Maithreyi Karnoor is a poet, award-winning translator, and recipient of the Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow in creative writing and translation at Literature Across Frontiers, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. She has been shortlisted for The Lucien Stryk Asian Translation Prize for A Handful of Sesame, her translation of a Kannada novel. She is a two-time finalist for The Montreal International Poetry Prize. She lives in Bangalore, India.
Maithreyi can be found at:
Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) novel?
I was a published translator when I wrote Sylvia. Translation is intensely creative work. Thanks to the ease and control I had gained over words in the process, writing my own novel seemed like the next step. All I had to do was create a story and allow it to tell itself. It didn’t happen as a moment of reckoning, however. It was gradual. It wasn’t before I was almost midway into it did I realise I was writing a novel.
What came first the characters or the world?
Wordplay, puns, and clever use of language are important for me in literature. I seek it as a reader and it is an intuitive part of my writing. The character of Bhaubaab as a homophone for baobab came to me first when I was living in Goa and listening to the Konkani language being spoken all around me. ‘Bhau’ is Konkani for brother and ‘baab’ is the respectful address for a gentleman. When put together, it sounds like the great African tree. That’s how a character by that name who had a deep connection with the tree was born. Goa’s history with Africa gave him a plausible backstory. And then, the world I have known grew around this character rather organically.
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
Because I had some experience publishing translations, I didn’t have to go through the exact trials and tribulations of a debut writer when I sought to publish Sylvia for the first time. I had a fair idea of how to go about it. Kanishka Gupta (who has agented both the Booker wins of 2022) agreed to be my agent and he got me a deal within a few months of submitting the manuscript. But the first edition of my book came out at the height of the pandemic which was less than an ideal time – for life in general and book releases in particular. I’m thankful the book is getting a second chance with the new international edition. I was sponsored by the Charles Wallace fellowship and Literature Across Frontiers to speak at the London Book Fair last year. I met someone from Neem Tree Press there This edition came out of that meeting.
How long did it take to write?
It took me about 10 months to write. I wrote sporadically as I came out of a bad marriage, moved cities, found work and the will to go on. Writing was the only meaningful thing in my life at that time.
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
Gosh no! I need absolute silence to write. But I listen to Hindustani classical and semi-classical music at other times. I prefer vocals to instrumental music. I also listen to old Hindi film music.
How many publishers turned you down?
I don’t know for certain really. My agent told me two houses turned it down before Westland signed it on in India. But he may have been muffling the blow. Anyway, I was so excited to get a deal even as I was bracing myself for a hellishly long wait, that I didn’t register the rejections. I had pitched it to an independent publisher in the UK earlier (to an email address that the brother-in-law of a colleague who knew somebody had got for me) who sent me a kindly worded rejection. I had left it at that when Neem Tree Press happened.
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?The title of the Indian edition is ‘Sylvia, Distant Avuncular Ends.’ My uncle asked me if I wrote the book to express my displeasure with him over something. I told him I hated the colour of the dress he bought me for my 5th birthday.
On a serious note, I have received largely positive reactions. I was told my experiment with the form was bold. People have written to tell me they found many instances in the novel very relatable. It is not just the story of the characters, it is also a story of the India I know and it is gratifying that many agree with how I see it. One reviewer, however, suggested I didn’t know what I was doing.
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
I love it when people send me photos of my book in bookshops in far-flung cities. It’s a great feeling to know I have travelled far and wide vicariously through my words.
What can you tell us about your next book?
I recently completed a collection of short fiction – a work of social satire – called Gooday Nagar. The stories are set in different towns in India all of which are called Gooday Nagar. The themes and material for each one is as different as it can be from the others: while one is a comedy ghost story about a hoover salesman in preliberation smalltown India, another one set in the pandemic is about a girl with vitiligo who sees the patches on her skin as maps of the world and aspires to travel to all these places, and another one about a playwright who writes hecklers into his political play to pre-empt real hecklers with darkly humourous consequences, another one is about a man who is cured of his erotic fantasies by gobi manchurian, and another one is a post-dystopian fantasy where everything is made of cake!
Do you take notice of online reviews?
Yes. I’m also practicing the spell that causes bad reviewers to be reborn as toads.
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
I think strict compartmentalisation of literature into genres is little more than an academic endeavour meant to keep students busy. I feel it shouldn’t be a writer’s concern. The act of writing should be free from prejudices or constraints (unless you are an OuLiPo writer; then, you need constraints). Some of my favourite writers use elements of science fiction, fantasy, magic, humour, crime and whatnot in their prose and still their writing is sheer poetry. And then, some boringly ‘literary’ writers never get over quiet navel-gazing in their works. Sylvia was my first book where – although I experimented with the form – I might have played it safe with the realism in it. But in Gooday Nagar, you can see some strain on the leash.
What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?
I wrote subtitles for films, I wrote ad-copy, I taught in a school, I edited translations of textbooks, I stretched my savings, I cat-sat expecting to be paid but was made to pay rent to the cat owner instead, I proved myself to be a rubbish farmer by writing more poems about crops than tending to them. I now teach writing to design students in a college in Bangalore.
Which author(s) inspire you?
Salman Rushdie, Kurt Vonnegut, P G Wodehouse, Bruce Chatwin, Mark Twain, Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh, Italo Calvino, Rhys Hughes, Gabriel García Márquez, Goscinny and Uderzo, Bill Watterson, Bendre and Shrinivas Vaidya (in Kannada), Geetanjali Shree… the list is eclectic, meandering, and endless.
Which genres do you read yourself?
I read everything that is beautifully written without paying heed to the genre. I think speculative fiction ought to be declassified as such because – if you have been paying attention to the absurdist upheavals in the world in recent years – speculation is the new reality. I like my dystopian fiction presented with dry wit rather than morbid melancholy. If we are all going to die as consumer zombies in surveillance states let’s be clever and funny while we can.
I don’t read much non-fiction to be honest. At the end of the day, I need a good story.
What is your biggest motivator?
The promise of a daydream. The need for silence in chaos.
What will always distract you?
How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?
I am not much of a visual thinker. So, I wouldn’t be able to think of a visual metaphor for my book if asked to do so at the beginning. What works best for me is the option to choose from a selection of designs. I have been very lucky in that sense with my publisher. I’m absolutely chuffed with the cover of Sylvia. I love the bright, refreshing image that speaks as much as it intrigues. I chose the colours of the motif over the white background.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Absolutely. I grew up in northern Karnataka in a town that was so small even gossip wouldn’t get distorted doing the rounds. I lived on a farm with my parents and grandparents and no one my age to play with. My grandfather was a retired English teacher and he read all the time. I was fascinated by how he sat quietly for hours with little more than his eyes moving over a book. I began reading in order to imitate him.
What were your favourite childhood books?
Growing up in a smalltown with no bookshops and one library with little or no children’s literature, I just read what I found. I used my grandfather’s library card to borrow works of Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, and the classics. I liked Dickens, Mark Twain, George Eliot, Thackeray and R L Stevenson over Jane Austen and the Bronte Sisters (whom I learned to appreciate as a more aware woman in later life). I read Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children when I was 11. It was more out of a need to look as important as my grandfather rather than an emotional or sensible maturity for the book. I have been meaning to reread it as an adult but it is yet to happen. I did read the occasional Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Enid Blyton – hand-me-downs from distant urban cousins. I read Asterix and Tintin that were serialised in a popular weekly magazine. I read Amar Chitra Katha and had a subscription for Tinkle.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
I love Literati, the bookshop run out of a charming little bungalow in Calangute, Goa. Blossom is my favourite bookshop in Bangalore. The size and range of their catalogue for both used and new books is seriously impressive. I have absolutely fallen in love with Richard Booth’s bookshop in Hay-on-Wye which I was lucky to visit last year during my Charles Wallace days in Wales. A kingdom of books with a bookshop owner for king is as ideal as it gets.
What books can you not resist buying?
Poverty has made me a good resistor.
Do you have any rituals when writing?
I tidy-up before writing (because I need a clean, clutter-free space and not because I need to procrastinate). It is not always possible to shut out noise in most places in India. But I do my best to minimize it. When I had pets, I fed the cat and walked the dog before sitting down so they didn’t need my attention while I wrote. I talk to my mum on the phone before switching it off.
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
A couple of dozen. I dream of a time when I can sit down and read them all cover to cover without questions of livelihood making a demand on my time.
What is your current or latest read?
I just finished Kurt Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus. I’m now reading Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree in Daisy Rockwell’s translation.
Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?
I have a copy of Tin Drum sitting on my shelf for goodness knows how long. And a copy of Borges’ collected fictions. I also want to read Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. My partner has recommended Calvino’s Our Ancestors, William Goldman’s Princess Bride and Mia Couto’s A River Called Time. I have been putting off the big volumes for smaller ones because of lack of time. I hope I will find the peace to sit down and read at some point this year.
Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?
My teaching job takes up most of my time these days. I have a very hazy idea for a novel but it will take a while before it becomes anything tangible. Right now, I’m just chronicling my silly conversations with my partner as photo-comics. It might become a thing if I find an artist who would render them into publishable designs.
Any events in the near future?
I recently spoke at the Bangalore and Goa literature festivals. Before that, I had a session with the British Council. There have been a few smaller events here and there on translation and such like. There is nothing lined up for now – yet. And I’m quite enjoying the respite.
And finally, what inspired you to write the genre you do?
The love of a good story and the need to tell it well.