Writing fiction is about building a world, where the author is in complete control of its creation, characters and direction. Narrative non-fiction, the best of which reads like fiction, is more about the author consuming particular realities, analyzing and rewriting them for the reader. Samanth Subramanian, the author of two books, (Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast which won the 2010 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize, and This Divided Island which won the Crossword Book Award 2014 for non fiction), a journalist with The National and a frequent contributor to New Yorker, Guardian and New York Times, is among India’s finest narrative non-fiction writers. Subramanian’s strength lies not only in his prose but also in the eclecticism of form, subject and ideas that encapsulate his large body of work. In this long conversation with Samanth, I try to understand his writing as a craft, and his views on narrative non-fiction writing in general.
Your books deal with traveling, extrapolating stories, anecdotes, histories, and constructing credible and analytical narratives. This Divided Island in particular consumes fragmented perspectives of the same War in Sri Lanka and explains it through each. How easy or difficult is recreating the history of a country, through the stories of people, rather than only factual data and empirical analysis? What is the best way to build narratives?
Is there any one way to build narratives, though? I don't think there is. The same story can be told in multiple ways, each effective in its own way, for its own purpose. Within each piece that I write, I'm looking for a particular alchemy of characters, plots, dialogues, exposition, scenes, personal observations, analysis, and facts. The mix varies. In fact, it has to vary, because at a particular time when I'm writing about a particular subject, only one mix seems to work best for that time and that subject. The best way to build narratives is to let the material guide you. (Always assuming, of course, that you've gone out and gotten the material. But that's a different part of the process.)
One word always comes to my mind when I'm writing: texture. The books and articles I love to read have texture. Different parts of the pieces do different things. One part sinks into history. Another describes a person. A third part is funny. A fourth part is dead serious. A fifth is analytical. A sixth sketches out a scene. I like it when pieces do this, because I think they reflect a useful, wide view of their subject. So I try achieving that same effect, to keep these various moving parts in a sort of harmonious whole.
Non-fiction writers in particular are often subjected to intense scrutiny – for facts and the narration. And also on the craft of writing and fallings with that – losing the reader, not being engaging with the subject etc. How do you fight off fears of disapproval or failure as a writer, prior to a project?
I've never really thought about this, to be honest. I mean, the fear of disapproval or failure is so constant in most professional careers that you try to ensure that it just functions at the level of background noise. Writing can be oddly harrowing in a way that banking, for instance, isn't; your failures are there in your pieces or books, for everybody to see in plain sight. The healthiest way around this is just to buckle down, to focus on what you need to do to tell your story well. Focusing on the nitty-gritties of this helps in two ways. It tunes out things like fear of failure. But it also helps make the writing better, which minimizes the chances of failure.
As a non-fiction writer, how important is it to emotionally detach yourself from the subject and characters of your pieces? What is the value of personal or anecdotal experiences in a piece?
It depends upon the piece, I think, but let's assume here that we're talking about long-form pieces, essays and books. In these cases, I think it is important to NOT emotionally detach yourself from your subject. I'm not saying that the writer's emotions should be front and centre – far from it. But emotion is a very, very valuable tool. It helps put things in perspective, it describes things that mere facts cannot, it can spark writing into life. So why not use it? Similarly, personal observations and anecdotal experiences can flesh a piece out. As long as they're held in balance, why not use them?
Not every piece is well placed for emotion, of course. I did a profile of Arvind Kejriwal, for instance. The profile was for American readers, who have no idea who Kejriwal is. First, before anything else, they needed to know that. In such a case, inserting yourself or your emotions into the piece is a bad move. The tug of Kejriwal, at the time I wrote it, was intellectual, not emotional. Similarly, when there was so much rich anecdote being provided by the man himself and the people around him, it made no sense to offer my own. I stuck to personal observations, which are important. So the tone of a piece should always, always be dictated by the topic.
While your writing is within the broad ambit of non-fiction, it is eclectic in its form and structure. You have written books, long form essays, feature pieces, investigative stories and reports. How different is your process of each of these forms?
In one sense, it's exactly the same process. I start out knowing nothing, or very close to nothing, about each of these subjects. So first I read. Then I start talking to people for background, for understanding. Then I start seeking people out to interview, people who might feature as characters in the writing. I travel, if I can, because a sense of place is vital to things, even if it's just to place the reader for a few paragraphs inside say the Greenpeace office in Bangalore. All through, I continue to read, to type up my notes, to read over them and think about them.
The eclecticism – such as it is – comes when I sit down to write. That's when I need to start thinking about the form of the piece, about its tone, about its structure. All of this is dictated by the subject itself, so the material I have gathered helps me determine these things. I mean, one rather glib way of putting it is that each story has a particular form in which I think it's best told, and the trick is to find that form. This is true, but it sounds simplistic. In reality, it involves hundreds of small decisions, which are made incrementally as you work through your first couple of drafts.
I enjoy the eclecticism, though. I've been spoiled by it to the extent that I don't now think I can work on a beat and to only one form. I like thinking that after a profile, I can write an op-ed, then a review essay, then a short personal piece, and then another long piece. It's liberating.
According to you, which form (fiction or non-fiction) is more powerful for storytelling? Is the subject more compelling to a reader than the form?
I don't know if either is more powerful than the other. They do different things, and so their power works in different ways. You're right that the subject or topic is paramount. If the story is compelling, and if the writing is good, you really need nothing else. Between the two forms, it's the challenges that differ. One form searches outwards for compelling stories, the other searches inwards.
Name any three non-fiction books that have influenced you.
a) Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Anna Funder's Stasiland – because of how closely they pay attention to individual lives, and how effective that is at illuminating an environment.
b) AJ Liebling's essays on food – which are just so witty and joyous, so full of love for their subject, and so infused with his crackling voice and style.
c) Pico Iyer's The Man Within My Head and Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk which are beautiful and meditative semi-memoirs, where their lives flit in and out of their ostensible subjects (Graham Greene and hawking). Both wonderful pieces of artistry.
What are the three things that you avoid while writing and what is your piece of advise for someone who wants to start writing serious non-fiction?
a) Clichés – both in prose but also in the form of ideas. Clichés in language are unforgivable. Clichés in ideas are slightly more forgivable, because there really are only so many ideas that reflect the truth of a particular situation accurately. But even here, it's possible to look at an idea from a different perspective or at the very least convey it in fresh language.
b) Ornateness in language – which may actually sometimes arise when I strive to avoid the cliché. I'm forever watching out for this, because I'm particularly vulnerable to being tempted down this road.
c) A flat texture – paragraph after paragraph of the same length, in the same expository tone. I think it bores the reader, and it wearies the eye. A writer has to mix it up.
I don't know if there's any one piece of advice that I'd rank above all else. So to pick one at random, I'd say: think constantly about the bigger ideas behind a piece. Non-fiction isn't just a catalogue of details and descriptions and quotes. Ideally, it has to be bigger than its immediate subject and reflect more fundamental truths the way the best fiction does. If you're thinking about these ideas behind a piece, the piece starts to shape itself; it starts to tell you how it needs to be written.
Do you ever take off your journalist hat and put on the storyteller hat, or are both one and the same at the end, according to you?
They are two hats, I think – but to wreck the metaphor somewhat, the hats influence one another. You wear the journalist hat when you are out reporting and doing interviews, but even then, you try to see and hear as a storyteller, to pick up the sort of stray details and texture that will make a piece sing. Then you sit down to write as a storyteller, but even as you do, the journalist in you classifies and prioritizes information, provides context, keeps things honest. Maybe the two hats are really just one big, complex hat.
How do deadlines affect your ability to write? Does writing for a living reduce the ‘joy’ of writing or does it augment it?
Somebody once said that the best moment in writing is when you've just finished writing. I subscribe to that, I think. Writing is – or should be – hard work, and it feels like it. Of course we all enjoy it, otherwise we would not do it. But work should have deadlines; without a deadline, I'd never get anything done.
Writing for a living the way I do it certainly amplifies the joy of it. If I was writing for myself, so to speak, I wouldn't be able to go to Sri Lanka for 10 months to look into the war, or go to Bombay to hang out at the Breach Candy Club, or hunt down the old stars of a 1967 documentary. Writing about these experiences has been immense, immense fun, and I would not have been able to have those experiences if I was not doing this for a living.
Sarah Farooqui runs the Takshashila Institution’s flagship course, the Graduate Certificate in Public Policy (GCPP). She is also the Editor of Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review.
Sarah discusses fiction & non-fiction writing on her blog - The Bookend, a part of Business Standard's platform, Punditry
She tweets as @sarahfarooqui20