MANU BHATTATHIRI is a Keralite settled in Bengaluru. He has worked as an advertising copywriter, a journalist and a college lecturer. At present he co-owns a small advertising agency. His previous book, Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories, was widely praised and shortlisted for numerous awards. The Town That Laughed is his first novel.
NAW-Tell us about your book, The Town That Laughed. How did you get the idea for it?
After my first book, Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories, a lot of people asked me about what happened next to the retired police chief Paachu Yemaan. Did he conquer his demons and retire in peace? Or did he have to struggle with his past image? Would his macho self-image allow him to settle down and spend time with his wife and niece like any other pensioner? How would the town deal with a person it once feared, but who was now old and … well, toothless? I decided that I owe a story to those who had expressed so much interest in this character. And that’s how I began thinking about The Town That Laughed.
But as soon as I thought about Paachu, I also thought about a character who was his right opposite. A kind of foil. And so I thought about Joby, the insignificant buffoon and drunk whom no one respected, no one even took seriously. With this the story was on.
NAW- What made you decide to write a novel about a remote town? Even though it’s fiction, it has been written so well that as a reader, one cannot help but find resemblances with any other town that one may come across. Writing in such depth about a remote place would have required some research. How did you go about researching for this book?
My research primarily consists of observing and talking to people. I have been speaking to several of my own relatives, friends and rustic folk in general to get an idea of our customs and beliefs, inclinations, superstitions and ways of life. It has helped me a great deal in writing this story.
NAW- Why writing? How easy or difficult is the writing job compared to other trades that you have dabbled in? What drew you to writing?
I write because it helps me find my moorings in an otherwise senseless world. If I don’t write for some time I get all moody and even despondent. So I find that to me writing is not easy or difficult. It is more of a necessity. This is not to say that everything I write will come out well. At times I discover that what I have written is absolute rubbish. I scrap a lot of my own writings, rewrite a lot and sometimes scrap entire plots. But each day I do sit down to write in the mornings if I can help it. It’s a great beginning for me and keeps me balanced throughout the day.
NAW- This book has its dark moments interspersed with comic instances. Would you call it a dark comedy or did you have some specific genre in mind while writing it? Or did the story take shape later on?
I like to draw from life rather than from literature for my writing, which is why I don’t think much about genres. The Town That Laughed is a lot of spontaneous rambling where I did occasionally stop to think further about the plot and the characterization but never tried to keep the story within any parameters of type.
NAW- Tell us about your journey as a writer? When did you decide that you wanted to become a writer? How was the publishing journey, were there any hiccups along the way?
In my school days, I wanted to become a doctor. Though I don’t know about ‘wanted’, because I hardly did anything to become one. I failed in every medical entrance exam I wrote and had all the markings of a hopeless loser. But then my uncle, who was a professor of literature at SD College, Alleppy, asked what I really liked to do: not for academics or career, his question was about what it was that I loved doing. And I had only one answer: I liked to read.
And that was how I joined BA in English in a remote college in Kerala. But a little into the course I wrote my first short story, which was published as a ‘middle’ in the Indian Express. I quickly got several more ‘middles’ published in various newspapers and had begun to feel that I wasn’t perhaps such a loser after all.
But after college I joined advertising and that took me off literary writing. Perhaps it’s because in copy writing in ad agencies you’re creative urges are falsely satisfied by advertising writing, even as your spare time is sucked dry to such an extent you begin to doubt that a day has twenty-four hours. So I did not write fiction again for about fifteen years.
It was when I started on my own that I found the time and the energy to sit down and write fiction again. My first short stories were published in The Caravan magazine and shortly afterwards HarperCollins and Aleph approached me. The journey has been smooth then on.
NAW- Who is/are your favourite author/s? Are there any who have influenced your writings?
I worship Fyodor Dostoyevsky, laugh with Mark Twain, wonder at Gabriel Garcia Marquez and admire the boldness of Vladimir Nabokov. I love the way Gogol develops a plot, and I have to think he has been an inspiration to me since the other way round would be anachronistic. I find Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea one of the gems of all literature but some of his other books actually boring. So I guess I have a lot of favorites and they have all influenced me in many ways.
NAW- What are you reading currently?
I always read two books side by side. One is usually fiction and the other a science or factual book. Right now I’m reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. I’m enjoying both books immensely and their combination even more!
NAW- Have you decided what you’ll write next?
Yes, I’m writing my third book, another Karuthupuzha novel, and also a collection of short stories set in different places. Both are set to be out the Aleph stable in the coming two years.