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Neel Mukherjee: 'A good memory is perhaps the most invaluable tool in the novelist's arsenal'

Neel Mukherjee is a novelist and contributing editor to Boston Review. His second novel, The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus), was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014. His first novel, Past Continuous (Picador India), was joint winner of the Vodafone-Crossword Award, India’s premier literary award for writing in English, for best novel of 2008 and the UK edition, titled A Life Apart won the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for Best Fiction.

Q. What role did books play in your childhood, what got you hooked on reading and at what age?

Possibly the most enormous role of all the things that play roles in someone's childhood. Nobody ever read out to me as a child but I learned to read at an early age, so I was given books and asked to read them and entertain myself. I cannot imagine a more fertile ground for the imagination, and a literary competence, to flourish. 

Q. Did you write for fun as a child and if so what?

No, never. I came to writing relatively late in my life (late-twenties/early-thirties). However, what I did do as a child was to compulsively mark printed books and write comments on the margins and in the interlinear spaces, as if I were a teacher marking pupils' homework or tests. That red pen had an inescapable pull, and all the marks and comments I wrote were in direct imitation of my own teachers' in my exercise copies.

Q. Which authors fired your imagination as a teenager or young adult and inspired you to write?

As I said, I did not want to be a writer in my teenage/young adult years, and I read books then — as I do now — as a kind of addiction, a feeding of an insatiable appetite, not as inspiration to write myself. But there were plenty of authors who fired my imagination. There were a lot of Bengali writers whose names, apart from Satyajit Ray's, may not have much traction in the West. As for Western writers, here's a randomly picked set: Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, Anton Chekhov, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Heinrich Böll, AS Byatt, Patrick White ...   

Neel Mukherjee

Q. Do you have favourite books you re-read for pleasure or inspiration?

Yes, of course. Anna KareninaFathers and SonsMiddlemarchThe Radetzky MarchThe Gate of AngelsThe Beginning of SpringThe Blue FlowerInnocencePersuasion. Pretty much all of Samuel Beckett's novels, especially the very short prose pieces such as Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, How It Is, etc. 'The Dead', the final story in Dubliners. Camera LucidaMythologiesMadame BovaryA Lover's DiscourseRoland Barthes by Roland Barthes. Some poetry.  

Q. Do you draw much on personal memories in writing fiction?

Enormously, so far. In my opinion, a good memory is perhaps the most invaluable tool in the novelist's arsenal. That, and an insatiable appetite for reading. 

Q. What are your most vivid memories of having your first book published?

It is all a blur now but I remember the time wasted, waiting for reviews to come out in one publication or the other. I'll never allow myself to go down that route again.