Jeet Thayil was born in Kerala, India in 1959 and educated in Hong Kong, New York and Bombay. He is a performance poet, songwriter, librettist and guitarist, and has published four collections of poetry: These Errors Are Correct (Tranquebar, 2008), English (2004, Penguin India, Rattapallax Press, New York, 2004), Apocalypso (Ark, 1997) and Gemini (Viking Penguin, 1992). He is the editor of The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets (2008). His first novel, Narcopolis, (Faber & Faber, 2012), won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and the Hindu Literary Prize 2013. He currently lives in Berlin.
Which book most influenced you when growing up?
The Bible. And Fleurs du Mal. I was introduced to those poems at the age of fourteen by an uncle who was obsessed by Baudelaire. It changed my life. It made me a poet and a writer and a reader.
Describe your writing space – what’s in it and why?
These days? (shrugs) Today I wrote on the train from Paris. I write wherever I wake up, if the laptop is to hand.
Who or what had the biggest impact on your writing life?
My father. He’s a writer and a journalist. He wrote books and edited a newspaper and a magazine. So I grew up watching him work. As a boy, I fell asleep to the sound of a typewriter. I still find that a comforting sound.
What’s the relationship between your writing and your music? Do you find one influences the other?
Often. I like to work on two or three things at the same time. So when I’m stuck on one I move over to the other. And it often bleeds in between. But the last thing I’d want to do is find out how that bleed happens. If something’s working, you really shouldn’t mess with it.
And as a performance poet, it strikes me you’re a sound person.
A sound person? Very nice to hear that for a change. There are many people in the world who’d strenuously disagree with you. But yes, if we’re talking ears …
Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn’t? Or one you expected to hate and fell for?
That first Bridget Jones book.
You liked it?
Loved it. Great fun. I shouldn’t admit it, but since we’re old friends …
The structure of Narcopolis reminds me of Celtic storytelling – tangents and stories within stories – where does that come from?
Interesting question. I hadn’t thought about that before. I think it comes from the East, a lot of the Arabian stories and Indian folk tales. They begin one place and go somewhere completely different. But I just found that an interesting way to write. It keeps me interested as I don’t know it’s going to end up.
Where did the name Dimple come from?
I knew someone with that name. And Dimple was a well-known Indian actress in the 70s, a continuing influence on girls’ names. India has endless dimples.
Now that I think of it, the Bollywood Dimple didn’t have dimples, unless in places invisible to the untrained eye.
Which book has impressed you most this year?
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. By far. And a book of erotic short fiction by an Indian woman writer. Long overdue that this should happen in India, but beautifully crafted and very literary. It’s called A Pleasant Kind of Heavy.
When I was working on Narcopolis, I would work till very late at night, go to bed, wake up and start on it again, without really thinking. I found that when you’re in that oneiric, half-oneiric state, still slightly in the dream, very interesting things would happen. I’d come up with things I’d never have thought of later in the day. I was astonished about how much I remembered from that time, 25 years earlier, when I had no idea I would write a novel, when I was not exactly in the clearest of mental states. I was also surprised how unhealthy it was, the process of remembering.
A negative experience?
Absolutely. It was the opposite of cathartic.
And the latest project?
A new novel, but I’m going to set that aside, because I think it’s a good idea. And I’m working on a collection of short, travel, fictionalised memoir pieces.
Can you say anything about the novel?
I think it’s better if I don’t. Just silly superstition, but you know …
Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?
I wish I could overuse the words ‘The End’. Unfortunately, that’s not happening.