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Rohinton Mistry: 'Family Matters,' and Literary Ones

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Random House Inc., 1995).

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry (Random House Inc., 1995).

NEW YORK, November 1, 2002 - Rohinton Mistry is the author of A Fine Balance (1995), which won several awards including the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and Such a Long Journey (1991), which won the Governor General's Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Both books were also nominated for the Booker Prize.

Mistry's most recent novel, Family Matters, also nominated for the Booker Prize, was awarded the Kiriyama Prize for fiction. Shortly after the publication of Family Matters, Mistry did a reading at the Asia Society in New York.

Mr Mistry's first work of fiction, Tales from Firozsha Baag, a collection of short stories, was published in 1987.

In this interview, Mistry discusses his initial interest in music and what eventually drew him to writing, as well as the kind of literature he finds most compelling.

As a young adult in India, you were more interested in music than in any other form of artistic creation. What determined the shift from music to literature?

I think it probably has something to do with the act of emigrating; I am speculating, of course, I am not really sure. The music that I used to play - both to make money and to have fun - was Bob Dylan, for example, or Leonard Cohen, or Simon and Garfunkel. I was imitating all these people. I also tried at some point to write my own songs which I eventually realized were not very good, although at the time I thought they were great.

Going to Canada, faced with the reality of earning a living and realizing that although I had, up to that point in my life, read books and listened to music that came from the West, there was a lot more involved in living in the West. I felt very comfortable with the books and the music, but actually living in the West made that same music seem much less relevant. It suddenly brought home to me very clearly the fact that I was imitating something that was not mine, that made no sense in terms of my own life, my own reality.

While I had been in Bombay, the idea of Bob Dylan and protest songs from the 1960s had enormous appeal and of course there were many people in Bombay at the time who were using these protest songs - they were a student specialty in the 1960s and 1970s. One man with a guitar was very powerful, and they were using that model, writing protest songs about the Indian reality, and god knows, there was a lot to protest about.

Once I was living in Toronto, it just didn't seem to work for me anymore. I was a stranger in that culture and to sing these songs back to them would have seemed odd, to say the least. And suddenly I didn't have the energy to pursue music as a career. So I started working in a bank. But reading of course was always a pleasure, and continued to be a pleasure. Listening to music was fine as well, but I just didn't feel like performing anymore. I felt I didn't have an audience whom I could sing to.

I am not quite sure how that transition from music to literature occurred but again I can try to speculate. Because I enjoyed reading, I decided to take evening classes at the university in English literature and philosophy. I thought I would enjoy reading the books and I discovered I also enjoyed very much the writing process, the assignments for the courses, the essays, some of which were quite demanding, were in fact rather long pieces of work. I enjoyed that part the best of all - as much as, and sometimes more than, the actual reading. At some point, I decided it would be fun to write as a career. During my third year in university, there was a short-story competition announced. I wrote a short story for that, prompted mostly by my wife, who had tired of hearing me say, "I wish I could write, I wish I could write." So I decided this was it, I was going to try and write. I wrote my first short story and sent it in and it won first prize.

The same thing happened again the following year. I wrote another story for the competition, although I had been writing in between too. It won again, at which I thought: this is really more than just a fluke and that I ought to think about this seriously especially since I enjoy it so much. People also seemed to like what I was writing, which encouraged me as well. So this is how it all began.

I then got a grant from the Canada Council, the Arts Council, which allowed me to give up my bank job after 10 years.

That must have been a relief.

It was, but it was also a little scary because I was giving up this perfectly decent job without knowing with any certainty what would follow. Of course the work was tedious and boring and everything, but it was a decent job and it paid the rent and bills.

I was interested to hear what you said about music and what it is, initially at least, that prompted you to move towards literature. You felt that you would only have been able to "mimic" Western musical forms, whereas literature offered you something different. What is it about the form of the novel that appeals to you? Presumably one could make similar arguments about the novel, since it is essentially a European form.

Yes, that is quite right. I suppose if I had had the courage to stay with music and work away at it and find a means of expression where I could feel comfortable that it was an honest expression of something, not just mimicry, it could have happened. One of the main problems with music was that I could sit alone in my room and try to compose a song, but at some point I would have to go out and perform it. The exercise simply would not be complete until I had an audience that was listening to me. With a book I could reach completion in utter solitude. I think that may have something to do with it, although I am still speculating.

Also I do think there is something different when you consider the form of the novel on the one hand, and the form of the protest song, for instance, on the other. The protest song is more limited, and I would have had to invent a new form for it to be an honest expression of my reality. The novel is so all-encompassing, so all-embracing, one can throw anything into it and it will probably swim if you do a half-decent job. I cannot recall now who said that the novel was like an old, creaky ship: you can keep loading things into it and as long as you get the ballast right, it will probably float. I tend to agree with that.

You initially wrote short stories, as you said, and they were eventually compiled into an anthology, Tales from Firozsha Baag. Is there something in particular that draws you to the novel more so than the short story, for instance? Do you see yourself returning to the short story at all?

I do, I do. I like both the forms very much, and they each present their own challenges. People who know about these things say that the short story is the most challenging form, much more so than the novel, because of the precision required; sometimes you have to achieve as much as a novel in a much shorter space and period of time. Had I known that it was the most difficult of forms, I probably would not have started with the short story. I think in some ways they are right.

The reason I started with the short story is precisely because my time was limited; I was working full time and going to evening classes. I thought I could handle a short story because I could work on weekends, and try to write, perhaps, five pages per weekend, and then after three weekends, I could have a 15-page short story. I was in accounting at a bank, so these are the sorts of calculations I would make.

And it worked for me. In fact I called in sick one week and made a long weekend out of it; so I had four days, and I finished the first draft of my first short story in those four days. Looking back, it seems incredible.

So I kept plugging away at the short story and by the time I quit the bank, I had written about five short stories. Then I got the grant, left my job, and wrote another six stories which were published as a collection. Later, with more time at my disposal, I thought I would try the novel. I wanted to see if I could stay the distance because a novel requires a different kind of energy and stamina; one has to keep inventing and creating that complete world, one which you can inhabit, and feel is real. That is the kind of novel I write; there are others of course who write quite differently.

Next: "I don't like clever books, I like honest books."