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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Anil Menon

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar. It’ll run every Monday to Friday until I run out of interviews. Two of these interviews will be reprinted in Apex Magazine but the rest are exclusive to SF Signal.]

An early encounter with Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound Of Thunder” led to Anil Menon to both science and fiction. However, the blatant bias of research journals towards science rather than fiction eventually led him to switch careers from software R&D to spec-fic. His short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Albedo One, Apex Digest, Chiaroscuro, Interzone, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, New Genre, Strange Horizons and anthologies such as TEL: Stories, Apex World SF, Shockwave and From The Trenches. My YA novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet (Zubaan) is scheduled to appear in November 2009. He can be reached at iam@anilmenon.com


Hi Anil! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you become acquainted with speculative fiction? What’s the appeal of the genre for you?

In India, English-medium kids who like to read have a rather predictable trajectory of encounters: mythological comics from Amar Chitra Katha, Enid Blyton, Hardy Boys, Harry Potter, Agatha Christie… Fortunately though, the “Literature versus Genre” rift hasn’t happened yet in India. SF books are as likely to be shelved next to Jhumpa Lahiri as with James Hadley Chase. Reading tastes don’t get so specialized the way they do in the US. So I became something of a literary goat. For goats, food happens. I happened to come across an Asimov-edited science-fiction anthology, munched through Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” and my diet was forever changed.

The genre’s appeal is not hard to place. I love the play of ideas, the awareness that technology is doing something huge to us as a species. I like the fact we’re sort of the Jack Black of the narrative world. We can speak to Homer and Homer Simpson.

What made you decide to become a writer? Why speculative fiction?

I’ve always liked telling stories, and growing up, I was fortunate enough to have a little sister with two ears. Shobha used to patiently listen to my ghastly soap-operatic tales of kings, beautiful princesses, etc., all set in plagiarized fantasy worlds. This went on for quite a while until she discovered how to work the TV remote. But I didn’t take the hint. I switched from telling stories to writing them, and kept at it in one form or the other through high school, engineering college and various software startups. If I had to write a research paper, it’d be a literary research paper. If it was a memo, it’d be a literary memo. If my code had bugs, they’d be literary bugs. I was a menace. In 2004, I decided I’d give the fever a year. A whole year. If I became famous, then great! Else, it was back to the salt mines. Well, it’s been a really, really long year.

How did your experiences at Clarion help shape you as a writer?

C. West was a major confidence booster. For one thing, there was a lot of ego stroking. I savored every approving nod, compliment and smile. More than learning craft, I think I grokked styles, ways to be a writer. Kelly Link taught me to take sentences seriously; she’d pick a harmless looking sentence in the story and then she’d chip away at it, chip away at it, until suddenly, out of nowhere, a completely unexpected possibility would stand revealed. I had the unnerving pleasure of listening to John Kessel and Jim Kelly discuss my work– my work– as if I weren’t in the room. Over the years, that honest hour, immeasurably kind hour, has stayed with me. Then there was Charles de Lint, who was living proof that you didn’t have to be a jerk to be a great writer. Geoff Ryman– who was the reason I’d applied to Clarion West that year– pointed out that my writing had a tendency to eschew confrontation. I’d written a story about a man cheating on his wife but avoided having her catch him in the act. Ryman’s howl still echoes in my ear: “I want to see his BALLS flapping, Menon! Show me his BALLS.” That howl has kept me honest.

In your opinion, what makes Indian fiction, speculative or otherwise, unique from the rest of the world?

I usually think of it as south-Asian (“Desi”) fiction rather than Indian fiction. Modern south-Asian fiction is just fiction written by south-Asians. But the old oral folktales and  mythologies are a different matter. The treatment of fact and fiction in these tales is distinctly postmodern. Thus a story could be about a prince who marries his own left half, but discovers that it still doesn’t rule out marital conflict. Or a story could talk– not metaphorically, but literally– about a story’s need to be told. Or a story could consider the problem of how the Creator could tell a story if everything He spoke turned into living truth. This ancient fascination with language and reality continues to burst through the crust every now and then: in Rushdie’s work, in Charu Nivedita’s work, in Kiran Nagarkar’s work…

With exceptions like Vandana Singh, why do you think Indian speculative fiction isn’t as popular as it should be internationally? With the Internet and globalization, do you see that changing soon?

I think the problem has to do with access. You can’t form an opinion about tandoori chicken if you’ve never seen it, let alone eat it. It’s possible for a western reader to grow up without encountering a story by an Indian author along the way. So it’s something readers have to develop a taste for as adults. Unfortunately, a lot of our like/don’t-like preferences are wired-in by then.

At the same time, there simply aren’t enough desi spec-fic writers. Indian writers find it hard to participate in the marketplace. As in the first-world, it’s tough to make a living at writing, but third-world economies have much less surplus-value, so career-choices have a life-or-death quality. Western magazines can only tolerate a certain dosage of ethnicity, and there are few native magazines that will publish speculative fiction. There are hardly any local workshops to train new writers. There’s only a rudimentary Critical-Industrial complex; that is, there’s no real tradition of conventions, prizes, funding grants, retreats, POD presses, spec-fic conferences or fanzines. There are few desi editors and reviewers who understand the genre. So on and so forth. The situation is not unique to India, of course.

But I do see the internet and globalization changing the situation. Readers are much more adventurous; there’s a new class of readers who treat stories the way foodies treat food. And the internet has brought a lot of easy-to-set-up infrastructure. The future should be interesting.

You along with Vandana Singh and Suchitra Mathur recently held an SF Workshop in India. How did this come about? Could you tell us more about the workshop?

I first met Vandana at the Boston Worldcon in 2004. It was one of those Crusoe-sees-bare-footprint moments. We discovered a common commitment to the subcontinent. That conversation eventually led to the idea for holding an annual workshop, loosely based on the Clarion model, and dedicated to developing a “desi” brand of speculative fiction. Neither of us had any idea of what that meant, but it didn’t really matter. Sometimes actions make meanings. Jaya Bhattacharji, who’s now a managing editor at Routledge & Taylor in Delhi but then with Zubaan, also got interested, and once she joined, the workshop turned from speculative fiction to speculative fact. I met Dr. Suchitra Mathur at IIT-Kanpur’s Alfaaz literary festival, and she caught fire at the idea. She sacrificed various limbs, cracked countless coconuts to the gods, persuaded the powers that be, and some four years and two hours after I’d met Vandana, we were in a room facing a group of rather hungry-looking writers.

I’ve blogged at some length (at considerable length) on the workshop, so I’ll just point to part 1 and part 2.

What’s the speculative fiction scene in India like? Who are the other writers we should be reading?

The spec-fic scene is actually a series of scenes since India has some 18 state-recognized languages. I don’t know much about the regional work, but the “contact regions” where the colonists had their greatest influence– Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu– have always been spec-fic hotspots. Traditionally, Indian spec-fic had a rather didactic tone (parents are still under the impression it’s purpose is to improve marks in science exams), but there’s been a radical shift in the last couple of decades.

Amitav Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome is a must-read. Ditto for Ian MacDonald’s River of Gods. I’ve knocked his book in the past, but what’s a scuffle between brothers? Geoff Ryman’s novel The King’s Last Song, set in Cambodia, is another brilliant read. I’d also recommend Charu Nivedita’s Zero Degree, Rimi Chatterjee’s Signal Red, and Samit Basu’s Simoqin Prophesy series. They are very different works, but are equally bold and ambitious. Vandana Singh’s recent The Women Who Thought She Was A Planet, and Kuzhali Manickavel’s Insects Are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings are both great short-story collections. Young teens will find Payal Dhar’s Halvard series a lot of fun; it helped create a local market for young-adult Indian fantasy. Manjula Padmanabhan’s dystopic play “Harvest” about what the have-nots don’t have deserves to be more widely known in the spec-fic community. I’d like to give a shout-out to the Hindi SF film “Matrbhoomi” (Motherland) — it’s a harrowing dystopic vision of a North Indian region that’s run out of women.

What is it about India that makes it a rich source of fiction?

The place doesn’t make any damn sense. It doesn’t make sense the way the duck-billed platypus doesn’t make sense. It is one of those places that manages to be diverse without being novel, novel without changing, changeable without making a difference, and differentiates without losing an ounce of its diversity. It’s one of those places that couldn’t be, but it is. It is, but it could be so much more. It is Zeno’s Paradox given coordinates: a place that moves by standing still, and rests through ceaseless motion. I can’t speak for others, but the sheer mule-headed impossibility of the land drives me crazy. Fiction is a kind of homeopathic cure: treat fiction with fiction.

In addition to your short stories, you also have a novel, The Beast With Nine Billion Feet. Was transitioning to a novel difficult for you? How about writing for a young adult audience?

I loved writing the novel. Writing short stories is very challenging because it’s all too easy to do. Novels, on the other hand, are not easy to do. They require a lot of cogitation. I relished the larger canvas, the freedom to really speculate. I think it’ll be hard to go back to writing short stories.

I also love writing for a young-adult audience. In a curious way, it imposes some of the more interesting constraints of the short-story format on the novel. For example, you can’t bore the reader; adults are quite forgiving when it comes to novels, but damn kids are ruthless.

Could you tell us more about your novel and how it got published by Zubaan Books?

The novel’s set in Pune, a chimp of a town not too far from an 800-lb gorilla called Mumbai. The time is 2040 A.D. The novel is centered around thirteen-year old Tara and her elder brother Adi. Both Tara and Adi make some strange new friends, and things start to unravel. The need for friendship & the desire to be the free are a big deal in the story.

It got published by Zubaan because Jaya Bhattacharji, then an editor at Zubaan, fell in love with the story. Jaya’s enthusiasm convinced her colleagues. It convinced me too. That’s because the version I’d given her had been little more than a second draft, and I realized it could be a lot more. There was one interesting complication. Zubaan is India’s leading feminist press, and while they’d published many of the country’s leading female authors and published nonfiction by male authors, they had never published a male novelist before. The Beast changed that unjust fact, and this new fact gives me an irrational degree of satisfaction. I’m every woman.

At first, the book was going to be a joint release from Penguin India and Zubaan, but the nature of their relationship changed over the two years I spent writing and rewriting the novel. Penguin now distributes all of Zubaan’s fiction. Which is cool beans.

For unfamiliar readers, where can we find out more about you and your fiction?

I have some short-story samples at anilmenon.com. My stories have appeared in magazines like LCRW, Chiaroscuro, Strange Horizons, Interzone, etc. I also blog rather infrequently at anilmenon.com/blog. But perhaps the simplest way is to ping me at iam@anilmenon.com.

1 Comment on EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Anil Menon

  1. What an excellent interview. Hats off to Anil for speaking like he does and being who he is. He is the wave that takes things forward.

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