Samrat Upadhyay sat down with Sycamore Review’s Anthony Cook for an interview before a live audience at Purdue University in September. You can click on the following links to listen to audio clips from the conversation. A complete transcript of the interview follows.
Clip 1: Outlines & Superstitions
Clip 2: Short Stories vs. Novels
Clip 3: Exoticization & Paralysis
Clip 4: Writer’s Block: Emptiness is Capacity
Clip 5: Revision: Boil it Down
Clip 6: Translating Dialogue
SAMRAT UPADHYAY was born and raised in Nepal. He is the author of four books: Arresting God in Kathmandu, a collection of stories and a Whiting Award winner; The Guru of Love, a novel which was a New York Time’s notable book;The Royal Ghosts, a second collection of stories which won the 2007 Asian-American Literary Award, the Society of Midland Authors Book Award, and was declared “A Best of Fiction” in 2006 by the Washington Post; and most recentlyBuddha’s Orphans, a 400-plus page multi-generational, multi-layered novel that Publishers Weekly called “powerful and beautifully told.” The first Nepali author writing in English to be published in the West, he’s been called “a Buddhist Chekov” by the San Francisco Chronicle. He has appeared on the BBC and National Public Radio and directs Indiana University’s Creative Writing program, which is regularly ranked among the best in the nation.
Anthony Cook: Buddha’s Orphans is a really complex novel; it spans generations, dives into several characters’ consciousnesses, and at times digresses from traditional chronology, making big leaps in time forward and backward. And yet I’ve heard you don’t use outlines, and that seems sort of incredible to me. I was wondering if you could talk about that.
Samrat Upadhyay: Well, I did my PhD at the University of Hawaii, where I wrote two novels, and I consulted a craft book. I should’ve known better. I was a PhD student, you know? It was a craft book called The Weekend Novelist, and it was geared toward commercial writers. And so I followed that fairly closely, and it asked that you plot the novel and everything. As a result, my novel suffered. Both the novels suffered. And since then, it almost became like a superstition for me. When I wrote my first novel, The Guru of Love, which was initially a short story. I actually went back to revise it as a short story and then it kept growing. By page 75 I was beginning to think, “Oh, this might turn out to be something else.” My first impulse was to try to plot it out then, but I resisted it, primarily because I was afraid I would fall into the same trap as I did earlier. Now with the short story, I think you can manage without plotting it out although I know quite a few writers who plot out their short stories, too. It was a challenge not to actually sit and write what’s happening with each character and where the story is going to go. I resisted the impulse, but it might not be totally accurate to say that I don’t do plot outlines. I think there is a degree of plot outline that’s happening in my head. All I’m doing is not committing them to paper. I think that’s the difference.
Anthony Cook: Is the reason that you want to prevent the novel from becoming predictable? To keep that element of surprise?
Samrat Upadhyay: Yes. For me, the joy of writing comes from not knowing what is going to happen next. And I know some writers have the same feelings, others don’t. From what I read, F. Scott Fitzgerald heavily plotted even his short stories, and I have a couple of writer friends who do plot outlines, even for their short stories. But for me, when I don’t know where the story is going it seems that I’m pressing against the form, and I really enjoy that. And I like the surprise element of what the characters are going to do.
Anthony Cook: There’s a moment in Buddha’s Orphans that I really like. It’s toward the latter third of the book. One of the main characters is Raja; he was born an orphan and this fact sort of haunts him throughout the book. All that we know at the beginning of the book is that his mother died, committed suicide in a public pond, but other than that we don’t know anything about her. Not until that last 3rd of the book—when we’re following, primarily, the story of Raja’s daughter, a college-aged woman in the U.S. who has disappeared, or so her parents think—that the story of Raja’s mother comes in. First of all, it’s amazing that I was totally willing to read 300 pages without knowing that information. Moreover, it’s fascinating to bring that information in at that point because you’re so far into the book. Can you talk about that decision? Does it have something to do with the trickiness of endings in novels, and trying to sort of introduce a new element in that latter third that can kind of carry us out of the novel?
Samrat Upadhyay: While writing it, I wasn’t theorizing it like that. I don’t use theories when I’m writing; I go by the feel of what’s happening within the story and, in particular, where the characters take me. One of the things that happened with that particular moment…I was quite satisfied with not revealing Raja’s mother’s story. But then, by the time I reached the halfway point of the novel, I started becoming curious as a writer. So what is her story? Why did she commit suicide? I think I had a general sense, but I wanted to explore that further. It seemed like once Raja’s daughter, Ranjana, came into the picture, then I started seeing parallels between her life and Raja’s mother’s life, and the kind of suffering that it entailed. So it just came at the right moment, and I felt like I found an opening. It just seemed like the right moment to do that. It seemed to fit well because her story starts paralleling and so that’s the last leg of the story. I’m really glad you mentioned it because in the reviews that have come out of the novel, no one has touched on this aspect of the novel, which to me, in a way, is central in my attempt to point out the cyclical thing that’s happening within the novel.
Anthony Cook: The cyclical aspect and the back story for Raja’s mother gets at the oppressive environment for women in Kathmandu. There’s a lot of societal norms that are at play and often times the desires of the characters go against the societal norms. Stuart Dybek talks about place and “hauntology,” which is basically the history and unseen forces of a place that act on a character, often times without the character knowing it. It seems like that’s really at work in Buddha’s Orphans. There are literal ghosts, but it also seems like there’s a sort of haunting in terms of place. Is that something you’re conscious of as you write? Do you think about place having these constrictions that the characters are consciously or unconsciously coming up against?
Samrat Upadhyay: I think so. There are two elements here. One is the oppressive environment that you talked about in relation to women. That’s not something I consciously think about it in terms of writing. I’m not saying, “Well, I want to write about how oppressed women are.” But it turns out in this novel that the women’s lives take on central roles. Although Raja starts off as the protagonist of the novel, it became quite clear to me as I went along that it was actually Nilu who was the protagonist, who ties all the elements together. And then there’s a very strong character in Kaki, who raises Raja, and then Raja and Nilu’s daughter who comes toward the end.
But, yeah, in terms of the place and relationship to place, I was born and raised in that city. So, to go back to Dybek’s “hauntology,” that place still haunts me, in a sense, because I have lived half of my life here and half of my life over there. So Nepal and Kathmandu are in my mind all the time. I think maybe what I do, as a writer, is that I play out that reflection within my fiction. But yes, my characters do walk around the city quite a bit. They’re constantly interacting with the city; the city inflicts a certain kind of mood on them and they react to that. In the novel there is a pond, the Rani Pokhari, which was a place of suicide when I was very young. I actually mention that in the beginning of the novel. I remember one childhood story of someone I knew who had attempted suicide there, and so that had remained with me and that’s how the novel got propelled.
Anthony Cook: You mentioned that in Buddha’s Orphans female characters sort of took over the novel. I know that you’ve had very strong female characters in your other work as well. Does it surprise you that females oftentimes become dominant characters in your books, since you’re writing as a male? What do you think is the reason for that?
Samrat Upadhyay: Well, I grew up with a very strong mother. She held a fairly high position as a woman. She was what was called at the time a first class officer in a semi-government corporation. She used to go to work and come home and then do all the household work, too. So, I saw her in both roles. She was very influential in my emotional and my intellectual make-up, and I have a sister who is also very strong. So that could be the reason.
Anthony Cook: There’s a quote from Arresting God in Kathmandu, from the story “Deepak Misra’s Secretary.” Deepak, who is a financial consultant, works at an office and is married to an American woman but separated from her. At one point, his wife says, “Nepali men, you know, either you’re a mother, a sister, an aunt, or you’re a whore.” I thought that was a really interesting observation on her part as a character, but it also suggests something about the environment that women operate in in your stories. I’m wondering if the fact that they’re up against societal expectations—more so than men—if that sense of conflict is one reason women characters tend to be prevalent and very interesting characters in your books.
Samrat Upadhyay: Yeah, that’s possible. To go back to my mother, I remember when she used to come home sometimes and just complain about these board meetings with all men. And even though she was on the same level as them, they were very dismissive of her opinions. Now I don’t mean to suggest that’s how all Nepali men are. And that’s one of the dangers of writing fiction. Also, Nepal has changed quite a bit in the last ten years, certainly even earlier. The transformation has been quite astounding. So the gender roles are actually changing quite a bit.
Anthony Cook: I should say that with Buddha’s Orphans, you’re covering a time span that goes back to the 1960s and 70s, so the environment is obviously somewhat different than what it is now. I wanted to ask about your experiences in writing novels versus short stories. You’ve published four books and have alternated back-and-forth between the novel and the short story form. I’m just wondering if that’s intentional on your part. Do you need a break from one, so you start doing the other? What has been your experience with deciding which form you want to focus on for a year or two?
Samrat Upadhyay: The short story is my first love. I love writing short stories; I think writing short stories comes naturally to me. I understand the form a little more intuitively than I do the novel. The novel I find quite vexing, quite challenging, and it’s exhausting. There’s no end in sight, you know? You start writing a novel, when is it going to end? I’m actually teaching a novel writing class at Indiana University for my MFA students. There’s seven students. To make it manageable, I have said that we obviously can’t write the whole thing in one semester, so how about you just write a short novel? So I called it “Writing the (Short) Novel.” They’re writing about 150 pages of it. They are already beginning to experience the exhaustion of it even in 150 pages.
In terms of the alternation between novel and short story, after Arresting God was published, I was still writing short stories. Then my editor and my agent both said, “Well, you have to write a novel.” I think my first reaction was, “Why do I need to write a novel?” They said, “No, no, you have to write a novel.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll give it a shot.” Then the short story turned out to be a novel [The Guru of Love].
I do find writing the short story a bit of a relief after having written a novel. Actually, right now, I’m focusing on a short story collection yet again. It’s a more joyous affair for me. I know you’re not supposed to sort of favor that, but writing short stories is more pleasurable. At the same time, I’m very intrigued by the form of the novel. And I think, especially after writingBuddha’s Orphans, I can see that, wow, I can do so much with the novel, even though it’s a quite difficult form. I’m already thinking about another novel and the structure and stuff. So hopefully after maybe two or three more novels, then I will feel like this can be as joyful as writing the short story.
Anthony Cook: This is probably a question you’ve been asked many times, but as you said earlier, you have lived in the United States for half your life now, and yet in all four of your books, the primary setting is Nepal. I’m just wondering: Why is that? Is it conscious on your part or is it just where your mind goes when you sit down to write a story? What’s the reason for setting things there rather than here?
Samrat Upadhyay: It’s just the place my mind goes to. I feel like I’m more familiar with my Nepali characters or my Nepali psyche, if you want to call it that. There’s also the attraction of the place. I have discovered I’m a writer of distance. I’m able to write with clarity when I’m a little bit removed from a place. I’m finding that in my more recent writing, it’s changing. That’s why in Buddha’s Orphans, you see a character who actually comes to America. There are scenes from Chicago… I think that I’m slowly moving towards doing more of a back-and-forth.
Anthony Cook: Two of your books—Arresting God in Kathmandu and Buddha’s Orphans—have overt religious references even in the titles. A San Francisco Chroniclereview called you a “Buddhist Chekov, who writes about love, not with dark Russian fatalism but with a sense of the cyclical nature of life and its passions.” You mentioned that cyclical nature earlier. I’m just wondering how religion has influenced you in your work, if at all.
Samrat Upadhyay: Nepal is a very religious country. Temples abound. People go to temples. People are chanting…I am interested in how gods and goddesses feature in people’s lives, and how I’ve seen even among Nepali communities here that religious symbols are some of the most easily transferable symbols. So, you go into a Nepali household and there’s Ganesh, and there’s Saraswati, and there’s Lakshmi. But I’m more interested in people seeking transcendence in their everyday lives, and how the physical realities around us can also be opportunities for us to find and discover that transcendence. I’ve been reading a little bit on Buddha’s philosophies, and I’m interested in the whole idea of suffering; and that’s why there’s a crucial moment in Buddha’s Orphans where the main character is reflecting upon the suffering of this one particular character, and I thought that applied to the suffering of all the characters, even those who are not overtly suffering.
Anthony Cook: You are the director of IU’s writing program. Do you feel like teaching aids or hinders you more as a writer?
Samrat Upadhyay: I love teaching. I’ve never been the kind of writer who can take a year off and just be completely engaged with his work. When I’m on sabbaticals I tend to write maybe 10-15 percent more than I do in a regular semester. I find that [teaching] helps a great deal. In this novel writing class, just this morning we discussed Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Just discussing the novel was very stimulating and I wanted to go write a novel. I don’t know anything else to do in this life. I’m not good at anything else except teaching or writing. I think I might be a slightly better teacher than I am a writer, too, so…
Anthony Cook: One often hears some debate around the idea of exoticism. Some writers are accused of perhaps overemphasizing traditional aspects of their native culture. Can you talk about that?
Samrat Upadhyay: I think all writers who write in English about places that are not predominantly English-speaking are suspect. Especially writers who live here and write about there—people are suspicious of them. Writers like Salman Rushdie have been criticized. I think some of that comes partly with the territory…
There is a degree of exoticization going on. But I think some of the exoticization is also in the eyes of the beholder. WhenThe Guru of Love was published the Cleveland Plain Dealer reviewed it. The reviewer was disappointed. Where were the mountains? was basically what was said. You know, If you’re looking for this, you won’t find it in this novel. It’s a very tricky territory for writers. I had one reader in Nepal who didn’t like that the fact I used the word “filthy” when I was referring to the Bagmati River, which is indeed quite filthy now. His argument was that, “Well, we all know it’s filthy. And that seems like it’s a marker for a Western audience.” And my answer was, “Well, yes, we all know it’s filthy but every time I pass by there or even my mom, who lives in Nepal, passes by there, she points to it and says, ‘That’s so filthy.’”
Anthony Cook: I can see how this would be almost paralyzing for a writer if you think about it too much.
Samrat Upadhyay: Yes, you do need a degree of stamina to staunch off these attacks…As soon as you write in English, you are representing the entire country. I think that can be quite debilitating, especially for a young writer. You put in Buddha, why didn’t you put in Ganesh? You put in Mount Everest, why didn’t you put in Ganesh Himal?
Audience: You mentioned that working on a novel can be so difficult. What do you do when you’re stuck when working on a novel?
Samrat Upadhyay: There are multiple strategies. You just have to see which one works at that particular moment. For example, I no longer use the phrase “writer’s block.” As soon as I use it, it becomes sort of heavy and solid and I start imagining a block in my own mind and it becomes a self-perpetuating thing. I see more like good days and bad days in terms of writing. One of the things I do is actually go back and reread what I’ve written so far, and I usually find that there’s a point earlier on where I’ve sort of veered off. And the reason the block has happened is because of that sidetrack I have taken. That usually has to do with a sense of inauthenticity in that particular moment where instead of being true to the character and the situation, I try to impose an idea on it. Sometimes you just need to get away from it for awhile. There’s a famous line from I Ching, the Chinese divination system, that says, “Emptiness is capacity and capacity is power.” I think it’s good to empty your mind every now and then about all your pre-conceived notions of what is happening in your novel and just look at it from a fresh perspective. And that also helps. Sometimes I think just eating good food helps. Something very physical. Food doesn’t demand any sort of intellectual rigor. It’s all about the senses. Listening to music. So, you know, a variety of approaches.
Audience: Have you considered or tried to write any novels in your native language?
Samrat Upadhyay: I used to be good in Nepali when I was attending school in Nepal, but I lost the facility once I came over here. I’ve tried writing in Nepali, but I’ve found the only kind of writing I do in Nepali is journalistic. I have actually have sat down and translated one of my stories into Nepali, and that worked out fine because I knew how the work was in English. But translation takes a long time. I spent a lot of time translating one piece. Nepali is my mother tongue, but English is my first language. By this time, it has become the language of my intellectual make-up and my professional make-up, so it feels as though I can do more with English than I can with Nepali.
Audience: It is obvious that you enjoy your position as a teacher and writer very much. I was just wondering if you’ve had any point in your life that you’ve had a sort of quintessential turning point where you said, “I’m a writer. This is what I want to do.” Is there a moment you can recall that made you want to do what you do?
Samrat Upadhyay: I don’t think there is one moment. I used to write as a child. I remember composing a poem in Nepali about my neighborhood when I was in second grade. But I think I attempted graduate school in journalism because at that point I didn’t know what kind of writer I wanted to be. I thought I wanted to be a journalist, so I attended graduate school in journalism at Ohio University. I ended up taking a creative writing workshop in the English department. That was the major moment because it was also fueled by the teacher really liking my work, which always helps. She said something like, “Samrat, you’re a natural fiction writer.” And that phrase sort of reverberated inside my head like. To that extent, I really credit my teachers for their encouragement. In my small way, I try to be that encouragement for my students. Sometimes it can be lost in our daily bustle that our students are listening to everything we’re saying and they’re paying attention.
Audience: I was wondering to what extent do you think that everyday life experiences add to your writing?
Samrat Upadhyay: I mean, that’s all we can to draw from. I think our everyday life experiences are what we draw from. For me, some of my more powerful images in my writing actually come from my childhood years even though I transformed them into a contemporary setting. But there’s something about childhood. Those memories are still embedded really strongly, and I tap into them. For example, I grew up in a middle-class family in Nepal, and I didn’t suffer. In the 70s bellbottom pants were a big hit and I wanted bellbottom pants and my parents had gotten me bellbottom pants. Then I experienced poverty when I came to America as a student. There was a time when I didn’t have an apartment to live in, and I used to crash in my friends’ apartments for two weeks at a stretch. And that gave me the sensation of feeling poor, and I think I transfer that onto my characters. There’s no equivalency, of course. People in Nepal suffer the kind of poverty that we can’t imagine. But I think, as writers, at least we can try. We can try to feel what other people are feeling.
Audience: Your novel was at a certain point 800 pages or more. Can you talk about compressing from 800 pages to 400 pages? What’re some of the highlights or lowlights of that experience of compression?
Samrat Upadhyay: My first full draft that I wrote once I finished it was 800 pages, but I think compression in short stories might be slightly different in terms of my experience of writing this novel. Because in Buddha’s Orphans, there was one solid digression that had to do with one of the characters that I sort of chucked out entirely. In a short story, you don’t do that. In a short story, you usually do what my teacher used to call “boil it down.” Going back in terms of looking at the sentences, at certain sections. But in this case, it was an entire chunk that I had to throw out. My editor, when she read the novel, made a bit of a snide comment. She said, “It’s a wannabe epic.” I hadn’t thought in those terms. My agent said, “Holy shit, it’s an epic!” But she said, “It’s a wannabe epic.” And then the compression had to with speeding up certain parts of the novel, especially in the beginning. There was a back-and-forth. I argued, “I know you feel that it’s a slow pace here, but I feel that it’s…” We’re very good making the justifications and the arguments for our work, so there was a bit of back-and-forth. It was a bit of a compromise. I listened to her in terms of what she had to offer. With the finished novel, I didn’t know what was good and what was not good. So it was nice to have an outside perspective like that.
Audience: Did you make use of the digression? Did you take it and sort’ve plant it somewhere else?
Samrat Upadhyay: It actually looks like one of the digressions is going to turn into a short story, which is nice, you know? So it’s not gone to waste. But one thing about working on a long novel and throwing stuff out is that you think, Oh, my God, I spent so much time writing this. So much energy has gone into this and it might never be used. And some of the stuff will never be used, I think.
Audience: I’m in the MFA program for creative writing, and recently we’ve been debating how to approach writing in English with characters who aren’t speaking English. And I was wondering how you go about that?
Samrat Upadhyay: If you read my work, there are Nepali words scattered throughout. Sometimes I translate them, but you have to be really careful that you don’t do a really obvious travel-book kind of translation. It has to be seamless. I think you can also try to depict the syntax of the original language while your characters are speaking English. For me, some of the Indian writers have done it well. You also have to be really careful, because that’s when you can also not knowingly exoticize. Every character at every instance talking in atypical ways in terms of English language can also be very odd. You just have to give enough, so that the reader gets a sense and then you move on. I have found it quite refreshing at times to just have one of my Nepali characters say, “Fuck off.” There is no exact translation into Nepali. But what’s important is the emotion, and “fuck off” has a charge that can depict what I’m saying as opposed to “you are a pig’s ass.” You know how it can be. It’s a very tricky thing. You deal with it on an instance to instance basis.