Monday, July 03, 2006

Manjula Padmanabhan interview

Manjula Padmanabhan is a writer, artist and cartoonist who writes, among various other things, speculative fiction for children and adults.

Q: As a writer who's done work across genres and across age groups and
who's been published outside India, could you compare publishers'
responses to your work? As in, how relatively difficult is it to get
SF for adults, or SF for children, published abroad?

A: I think most authors will agree with what I’m about to say – that there’s no general experience. Unless the author happens to be a “star”, in which case his/her experience is unique to a particular moment in time, each book that gets published struggles to find its way into readers’ hands and there’s no quick route around that struggle except by chance.
My assumption is that publishers will assess authors first as foreigners and second as genre-writers – I don’t know whether this is clear, so I’ll say it again differently: in the matter of getting published outside India, an Indian writer is likely to find that the first barrier has to do with ethnicity. The barrier of genre will not be considered until after the ethnicity-issue has been solved – and if it isn’t solved then, of course genre won’t matter. I say “my assumption” because it’s just a guess. I haven’t been told this or heard anyone say it.

Q: What can Indian spec-fic writers do to help their work get seen?

A: If anything, it would have to be at the level of Indians settled abroad clubbing together to publish their own work, for their own readers. If a big enough interest and market were created in that way, it would attract “mainstream” publishers, SF or otherwise.

Q: What themes/characters would you like to see explored in speculative
fiction from India? What do you think Indian SFF writers should avoid?
A few comics/graphic novel publishers are planning to hit
international bookshelves with South Asia related content in a big way
over the next few years. Of course their success will depend largely
on the quality of the books concerned, but at this time, do you think
it'll work a) abroad and b) in India? Are enough Indians interested in
either comics or speculative fiction?

A: Ummm. I don’t generally miss a particular type of literature if it isn’t already available. It’s an attitude I have in general – I don’t miss Indian food when it’s not easily available, for instance – I never make an effort to eat it in foreign cities. In a similar sort of way – yes, I know it’s not a great analogy, but it’s an easy one to relate to – I don’t miss seeing specific genre-literatures set in India or written by Indians.
Indian readers can be highly supportive in specialized instances – remember Amar Chitra Katha comics? They were a smash hit (I HATED ACK – but that’s besides the point). They were that era’s speculative fiction – as are all mythologies – of course there are some Indians who don’t acknowledge that the myths are fiction so I suppose there’s a problem with calling them that. I don’t know if there would be general public interest in non-mythological speculative fiction … I would tend to expect NOT – not for its own sake. If a piece of NMSF were to become highly visible and successful in the west, that would be different – it would then become acceptable and successful in India.

Q: Internationally, a lot of speculative fiction ends up being part of a
cross-media franchise – TV, books, merchandise. There's no history of
this in India, but do you think it's possible eventually, or are the
worlds of TV/film and books in India too isolated for this to happen
unless something fundamental changes about the markets in question? I
read that Harvest was made into a film - was it easier because
it was a play?

A: HARVEST was made into a film DESPITE being mildly SF. It wasn’t made as a commercial film, it had funding from the Ford Foundation and it wasn’t distributed widely. It would never have been filmed at all if not that Govind Nihalani is a film-maker who (a) enjoys taking risks and (b) is familiar with my work – if we had not been friends, I very much doubt that a film would have been made of the play. I don’t think it was of any consequence that it was already a script (i.e., that it was a play, rather than a novel) – and I believe that the primary reason it was possible to get funding for it was that the play had won a prize and therefore had already generated a little publicity for itself. On its own, with no prize, it would have been invisible in India. I knew at the time I wrote it that there would be no question of writing it for its own sake – I had no doubt that a play of its type would find no takers in India – and even after the publicity it got, the play has certainly not been popular in any form. It does not surprise me in the least. It presents a harsh view of reality and has very little comfort to offer the average reader.
Aside from mythology, SF isn’t a popular genre in Indian films (or hasn’t been, so far) so it would require a major shift in thinking for tie-ups to become the route to literary success.
In a lighter vein – perhaps there’s no need for SF in Indian cinema because regular commercial cinema is entirely fantasy-based anyway??

Q: Do you see any of your books heading filmwards?

A: No.

Q: We now have a fair number of Indian editors comfortable with editing
books that are aimed at Indian readers and not specifically at readers
abroad. But there are very few editors in India who are comfortable
reading SFF, let alone editing it. Do you think this will seriously
affect the quality of SFF novels coming out of India?

A: I’m sure you’re aware of the need for publishers to be thinking of sales before committing any manuscript to print – so I’m assuming that my answer to this question is already known to you – but yes, of course the fact that editors are biased against SF will affect the quality and quantity of SF coming out of India.
Publishers can’t afford to produce books that can’t be sold. It always surprises me when readers and writers alike (usually only young, as-yet-unpublished authors) seem to think that books get published as a result of editorial whims – instead of realizing that the commercial element in publishing very often takes precedence over literary concerns. It isn’t because editors don’t like SF that there isn’t much being published in India – it’s because publishers believe that readers WON’T SPEND THEIR MONEY on SF titles.

Q: Your favourite SF/fantasy writers, for adults and for children.

A: Without stopping to think about it much – JRR Tolkien, Edgar Rice-Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Phillip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut – but very many more whose names are refusing to spring to mind at this moment. I prefer short stories to long fiction and I used to read much more SF in my twenties than I do now, in my fifties. Dunno why. I think the golden age is over – perhaps because a lot of SF no longer seems adequately fictional any more. Even HARVEST – it’s hardly fiction – it’s almost yesterday’s news bite (which is why I referred to it as “mildly” SF, a couple of responses back).

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