When a well-paced piece of general fiction appears with plenty of science in the backdrop, it’s almost always a thriller; or else the author was once a techie. But Manu Joseph, who is now riding a wave of popularity and success with a debut novel ‘Serious Men’, is a journalist. Publisher John Murray has signed up the book’s UK and Commonwealth rights excluding India and Canada.
Serious Men is about an insufferable astronomer named Arvind Acharya at the Institute of Theory and Research and more about Ayyan Mani his personal assistant. It’s not a humdrum boring life that Ayyan Mani has as an employee and devoted family man. His secret game of an outrageous fiction woven around his ten-year-old son, merely to bring some vision of future into their humdrum family life, soon gets out of hand. The book was published simultaneously in India, U.K., and the U.S. and has received huge attention. Techgoss spoke to Manu recently.
Techgoss (TG): Have you been writing for long? How have you dealt with the field of science before this debut? Have you any techie connections?
Manu Joseph (MJ): As a journalist I have always enjoyed meeting scientists and attending their incomprehensible conferences. Part of the characterisations in the novel has emerged from my interviews. I don’t have any ‘techie’ background but I have been a contributor to wired.com who paid me half a dollar a word, and I ended up buying a house in Bangalore.
TG: We have heard you quoted as having written this book to make up for the neglect of Science by Indian writers, could you elaborate on that?
MJ: The quote is from a book launch in Madras. What I had said was that Serious Men can be seen in the context of the general neglect of science in what is called literary fiction. But I did not write the novel to fill a gap in literature. You cannot write novels to fill gaps.
TG: Is being a journalist an obstacle to being a writer? How does it help or hinder?
MJ: There are great advantages in being a journalist if you want to write a novel. You have seen all sorts of people and situations and have developed a qualified disenchantment of the world. You are not intimidated by grand endeavours. If you are a good journalist then you are preoccupied with accuracy, chiefly accuracy in description. That really helps when you attempt fiction; it adds a lot of depth to the story. But then being a journalist is also a disadvantage especially when you first set out to write fiction. There are two problems: One is that the skills you need for fiction writing is very different from what you need for journalistic writing. (For instance, the creation of voice in the novel, and narration through characters’ eyes are aspects of writing that are somewhat foreign to journalism). The other problem is the shock of how long it actually takes to write bloody 500 words of fiction. I still cannot believe that sometimes I would take a whole week of good work on the novel that would finally result in thousand words or something. It was shocking to me actually because I could write 5000 words for a magazine in a single day. (Now I fear maybe all of my journalism was substandard. Maybe if I had taken whole weeks to write I would have written better stuff but then I would been fired too.)
TG: How has the response been for the book? From the press, critics, readers, editors?
MJ: There is another advantage to being a journalist (if you have been writing for 15 years). Reactions do not shock. Good reviews do not go to your head. Bad reviews make you laugh (though some don’t). More important, no matter what the reaction is you have an absolute understanding of your own writing, you know your triumphs, and you know your flaws.
TG: You have released the book in India as well as abroad, how long did it take you to find a publisher, was it tough being a debut author?
MJ: Getting published is actually a funny thing (of course you see the humour only if you have ended up with a deal at the end of it all). What struck me were the long silences and the sudden flurry of activity and then long silences and then suddenly something. It’s good fun.