An Interview With Samit Basu

Samit_Basu Name:     SAMIT BASU

Author of:     THE GAMEWORLD TRILOGY (2004 – 2007)
                     TERROR ON THE TITANIC (2010)
                     TURBULENCE (2010 / 2012 in the UK)

On the web:

On Twitter:     @samitbasu

Samit Basu is the author of five novels, all of which have been published in his native India. The publication of his first novel, The Simoqin Prophecies – the first book in the GameWorld Trilogy – marked the beginning of Indian English fantasy writing. His superhero novel, Turbulence, is released by Titan Books in the UK in July, and in the US a year later. It was first published in India in 2010, and is the first of his books to be released in the UK.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Samit.

Pleasure to be here. Good of you to let me into your online home.

Can you tell us something of the origins of Turbulence? Did it spring from a long-standing desire to write a superhero novel?

I’d wanted to tell a superhero story for a while, ever since I first read Watchmen about a decade ago. It was always going to be a book… I know the superhero genre is one that lends itself to visual media, but the idea of the superhero – the essential excitement of one extraordinary person with the capacity to make things better – often gets overlooked in the process. And while that can be done very effectively in other media, comics,TV, the Internet and films – look at Joss Whedon’s work in all these fields – I still believe a book is the best place to explore an idea.

That said, I didn’t know Turbulence was going to be a superhero novel when I started plotting it in the summer of 2009, which is when the story is set. The whole idea behind it was to write a novel of here and now, to say as much about the world right then as it could. Hence the focus on present day desires and anxieties, present day obsessions and aspirations, as seen in both the world and the powers the heroes acquired. I wanted to write a fantasy story set in places I’d actually been to after years of making up worlds. And since I was looking at events on a global scale, and writing about people who could actually change the world, it made sense to make them superheroes. Especially because nothing embodies the zeitgeist these days better than the evolved superhero. They’re everywhere, in one form or another.

It’s obvious from reading the book that you’re a huge fan of the genre, and have taken inspiration from many of the classics. At the same time, you’ve relocated the action to India and in many ways broken the mould of traditional superhero tales – I’d put Turbulence alongside the likes of Watchmen and Powers, rather than Superman or Spider-man. What challenges, if any, did you face creating something that at once pays homage to and satirises 80-odd years of comic-book history?

I didn’t grow up on superheroes, those comics weren’t really available in India. I really started reading superhero comics when I came to London to do an MA, as an adult, at a time when superhero comics had evolved greatly. So the writers I read – Moore, Gaiman, Ellis, Ennis, Morrison, Carey, Vaughan, Miller, Bendis, JMS – had already reworked, revised, updated and deepened the classic stories into a genre that was not only complex and sophisticated, but also constantly self-referential and self-mocking. To be mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen and Powers is so lovely that I’m going to pretend you meant it in terms of quality, not just intention.

I think any revisionist aspect of Turbulence falls under homage to works that have already pointed out the innate ridiculousness of older superhero tropes, rather than any really original attempt at revising the genre, because others have done that very effectively before me. If there’s any aspect of superhero culture that I really felt needed changing, it was a certain inward-looking tendency; that people with extraordinary powers should be content to operate on a really local scale, fighting their own villain sets to maintain the status quo, instead of really changing the world just because they could. But then several other comics, from The Authority to Morrison’s JLA have already gone there.

The essential attitude to comics and superheroes in Turbulence is this: it’s 2009, superhero culture exists and is everywhere, and a few of the characters, recognizing the similarity of their newly acquired powers to those of superheroes they’ve seen/read about, refer to them from time to time. Much like Iron Man calling Hawkeye Legolas in the recent Avengers film.

The Indian setting creates something of a cultural shift for a lot of the traditional fans of superhero comics, and it brings with it huge political and social implications, which you have examined in the novel. You have also spent some time considering the consequences of the good deeds that we see superheroes perform on a regular basis. Both subjects that tend to get ignored, or glossed over, in a lot of the genre’s output. How important were these issues to the development of your characters and your storyline, and do you think they should be examined in more detail within the wider genre?

I wanted this story to be set on a huge scale, where the arrival of superpowers had real consequences not just for the characters but for the world at large. And I wanted this world to be as close to our world as possible. The Indian setting is because I’ve actually been to most of the places in the book and wanted to try superimposing a fantastic layer on real-world spaces, and there are many real, chaos-driven real worlds here that only need a little push to turn post-human. I suppose it could have been set anywhere, but I just knew India better than other places.

If the setting, the implications of the story being set where it is, and an overall sense of consequences being considered have worked for you, that’s a huge relief, because these were among the advantages that I thought telling this story in prose/novel form instead of comic form would bring. While visual storytelling media have many advantages over the novel form for the superhero story as a rule, these are things that it’s just so much easier to do without having to worry about accompanying visuals. So credit goes mostly to the medium, not me. But yes, these were all extremely important to me while world-building, and I always like superhero stories to have as much real-world detail as possible, and to have a broad worldview, not just be about power vs power fights in New York, fun though those are.

I must admit that I’m somewhat clueless when it comes to the Indian literary scene. You have been credited as the creator of Indian English fantasy. Did you feel that this was a gap that needed to be filled, and how do things currently stand?

I don’t really know if the creator of Indian English fantasy tag is real, or if it means anything to be the first. I was certainly the first Indian to write books in English that were called fantasy novels, were published by a major publisher and did well.

I wasn’t aware that genre existed, growing up, because our bookstores weren’t that structured. So I thought all stories were just stories, and while of course there were different kinds of stories, I didn’t know they lived in separate houses. So I wasn’t aware of a gap to fill when I started writing in my early 20s, or even that my first novel was fantasy. My publisher told me.

A lot of fantasy has been published in the eight years since my first novel. Samhita Arni is a name to watch out for. I haven’t read much of the new Indian fantasy, because I read across genres and countries, and try to keep up with films and comics and games as well, and there’s just too much to follow. But I’m sure if something good had come up I would have known. Most of the good fantasy work in India has been for children and young adults. There’s also been a rise in Hindu fiction, retellings of Indian myths, for which there’s always a huge religious market, but I don’t know if that counts as fantasy.

The obvious question, given the subject matter of Turbulence, I suppose, would have to be: what super power do you think you would have come away with had you been a passenger on that plane? And what would you do with it – hero or villain?

Tia’s power. The ability to split into multiple bodies and live multiple lives and never really have to make a choice again. Never miss out on any experience, wander all over the world, do everything. I’d use it as both hero and villain, of course, just because I could.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Too many to list, so I always put on a football coach cap for this question and list the 11 authors who’ve influenced the book in question most. In this case, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Mike Carey, Hari Kunzru, Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, China Mieville and Terry Pratchett.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

Again, too many to list. But I’m also very happy that the authors who wrote them did. I also wish I had invented the light bulb, especially with some kind of royalty-based contract, but I’m perfectly happy to use it.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Samit Basu look like?

A large desert of procrastination and Internet browsing punctuated by bursts of guilt-driven typing. I actually tend to write quite fast when I get around to it, and am usually working on at least three things, so when I’m doing the actual writing I tend to disappear into it for a few months and emerge at the end with crazed eyes, ready for more enthusiastic time-wasting. I wish I could write every day, have a routine. But I’ve been writing for a living for almost a decade now and that doesn’t seem likely.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

All of the following.

Don’t. I hear investment banking pays well, especially if you ruin the economy while at it.

Go for it. It’s such fun. But do it only if you really love writing, not to be rich or famous or important because that is really not likely to happen.

Don’t. Read my books instead, and then other people’s.

You must! It’s such an interesting time to be a writer, what with ebooks and all that. The next shiny vampire or horny businessman could be YOURS!

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Railsea. For pleasure, and potential theft, which I suppose is business.

Would you like to see any of your novels make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

All of them, but I don’t have a dream cast or director. If it happens, whoever does it will turn out to be the person I wanted all along. Unless the adaptation doesn’t do well, in which case an alternative list will emerge.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

PG Wodehouse. We’d talk about whatever he wanted to, I think I’d just listen. With some beverage from one of his Mulliner books, possibly a Gin and Angostura, or a whiskey and hot water with lemon.

Thank you once again, Samit, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

It was an absolute pleasure.

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