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By Patrick (2006-11-19)
Q: Speaking of which, have you received much feedback from Indians pertaining to RIVER OF GODS' accuracy or lack thereof?
The general opinion is 'not bad for a firangi' (foreigner), together with a mild head-slap of 'why didn't we think of this?' That latter one is a more general response I've had from other writers as well: basically, Of course, it's so bloody obvious. There was one extended argument I linked into from my blog of the 'who does this westerner think he is to try to write about my culture?' (this, of course without having bothered to read the book) that centred on the whole argument of western/Indian developed/developing world power structures and (I simplify grossly here) exploitation. Of course, I can stand up and wave my hand and say, hey, I'm the one living in the British Empire's last colony, not you, but that doesn't fit the script. It's pretty much the standard Western-liberal-guilt argument, but it has made me think about what I write --for some time now I've been shifting my fiction away from the Western and the developed world and into the developing world. After all, the future comes to Kenya or Kolkata as surely as it comes to Kansas. But when I sold the movie rights, the producer (who works a lot with Bollywood) hinted, wryly, that I'd so extensively settled the terrain that it would be quite a long time before anyone else tackled it. Well, Alan Dean Foster has published Sagramanda (also from the mighty Pyr) a techno-thriller set in near-future India. I discovered at Worldcon that Alan and I were in India at he same time: he was driving up from Mumbai as I was setting off down the Ganges; so it was clearly something that was in the air at the time. There will be more stories from the RoG world --I'm wrangling with the opening of one now -- but I wouldn't want anyone to think I was disenfranchising or discouraging India SF&F writers. It's a big country.
Q: Many readers seem to have a hard time adapting to the unconventional structure of RIVER OF GODS? What made you decide to use such disparate POV characters to tell the story?
There are stories you can tell in books that you can't in any other format. Because of their length and the amount of time it takes to read them, books can work much more with memory than more time-based media like film and television. The underlying narrative structures are the same, but one of the virtues of the novel is that it operate on a vast scale. In RoG, Bharat is much a character as any of the humans --as indeed is Town and Country, the CGI soap opera... and I wanted to find a way to show it. I remembered the old Indian story of the blind men and the elephant --each feels a different part, and imagines that an elephant is like a tree trunk, like a snake, like a whale. I wanted multiple perspectives on the future India, because this would show its breadth and depth, where following a single POV narrator would mean vast amounts of info-dumping or a flatly-lit world that didn't convince, live and breathe. Worldbuilding is one of the virtues of SF, so I wanted to use it to create India 2047. The heart of the story is a huge conspiracy, and conspiracies only succeed if its very hard for any one person to see it all. Each character has an angle on the story, but not al of it, it's only when they start to come together that it all begins to make sense to us, the readers, if not to the characters themselves. There are several characters at the end of the book who never get to see the bigger picture, but completely satisfy their own stories.
Q: Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?
I'm a bit of a control freak when it comes to writing because I plan everything out in advance. Writing is hard enough without having to think up what happens next when you're staring at a flashing cursor. I sell a book on a long and pretty detailed outline, then can run up to two or three hundred pages of notes and backgrounding. I do character bibles: about a dozen pages on each character before I start to write the book, then fill in the little details. Of course all characters surprise you --it was halfway through Brasyl that I realised that Edson's girlfriend Fia had a bad temper and could be a real snappy cow. It's one of the givens of writing that no plot should ever hinge on characters being stupid (your average computer-generated teen slasher movie) but characters can do stupid things because of their internal flaws, fears or limitations. As long as there is conflict --inner conflict--there is drama. In RoG a lot of plots revolve around character's weaknesses --and are redeemed to some measure by their strengths. In particular, Shaheen Badoor Khan, the advisor to Prime Minister Sajida Rana and the only Muslim in the Hindu government of Bharat, grew beyond the limits of his plot. I ended up liking and respecting him a lot, he seemed to retain a strange integrity and dignity.