Thursday, June 9, 2022

Samit Basu

Samit Basu is an Indian novelist. He's published several novels in a range of speculative genres, all critically acclaimed and bestselling in India, beginning with The Simoqin Prophecies (2003). His novel The City Inside was short-listed (as Chosen Spirits) for the JCB Prize, India’s biggest literary award. He also works as a director-screenwriter, a comics writer, and a columnist. He lives in Delhi, Mumbai, and on the internet.

My Q&A with Basu:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I think The City Inside does a fair bit of work: even without any context readers would know it’s an urban setting and expect some sort of exploration, or interiority, or mystery. The information that it’s a near-future sci-fi novel set in Delhi, India, with a focus on internal change as its protagonists try to cope with multiple-choice 21st-century crises that affect everyone in the world, with an additional Indian layer of chaos? Not so much.

Two years ago, the Indian edition was called Chosen Spirits - that title was from an old Urdu poem about Delhi, but when I sold the book to Tordotcom in the US, my agent suggested the new title - the older title sounded too spiritual for a book that would be read as dystopian/cyberpunk, and I agreed. It’s also a book about power, privilege, belonging, popularity and conformity - so I thought The City Inside totally worked.

What's in a name?

The City Inside aims to be a very small exaggeration of present-day India, so everything about the technology, locations, professions and people - plus everything else in the worldbuild and plot are very present-reality based. So every name has cultural/political/social significance, but I don’t think knowledge of those significances really make a difference to the reading experience - just as I can experience stories set in New York or Tokyo and understand them even if I don’t get every local reference. I do think that for some stories, I get a sense that they’re very specifically embedded in their setting and somehow that makes them more universal.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

Very! The City Inside isn’t the book I wanted to write as a teenager. Most of my other books are! But this one is something that is a very specific response to the last decade, and worrying about the next one, and my teenage self, reader or otherwise, couldn’t have imagined either of those. I do think my teenage self would have been more surprised by the real world today than the imaginary future one in the book.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I find beginnings harder and I rewrite them after I’ve got a sense of the voice, the characters, and everything else about each book. The City Inside was particularly difficult - most of my other books are plottier, pacier and more event-driven, and so the constraints on the beginning are clearer. But for this one, it was more about capturing emotions, feelings, atmospheres, characters, while also providing worldbuild, which was particularly challenging. I don’t usually throw away the first 7000 words entirely and redo them from scratch, but this book needed it.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

For this book, definitely. There’s a lot of me in most of the characters, and the rest is from people I’ve actually met. This isn’t always the case at all - most of the protagonists of my other books are worlds apart.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’ve worked in film, shows, comics, print and online journalism and theatre - so all of these. I’ve almost worked in video games too. All these media, and then of course there’s real life, and non-fiction in various media. And the internet. My writing is influenced by everything I experience, and most of that isn’t literary.
Visit Samit Basu's website.

--Marshal Zeringue