Suketu Mehta is a fiction writer and journalist based in New York. He has won the Whiting Writers Award, the O. Henry Prize, and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for his fiction. Mehta's work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, Granta, Harper's, Time, Condé Nast Traveler, and The Village Voice, and has been featured on National Public Radio's All Things Considered. Mehta also co-wrote Mission Kashmir, a Bollywood movie.
Mehta was born in Calcutta and raised in Bombay and New York. He is a graduate of New York University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop.
He is currently writing an original screenplay for The Goddess a Merchant-Ivory film starring Tina Turner.
Biography courtesy of the author's official web site.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Mehta:
"I wrote for computer trade magazines for many years. One of them was a newspaper for computer dealers. It taught me everything I needed to know about reporting. I was also ‘Dear Aunt Lanny' at LAN (Local Area Network) magazine; I wrote an agony column for the technically challenged. I made up the questions and the answers."
"My ambition as a writer is to write a really kick-ass love story, in the tradition of the great Persian romance Laila Majnooh."
"I worked so long at Maximum City that I completely wore out the fabric of the seat of my desk chair. I should hang the seat up on my wall, to remind me of what it took."
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In anticipation of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Awards, Suketu Mehta took some time out to answer some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
The Bhagavad-Gita. It is my daily guide not just to my writing but to the conduct of life itself. I like the Franklin Edgerton and Barbara Stoler Miller translations. It defines for me, as a writer and a human being, the concept of dharma. When I first read it in college, I hated it, thinking it a summons to war. Then I grew up.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
In no particular order:
Life, A User's Manual by George Perec -- A dazzling crossword puzzle of a novel about the stories of the residents of an apartment building in Paris.
Between Meals by A. J. Liebling -- The art of the sentence, and one of the funniest books ever.
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell -– No one has done reporting on cities better.
The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuscinski -- The reporter as novelist.
Human Wishes by Robert Hass -- The best contemporary American poet; the bard of the middle class.
The stories of John Cheever –- I have been reading these stories over and over again, for a quarter of a century now.
Collected Fiction by Jorge Luis Borges -- The Master. No one can fit an entire universe of meaning in so few pages.
Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie -- For me, this was a revelation. This was my Bombay, and this was a new way to write in my language.
Yuganta: The End of an Epoch by Irawati Karve -- A series of essays on the Mahabharata. The most perceptive reading of the foundation-epic of India.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez -- The best possible reason to learn Spanish.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?Annie Hall -- This defines Manhattan for me.
Sholay -- A Bollywood spaghetti western, whose dialogue can be recited by every Indian.
All three of the films of Victor Erice: Spirit of the Beehive, El Sur, and Dream of Light. This Spanish genius is a master of creating mood out of light and shadow.
Casablanca -- We'll always have Bogart.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen to music continuously while I'm writing. In the morning I listen to anything with a beat -- pop songs, Bollywood classics. In the evening I listen to jazz or Indian ghazals. When my brain is dead and I can't work anymore but have to meet a deadline, I listen to trance music, which gets me through the night.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Poetry. There would be the delight of reading poems out to each other. The book club members would all fall in love with each other, seduced by poetry.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Whenever anyone is at a crisis in their career or in their life and asks me for advice, I give them Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (in the Stephen Mitchell translation). It echoes the Bhagavad-Gita in Rilke's advice to concentrate on the questions themselves; the answers will come of their own.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Like all writers, I vant to be alone. I drink coffee all through the morning when I'm writing, on an empty stomach. I understand Balzac did the same. Sometimes I like to write in the midnight hour, with a glass of wine; it's a very different mood that enters the work then.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel called Alphabet, which is a tale told by a fetus. I've also been working on a new translation, from the Gujarati, of Mahatma Gandhi's autobiography, The Story of My Experiments with Truth.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It took much, much longer than I thought it would to get my first book published. I came out of the Iowa Writers' Workshop with an M.F.A. in 1987, and it took 17 years after that to get my first book published. I had to deal with making a living and raising a family. The clock on the wall took on new meaning when my sons were born; I began writing out of necessity.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Focus on the work itself. Set aside a space in your day, every day, when you do nothing but write; learn how word follows word to make world. Everything else follows from the sentence.
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