‘Historical fiction is not history … It’s often based on the counterfactual and explores what could have happened’


In what may be seen as a silver lining to 2020, the year has brought good tidings for author and publisher Anuradha Roy whose novel ‘All the Lives We Never Lived’ has been shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2020. It is the world’s richest award for a single work of fiction published in English. Roy is also the first Indian national to figure in the list. She spent her childhood in several towns and cities in India as her scientist-geologist father’s job involved transfers, even spending months in tents pitched in deep forests. In a conversation with Parvati Akki, she explains her approach to writing historical fiction:

Let’s start with the pandemic. Do you think authors are more suited to handle isolation when compared to others?

I think the kind of isolation that the pandemic has brought about is miserable and difficult for almost everyone. It is not voluntary; it is imposed. It is fraught with anxiety. This makes it quite difficult to focus or even convince yourself that what you are writing has any relevance. On a mundane level, a research trip for a book could be stalled; you could be the kind of writer who works better in a cafe or needs to wander a city street.

How has the lockdown hit the literary circles in the country?

Publishing took a hit to begin with, very badly, as bookstores were shut, deliveries were suspended, and printing and binding units were shut. Sales came to a halt though some sales happened via e-books. Literary events have moved online, and we are having to plod through video conferencing and recorded talks, but I don’t think it makes up at all for the energy between people, as happens at normal talks or festivals.

Can you tell us about the genesis of All the Lives?

A boy who found an imagined world through paintings was the starting point. This character had been with me for a few years, and everything else, even the era in which the book is set, came from this point. When I thought about which paintings the boy would be immersed in, I came upon Walter Spies, a German artist who lived in Bali when he escaped the increasingly right-wing Germany of the 1920s. From this came the parallels between past and present and the novel grew into an exploration of the themes of nationalism and freedom.

What was the difficult part of the artistic process involving All the Lives, since fictional and real characters are interwoven in the story?

The difficult part was precisely the one you pinpoint – when working with historical characters in a fictional setting I did not want to misrepresent those characters even as I was imagining events in their lives that may not have happened. I was writing a historical novel but I didn’t want to be imprisoned by recorded historical facts. The line between history and fiction is always so indeterminate – we can see this demonstrated even in contemporary news reports we read, much of which seem to be fiction! The other challenge was a section written in letters by a woman in the late 1930s and 1940s.

History is fluid and can be contested. Isn’t it challenging to blend it with fictional elements?

The thing to remember is that historical fiction is not history. It is fiction. Historical fiction is often based on the counterfactual, and explores what could have happened. Writers of fiction make absolutely no claims to objective reality or factually correct representation. However by suggesting other possibilities about both events and characters, fiction can open up new ways of looking at the past.

Any books that have had a strong influence on your writing?

There are too many to mention here. Quite a lot of poetry, and the writings of Alice Munro, Bibhutibhushan, Virginia Woolf, Yasunari Kawabata, Robert Seethaler, Carson McCullers, Chekhov.

How does it feel to be the first Indian national to have been shortlisted for the award?

This is an unusual prize: A longlist of 156 books is drawn up by librarians across the world from books written in English as well as translated into English. The judges pick 10 books from this. When I look through the star-studded longlist I feel astonished and hugely honoured my book made it to the shortlist.

What are your thoughts as you wait for the announcement of the prize?

I am just relieved there is no award ceremony because of the pandemic.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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