Ashok Banker, author of many many books, including the soon to be published Vortal: Shockwave in conversation with Anupam Arunachalam, comic book writer.
AA: You’re best known for writing mythological fantasy and detective fiction. Has writing sci-fi always been on the cards?
AB: My first completed novels – written between the ages of 12 and 15 – were part of a trilogy about a superhuman android named Adonais in a future version of Earth. The android was created by two scientists who disagreed on its final use, the scientist who refused to let Adonais become a weapon of war turned the android against the army he was supposed to fight for, leading to a very politically charged epic battle and showdown, with a very clumsily written anti-war polemic. The novels were titled The Man-Machine, The Ultimatum and The Last Man.
I used to take the manuscript (a mammoth 800 page monster) in my schoolbag after school each day and visit bookstores and offices of publishers and printers in Mumbai’s printing and stationery district (Kalbadevi) trying to get it published. I even sent it to Penguin’s Zamir Ansari who wrote back praising me for having completed a whole trilogy at the age of 15 but said that Penguin only acted as a local distributor for the foreign editions and didn’t make editorial decisions.
The year was 1979. I gave up on the novels and tried selling SF short stories abroad. I’d found success with poetry by then – I was even invited to recite them on AIR and interviewed in a full half-hour programme on Doordarshan (devoted just to my poetry and unpublished SF) – and short fiction seemed to be the better way to break into SF. A couple of years later I began getting published – ironically my first SF publications were in Hebrew and German (translated by the publishers, not me). The Hebrew one happened because Jeet Thayil, who was an editor then, read one of my stories and asked me to send it to the Hebrew anthology. Later, I sold several more short stories to prestigious SF magazines like Interzone, Artemis, Weird Tales, etc, and they all claimed I was the first Indian writer of SFFH (Science Fiction Fantasy and Horror) to be published internationally. I was nominated for a few awards and won a couple, as well as included in a few Year’s Best. This was all in my teens, 20s and 30s, by the way. So yes, I think you can safely say that writing scifi has always been on the table, not just on the cards!
AA: What a story! Do you think things might be different now? Are Indian publishers more open to publishing fantasy and science fiction?
AB: To be honest, I have no idea. I haven’t submitted a manuscript for consideration for quite a few years. My past few contracts have all been from publishers who have seen my ongoing projects listed on my akbebooks.com website and contacted me to ask if print publishing rights are available for this or that book or series. There is no intrinsic tradition of SFF in our literary tradition – in a sense our mythological epics pre-date western SFF and use all the same tropes, or you could say that western SFF took all their ideas from Indian and Asian mythology and smartly repackaged them as their own “ideas”. You’ll find entire lists of names of characters, places, storylines, plots, lifted verbatim from our epics in western fantasy.
At least creators in film acknowledged their debt to Indian and Asian mythology. George Lucas frankly admitted being inspired by Joseph Campbell’s studies of the Hero with special regard to Asian mythology. What else is the concept of the paduan and the master if not a guru and shishya? What else could a name like Yoda mean if not Yoddha, the master warrior? The blue light of the force that pervades all existence is referred to in the Upanishads – this is why our Hindu gods are portrayed with a bluish glow or aura. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan is nothing but the Samay Chakra, as is the famous introduction to each book in the series. You could write volumes tracing the history of SFF ideas to Asian mythology. With Indian mythology itself now taking over as the country’s most popular and biggest selling publishing category, why would anyone look for second-hand ideas processed by western minds? The original tales are still undiscovered. There are fantastic stories in the Vedas, relatively unknown gems like Dasakumaracharitra, Lilavati, and so on. The Indian mind can detect a contrived idea like ramjet spaceships or nuclear fission because we’re innately familiar with concepts like the pushpaks and brahmastra which predate those SFnal concepts by several thousand years!
AA: In Vortal Shockwave, you’ve used a very interesting and effective storytelling device – the reader gets an account of events as they transpired from the point of view of each of the main characters. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?
AB: I have no clue why I write the way I write. I make no conscious choices or decisions. A story comes to me and I start writing. A few hours later, there seems to be a number of pages or chapters written on my computer screen. A few days or weeks later, a complete novel. It’s like sitting and thinking you’re really hungry and the next thing you know there’s a banquet in front of you which you’re tucking in hungrily but you have no clue how it appeared. It’s sort of like having a genie that magically appears and uses your body to write. When I read the work on the screen it’s as fresh and new to me as it is to readers. I often pick up and open a book at random and think, ‘that looks like an interesting one’ and then I realize, Oops, I wrote that one! It’s as much a mystery to me as it is to you. I can do it in front of you and show you if you like. It just pops out of me without any clue how I’m doing it. I guess at some level it comes from years (decades really) of reading tons and tons, watching movies and TV shows, and living and observing, and so when I sit to write, it’s already all there, fully formed and just waiting to be transcribed in words on the page. The real writing happens in the back of the mind, without you knowing it’s happening. That’s why I say, a writer is always writing—even when he’s not.
AA: What is your writing process like? Do you plot your books out before you start writing, or do you discover the tale as you go along?
AB: It starts with a person. Not a character, mind you. A person, because that’s how real he or she is to me. I think about the person over time, usually years, often decades. In the case of Vortal, I knew in my early teens that the idea of multiple parallel worlds was something I would use at some point. I had read and really enjoyed Bob Shaw’s Ring Around The Sun and several other books but I wanted to tell a story set in present-day India and more down to earth, not an SF novel of ideas as they call it. This was in the mid-1970s. I mulled over the idea, collecting little details and tidbits of story over the years. In the late 1990s I was involved with Rediff.com as a journalist—I covered the Kargil war for them—and learned the concept Vortal, which is an integrated portal leading to multiple websites. I also dabbled with Actionscript and Flash animation programming just for the heck of it. That’s where I got the idea of calling the portal to parallel worlds a vortal and using programming jargon as the base for the inter-world travel.
In 1999, someone contacted me saying they were publishing the world’s first multi-media magazine on CD-ROM and would I write a serial story for them. I’d written several serial novels by then, including India’s first serial ebook, first ebook, and a magazine serial, so I said sure. And I thought, why not write Vortal for the zine. It was called Mahazine and it basically financed the writing of the first one-third of Vortal but it fizzled out after a half dozen issues, leaving me with an unfinished novel. By then, I was already struggling to find publishers willing to read another series I’d written, called The Ramayana Series, and finding no takers. So where was the question of finding a publisher for Vortal? I put it aside.
A few years later, my daughter Yashka, around ten years old by the time, found the manuscript, read it, and loved it. She said, Dad, please finish it. So I had my next sponsor! I continued working on Vortal, as I did on many unfinished stories, over the next few years, sharing the excerpts online and using the feedback and encouragement to keep me going. Finally, in 2009 I finished it, only 35 years after I first thought of the story and about ten years since I started writing it.
And now, in 2013, we have the final edited fully revised version by Duckbill. This kind of journey over decades is quite typical for almost all my books, by the way. People wonder how I write so many books at once. The truth is, I’ve been writing for 40 years. It’s just that publishers now want to publish them all!
AA: How important do you think hard science is to science fiction?
AB: I don’t enjoy reading SF much any more. But I’ve read a lot of hard SF and enjoyed it. Peter F. Hamilton and Iain M. Banks probably do it best right now, though there are several other fine authors. I used to love Analog – I think it’s the best short SF magazine ever published, far superior to Asimov’s or any other. But hard SF is like thrash metal or death metal. It’s not for everyone. And it’s not essential to SF. Ultimately, a good story well told is what counts.
AA: Vortal moves like a thrill-ride – not a paragraph in there is boring. What advice would you give serious aspiring writers about making stories work?
AB: Read, read, read. Write. I read several hundred books to every one that I write. You can’t read enough. It has to be second nature to you. The same goes for writing. Throw out entire novels. I’ve thrown out over 60 books over the years, some of them pretty damn good ones – you have to be merciless and generous. Don’t get too hooked on any one book or story. Write more. Write better. Look ahead. Move forward. The story or book is written. You as a writer still have work ahead. Keep working. And reading is more important than writing.
AA: What books or authors would you say have had the most influence on what you write and how you write it?
AB: The authors I like, the genres I enjoy, seem to have zero influence on my work. Henry James? Romance fiction? Rennaissance English poetry? I read so much, so widely, that there isn’t time or space for any one author or book to influence me. It’s an ocean of stories. I can’t point to any one wave as having lifted me up. The ocean itself is my mother. She takes me where she will and I let her.
AA: Vortal, like all your fantasy series, has many scenes that are visually very interesting. Are you a movie buff like your character Vhy? Do you enjoy any other forms of visual storytelling?
AB: I love stories in all forms. I’m a child of television and cinema. I think my reading and movie watching and TV watching have gone hand in hand. I would guess I’ve read a bit over 20,000 books, and watched as many movies and seen a like number of TV episodes. But having said that, I must say, I don’t mean Indian movies or television. Sure, I’ve enjoyed our movies to some extent, but the ones that are interested in good stories well told. Not the crap Bollywood churns out.
Oddly enough, in movies and TV, I don’t like fantasy or SF as much as straight drama or comedy or romances, or even more mind-challenging stories. I love Bengali and South Indian cinema. I think Asian cinema is the world’s best. It would be a dream come true to have a director like Zhang Zimou or any of a dozen other brilliant directors adapt one of my books – the Peter Jackson LOTR model works well for western SFF but not for Asian story cycles. I love Korean, Thai, Taiwanese, Chinese, and Japanese movies and TV shows. I watch tons of American and European shows on disk – Blu-Ray is awesome. 1080p is king!
I’ve slowed down a bit, barely watching a couple of movies and a few episodes of good shows each day, maybe reading a book or two as well. Once upon a time, I could watch a dozen movies, or twenty or thirty TV episodes (an entire season), and also read five books a day. Age catches up. But I still can’t do without my daily fix.
People often mistake stories for their medium. They say stuff like “This would make a good film.” Or “this is a good book but it can’t be a film.” Look at the biggest movies, TV shows – they’ve adapted the most unadaptable books brilliantly. Nobody believed LoTR could be filmed that brilliantly until Peter Jackson did it. It needs a brilliant mind to tell a brilliant story in any medium. Indian filmmakers don’t have the ambition, the know-how, or the balls to surrender to the story and submit to its glory. We all serve the story. I make sure my name is always smallest on a book cover. People are buying the story, not me personally!
AA: What are some popular books that you aren’t crazy about and why?
AB: I can’t stand mythological fiction. Especially the ones written by authors who are clearly brahmin Hindu males perpetrating the same BS handed out by brahmin Hindu males for millennia. It’s time we heard other voices, other people telling those stories. I want to hear a Muslim rendition of the Ramayana, or Draupadi’s Mahabharata, or an Australian aboriginal version of the Sakuntala romance. And so on. I don’t like most bestseller fiction. The moment a book hits the Top 10 on a bestseller list, I avoid it like the plague. If it’s still around, still looks interesting ten or 20 years later, I might check it out. But I really dislike commercial product – books that are slickly packaged, promoted and marketed to readers as if selling books is the whole aim, rather than reading them. To me, a good book is one that finds its readers over time. I know this flies in the face of what publishers want from an author (sorry, Sayoni!) but I can’t produce or promote a bestseller. If a book happens to sell to a very large readership in a very short time only because it’s in the news, I am definitely not going to read it.
AA: Other than mythology, what influences might an author absorb to write science fiction/fantasy with a distinct Indian flavour?
AB: If the author is Indian, the Indian flavor comes from life and experience and observation, not from books. The only influences in reading need to be genre books that show you how to do it well. If you’re writing a book about superheroes, read as many as you can get your hands on. If you’re writing about space travel, ditto. But for the actual stories and people (not characters) let your subsconscious mind find them in your everyday life. Take Mrs Puri from Flat 302 and put her in a spaceship. Take the dhoodhwala and imagine him delivering encapsulated dhoodh 2000 years in the future but still speaking in a bhaiya accent. Let your imagination do the work.
AA: Have you enjoyed reading any fantasy/science fiction by Indian authors?
AB: None. Sad to say. Some awful stuff published in the last few years. Really really terrible. It’s obvious that most of these writers are only churning out dross to try to please foreign editors or their reading group partners and all they’re doing is producing pretentious boring crap. Really good Fantasy SF set in India can only come from the ground up. From the grassroots. Just using SFnal ideas locally is never going to work because the Brits or Americans or Europeans will always do it better. That’s why there are authors abroad building reputations using Indian myths and stories in their SF novels. We would first have to catch up with their level of SFF sophistication and then be good enough to write an original story. Or we could simply bypass the whole evolutionary chart and simply blast them all away by changing the rules of the game. But that takes talent, balls and a willingness to stand alone. Indian authors are too comfy group-hugging and cluster-fraking each other to really put it out there. I don’t see any attempt or talent locally that even comes up to international standards. It’s all dross.
AA: What has working with Duckbill been like? I’ve heard they force their writers to draw platypus-shaped occult symbols.
AB: It’s been awful, simply awful. They keep us in these massive dungeons, chained head to toe, surviving on crusts of bread, drawing platypuses all day long. I’ve been here 638 years, and just yesterday when I asked my editor, please Ma’am, haven’t I drawn enough, she glared at me and said, for asking that question you go back to the first one and start over again.
I began my career as an author with a YA novel, Amazing Adventure In Chotta Sheher, which was published in 1992 by The Daughters of St. Paul, under their Better Yourself Books imprint. They were very sweet and very Christian but they understood what children enjoyed and the book sold over 12,000 copies at the time and spawned a film adaptation (which never got made sadly). My next YA book was published by Puffin, The Missing Parents Mystery. Duckbill clearly knows young readers and good books and may they keep bring the two together for decades to come!
AA: Is it Ban-ker (as in person who banks), Bun-kér, Bun-ker or Ban-kér? You might not know this, but some of us are confused!
AB: Lol. The spelling gives it away: It’s Banker as in Banker, exactly as it reads. And yes, I do have a bank. A great big bank of stories. I keep them all in a giant money bin like Unca Scrooge and I go diving in it everyday and yell Yahoo. Because I love stories so much and here, sir, there are always more stories!