C.Y. Gopinath is a Bangkok-based Indian writer who was born in 1952 in Kottayam, India. He is the author of Travel with the Fish (1999), a non-fiction book about his travels, and The Book of Answers (2011), his first novel. He has been a member of the Bangkok Writers’ Guild since 2008, when he founded the group. In this interview, Gopi talks about his books, his love for words, the Bangkok writing scene, and writing.
Voicu Mihnea Simandan: You have been a story writer for most of your life. How has your writing evolved over time?
C.Y. Gopinath: I was actually a journalist most of my life, and a fiction storyteller only since 2005. Although sometimes I suspect that journalism is a primitive form of storytelling, there are far too many differences between getting the facts first to write the story — and making up the ‘facts’ and spinning a story. In my own writing, I think I have evolved from the simplistic position that “truth is truth” and is objectively unchanging, to a more subtle understanding that truth is what we think it is. I worked for an editor once who’d tell his reporters, “After you have gathered the facts, come to me and I’ll tell you the truth.”
VMS: So, you have started as a non-fiction writer, a journalist reporting hard facts, but have moved on to write fiction. How did you find the transition?
CYG: In fiction, you need ‘facts’ too, but you can pull them from anywhere — your own life, someone else’s, a newspaper, a dream, your imagination. You can take disparate ‘facts’, marry them to create new ‘facts’, and create alternative realities. Nothing in my life as a journalist gave me the skills for doing that, so writing The Book of Answers has been a steep and thrilling education for me.
VMS: Where did the ideas for the The Book of Answers come from?
CYG: Probably my own growing understanding, gleaned from my work in development, of how difficult it is to ‘do good’ and how easy it is to ‘do bad’. I deep down believe that there is some hubris in deciding what is right for someone else, and time and again I have found myself recoiling from “making lives better”. Not sure who defines what is better for someone else. So Patros has deep reticence about activism, for these reasons. My original concept, which existed as a single sentence for most of 15 years, was about a man with a limited world view who is forced to make room for something preposterous that shakes his life to its foundations. I did not know what that would be for a long time. But now you have it — a book with answers to all the world’s problems, in the hands of a man who does not believe in ‘pat’ answers. No pun intended.
VMS: Many people who know you recognize a bit of the writer himself in Patros Patranobis, the main character of The Book of Answers. If you were to give us a percentage, how much of your first novel is autobiographical?
CYG: They say the first book is always autobiographical so it should surprise no one if they see bits of me in Patros. I see bits of Patros in me, especially a particular mix of diffidence and confidence. In real life, I’m animated and reserved by turns. Patros is a bit of an outsider — but inequitiy of any kind brings out something else in him. That’s happened to me. For instance, there is a part where Patros beats up a bully who harasses a girl in a campus coffee shop. That’s from my life — I did beat up a fellow who was harassing an albino child in a coffee shop in the university. He poured hot tea down his shirt front — and I don’t know what got into me. Neither did he. He had no chance.
VMS: You’ve recently had a few book launches in India. How has The Book of Answers been received so far?
CYG: When I went to India last November, I learned two things — Indian writing in English is going through the roof. It’s no longer necessary to succeed abroad before succeeding in India. The second thing I learn — devastating — was that my book had hardly been distributed. I couldn’t find it in 90% of the shops I went to. There have been very few reviews — partly a result of too few magazines and not enough reviewers and way too many books coming out at the same time. The book is in its hardcover version, so the price is on the high side for most people. But the reviews have been glowing for the most part, and the book seems popular with young people, under 30s. That’s surprising and promising. They expect to sell of the 3000 hard covers by April, and release the paperback in June.
VMS: You founded the Bangkok Writers’ Guild, a group of English-speaking writers based in the Thai capital. What is the dynamic of this writers’ group?
CYG: The Bangkok Writers’ Guild has been an informal assemblage of mostly expatriate men and women with divergent commitments and interest levels in fiction writing. My style of managing the group over the years has been informal and casual, which led to enjoyable meetings but little evidence of any significant talent development or actual product. This has changed as of late last year, and we are focused much more strongly on actual published authors, and are working towards two anthologies of short stories crafted by members.
VMS: Some people believe that, with the availability of affordable e-readers, sooner or later, readers will no longer want to hold books in their hands. Please comment.
CYG: I remember hearing the same dire prediction when TV came along, that it would wipe out print. But that didn’t happen. I am not sure whether e-readers will be the end of printed books but even my children, who are as digitally oriented as the rest of their generation, like to curl up with a good book. A printed book gives you something a digital one does not — a sense of a journey. You can see from where the bookmark is how many pages you have traversed and how many remain. When the story is a good one, you regret each page you turn just a little bit, because you know that you will reach your destination and it will all be over except for memories. On a Kindle or iPad all you ever see is the page you’re on — with no sense of a before or an after.
In another sense though, e-books have created a new avenue for aspiring writers. You no longer have to rely on the complex infrastructures of traditional book distribution, and lose a part of your royalty to be seen in a book. In my case, the book’s distribution has been tragic, and once the paperback is out I will be launching my own marketing plan based entirely on e-sales through Flipkart and others like them.
VMS: You have a well developed website and have also started a blog, suggestively called “Gopium”. How important is it for writers these days to be “out there” on the Internet, interacting with their fans?
CYG: Very. To start with, you don’t even get fans if you’re not ‘out there’ on the Internet. I cannot claim to be an expert in leveraging a presence in Facebook, Twitter and so on, but I think mastering these resources is an indispensable part of any writer’s stock-in-trade in today’s world. Blogging is one way to build up a reader base which you can point towards your book when the time is ripe. One can build all sorts of links between Facebook, Twitter, the blog and other sites — and over time build up a following who can help you take your book out into the world.
VMS: As a former journalist, do you still actively follow the world news?
CYG: Even if I had not been a journalist, I think it’s in everyone’s interest to follow the planet closely in these years as it hurtles into complex predicaments of its own making. The human species is entering a vortex, and I suspect — or hope — that one of the aftermaths will be a sobering of the senses and the dawn of real intelligence.
VMS: What book are you working on right now?
CYG: The book is called Balman the Maltruist. Maltruism is my neologism for “great unintended harm caused by one trying to do good”. The story is about how easily we can wreak havoc when we conspire to ‘improve’ the lives of people we hardly know or understand but have the money and power to twist their arms into acquiescence.
VMS: What is your writing routine?
CYG: Right now, I am at the incubation stage, which in my case seems to last a while. The story is unfolding itself in my head, taking on color, texture, life, inner detail, acquiring complexity and meaning. I am trying to bring some control into this process, perhaps hasten it, but by and large this has been a spontaneous process, inherently creative.
Once the writing starts, I tend to write obsessively — in trains, taxis, at night at home, in airport lounges, in workshops. I am not distracted easily, and could probably write in the middle of tornado.
VMS: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
CYG: Stop aspiring. Start writing.
VMS: Thank you for your time.
Meet India’s Minister of Regrets, picturised from The Book of Answers:
Voicu Mihnea Simandan
November 18, 2011