NAW Interview with Sabin Iqbal

Sabin Iqbal is a senior journalist who has worked in India and the Middle East. He was editorial director of Kochi-Muziris Biennale, senior editor at Tehelka and senior assistant editor at Business India. He is now festival director and co-curator of Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters (MIFL). He lives in Thiruvananthapuram with his wife, Mariam, and children, Keziah and Sean.

NAW- Tell us about your book The Cliffhangers. How did you get the idea for it? How was the title decided?

The Cliffhangers was not my first manuscript. I have been writing for over 15 years, and trying to get it published but have been rejected several times. In fact, after a point, I had resigned to the fact that I may well be an unpublished writer. Once I was at peace with it, I began to write quite freely. I didn’t have the weight of expectation. I wrote down the first line of ‘The Cliffhangers’ when I was in Doha, Qatar. I was waiting for my cousin and was sitting on a bench inside The Villagio Mall. Then suddenly a sentence came up in my mind, and I duly scribbled it in my notebook. Back in my cousin’s home, I thought about four boys living by a village by the sea, and their many predicaments. I am from Varkala, which itself is a town by the sea. The beach, seasonal tourists and local boys mixing with them and getting into all sorts of troubles, some even marrying foreigners, were all part of my growing up.

Since the boys—Moosa, Usman, Jahangir and Thaha—live by the popular Cliff at our beach, I called them ‘The Cliffhangers’. I had in my mind a rather longer title, but my editor thought the first part of it, ‘The Cliffhangers’, would be better. And, she is right.

NAW- Writing, by its very nature is a political act. As opposed to journalism where neutrality is required, a writer must have some political inclination to write about that subject in depth. How do you dissociate the journalist in you while writing fiction?

Every story in some way or the other has a political edge. When I sit down to write a story I can’t sanitise myself from getting political. But the journalist in me is always awake, nudging me now and then if I go far too across. My journalism has helped me find stories and incidents, and I can write about the incidents that happened in Kerala over the years with minimal research. I love the art of blending facts with fiction. I love to pick up a news story and stretch it by imagination to give it an altogether different look. The journalist in me helps me keep my ears on the ground, and watch every unfolding news event, and then the writer takes over to weave them into a tale. Most of the incidents in ‘The Cliffhangers’ have happened in and around Varkala. My friends have identified them in the novel, and have asked me if I had based so-and-so incidents on what happened in our place. In a way, writing a novel is a form of reporting. The writer in me, with the help of the journalist in me, is reporting to my readers. While the journalist vies for objectivity, the writer takes a fictional liberty to exaggerate. And, I love exaggerations.

NAW- Cliffhangers has captured the lives of disadvantaged youth very well. How did you research for the book?

As I said, I keep my eyes and ears open. That’s my primary research. I have a wide circle of friends—from all walks of life. I listen to them. I watch them. Growing up at Varkala with my childhood friends, Prem and Unni, and I used to go to the beach every other evening. We have many friends at the Cliff and in the village next to it. I used to be a cricketer, and our club was quite active in playing local tournaments. We have played matches even at the ‘helipad’ which is a concrete patch on the Cliff! So my research for ‘The Cliffhangers’ was basically my interactions with my friends and then my journalistic memory.

NAW- How difficult is writing for you? Tell us about your writing process. Do you write in a well-planned manner or in phases?

I have survived some of the most difficult phases in my life through writing. For me, writing is an escape from the troubles and stresses in my personal life. While I write, I forget everything else. I only see my characters and hear their voices.

I try to write every day. And, I have set a target of at least 1,500 words a day. I don’t believe in the inspiration of the proverbial ‘Muse’. For me, writing is my life—whether it will be published or not is another issue. I can’t write being away from my family. They need my presence, so even if I go somewhere to a ‘quiet place’ to write, I can’t get going. I have to come back home, and sit at my window. I write down the outline and short character sketches in my notebook, and once I begin to write, I write quite fast. I am  early to bed but I wake up early to write. I also write through the morning till noon, if I don’t have to go anywhere.

I am a writer who likes to work with a discerning editor. The magic happens when a writer and an editor work together. An editor’s role is hugely understated. They are like the copyeditors in a newspaper. The readers get to see only the reporter’s byline but hardly get to know the hard work put in by the desk. I have been one for years, and I know how the magic happens during the editing process.

NAW- Who are your five favourite authors? Are there any who have influenced your writing?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez for his magic realism (I agree with Salman Rushdie who once said that we all focus too much on the ‘magic’ part of magic realism in Gabo’s writing that we tend to miss the ‘realism’ part of it. I believe that life in Kerala has many such ‘magic’ moments. Gabo has influenced my writing in a big way, especially the exaggeration part.

VS Naipaul and his early novels. His stripped prose and humour.

George Orwell for his prose and his political novels. Paul Theroux for his travel writing. Mohammed Hanif for his satire, wit and subtle humour. And, Anees Salim, my cousin and early influence. Even before he was published, I knew he would go places, and I love his prose. (Sorry, it is six of them!) I should mention that it was Anees who kept me going by constantly reminding me of the virtues of tenacity.

NAW- Can you tell us about your next book?

I have just finished my next novel, ‘Shamal Days’, which is set in West Asia and tells the story of an Indian editor, and his fight against loneliness. It also tells the story of aspirations and disappointments of a few expatriates working in a smalltime newspaper. It is a cosmopolitan novel with the West Asian conflict in the background.

I am now writing a novel set in my hometown, Thiruvananthapuram. It is a story around the famous temple treasure, not strictly about the treasure but about a few lives around it.

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