Anjali Joseph was born in Bombay in 1978. She read English at Trinity College, Cambridge, and has taught English at the Sorbonne. More recently she wrote for the Times of India in Bombay and was Commissioning Editor for ELLE (India). She graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 2008. Her first novel, Saraswati Park, was published by 4th Estate in 2010; it won the Betty Trask Prize, Desmond Elliott Prize, and Vodafone Crossword Book Award for Fiction in India. Another Country, her second novel, was published in June 2012.
NAW- When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?
I remember being very young and sitting on the floor of the bedroom I shared with my elder brother in Colaba and knowing that I would be a writer. I don’t know if I could even read at the time.
NAW- Tell us about your book, ‘Another Country.’ How did you get the idea for the book?
I’d been working on Saraswati Park for about a year and I was back in Bombay and working at a magazine. I remembered arriving in Paris to teach when I was twenty-one and walking down an avenue in the city and how slowly the leaves were falling, and how hyper-aware of myself I was. And I wrote the first paragraph or two of the book, maybe the first chapter, but then I stopped because I was worried I wouldn’t finish Saraswati Park if I started the next book. At the time I was thirty years old and I was interested in all these patterns and circular occurrences I had begun to notice in my life, and in my close friends’ lives in the preceding ten years, and I wanted to write about that.
NAW- How much of ‘Another Country’ is inspired by your experiences? The protagonist Leela Ghosh at times comes across as diffident which perhaps accentuates the novel’s experience. Was it a deliberate strategy to use a passive prose?
I don’t know if the prose itself is passive. The character is sort of opaque at times, always trying to figure out what other people might want her to do. That’s not a heroic position, but it seemed to me accurate. The twenties seemed to me to about all these uncertain acts of self-creation, designed perhaps to mask a grief at the actual presence that had been trained out of many of us as children. Perhaps it’s a story of a very muted, subterranean spiritual crisis. I’d read quite a lot of bildungsroman when I was in my early teens, skipping classes and hanging out in the school library. Things like Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, or even Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise. Living my twenties was different. There was no clear trajectory, though when I looked back, there were these patterns. So I was interested in both those things: the experience of formlessness, and the retrospective recognition of pattern.
NAW- Please tell us about your first book, ‘Saraswati Park’?
It’s a story of daydreaming, really. Bombay is the city I was born in and which always held a tremendous imaginative charge for me. When you spend time in a great city at a young age – I don’t just mean a place with a lot of people, I mean a place with layers and pockets and odd corners, a place of constantly mutating idiosyncrasy – it forms you. There are certain things my eye was attuned to because of the first seven years of my life in Bombay. For example, the street vendors or the arcades of D N Road. The awareness of how it was a busy city and yet there were a lot of people in it with time to sit and contemplate the busyness, at least sometimes. It also seemed to me at that time to be a city that was reading itself into being. That impression must be partly to do with my growing up in a bookish family – my grandparents, and parents, and aunts and uncles, my cousins, my brother. But I don’t think it was just that. The pavement bookstalls from Churchgate towards Fountain and around the university too – it seemed as though everyone was reading and consuming books. When I was living in Bombay almost twenty years later so much had changed on the surface – shopping malls, the name of the city, the kind of things people thought it was okay to be interested in. But still that other Bombay – maybe it was only ever another Bombay, not the main one – existed. That’s what I wanted to write about in these two characters, the boy who doesn’t fit in and the older man reading and observing the world from under a banyan tree near the GPO.
NAW- Did you face any trouble while publishing your first book? How did your first book get published?
I sent it to some literary agents and one took it on, and some time later he sent it to some publishers, and some were interested in it, and then it came out about seven months later.
NAW- How do you write, following a well planned routine or randomly? Take us through your writing process.
I don’t even live according to a well-planned routine. There are certain things that I do every day if I can, like meditating and yoga and writing, as much because I have a better day when I’ve done them then when I don’t. I try to do all of them in the morning – not simultaneously – because then there’s less worrying about when they’ll be done.
NAW- What are you reading right now?
I’m moving house in a couple of weeks so I’m reading in an unsettled way. I pick up books trying to decide if they ought to be given away or shipped and then find myself reading bits of things, or re-reading. I’ve been reading and loving Tortilla Flats by John Steinbeck, and also Mercier and Camier by Samuel Beckett. There’s a whole great genre of buddy novels: novels in which two men have a conversation, possibly over several bottles of something.
NAW- Please name your favourite authors.
I don’t know if that question even makes sense for any reader, but here’s a semi-random selection of names from the ‘ship’, not ‘give away’ pile: Beckett, James Salter, Emmanuel Carrère, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Jean Rhys, Nabokov, Henry Miller, Arun Kolatkar, Flaubert, Françoise Sagan.
NAW- What are your upcoming projects?
I’m working on a novel about two people who make shoes.