Tuesday, September 15, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Arjun Basu

Arjun Basu was born and raised in Montreal. His first collection of short stories, Squishy (DC Books) was published last year. He was editor in chief of enRoute magazine from 2001 to 2007 and is currently the editorial director of Spafax, the publishers of enRoute. He is at work on a novel and is also writing (very mini) short stories on Twitter.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I can’t say my first book changed my life. Getting married. The birth of my son. The first time I heard the Pixies. These things changed my life. My first book, not so much. I finally scratched an itch that needed scratching. But my life has gone on pretty much as it did before.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

My journey into fiction bypassed poetry. I have to admit, I am not a huge fan of poetry though I am capable of being moved by it. And some of my closest friends are poets! But I’ve always been a storyteller. When I was a kid, I lied a lot. Now I make things up on the page.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

The first draft of Squishy was done in three months. The novel I am currently working on has been an on and off affair for the last six years.
4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Fiction starts with an image, or a series of words. Many short stories start with an image I have of the end. My novel started with the last chapter. It was the first chapter I wrote. Short fiction tends to start with a series of words. I am not an “issues” writer in that I discover a subject that I’m passionate about and then start writing. I’m very visual in my approach to writing.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I love readings. I love interacting with the audience. The cliché about writing being lonely is very true. It’s also thankless in that sense. I also like to use readings to suss out works in progress. Especially when you write humorous material, readings are a good way to find out if the audience is going to laugh at the right places.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My first book was about small moments in life that take on greater significance later on. Much of my writing is about small moments blowing up, it seems. But I’d say the majority of my writing deals with the absurdity of the human condition and the even more absurd fictions we’ve built up over time that seem to indicate we know what we’re doing.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I think our culture is getting more and more literate. That might seem counterintuitive in a time of diminishing (traditional) media but it’s not. We now officially live in an Information Age. I think the reaction of the public to what I’m doing on Twitter, for example (more on this below) speaks to our great need to hear good stories. The writer is needed more than ever to tell everyone is what it means to be alive. As the world gets more complex, the need for writers – and writing – will only grow.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Since I am an editor myself, I understand the process and the need. I have nothing bad to say about the editorial process.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I know the worse piece of advice every writer gets at some point: write what you know. What a crock. The best piece of advice was probably the person who told me that “write what you know” was the worst piece of advice. Another good piece of advice? Drink up.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Since I work a “real” job I can’t say I have a writing routine. I write when I can. When I was working on Squishy this meant writing mornings, evenings, weekends, the middle of the night.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I’m going to hate to say this: but I turn on the TV. I just allow my mind to do nothing for awhile, just become passive, take in the images. It helps. I don’t believe in forcing anything. I’m the kind of writer that gets a lot done in my head before pen even hits paper (yes! I still use pen and paper!). A lot of my writing time is actually thinking time. Once I’m in the process of physically writing, the words come out rather quickly.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

My home is kind of odorless. There’s a certain kind of curry smell that will remind me of my parents’ house. If you smell like my wife, I’m probably going to be reminded of home. It’s a good smell but I’m not going to tell you what she smells like.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Music I find influences my writing quite a bit. Especially the rhythms and the interplay between lyrics and music. I find staring into nature – whether it be as simple as my backyard or as grand as a mountaintop vista – helps my writing. I do get something out of nature. Even though the majority of my work is “urban.”
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My son’s middle name is Carver, as in Raymond. Carver’s writing is, in many ways, still my touchstone. There are many writers I admire and enjoy reading. But only Carver has influenced my work.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I want to write a play. After I finish my novel. So I’d like to write my novel. And then write a play. And see it to its fruition. I’d like to create something that is completely collaborative.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

This question doesn’t really work for me. I have an occupation. And I have to say I’m lucky that I do something I enjoy doing.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I write because I can’t help myself.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great non-fiction book I read was The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. A great parlor question (what would happen to the world if humans just disappeared?) turned into a great, great book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
19 - What are you currently working on?

Currently I am doing a bit of an experiment with Twitter. I’ve been writing 140 character short stories there since the fall. I’ve written about 900 “Twisters” since then, have secured an agent and I’m having a book proposal shipped around. I didn’t start the project with the aim of creating a book but they have taken off. Twitter is certainly an interesting thing for a writer: the brevity really focuses the mind and the feedback is instant. I’ve had quite a bit of fun with it. If anyone is interested, they can find me at www.twitter.com/arjunbasu

1 comment:

euonymous said...

"Drink up" ????

Ok. Your Twitter work is fascinating. I give you credit for an incredible amount of cleverness and depth in putting those tiny stories together.

Also a big fan of Raymond Carver. And, no, you didn't say anything stupid. Good interview!