Stories do a couple of things. One ancient power that stories hold is that they organize important thoughts into a form we think the others will pay attention to; a story. It is a form that makes us want to sit up and listen, to remember, and share. In the broad sweep of these stories, though, the tales of fantasy are ever different.
Fantasy represents a realm of stories that could never, ever happen. It is a wonderful approach to storytelling, and wonderful here means literally full of wonder. Unfortunately, though, in India it is often used in a very small-minded sense to segregate off, perhaps even outlaw, a small type of adventure-fantasy into a sub-genre, a ghetto of bookstores and libraries; where you would find books on gods clad in silk throwing bolts of lightning from the skies, demigods lazing under the leering eyes of serpents, wise wizards in giant fortresses atop snow-clad mountains, and powerful knights galloping across war-torn countrysides, perhaps a castle in the background, perhaps even a scaly dragon sailing overhead.
Fantasy is more than this. Fantasy combines wonder and whimsy with a richly non-rational, spiritual, and philosophical look at matters such as good and evil. While the forms of fantasy may vary from classic tales to magical realism to dark fantasy, they all share this basic questioning, and they do it in a way that reaches inside to our spiritual core. Other forms of fiction also address some aspects of right and wrong. But fantasy takes these matters to a deeper place, reaching to a mythic, creative core deep inside of us.
India is slowly waking us to this idea; fantasy sections in libraries and bookstores where once, one only found glorified versions of old myths we already know reworked with colourful covers or repetitions of popular titles, there are hints of change and progress. And if you are like me, who frequents bookstores every weekend without fail, then on your next visit you might even find a copy of The Devourers.
The Devourers by Indra Das published by Penguin Books India later this month is a story about shape-shifters, men with second selves who prey on humans and live in the shadow of civilization. It is also about what it means to be human and the transformative powers of love. Werewolves in Mughal India – is how the book is promoted. Certainly, this is a reintroduction of the fantasy genre in its true style, but is really a reinvention of the modern fantasy in India – as the book and the publisher boldly claim – is a question for which the answer requires further pondering. Luckily the author was available for interview and the FWD team caught up with him on one warm afternoon to discuss fantasy writing in general and about The Devourers, which would have hit the stands by the time this issue goes to print.
Indra, for those who are yet to get hold of a copy of The Devourers, can you offer a description or taster of what readers can expect?
The Devourers traces the fraught legacy that werewolves migrating from Europe to the seventeenth-century Mughal Empire leave resounding into present-day India, when they mingle with humans and other shape shifters in these new lands. It’s got elements of contemporary literary, historical and mythic fantasy fiction, so if you like your stories interstitial, it’s the thing for you.
How and when did you get started as a writer and what inspires you to write? Are there any writing practices or routines that you follow?
I started as a writer just by loving art–movies, TV, books, comics, music–as a child and teenager, and wanting to return what I got from art to the world, to be a part of that creative cycle. As a boy I constantly wrote stories in my head, and sometimes in notebooks during Creative Writing classes. At around 17, my brother told me to actually try writing a novel. So I did, and that’s how I started.
My routine depends entirely on where I am, what mood I’m in, and what point of my life I’m in. So no, definitely no set routine. When I have deadlines to meet, I try to write every day. A cup of coffee or tea by my computer is a huge writing aid.
All of the fantasy titles we currently have in the market are either a glorified version of the myths we already know or just repetitions of popular titles. The question then is – not in terms of number of copies sold, the profit made, or the grandeur of fantasy circles, but in terms of originality – is India not a good market for fantasy?
I think India is, like anywhere, a great market for fantasy, but that market (in English-language fiction, I can’t speak to other markets in India) hasn’t been properly nurtured. You need publishers and publications to cater to a market before it can expand and show itself. People like to read fantasy the world over. Fiction is fantasy, whether or not it has dragons in it. It’s only natural for the broadest spectrum of human imagination to be represented by a country’s stories. As for the Indian fantasy titles you mention, I’ve not read most of them, so I can’t really talk about them. But I will give credit to Samit Basu, whose novels were, and have been, instrumental in getting Indian publishers to start paying attention to fantasy as pop culture knows it. Further, there are a lot of very talented Indian writers of science fiction, fantasy and cross-genre work who are coming up through short fiction, and I think both readers and creators within India are clamouring for publishers to be more adventurous. I hope they get a chance to tell their stories to audiences in this country as well as abroad.
If you were to remove the veil of religion from the Hindu holy texts, you’d find that Ramayana and Mahabharata are perhaps the most iconic of fantasy and science fiction novels. Growing up in India certainly has imbued in me those stories of gallant princes, demigods, and world-conquering armies. Have those stories influenced your writing in any way?
They have–everything I read and heard and watched growing up influenced me, and the Ramayana and Mahabharata were among the stories I absorbed. I wrote a short story based on the legend of Sita once, for the Indian anthology Breaking the Bow (Zubaan Books), which was a collection of stories reworking the Ramayana. But apart from that instance, I’ve tended not to directly re-tell these stories in my fiction. But I love mythology in general, from all over the world, and it often plays a strong part in my fiction.
The fantasy is a genre so very steeped in tropes – you got your elves and dwarf and giants and what not. But if done right, these tropes are the reasons why fantasy books are successful. What is your stand on fantasy tropes? And how do you use them in your novels so that it does not end up as cliches?
Any kind of storytelling has its tropes, including literary fiction (Indian immigrants travelling to the West, getting into inter-cultural romances, adjusting to culture shock, for example, in Indian litfic). There’s nothing inherently wrong with tropes, they’re just repeating patterns in human storytelling. They appear in mythology and religion as well (the messianic figure, the Devil-figure, etc). They’re basic building blocks for human stories–you can’t avoid them. What isn’t good is overusing those tropes unquestioningly, or using them unimaginatively. It’s all in the execution. When I use a trope (for example, “werewolves” might be considered a trope), I try and write it in a way that sees that trope anew, within the world I’m creating. Whether or not I succeed, is another question.
Can you tell us about your experience getting published in magazines abroad? Is that how it should ideally be – aspiring authors sending their smaller works to different magazines, learning the craft, before attempting bigger novels and trying to get it published?
My experience getting published in magazines abroad (my first pro sale was back in 2010, I started sending stories out to pro pay markets around 2004) is that it takes a lot of perseverance, patience, and a very thick skin for rejections. You can’t despair when you get a rejection–it’s a fact of life for writers. You see it, send out your work again, move on. Foreign magazines are a fantastic market for Indian writers interested in non-realist or interstitial work, because they tend to be quite open-minded (not all of them, of course), accept online submissions, pay properly, and respond in a timely fashion to submissions.
As for how it should ideally be; there is no ideal. Different writers build their careers in enormously different ways. There are highly successful novelists who’ve published a short story their entire careers. Every writer has to find what works best for them. But within genre fiction, short fiction is an excellent way to start getting exposure and some income, and can be less daunting than finding an agent and then a publisher for a novel (which you have to write first, which is even more daunting) without any prior publications or exposure (which isn’t impossible either).
What is your advice to aspiring fantasy authors?
Really, for any writer, fantasy or not; be aware of your flaws, self-critique, listen to others’ critiques. No one starts out a perfect writer with a perfect grasp of what they want their fiction to be. It takes time and hard work, and lots of practice. Don’t give up–keep writing, keep sending your work out, don’t self-reject. Be critical of your own work, always question yourself and the structures you live within, but stay confident and determined. Don’t expect riches and fame to plop down in your lap. Being a writer is very difficult, and not at all financially rewarding most of the time. Do it only if you love it, not if you think it’s an easy way to become a millionaire bestseller (it’s not; even Stephen King and and J.K. Rowling struggled for years in penury, and they have the kind of work ethic most writers don’t). If you love it, and don’t lose hope, it will be immensely rewarding.
For fantasy authors in particular–don’t tell the same old stories, unless you’re very certain you can tell them better than most of the hundreds of writers who’ve told those stories. Be bold. Fantasy, literally, has no limitations. You can tell any story you can possibly imagine. Use that power.
About Indra Das:
Indra Das’s works have appeared in many publications and anthologies, including Clarkesworld magazine and Asimov’s Science Fiction. In 2012, he was the recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship to attend the Clarion West Writers Workshop in Seattle under the tutelage of, among others, George R.R. Martin and Chuck Palahniuk.