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Ubud Writers Festival 2009: Q&A with Vikas Swarup

As a novelist, Vikas Swarup made the kind of debut that goes beyond the wildest dreams of most budding authors; not only was his first book, Q&A, picked up by publishers across the world, it went on to become a multiple Oscar-winning blockbuster movie, Slumdog Millionaire. His second novel, Six Suspects, is also set to be filmed, but in the meantime he has no intention of quitting his day job with the Indian Foreign Service. Next week Vikas will be in Ubud for the 2009 UWRF. Kabar caught up with him for a little Q&A in advance of the festival.

 

Vikas Swarup, author of Q&A (a.k.a. Slumdog Millionaire) and Six Suspects, is set to appear at the 2009 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. 

Q. Your appearance at the festival next week is much anticipated, we’re looking forward to seeing you here. Will this be your first visit to Bali?
A. Absolutely. I am very much looking forward to the visit, having heard so much about the fabled beauty of Bali.

Q. You were inspired to start writing your debut novel, Q&A, while living in London. What was it that prompted you? Had you always felt that you had a novel or several lurking inside you?
A. I am an ‘accidental’ writer. I used to write in my school days and even won some creative writing contests. But I never thought I would be a novelist and did not write a word of fiction for almost fifteen years. It was only when I was posted in London that I got inspired to try my hand at fiction, motivated by some of my contemporaries in the Foreign Service who had written novels, and by the city of London itself, which is such a vibrant cultural hub.

Q. On a practical note, how did you find the time and keep the motivation to finish Q&A in two months, given that you didn’t share what you were doing with family and friends, while also keeping your career as a diplomat on track?
A. The plot of the novel was fully formed in my head. I just had to write it down (or, type it on my computer). Since I was in a busy day job, I used the evenings of the weekdays to do my research, and on weekends and holidays I wrote, even managing 20,000 words on one occasion.

Q. You were born into a family of lawyers in Allahabad. Can you remember when you first saw a slum, or became aware of the extremes of poverty and wealth that exist in India? Did you ever encounter kids like Ram Mohammad Thomas and his brother?
A. No one in India leads a hermetically sealed life. The rich and poor live constantly intersecting lives. The gap of income and wealth is something you become aware of very early on. Not only did I visit slum areas, I had several friends from there with whom I played cricket. You can encounter boys like Ram Mohammad Thomas every day in India.

Q. When writing the novel, did you have any sense of the immense reaction it might receive? Did you already envision it as a movie? At one point, it seemed that it might be made into a Bollywood film, do you think this is still a possibility?
A. I knew that I was on to a good thing, that the plot was new and it was a unique way of telling a story. But never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that it would get translated into 42 languages and become an Oscar-winning film. If at all I visualised it as a film, I thought it would be a Bollywood film and that film would probably also have been set in Dharavi but you could bet your bottom dollar there would have been a couple of dream song sequences set in Switzerland!

Q. When the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ was released in India, some were upset and offended by it – why do you think this was? Did you experience any reactions like this with the release of the book?
A. I think people were upset by what they thought was an overemphasis on the poverty and slums of India. Fortunately the canvas of my book was much wider than simply Dharavi and I did not encounter any negative reactions with the book.

Q. The book is a story about the possibilities that are within all of us, and how lives can go through dramatic transformations – in a way this is mirrored by the story behind the book; you were an unknown author, as yet unpublished in India, and you wrote in two months a debut novel that has been picked up by publishers all over the world and made into a blockbuster Oscar-winning movie, you hang out with people like Oprah and already have a second novel set to be filmed… Do you believe in luck? Destiny? Hard work?
A. I believe there is no shortcut to success. You have to put in hard work, but then you also need that little bit of luck to carry you all the way. I don’t believe in destiny as something foreordained. Basically you create your own luck.

Q. Your follow-up novel, ‘Six Suspects’, is structured as a thrilling whodunnit. Your young son read the ending, and then threatened to give the game away on Facebook – did he follow through on this? Was there a big payoff?
A. Teenagers are very persistent. I had to give him an MP3 player to buy his silence!

Q. Do you foresee that writing may one day become a full time job, or are you still very much committed to your work with the Indian Foreign Service? Is there a gripping novel about Indian diplomats somewhere in the pipeline?
A. I love my job and take great pride in representing my country especially at a time when India is the flavour of the world. Having a day job means that I can write only in my spare time. But having the security of the day job makes it easier for me to write. I don’t think readers will be interested in a diplomat’s real life trivia. I’d much rather entertain them with fiction!

Vikas Swarup appears at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, October 7th-11th 2009. For complete programme details, visit www.ubudwritersfestival.com.

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