Vikram Seth was born in India and educated there and in England, California, and China. He has written acclaimed books in several genres: verse novel, The Golden Gate; travel book, From Heaven Lake; animal fables, Beastly Tales; epic novel, A Suitable Boy. His most recent novel, An Equal Music, was published in 1999.
Author biography courtesy of HarperCollins.
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Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Seth:
"I used to like swimming in the Serpentine, even in the snow, but lately I've chickened out."
"I enjoy Chinese calligraphy, which I have been studying for years."
"On the whole, I'm quite lazy, and like watching Columbo or reading detective stories."
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In the fall of 2005, Vikram Seth 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?
Pushkin's novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is the book that has most influenced my life, though I have never read a word of it (since I can't read Russian). I was working on my Economics dissertation when I wandered into the Stanford Bookstore, thinking that there had to be life beyond data entry. I began reading Charles Johnston's wonderful translation of Eugene Onegin, and couldn't put it down; indeed, I read it five or six times that month.
Shortly thereafter I began writing The Golden Gate, a novel set in San Francisco, which is also in verse and indeed uses the same stanza as Pushkin. Having written a novel in verse, I decided later that I'd write a regular novel, and that led to A Suitable Boy; and these two books changed my life.
Eugene Onegin is a gripping love story, both witty and deeply moving, but to be enjoyed, it has to be read in an effective and fluid translation. The best of these -- and they are both superb -- are Charles Johnston's (with more of a British English feel) and James E. Falen's (with more of an American English feel).
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Let me just mention two writers whose works are deeply affecting and enjoyable and who I think should be better known. One is Janet Lewis, a Californian writer who lived to be almost 100; I would recommend her novella The Wife of Martin Guerre. Everyone (of whatever age, sex or nationality) to whom I have recommended this book has thanked me. Take off an afternoon, and add something unforgettable to your life!
The other is Timothy Steele, who is in his fifties. Almost any of his collections will show his rare qualities as a clear, moving and delightful poet. He is, to my mind, one of the very best poets writing in English, and once your read his poems, you won't forget them.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Almost anything by Satyajit Ray, the great Bengali filmmaker, most particularly The Apu Trilogy.
Also two French movies, Tout les Matins du Monde [All the Mornings of the World] and Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg]. They make me weep bucketfuls (to the mockery of my friends) whenever I see them.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love Indian classical music, especially for the voice of the sarangi (a bowed stringed instrument).
In western music, I love Bach, Mozart and the divine Schubert -- especially his songs. Then a whole lot of stuff from Cole Porter to the Beach Boys and old Indian movie songs to early jazz. I can't listen to music when I'm writing. If it's bad, it irks me; if it's good, I'm drawn into it, and am incapable of anything else.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I quite like history and biography, both to give and to get.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I like writing in bed, with my papers spread about on an unpatterned, usually dark blue, duvet.
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?
Quite a few, but I'd rather not recount them. Oh, well, one then: I sent out my novel in verse The Golden Gate more than 30 times; it came winging back from various publishers with obtuse standardized comments ["We have enjoyed your poems, though they do not suit our list."] which showed that they hadn't read a line. Finally, by a strange series of circumstances, the poet and critic John Hollander, who was well-connected in the publishing world, read it and generously sent it on; and suddenly three major publishers were vying for it, one of them even complaining that since I had sent it to them first (they had of course rejected it), they had first rights to it.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Well, I'd direct you to the two writers above, though they are by no means "new", and it would also be presumptuous of me to say of my betters that they haven't been "discovered" -- rather like claiming that America hadn't been discovered until Columbus. The fact is, though, that I'd like them to be more widely read, since I know that they have given me -- and others -- immense insight and pleasure.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
There is simply no magic formula. You have to keep writing and being yourself in your writing, not catering to some "market niche."
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