Exclusive Q&A: Amitav Ghosh Learns to Sail

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It comes as no great surprise to us that Amitav Ghosh thoroughly enjoys his job. His latest book, Sea of Poppies, is a maritime adventure, and pure fun. Ghosh winds wonderfully detailed history lessons into his plots, and often they prove to be his best stories of all. Sea of Poppies is the first installment in a trilogy, but Ghosh shows no signs of getting bored anytime soon. He spoke with us about Russian literature, learning to sail, Melville, and the daily grind of writing novels.

Flavorpill: Tell me about your day-to-day habits as a writer.

Amitav Ghosh: I’m afraid there’s not a much of a mystery to that. I basically work through the day. I get up and at my desk by about 9 a.m. and then do a full day’s work. I’ve tried to work less. I’ve told myself in the past that I should, but actually writing is all I do, so if I don’t write, I get bored.

FP: You’ve written a number of books, but you’re not the type of author who produces a new novel every year. Do you work straight through, or take breaks between books?

AG: Well, once I finish a book, sometimes there is a lag, when I’m just tired-out and resting. And apart from that, nowadays you have to spend so much time just touring, promoting your book. And that goes on. It’s no longer just a week or two, or a month or two; it’s actually years. Some parts of it are always fine. You get to meet a lot of people, you get to meet the readers. How many things can you say about your book? I mean that’s why you wrote the book, so that people could read it.

FP: I take it you don’t enjoy the celebrity aspect of being an author?

AG: No, that’s never attracted me. The day-to-day works appeals to me.

FP: Are your books, including Sea of Poppies, factually accurate?

AG: Yes! I go to a lot of trouble to make sure that the backgrounds are factually correct. With a novel, of course, the characters are fictional, even though they may to some degree be based upon real people. But what I do try very hard to get correct is the general background. It’s not just for historical authenticity; it’s also that what happened in the past is so strange and interesting that you couldn’t actually make the stuff up.

FP: You’re living in India now, doing research for your trilogy, correct?

AG: I wouldn’t say that I’m doing research there only; but yes, I live there. I divide my time between India and the US. My kids are in school now, so I spend time with them, but the rest of the time, I am in India.

FP: Do you feel closer to your subject there?

AG: Yes, I would say that. You know, in some important sense, all of my writing is about India and my imagination of India. It’s home to me, really.

FP: So back to your research; what are your sources?

AG: My book is set in the 1830s, so there’s no one I could really talk to who knows what it was like then. It’s mainly reading books, visiting libraries, going to a lot of archives, but also a lot of travel. For this book, I traveled to a lot of places. A lot of it is about sailing ships, for example, and I spent some time trying to learn to sail. It was very exciting, and all of it goes into the book. I think I’m really very lucky. I get to lead a life in which my books take me to all sorts of interesting places. So I don’t even think of it as research.

FP: Sea of Poppies is the first book in a trilogy. Have you started the second?

AG: Well, I’ve certainly started it. Some days I think I’m well into it, some days I think, “Oh my god, I’ll have to start all over.” It never changes; it’s always the same.

FP: How does one set out on such a large undertaking?

AG: When I first started writing Sea of Poppies, I found the characters so interesting that I knew I would want to spend a long long time with them, maybe years and years and years. So, that became an issue for me, and I just decided that I wanted to be living with these people for some time to come. Most of the characters will crop up throughout the trilogy. Deeti’s character will always remain central to the trilogy.

FP: You mentioned before that your characters are sometimes based on real people. Anyone you met or encountered recently? Or read about, maybe?

AG: A bit of both, I suppose. It’s never straightforward, because even when it’s someone you have met, it’s not like they go straight in. People get filtered through your head; they become someone else. But what happens is that you have a conversation, and it can be with someone who you’ve met for only ten minutes, and they’ll plant the seed of a character. And sometimes it’s quite different. You’ll look at a photograph and a face interests you, and you think that that person will be in your book. Other times, you come across some reference in an archive and that just starts you off. So, it’s always different.

FP: On a somewhat different note, your book reminds me of Russian novels that I’ve read. Are they an influence?

AG: Oh, that’s very interesting. Actually, yes. Russian literature has played a large part in my life. I’ve always admired Russian writers. In the India of my childhood, Russian literature was ever-present, and I certainly always read it. It wasn’t so much a direct influence on this book, though. For Sea of Poppies, Herman Melville was the greatest influence — Moby Dick .

FP: You leave a lot untranslated in the book. Is that to make the reader work a little?

AG: Most of the words that I use are, in some sense, in English. You can look them up in the Oxford English Dictionary. They’re not so commonly used anymore, but it’s not like I need to translate them, because if a person is interested in finding out what they are, they can do that very easily. In fact, they can just look at the glossary in the back of my book.