Ashok K Banker Interview:
Epic Retellings From
with Iain Emsley for SFRevu
Iain: Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy?
Ashok: One summer vacation, I first stumbled upon a set of encyclopedias at my grandfather's house, The Book of Knowledge. I was barely seven or eight at the time. A precocious reader, I thought I'd found heaven. The section that fascinated me the most were those on mythology and religion. That first sparked my interest in imaginative literature. Soon after, I discovered comic books and SF novels--all the good ole boys, Heinlein, Asimov, VanVogt, Clarke, Clifford Simak (I loved Simak!). I found an affinity between my interest in mythology and religious lore and SF and have always been fascinated by that affinity. Before I was ten, I read the major arcana of imagination--The Bible, Quran, Gita, Vedas, Hindu religious and mythic works--and was surprised to find how familiar the stories and concepts already seemed to me.
Iain: What do you read these days?
Ashok: A lot of SF, Fantasy, literary fiction, the occasional thriller or mystery novel to cleanse my palate, a great deal of history and non-fiction, biographies and poetry.
Iain: Were you a writer as a child? That is, did you make up your own stories?
Ashok: (Smiling.) You're talking to the classic obsessive child-writer. I didn't just write stories, I copied them neatly, stapled the pages, and sold the books to my school friends! When I was nine, I learned to type, and never looked back. At fifteen, I self-published a book of poems. Almost the entire print run sold out within days, because there was a satirical narrative poem in there which I'd read out at school assembly and which had the entire school rolling in the aisles. In my mid teens, I set up an SF fan magazine publishing firm, but alas, my partners developed cold feet when I began talking about national and international distribution. I wrote my first three novels, all hard SF, during my last three years of school, and continued writing a novel a year for the next couple of decades, not to send out, but simply as practise. Every few years, I would throw the old manuscripts out after reading through them. Because I always believed I could write better than that. Now, of course, publishers tend to catch them before they hit the ground!
Iain: Why do you write genre? Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another?
Ashok: All writing is genre. I read an interview with John Updike recently and he remarked on how strange it felt to him to be counted as a literary writer. "I always thought I was just writing fiction." He wasn't just being modest. Today's lit-fic is no less embedded in mores and tradition as, say, SF, or mystery, or romance. To me, the very act of saying "Oh, I read only literature" or "non-fiction" or whatever, is not just restrictive, it's a form of literary communalism. Stories are stories, just as people are people. I love genre fiction--I love hard technological SF as much as cutesy pie furry bear fantasy, or endless epic serial fantasy, or gross-out splatterpunk horror, or highbrow deconstructivist literary novels, or wham-wham thrillers. I take my stories as I find them, and they don't really care what armband you tie on them.
Iain: Who is your ideal reader?
Ashok: Anyone who cares about people, all people, enough to want to spend hours in the skins of strangers, living vicariously.
Iain: How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?
Ashok: They come to me. I don't choose to write such and such a book, it just comes up and says, write me or else. If I ignore it, it goes away, and never comes back. If I respect it, it usually rewards me with a long and wonderful journey. Same goes for planning--I have no clue what the next line or word will be. That's why I write, to find out what happens next, and how, and to whom. I make myself available to inspiration every day, always in the mornings and evenings, and he rarely fails to show.
Iain: How did your first book sale come about?
Ashok: The usual way. I sent manuscripts out to publishers, and received enthusiastic responses from virtually every one. Never just a printed rejection slip. That kept me hopeful enough to keep sending stuff out.
Finally, one sent back an acceptance. My first international book sale came about a bit differently though: a visiting British novelist, Liz Williams, happened to be visiting Mumbai (formerly Bombay) and needed to get to another Indian city named Varanasi to research her current SF novel. I helped her out, and we got to talking, and I told her about my dreams of being an SFF novelist. She offered to introduce me to her agent, who showed a great deal of interest in my plans. And not long after--just a few months actually--the agent liked a partial manuscript I'd written (Prince of Ayodhya) enough to show it to publishers in the US. One of them, Betsy Mitchell, then at Warner Aspect, bought it and two more in the same series.
Having said that though, I wish I hadn't gone through an agent. I would much rather have struggled a few more years and sold directly to a publisher.
Iain: What's your most popular book? Why?
Ashok: Right now, it's the current book in the Ramayana series, whichever that may be at the time. The response is overwhelming, especially in India. But for the longest time, the most popular book by far was a novel named Vertigo. Published back in 1994, it's about to be brought back into print by Penguin Books India this year-end.
Iain: Of your own books, do you have a favorite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?
Ashok: Like the readers, it's always the book I'm writing right now. Because, like my ideal reader, I'm immersed virtually (and literally) in the skin of that character, or those characters, and want to find out what happens next to them, and how.
Iain: What other writers do you feel you have something in common with?
Ashok: That's best left to readers to determine.
Iain: Where is Science Fiction going, now that we live in the future?
Ashok: To the past, apparently. Which is why we have so many doorstopper fantasy series topping the lists. Don't forget, it's only recently that SF decided to disown its Fantasy brethren: LoTR is still (proudly) claimed as SF by most of the inner circle. To the present as well, which is why so many contemporary novels read like borderline (slipstream is the fashionable term) SF. And also to inner space, to boldly go where no mind has gone before. I think any kind of space fiction, however well written and conceived, is sadly overshadowed by the juggernaut of media exploitation which has basically arrogated the whole genre.
Iain: How do you feel about the future? What makes you the most hopeful and the most fearful?
Ashok: I can't really think much beyond the immediate future, at best a few years ahead. I doubt most people can anymore. Which is why longterm savings interest rates are at their historic lowest. I don't even think of it in terms of optimistic or pessimistic--the old utopia/dystopia paradigm is so outdated! Just as change, at a much more rapid rate. And I love change, for better or worse. So you could say, I'm one of those who enjoy knowing the future won't be like the present, and loves that!
Iain: Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?
Ashok: Certainly. But not in the 'this book changed my life' way of old. Most of us read too much, watch too much, are too jaded by all our media exposure for that to happen anymore. But over time, constant reading, and engaged living--by which I mean, not just mucking through it, but actually fighting and wrestling with reality every minute and loving the fight--does make you a better, stronger person.
Iain: Why did you start retelling the Ramayana? Was it as a challenge to Western forms or modes of fantasy?
Ashok: This is interesting and frustrating, both. Because in India we don't have a word for 'fantasy'. We don't in fact believe in fantasy. Even fiction is a difficult term to translate into most of the older Indian languages. All stories are regarded as real in some sense of the word. Whereas the western tradition is to clearly say, "here's a story" or "this is what happened once..." So, when people regard a story like the Ramayana in the context of western fantasy or even western literature, it's like their trying to figure out why a whole culture would worship beef-providers, namely, cows. What you have to understand is that just as cows are not eaten in India because they provide so much else, in the same way, stories are sacred and very real. The very idea of any Indian author being inspired by Tolkien, for example, is laughable, because Tolkien's tale is barely a hundred years old, and his sources are barely a couple of thousand years old. Whereas the myths and legends of ancient Indian tradition are arguably several thousands of years old, and perhaps even tens of thousands of years old. So yes, the challenge begins there--by defying the western Indologists who all insisted that Indian civilization couldn't possibly predate Greek civilization and then proceeded to date our past history based on that assumption. It's also a belated defiance of the British ban on translating Sanskrit into English--John Keay writes wonderfully about such matters. But most of all,it's an affirmation and assertion of the Indian character and story tradition itself. It's going to the root of the story mountain and finding the wellspring of life.
Iain: Did you see the retelling as a way of opening up a well known (if not widely read in the West) saga?
Ashok: Not so clinically, but yes, I always thought it was a great story. The very fact that so much seems familiar to western readers shows us how much has been pilfered and filched over the years. But what really drew me to the tale was the characters. I felt these were people whose stories must be told. I waited 38 years for someone really talented, wise, knowledgable, et al, to tell them. And when nobody else would, I said, okay, and took up the pen.
Iain: What is the genre scene like in India?
Ashok: There is no genre scene. An Indian novel was recently released with the tagline "the first Indian science fiction fantasy novel". The line was quickly amended to "SFF thriller" when the publishers realized that my Ramayana retelling predated the book by a couple of years. For what it's worth, I'm the author of the first Indian crime novels in English—which includes a mystery, a thriller and a private eye novel, firsts in all three. The writer of India's first television series in India. The first web novel. The first serial novel in English. The first SF stories in English. The first horror stories in English. And now, the first fantasy series. That's probably all beside the point, but it tells you how "young" and unborn the genre is here. Even Amitav Ghosh's excellent The Calcutta Chromosone, winner of the British Award some years ago, was not marketed as SF. The genre scene here is much like the literary publishing in New York or London: SF is a useful term to use in passing while referring to a book, but god forbid that any novel should actually be labelled as science fiction! The closest people will come is using the knowingly derogatory term 'sci-fic', the Indian variation of "sci fi".
Iain: Do you see myth as a way of retaining an identity whilst the world is gradually becoming or homogenized culturally?
Ashok: Most definitely. You can't read a book such as, say, Ben Okri's The Famished Road, without being immersed in Nigerian culture of that time and place. I think smaller is bigger. Local is universal. Simpler is more epic. Fiction seeks to compress reality into a manageable package. Myth is pre-compressed reality, frozen in time. Unlocking its secrets and applying them to present day reality is hugely rewarding, and great fun. And aren't we all tired of homogenized Americanized mass media everywhere?