Finding information in today’s world is hardly a challenge. One word—Google. Now, no longer just a noun, not thrillingly (as one might have hoped) a wordplay on ‘go’ and ‘ogle’, but a verb—to google—that, over the years, has been employed time and again in the quest for answers. More answers, always many more answers.
And for those who would like to add fuel to the fire of this need, there is also the Seagull School of Publishing.
Thanks to the flexibility and style of instruction, an environment that is perpetually charged with editorial debate, and because the instructors and speakers are actually practitioners in the world of publishing and not just theorists, you realize just how much there is to the author-editor-translator-publisher-reader relationship. You finally comprehend that the answers are, and should be, far more layered than the result of simply pitting the idea of ‘the practical’ against ‘the ideal’.
About two weeks into the course, lulled into a state of gentle acceptance of the vagaries of the English language on the one hand and conditioned into acknowledging, perhaps even embracing, the quirks of the writing we encountered on the other, came a surprise, of the sweeter kind. It slid into our inboxes noiselessly, waiting for us to discover just around the corner, at the Seagull Books, a Masterclass with journalist, editor, radio commentator, and now, novelist, Sandip Roy whose debut work of fiction Don’t Let Him Know has already been garnering great reviews.
Orchestrated as a Q&A session, led by Sunandini Banerjee, senior editor and graphic designer at Seagull Books, the session traced the journey that a manuscript makes to get to its book form, as well as Sandip’s own journey as the writer alongside it.
Having braved his way back to Kolkata from Mumbai (as always, on the brink of shutting down, thanks to an annual event they’re never equipped for—monsoon), Sandip, in person, is charming and engaging, much like the multiple vignettes that make up his novel—a rich and poignant tale that moves between India and America, between past and present, between duty and dreams.
Opening with descriptions of his own life in America, working as a software engineer in San Francisco, the quintessential ‘good Bengali boy’ who merely wrote ‘as a hobby’, he deliberates on, and answers with care, questions about his characters, the structure of the novel and its inception, the challenge to get published in the first place, and how sometimes just settling on a book cover that is reflective of your book is just as much hard work!
On Getting Published:
‘Oh, it all just came together,’ he says simply, while his audience of wannabe-writers and almost-editors gape, a little green around their gills.
‘I got asked by Diya who was at Bloomsbury . . . and she had read some other pieces that I’d written. And she asked me rather nervously—because we knew each other socially—whether there was something else that I was working on. And I said, “Well, I have this thing that I have done . . .” and at that point I hadn’t really presented it to any publisher—it was just something I had been pottering around with. I said to her, “I can send you the first three chapters.” So she read it and said she really liked it, and wanted to read the rest. So in a way it was a little unusual, in that I didn’t go to the publisher, I didn’t have an agent. In fact, I was not at all prepared to do anything, but it was happening. I panicked actually. I thought, “How can I do this?” But in the end, you know, it sort of all just came together.’
On Tiny Tales Told Well
Those who have read the book or even just compared covers—the India, US and UK editions—on Amazon, already know that this book is also ‘a novel in stories’. Meaning that while the book is a whole piece of literary work that stands on its own, it is also made up of individual chapters that can be read separately as short stories and within the novel, even more interestingly, can be read in whatever order you please.
Each chapter, it seems, had originally been written as a short story, each a stand-alone piece of fiction. Until someone pointed out that really, while it seemed like he was writing about different people because they had different names, they were all just the same people with intersecting lives! Voila . . . a manuscript!
‘There was talk about standardizing the novel though,’ Sandip confesses with a laugh, ‘whether we should break this down and make it more straightforward, more conventional. I actually didn’t want that. I didn’t want it to become a standard novel. I like the fact that I don’t tell everything, that there are gaps. As a reader, you fill in the gaps.’
On Cooking Up a Storm, and the Occasional Story
It starts with a sheepish admission of being newly arrived in America, truly independent for the first time, and the sudden realization that to even successfully ‘boil an egg’ might be a challenge. Before moving on quickly:
‘But for me actually—personally—cooking was immensely liberating. Partly it also has to do with my computer science background because I’m a terribly logical person. So I would never be able to write a book on magic reality! Because the logic, just the logic of “no logic” would stupefy me. Like, “How is this possible!” and “How did this just happen!” I’m okay with ghosts and things like that, but the ghost must be logical, rational. It must do logical things. So cooking for me was almost like computer science programming because you had these ingredients and you followed these steps and once you followed these steps, hopefully, the desired result was achieved. Writing, of course, is the opposite where you can follow every rule in the book, and at the end, you still produce inedible junk!’
On Headless Torsos That Make It to a Cover
‘I had three different covers. But I didn’t have any control over the cover at all except the power to veto,’ admits Sandip with a laugh, when asked about the dusky beauty who made it to the dust jacket of the Indian hardcover edition of his book. ‘I don’t know how many vetos I had. I mean, if I could endlessly veto covers! And this one was the Indian cover. And my main concern was that the woman had a tangail sari on! I was somewhat okay with this cover because I thought it was striking, that it would stand out on a bookshelf. Some people didn’t like it. They were like “Oh, another woman on the cover of a book”, but I was okay with it as long as the cover didn’t advertise exotica. That is actually the only thing that I knew I wanted—which is what I didn’t want! And I didn’t want a generic cover you see so much.’
The afternoon ends on a rainy, windswept note, reminiscent of the South Calcutta of Sandip’s novel. And with it the satisfaction of knowing that the rest of the day could be spent in a corner, curled up on a couch, with a cup of tea maybe, reading his book (from back to front, if you so wished), just because this one time, the end could also be the beginning.