Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Talking books with Deepika Shetty

Some have just a little brush with celebrities and they think they have lived their life's worth. But some are fortunate enough to have literally gone to the level of one's dentition with a celebrity. Journalist and literary blogger Deepika Shetty is one of them. In one of her recent literary meetings in Sri Lanka, famous novelist Vikram Seth offered to publicly examine the state of her teeth. Apparently, as Nury Vitacchi puts it, at one point of the discussion, Vikram Seth told an entertaining story about a relative who was a one-armed dentis and to illustrate the challenges involved, he put his arm around the head of moderator Deepika Shetty and duly inspected her back molars.

But that is just one of Deepika's many literary brushes, so to speak.
Those who tread the literary red carpet in this part of the world--Singapore (Singapore writers festival), Ubud, Bali (Ubud writers and readers festival), Australia (Byron Bay Writers Festival) and Sri Lanka (Galle Writers Festival)--would have mostly probably already seen her in action, grilling a celebrity author or a panel of writers. In the last few years, Deepika has been actively engaged in not only moderating writers's sessions in these festivals but has also been increasingly involved in organising these literary events.

Until late last year, Deepika was associated with two leading TV programmes in Singapore--Show Prime Time and Off The Shelves, the latter an interactive programme with authors. Deepika now works with The Starits Times.

Her job as a literary editor, mirroring her deep interest in the world of books and writers, afforded her opportunities to meet a myriad variety of writers that general people can only dream about: Shashi Tharoor, Paul Theroux, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Michael Ondaatje, Romesh Gunesekera, Jeffrey Sachs, Thomas Friedman, Alexander McCall Smith, Nury Vittachi, Chitra Banerji Divakaruni, Neil Gaiman and Suhayl Saadi to name a few.

Hailing from Chandigarh, Deepika has a masters in political science from Panjab University. She started writing book reviews for The Tribune, which paved the path for her to become a full-fledged journalist. In India, she was a journalist with the daily ‘The Times of India’ and the newsmagazine ‘India Today’ before she moved to Singapore almost a decade ago to achieve greater heights in her career.

In an exclusive interview, Deepika takes us on a fascinating journey of books and writers and tells us what it takes to engage with great literary minds like Vikram Seth and Michael Ondaatje. Excerpts:

1. You interview writers for TV and print, you engage them in intelligent discussions at writers festivals and book readings, and you blog about books regularly. In short, you live and breathe books. How did you develop such serious interest in books and writers?

DS: By not being forced to read books. My mother surrounded us with books and comics, but never pushed us to read them. School work was not to be missed, the other reading could be done on our own time. Apart from academic pains, my childhood was wonderful. My sister and I read a lot of Amar Chitra Katha, Asterix, Champak, Twinkle, a fair bit of Enid Blyton, the Schoolgirl comics, even Archie at a slightly later stage.

We spent ever summer at my grandmother’s house and it was filled with a lot of books on war strategy, conflict, war zones and a lot of literature books. The eclectic collection traced its roots to my grand-father, (Brigadier Sampuran Singh) who was a war hero (he received the Maha Vir Chakra and Vir Chakra).

Every year, we’d dust those books religiously. The dusting effort would earn us a princely sum of two rupees every week that we would save up to buy Schoolgirl comics from the Capital Book Store in Chandigarh. In addition to all those books, my Aunt had studied literature and we knew all the names even before we knew what was in the book. There was Shakespeare, Hemingway, Pearl S Buck, Anita Desai, R K Narayan and a whole lot more. But till the age of 15, I hadn’t made any serious effort to read any of their works. After my 10th Board exams, when I was liberated from the pain of having to deal with Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and veered towards Humanities something happened. I started reading. I’d spend all my spare time in the college library. If it was a holiday and the college library was open, you’d be sure to find me there. The librarian would always urge me to head back home, when it was time to lock up. I think by the time I was done with my Bachelor of Arts degree I would have read every single book the library had to offer. I’d even make recommendations for new book buys. It was great to see that be taken seriously. The journey that started at the age of 15 hasn’t showed any signs of slowing. There is always a book in my bag. I can read anywhere. In the cab, on the bus, by poolside, before lunch, after lunch – you name it. Even now, when I go back to my grandmother’s house there is a standard joke about my working towards a PhD in reading.

My late induction into the world of words is also explains why I’m a reluctant speaker when I’m asked to talk about what it takes to get children reading. Honestly, I don’t have any serious advice to give, nor am I in the business of dishing out advice. What worked for me, might not even work for my own children, so who am I to say anything? What I do believe is that reading is a love, it has to be nurtured, it can’t be forced upon you and once you’ve found it, there is no fear of ever losing it. I’ve traveled to so many places thanks to the wonderful world of books, I have made so many friends thanks to the written word. Sometimes I feel I’m in Bangladesh, other times in Sunderbans, or feeling the pain of the Biafra war, a book can do it for you. It’s an intense experience. I love watching movies too though the movie experience doesn’t have the magical impact of books. You can take your book anywhere, it can be a part of your life, you mark the lines that moved you, a couple of years later, you re-visit the places marked by the post-its and it feels like it’s time for another adventure again.

I digress a bit, but I think there is one incident worth recalling. It was while we were on a tram at the Singapore Zoo a couple of years ago. There was this young mother with her son. She was so focused on teaching her young son everything. “Look at the tree,” she’d go, “how do you spell it?” “T-R-E-E.” She even had a note-pad in which she was writing everything and spelling it out again. By the end of the short ride, she had pronounced and spelt out everything – Tiger, Lion, Monkey, Giraffe, Hippo and her son was just listening quietly. Now, that’s a sure way of killing the adventure, I thought to myself. And I think, it was an assessment that wasn’t too far off the mark. When the tram ride ended, the little boy, who couldn’t be more than five was the quietest among the bunch of noisy children. Yes, induction is important, but I’ve always felt there is a really thin line between doing it for fun, doing it your way and making the reading experience close to the academic one.

2. Singapore does not have a Book TV kind of a channel but your programme on Channel NewsAsia, Off the Shelf, comes closest to it. How did it come about?

DS: Lots of talking. Old habits die hard. I was always talking books. I was reading them all the time and I was recommending the good ones to anyone and everyone who cared to lend me an ear. One of them happened to be my former boss, Susanna Kulatissa. She possibly saw that spark somewhere and suggested I start a book on Prime Time Morning, Channel NewsAsia’s breakfast show. It didn’t happen instantly. While I’d been writing book reviews since I was 18, television was a totally different ball game.

Several things bothered me. How would I make it work? Could it be sustained on a weekly basis? Would there be enough content? Most importantly, could I really do it? Susanna would bring it up at every other weekly edit meeting and I’d hesitate. In the end, she just pushed me to the wall and set a deadline, I shall be eternally grateful for that. It took four months of work (lots of it), to get the segment off the ground. It included everything, right from thinking about the title – Off the Shelf, working out the graphics for the segment, promos, establishing contact with book publishers in Singapore and beyond, finding writers, filming. I was breathing books, every weekend saw me in a book store or filming. Then just as we were ready to flip the page, three weeks before the segment was to take off, my months of labour was lost. The entire Off the Shelf folder disappeared from the computer system, the IT experts couldn’t trace it even in the back up files. In that instant, I was shattered. I felt like the segment was destined not to take off. Those testing moments taught me several things. Not too plan too far ahead. To expect the unexpected. When the unexpected happens, to pull yourself together and get on with it. As I write this, I find it hard to believe all of that was three years ago.

The segment started with ‘The Ambassador Series’ where High Commissioners based in Singapore spoke about books that caught their attention. Many of their recommendations tipped off my reading in the months ahead. I can’t thank them enough for their attention, their time and their extended support for the segment.

3. You have interviewed scores of internationally famous writers for your TV show. Was it difficult to get guests for the show as Singapore herself does not have many writers?

DS: Initially, yes. But I found a way around it by doing phone interviews. There were several in the initial months of Off The Shelf. With Vikram Seth, Jeffrey Sachs, Chitra Banerji Divakaruni, Amitav Ghosh, Tarun Tejpal, Rana Dasgupta and many others. They willingly gave their time to an untested book segment and shared so much about the writing process. Each interview was a humbling experience. There was so much more I needed to learn, miles to go, as they say. As the segment established a reputation of sorts, authors started writing to me, publicists were pitching interviews and the blank slate soon found itself transformed into an over-booked segment. It was always hard to say no, to turn down some interviews that deserved air time. But there were times when two authors happened to be in town at the same time and I had to pick one. It was heart-wrenching to say no on occasions like that. Not being able to interview some authors when they were in town is one of my deepest regrets.

4 . Writers are known to be quirky individuals. Any memorable experience of interviewing eminent writers for the show?

DS: Meeting Paul Theroux was a revelation. So much has been written about him, about his friendship with V S Naipaul, how things fell apart between the two of them. Based on what I’d read of Theroux, I had a certain image of him. He stumped me with his warmth and the fabulous stories he had to tell. His train journey from Amritsar, his efforts to re-trace some of his earlier literary efforts. In fact, we ended up chatting for 30 minutes after the interview was over, it was moments like those that made everything magically special.

Jeffrey Archer was an engaging conversationalist, he minced no words. I asked him if he was interested in the Ubud Writers Festival, prompt came the reply, “only if the organizers know I don’t come cheap.”

Investment guru Jim Rogers dished out a lot of advice off air and signed off “get them before they get hot,” he was wrapping up some advice from his book ‘Hot Commodities.’ Some authors ended up becoming friends. Kunal Basu, Elmo Jayawardena, Meira Chand, Janet de Neefe, Kiran Desai and all of it wouldn’t have happened if not for the book segment.

5. You have also been closely associated with some of the biggest writers festival in the region, especially with those held at Ubud, Singapore, and Galle. How was the experience of meeting and talking to writers at these relatively new festivals? Can you please give us a peek behind the show, the process of organising a lit fest?

DS: Before I get to that, I’d like to talk about how my involvement at literary festivals happened. If anyone deserves credit for it, it has to be Janet de Neefe, the founder of the Ubud Writers Festival. We bumped into each other at a media conference that was organized for the Singapore Writers Festival in 2005. I was the only journalist asking questions after the speeches were done. Janet asked the PR person for an introduction and that afternoon we ended up talking for an hour and a half and we haven’t stopped since. She gave me her card, told me about her festival, how it was born, what she hoped it would achieve and I was fascinated by her commitment to use words to heal, to build bridges. Bali, which had suffered from the deadly bombings, needed to go in recovery mode and what better way to do it than through literature. I didn’t think anything would come out of our accidental meeting. The next thing I knew, Janet, the Festival Director was inviting me to her festival. She asked if I would moderate sessions at the festival. I told her doing a 10 minute segment for television was one thing, an hour long session with a live audience quite another, but I was willing to test the untested waters.

There were three sessions that were allocated to me. Then three weeks before the festival, Australian journalist Ramona Koval, who was supposed to do the one on one with Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje pulled out of the festival. Janet called me and asked if I’d do it. I still have no idea what made me say yes. Then it was lot of sleepless nights. Would I be able to pull this off? This is the Booker Prize winning author? Someone whose work I greatly admire. I finally got to meet Michael at the opening of the festival. I told him I’d never done this before. I still remember that moment, he put his hand on my shoulder, gave me him his warm smile and said, “it will be alright.” I couldn’t sleep the night before the session, I was reading, re-reading my script, my research, re-visiting some of Michael’s work, then when the moment arrived, it was time to erase all of that and get on with it. The session went beautifully. I had no idea there were some Australian festival directors in the audience. Soon, there were invites from Australia, the next year Libby Southwell, Festival Director of the Galle Literary Festival was there and she invited me for the inaugural festival in Galle. Of course, none of this would have happened, if my husband Bala wasn’t funding some of these trips, if my office wasn’t giving me permission to appear at the festivals and if my boss wasn’t convinced of the worth of bringing back stories that can only be born at a literary festival.

It’s a totally different dynamic interviewing authors in a live setting. The interviews are more relaxed. You can talk about more than just their latest book to give the audience a full insight into an author’s writing process. It’s amazing to see how different it is for different authors. Then it is the audience that makes the difference. They are always animated and one has to be aware that they often know more than you, sometimes they’ve even read more into an author’s work and could end up knowing more about a particular incident than the author does. I always look for ways to engage the audience beyond the official Q & A. It could be a reading, it could the official introduction, it could be a brief enactment of an author’s work. There are various ways of doing it, one just has to be able to gauge what an audience would like. It’s often a blink moment and over the years I’ve been fortunate to catch it.

6. Apart from these festivals in the Asia Pacific region, India too has been hosting festivals like Kitab in Bombay and the Jaipur writers festival. Do you think these festivals are fads or marketing driven events? Or have they emerged because there is a genuine love for literature in the hearts of the organisers?

DS: Since I haven’t attended Kitab or the Jaipur Writers Festival, I’m not in a position to comment on them. What I can say not just about literary festivals but about everything else in life is that anything that is done with passion, with love, with commitment, anything that is truly Dil Se will find a way of speaking for itself, it will rise above the rest, the audience will relate to it as much as the writers themselves.

Literary festivals are a great way of connecting writers with their readers. Amitav Ghosh said this to me at Ubud. “I spend the better part of my life working on my book, when I get to a festival it’s amazing to see what has resonated with the readers.” It’s almost a way of bringing the writers out of their study, to feel one with their readers. Before literary festivals, readings, book signings became the thing that they are today, what did we have to go on? A writer, his book, a critic and his or her take on it. Today, you have the entire blogosphere at your disposal, just as you choose your writers, you can choose your critics too. What I am saying is literary festivals have opened a whole new avenue for dialogue, for interaction, for healthy criticism or even for bringing your literary heroes into real life. And in this case, too much could actually be a good thing.

7. You have interviewed writers both in front of the camera (recorded) and at festivals (live). How are the two processes different?

DS :Very different. At festivals, often the writers don’t even know the cameras are rolling. They are totally at ease with themselves. The studio often has an unsettling effect. I’ve seen the best of writers clam up, looking in vastly different angles, going on for too long or not saying enough. Being in a live setting also gives you the added advantage of getting a readers reaction to what the author has said. Visually, I’ve found festival coverage a lot more interesting. And I’ve enjoyed the whole process of filming the festival, scripting the story and showing all that happened in a tightly woven television narrative.

8. What kind of preparation and research do you have to do to interview writers? What it takes to engage with minds like Michael Ondaatje, Kiran Desai, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh, etc?

DS: It starts with the reading of their work. As a moderator, you’ve got to ensure you’ve read and comprehended the author’s work. At the risk of repeating myself, going with the assumption that the audience always knows more than you do. Checking and counter-checking facts. Don’t believe everything that shows up on Google. Double check the reports. Exchange emails with the authors, meet them before the session. It’s always good to know whether they want to do a reading, how you would connect the reading with a question. Prepare for it 200%, then go with the flow. Study the audience reaction while the conversation is on. You get a sense of what they want more of and what they’d like less of. Beyond the session itself, there is the other dimension of managing the Q & A.

I had a really interesting experience at the Galle Literary Festival. This was after the session with Kiran Desai. When I opened the floor up for questions, there was a sea of hands. The very first question on the ending of the book as was the second. When it came to the third question, I had to put my foot down and tell the audience that if there were any more questions about the ending of the book, they would have to talk to Kiran about it after the session. I’ve found the ending of ‘The Inheritance of Loss’ very clever. You can take what you want to take from it. Without giving too much, I said that much and added that discussing the ending wasn’t being fair to all the people who had bought the book. It was like going to a movie knowing what would happen next.

9. You not only interview writers but you are also a prolific reviewer of books as readers can gauge from you book blog, Read@Peace. What were the most stimulating reads for you in 2007? In fiction and non-fiction?

DS: I enjoyed very much ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘A Golden Age’ by Tahmima Anam, ‘Mister Pip’ by Lloyd Jones, ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’ by Mohsin Hamid, ‘The Yacoubian Building’ by Alaa al Aswany, ‘The Blood of Flowers’ by Anita Amerazzvani, ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ by Khaled Hosseini, ‘The Last Nizam’ by John Zubryzcki, Adib Khan’s ‘Spiral Road’, Richard Flanagan’s ‘The Unknown Terrorist,’ Christopher Merrill’s ‘Things of the Hidden God,’ Tan Twan Eng’s ‘The Gift of Rain,’ Hari Kunzru’s ‘My Revolutions,’ Anupama Chopra’s ‘King of Bollywood’ – gosh this is turning out to be the Queen of longlists. I had better resist the temptation of adding on more.

10. And who are the Asian writers to watch out for in the new year?

DS: Start that with Tahmima Anam. ‘A Golden Age’ is bound to figure prominently in the award lists. Also watch closely, Preeta Samarasan from Malaysia whose book ‘Evening is The Whole Day’ will be out next year. Chandrahas Choudhry has finished his novel. I’ll be looking out closely for that. There’s poet Tishani Doshi whose novel is expected to be out soon as well. From Singapore, look out for Balli Kaur, who won the prestigious T K Wong Fellowship. She’s currently at the University of East Anglia, in UK, working on her debut novel.

I’ll also be eagerly awaiting Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth,’ Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Sea of Poppies,’ Manil Suri’s ‘The Age of Shiva’ and Hanif Kureishi’s ‘Something to Tell You’ and of course Kunal Basu’s collection of short stories – ‘The Japanese Wife.’

The reading’s only just begun. Here’s to flipping lots of pages in 2008.

An edited version of this interview appeared in India Se, June 2008.


Suzan Abrams said...

A very good post, Zafar. So enjoyed it and your passion engulfed in this blog.
But the public examination of teeth bit...Vikram Seth has done this even at readings in England. He did it once with Kate Mosse in 2005. Seth is a good entertainer.

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