Anuradha Roy, whose latest novel Sleeping on Jupiter has been longlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize this year, is not new to awards, having written three critically-acclaimed novels in last nine years. Her first two books, An Atlas of Impossible Longing (2008) and The Folded Earth (2011), were nominated for several prizes and The Folded Earth won the Economist Crossword Prize for Fiction.
However, Roy’s appreciation for awards is doubled due to her unique perspective as a fiction writer and a publisher of an academic imprint. “Thousands of new books come out every year, so awards help to bring a few books to new readers — they matter a lot, especially to publishers because it’s very hard to sell literary fiction. And since the Man Booker now covers almost all the English fiction published worldwide, its reach is huge,” says Kolkata-born Roy, who runs Permanent Black, with husband Rukun Advani.
The writer in her is ecstatic, but the happiness is tempered with her down-to-earth pragmatism. “I could not believe I was on the longlist for quite some time, it was so outside my expectations. At the moment it’s all a bit overwhelming, but I know it’ll end soon enough and I’ll go back to my normal rhythms of working.”
Sleeping on Jupiter, set in a fictional seaside town, packs a multitude of aspects of life, both personal and public, like memory, relationships, friendship, companionship, sexual abuse, religious bigotry and persecution, shambles of a welfare system, and even sexual orientation.
How easy was it to pack in so much in the book? “I didn’t start out planning all these themes: in my head there were a few characters and a place and I was interested more than anything else in writing about the nature of friendship. A holiday over five days is an intense affair that can test any friendship — and this was the original kernel of the novel. As it developed and grew more complex, the structuring took a lot of doing because of the multiple stories and shifts in time.”
Her mother and aunt were her companions on a research trip for this book set in a fictional seaside temple town. “People tend to assume that if you’re a woman writer your dominant concern must be women, but I want to follow characters who interest me, male or female. I think the temple guide and his love for the tea boy, the tea seller and his songs, and the photographer with his thwarted ambitions and failed marriage — these are as central, even thematically, as any of the women in the book.”
“As for the characters, sometimes they start out from people I have met, but they change completely as they develop. Only the Folded Earth has a couple of recognisable characters and that was deliberate.”
Roy divides time between New Delhi and Ranikhet in Uttarakhand and is very close to her dogs. She even has dedicated Sleeping on Jupiter to her dog Biscoot, hilariously described along with another stray called Barauni as publishing assistants in the Permanent Black blog. Writing takes a back seat when Roy designs covers for the books published by Permanent Black. “I always have to juggle publishing work with writing of course, but since I design covers it feels like a break from words. I am involved quite closely in the covers because most of my publishers know I design covers for Permanent Black and it would be cruel to exclude me from my own.”
Roy, who also makes pottery and paints along with juggling writing and running a publishing house, prefers to leave characters behind once the book is published. “I can’t bear to read what I’ve written once it’s published because I know I’ll want to rewrite most of it.” Asked if she has any favourite character or book that she has written, she says, “I don’t go back to them (the books) and I don’t have favourites.”
Writing, says Roy, is a constant process. “I do bits of writing for magazines and newspapers in between drafts of novels.” However, she says it is not necessary what she writes would eventually become part of her next book. “I don’t know when or if the next book will come. You never do know if a next book will come. I work on something all the time but often only to abandon it after a few months.”