Sunday, January 13, 2008

The boywunder revelations; Q&A with Samit Basu

The Unwaba Revelations is out, completing the Gameworld Trilogy begun by little Samit many, many years ago. I was at his book launch on Wednesday (where he screened a few short videos that he had put together himself - a montage of his influences, ranging from Japanese pulp fantasy of the 1950s to the Amitabh-starrer Ajooba) and was stricken when he loudly told the audience “I think of Jai when I write porn” (no, not providing the context here). Revenge will have to wait; meanwhile here’s a short, informal Q&A I did with him for the Sunday Business Standard.

What’s an unwaba?
It’s a chameleon – borrowed from a similar creature in the Zulu tradition – that performs a sutradhar role in my book, commenting on the action, telling the characters what’s going to happen. It’s a stand-in for all writers, really.

Is this your preferred animal? If you had a daemon/animal spirit, what would it be?
A walrus, but mostly because of the size and the tusks.

You’ve just turned 28 and you’ve already finished a trilogy of fantasy novels that runs to nearly 1,500 pages. Are you hungover?
Haven’t had time to be. I finished this book eight months ago and since then I’ve been neck-deep in other projects, so I haven’t even been able to think about how much I’ve written so far, the size of the trilogy or things like that. It’s only at book launches where I see the three books piled up one on top of the other and think to myself, “I could kill people with these big fat things.”

How satisfied are you with the trilogy now that it’s finally over?
As an SFF fan, I’ve been disappointed with the third volume of almost any trilogy – authors tend to use convenient escape routes and not to see things through. I’ve tried to avoid those pitfalls and on the whole I’m happy with the way it’s ended. I probably had the least fun writing Unwaba (the first book was the most fun), but in my view the writing is better than in the early books. There’s lots of stuff crammed in there, as you know – battles, many different characters and types of characters – and resolving all of it was difficult.

Has fantasy writing in India changed much since The Simoqin Prophecies was published in 2003? Any promising new writers in the genre?
The landscape has changed in that more publishers are looking at fantasy now – the same way the graphic novels market opened up when Sarnath’s (Banerjee) Corridor was published. The science fiction/fantasy writers I’ve seen seem to be following the traditional SFF route of doing short stories first, rather than jumping head-first into big books or series’. But there is some very promising talent: I was editing a sci-fi anthology recently and was impressed by the stories submitted by Indrapramit Das and Swapna Kishore – they’ll both probably produce novels at some stage.

You’re working on projects with Duran Duran (the popular 1980s band) and director Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Twelve Monkeys). What are those about?
Those are comics I’m scripting for Virgin – the Gilliam one was based on one of his many radical ideas that couldn’t be filmed. I can’t say too much about them at this stage – they’re nowhere near ready for publication – but it’s been a good learning process.

Incidentally, I also want to start writing Bollywood films soon. And there’s a book I’m doing for Tranquebar, but don’t ask me about it.

How do you find the energy to work on so many projects simultaneously? Do you get time for a social life? Not counting cocktail-party book launches.
The multi-tasking has been fairly insane – there have been long stretches of staying shut up in my room. But eventually I hope to clamber up to a platform where I can do one thing that I really want to do.

There is a social life, but it’s restricted to a few close old friends. There isn’t much generic partying – my daily life is pretty much like what you’d imagine any busy writer’s life would be.

The most annoying question a journalist has asked you?
“What’s your book’s USP?” I mostly just splutter in reply. It’s also amusing when people challenge me to say something that will convince them to read SFF. It’s done in the campus-interview style – “Sell yourself (and your genre) to me”. The only answer I can possibly give is, “If you don’t want to read fantasy, don’t read it.”


  1. I did not mind the simoquin prophecies, but the manticore's secret left me cold.. I really dont know why.

    Anyway, hope Unwaba is better.

  2. If the writing's as good as his answers, I think I'll buy a copy. The original I mean.

  3. loved both simoqin and manticore, but unfortunately unwaba is leaving me cold. the earlier two books i was anxious to finish and see where they go, this one somehow doesnt grip me so bad. maybe i was spoilt by the shock of the first two and how originel they were when they came out and now it seems like we are a bit jaded.

    and hey, not fair... you usually do long and fairly detailed interviews of other authors. wouldve expected something similar (especially considering its known that the two of you are friends), this one is painfully short... maybe because theres nothing frech left for two friends to discuss when they 'sit' for an interview?

  4. ...this one is painfully short...

    theidiot: I know. this was a hurried, last-minute telephonic interview, done largely because a 600-word space had to be filled. The other thing is, I hadn't read Unwaba when I did the interview (still haven't, by the way). If I had, this would have been more fleshed out, or maybe a review-cuminterview. Ideally, I would have liked to read the first two books again followed by the new one, and then done a long piece. But time just didn't permit.