Suneetha Balakrishnan in conversation with Anees Salim

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The reclusive novelist says that over time perspectives change, one day he might become less discreet

Seven novels, four major accolades including the Sahitya Akademi, three nominations: Anees Salim completed a decade in Indian English Fiction in 2021. The year also marked the publication of her new novel, The strange book of baby names, a German translation of vanity bag, and the announcement of his next novel, The hunter. He is now busy writing another one and we caught him in the middle of a busy schedule. Excerpts from an interview:

In spurts, in intervals, this has been your pattern of publication…

A little after The sea of ​​small towns was published, I found myself unable to write. Not that I feel empty. I had stories and characters inside me, but for some inexplicable reason, I couldn’t bring myself to create or craft anything the way I wanted. It was an uncertain time for the storyteller in me.

But little by little, I picked up the pace and started working on an idea that had been with me for a long time and The strange book of baby names was born. Then I wrote The hunter. And now I’m writing another. I guess I’ve rediscovered the writer in me, and I feel a bit relieved.

You have this image of a recluse. With your books reaching audiences overseas, is it time to reconsider?

My interaction with the world is limited to print and social media. I use both mediums to remind people that my books exist. I don’t believe in the concept of building an image for the author. Books can speak for the author and, in my case, apart from what my books say, I don’t have much to say. That said, let me add that my view may change in the future. Sometimes I’m surprised at how my outlook changes.

For example, when I was little, I wanted radio stations to play sad music when I died. As a budding writer, I wanted my obituary to appear on the front page. Now I yearn for a quiet burial. Even my neighbors shouldn’t know of my death for a few weeks. So time changes the way you see life, and one day I may be less discreet. But I don’t think I’ll do it with pleasure.

I don’t know if I should change myself because of overseas contracts. I interact with my UK editor every other day, and have promised to meet her in the first half of 2022. I just hope I don’t have to do more than a few face-to-face meetings .

How have the translations of your works been received?

My books have been translated into several Indian languages. But frankly, I don’t keep track of their performance. I feel like my translated works don’t get much media attention in India. Literary reviews in regional languages ​​have not yet taken a serious look at my work.

Can you tell us more about The hunter?

The hunter takes place in Kerala. It’s about a 17-year-old boy from a vanishing island who ventures to the mainland to work as a hunter at a lodge where people usually come to die. It traces his life on the continent and how he gets lost in the world. The book will be published in the UK in September 2022 and in India in November.

How did you experiment with substance and form, particularly in The strange book of baby names?

I usually leave cities and towns unnamed in my books, or give them fictitious names. Real names don’t work for me, they seem to restrict my characters’ movements.

I created Mangobagh (in the The Vicks Mango Tree) by gluing several places together. You will find a bit of Hyderabad, a bit of Lucknow, a bit of Delhi and several other cities. But any place with a beach backdrop is definitely my hometown, even though I left it unnamed in The Blind Lady’s Descendants and The sea of ​​small towns. The strange book of baby names has a different setting, and I leave it to readers to call the town by whatever name they wish. But I’ve sprinkled the story with enough clues about the setting. As for the form, I was convinced that only several voices would work in a book that has not only two versions but nine.

How do you research the settings for your novels?

The places where I have lived help me create the backdrops. But there is more than that. When I travel, I invariably bring home memories of certain places. They may not be clean or pretty places, but they stay with me. It can be a village, a highway, an island, a beach or simply a cul-de-sac. They haunt me until I weave them into my stories.

For example, The sea of ​​small towns has a secret beach, and people who visit my hometown often ask me for directions to the secret beach. The secret beach exists, but not in my hometown, not even in India. It is in another country and I vividly remember staying there for a whole day until it was too dark to see the sea. time for me to leave.

Sometimes places stay with me not as visuals but as sounds. About three years ago I walked through a pine forest in Greece, and the sound of birds, not entirely pleasant, stuck in my head until I could write about it (a music which was equivalent to the sound of 100 maracas) in The strange book of baby names.

Are the rewards important?

Rewards matter. Awards bring writers money, but more than that, awards bring them new readers. Why a price, even inclusion in a long list will have an immediate impact on sales. They help readers build a reading list and entice writers to write more.

How has your writing changed over the past decade?

I make no conscious effort to make one book different from another. The seed of each book comes with its own style. The strange book of baby names is entirely different from all the other books I’ve written so far. In this, I tried to experiment a bit with my craft, and when I realized it was getting too experimental, I edited about 40 pages.

Tell us about your current work.

It is about a 35-year-old man who lives with his demented mother and devotes himself to a game he played as a child.

The interviewer is a writer, editor, trainer and translator who works in English and Malayalam.

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