process?
Stories do not come to my head at all. I hang ideas upside down and torture them to extract stories. A story is the adorable corruption of that thing that comes to the head. What comes is usually not even an idea but a proto-idea, a proto-something. This thing is of two types — a whiff of a character, or a strong special sentiment, like for instance the rage of an underdog. The best is when you get a conjecture in your head that fully explains an experience that you have not gone through.
Do you ever go back and read your own books? Has your worldview and writing style evolved or changed over the years?
I try not to read my own books as I feel I might be disappointed. I feel that over the years I have abandoned grandness — there was something grand I imagined about writing. Now I am beginning to explore the farcical nature of serious things, which was once a fringe interest in me but now a whole pursuit. And by serious things I of course mean writing and the arts, too. I am asking — ok, this seems important, but now that we know life is pointless can I pick this thing apart and see its farcical form? You can do this to everything — marriage, sex (easy), meditation, theoretical physics.
Has rejection been a part of your journey? Does a writer need both a heightened sensitivity and a thick skin to be successful?
Yes this is very important. As writers we must extract only the juice of success and not the whole plastic bowl of validation that comes with it. And when success doesn’t come we must not treat the eggheads, the institutions and the patriarchs as so important to our core that we are crushed by the fact that they have withheld a reward.
We must be serious when we write, even when we seek to expose the farce in seriousness, but we must be playful after that, even frivolous maybe.
You’ve gained a bit of a reputation for somewhat unpopular views about feminism and the changing dynamics between the sexes. What role do you think writers and creative people in general can play and should play to influence public opinion?
Actually my only view on feminism is not unpopular if you ask the wise — I have only argued that the men who overtly claim to be feminists are usually dishonest, and that it is extremely difficult even for good men to be feminists because they are actually a part of the problem and a part of this thing that that feminists try to dismantle.'
If a writer is an excellent arse-licker or a professional coward, then there is no point in trying to be brave and screwing your chances for awards, residences and sex with posh women who believe in climate change. And if you are a delinquent, and there is a type of a writer who is a delinquent, a hopeless innate delinquent, then you cannot be anything else.
How was writing as a profession viewed by your parents and how did their views shape your journey as a writer?
My parents were and are writers — the delinquent writer-types. My mother though seeing the life of my broke father wanted me to be something else — bureaucrat or an engineer, but in her heart I don’t think she believes there are other professions apart from writing.
Finally, as a creative person and an accomplished writer, what is your measure of success?
Among the decent measures of success, the most important measure of success is writing a good book in your own opinion.
About The Interviewer
With a penchant for scribbling poetry on the commute through her busiest days, Nandini Sen Mehra has a background in communications and has worked across India, the United States and Australia before moving to Singapore eight years ago. Her interests include literature, art, dance, and all creative forms of expression. She explores her own voice and the world around her through poetry, photography and long walks around the Red Dot’s many reservoirs.