Interview: Kanishk Tharoor

Interview with Kanishk Tharoor, the author of Swimmer Amongst the Stars, who recently won the 2016 Tata Lit Live! First Book Award for fiction.

ELJ: Were all the stories in Swimmer Among the Stars written around the same time? ‘Elephant at Sea’, of course, appeared earlier in A Clutch of Masterpieces. What made you choose Swimmer as the title story in the collection?


KT: They were written over the course of a rather long period of time, maybe 12 years? I don’t think I set out to write the collection as a collection, but rather have been working on short stories for a long time. These are a sampling of the best of them. The title was actually the rather wonderful idea of David Davidar, editor in chief of Aleph. It’s the title of one of the stories, but it has a quality of playfulness and range that I think applies to the whole collection. 


ELJ: ‘Tale of the Teahouse' appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Summer 2008 issue, won the Emily C Balch prize and was nominated for a National Magazine Award. ‘The Loss of Muzaffar’ won a prize in The Atlantic magazine’s nation-wide student writing contest, best fiction in the Spires Inter-collegiate writing contest and was published in First Proof (Penguin).

What took you so long to publish a book?


KT: Other work (I’m also a journalist and recently presented a radio series on the BBC), other studies (I toyed for a few years with becoming an academic historian, thanks to a fellowship at Columbia University), other projects, including a long-simmering novel that’s still simmering. As I said, I didn’t plan to write a collection, it accumulated over time.


ELJ: Your father, Shashi Tharoor, said in an interview about you, ‘I’ve always been a huge fan of his writing […] he’s far more a perfectionist than I am.’ Your thoughts, please?


KT: He likes to say that he writes better than anyone who writes faster, and faster than anyone who writes better. I’ve always been impressed by the rapid pace he knocks off a column and even a full book (he wrote half of his last book over the course of two intense weeks), but I am slightly more languid in my writing speed and do have a habit of revising as a I write, which slows me down even more.


ELJ: Everyone is familiar with how accomplished your father is as a writer. Your twin, Ishaan, is a diplomatic affairs writer for the Washington Post and has a flair for writing too. Do the three of you always take a look at each other’s initial drafts? Who, do you think, is your best critic from within the family?


KT: My mother is also a writer and a professor of literature. Together, along with my wife Amanda, who is a poet, they are all my first readers. I value all their judgments about writing and literature, but if I must pick one, I’ve always felt that my mother’s carry deep insight and sensitivity.


ELJ: Which is your favourite story from this collection and why?


KT: I’m fond of quite a few of the stories, perhaps none more than ‘The Mirrors of Iskandar’, my retelling of the cycle of stories known as ‘the Alexander romance’. I had real freedom to let my imagination roam, and I really enjoy that form of short, clipped vignettes.


ELJ: You seem to be with obsessed with ideas of speech, language and the inadequacy of words. Storytellers and storytelling, too, form a significant thread in the narrative. Are there any special reasons behind this?


KT: I’m quite fond of older forms of storytelling, from folklore to epic, and that’s certainly informed the way I write my fiction. In terms of ‘language,’ I’ve grown up hearing and speaking several different languages, and reading lots in translation (these days, probably more in translation than not) so I’m always thinking about what dwelling within and without a language entails. The title story, ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’, is about language extinction, and I do think it behooves us who think, read, and write in English to recognize the consequences of our linguistic empire running roughshod over the earth.


ELJ: At what age did you start writing? What role did your family play in helping you develop as a writer? Who were your other mentors? Tell us something about your journey.


KT: I began writing in a concerted way from quite a young age, maybe six or seven. The fact that both my parents were writers certainly encouraged me to do so, but it was also something I wanted to do (nobody made me sit down in front of our old, blue-screened computer to write). My brother and I were lucky to grow up in flats full of books, with reading and writing as fairly natural ways to spend one’s time.


ELJ: You have mentioned somewhere that you are now working on a novel. Do tell us what it is about. Are you enjoying the full-length work more, or did you enjoy the short stories better? How is the experience different? Do you prefer one to the other?


KT: The novel is in progress, and I’d rather not discuss it yet. It’s a far different challenge than writing short fiction. Once I’m happy with it, I’ll feel able to better answer your question.


ELJ: Can you relate any interesting, memorable incident from the time your book was launched?


KT: One of the stories in the collection, ‘Elephant at Sea,’ is based loosely on a true story about an elephant dispatched by India’s Ministry of External Affairs to Morocco. Though fictionalizing real events, I really made most of it up. At the Delhi launch last January, a wonderful woman came and told me that she was the daughter of the Indian ambassador at the time of the story, and that she had been moved by the piece and even its depiction of her father! It is rather magical to put bits of your imagination out into the world have them return to you in real life.


ELJ: What is the best advice you have ever received from a writer?


KT: I try to follow a fairly common, but still important bit of advice that I’ve heard from several writers: write about what interests you, not about what you think interests others.