Nov. 8, 2011
David Davidar is a big guy and yet his XL size is not imposing because his baby face is incredibly expressive. An animated talker, Davidar smiles a lot, his eyebrows dance, he often italises his words, even stretching and repeating them for emphasis.
But 53-year-old David Davidar, who ruled Indian publishing for a good part of the last 20 years, is still shaken from the red card he received in Canada. Though back on home turf, the striker prefers to play goalie or defender, for now. All through the interview, at his sparsely furnished and book-free Gurgaon flat, he remains reactive — as if expecting a free-kick.
In the summer of 2010, Davidar, then Penguin International’s CEO and president Penguin Canada, was accused of sexual harassment by a colleague, Lisa Rundle, and slapped with a $523,000 lawsuit.
Davidar issued a statement, admitting to having “a consensual, flirtatious relationship” with Rundle. They, he said, liked Roger Federer, played tennis and had kissed twice, in Frankfurt, where they were attending the book fair.
He apologised to his wife for all the hurt he had caused her. Penguin terminated his services and he reportedly settled the matter out of court before returning to India.
Ithaca, Davidar’s third work of fiction after The House of Blue Mangoes and The Solitude of Emperors, is a shrewd appendix to that statement, and a rite of passage.
Tainted and too big to hire, the former editor of Penguin India has invested his money, and reputation, in a new publishing venture, Aleph. Rupa Publications is Aleph’s only other shareholder.
Ithaca is set in the publishing world. Its protagonist, Zachariah Thomas, heads Litmus, a small UK-based publishing house, that’s riding on the one author he found and nurtured. Canada-based Sicilian novelist Messimo Seppi’s books about angels and archangels have sold millions of copies and saved Litmus from being taken over by the Big Seven. This is Ithaca’s Track I.
Its Track II is about Zach’s collapsing marriage with Julia. Track I ends with a scandal that costs Zach his job though his culpability can at best be stretched to naivety. Track II has a happy ending. At the end, Zach heads home, to Yercaud, Tamil Nadu, to recuperate and plan his next innings.
Consider the last sentence of the book: “Piece by piece, he will begin to reassemble his life, point it in a new direction, taking his time about it, and one day the angels will take wing again.”
Ithaca’s narrator is its author, David Davidar, and he says the book is not autobiographical.
Ithaca is the sort of cleverly plotted, smartly written mediocrity that, Davidar says during the course of this interview, has always frustrated him. He likes to talk passionately about “soaring imagination”. Ithaca doesn’t have that, but it is packed with cheap thrills — the book’s main hook lies in schadenfreude and the anticipation of confession, disclosure: About the extra-marital affair in Canada, about the kisses, about the marriage.
Davidar drops enough crumbs to tease and keep the reader going.
Edited excerpts of the interview:
I’ve been reading a lot of interviews that you have been giving, and I see that you have prepared answers for most questions.
So you are going to shock me with unexpected questions
No. But may I please request you not to give me your stock answers.
Pro forma answers
Ok. Fine. I’ll be completely uninhibited. (His wife Ratna walks past. David Davdar tries to introduce me to her, but she’s either too busy or uninterested and walks past without noticing him or me. She walks past later and this time she smiles, waves.)
I’ll begin with the book. Are you amused by talk that your third novel, Ithaca, a literary/publishing thriller, is autobiographical
Ya, I am amused. And I think that is because people haven’t read the book. It’s (Ithaca) about a world I know something about, sure. But it is not a) literally, an autobiography. It is a book about the world of publishing, the central protagonist works in publishing, sure. But the arch of the story, the people he works with, people around him, all that is different, so how can it be autobiographical Any novel, even if I’m writing about a 12th century hermit in Uzbekistan, would have something of the author in it, otherwise it’s not my book, it’s somebody else’s book. I honestly believe autobiographies, or books that are autobiographical, that are sort of disguised as fiction and so on, are not very good as novels, because there isn’t the space to invent. If you’re writing about your life, you’re writing about your life. If you are not writing about your life, and you are using things that you know about as a springboard to launch your fiction, for me that’s the way the package works. All my novels have been like that… People, I think, are tempted to put two and two together and arrive at 4 or 22, because that’s the obvious thing to do. But stop being obvious.
What I make of this is that people really want to read about your life.
Ya, but, you know, I am not the kind of person, temperamentally, I am not inclined. I mean, I’ve seen so much dirty linen being washed in public (pauses) People in their worst nightmare won’t want that kind of thing to happen, right So it’s even weirder if you are not temperamentally inclined that way. I am not a publicity seeker, good or bad… I’m not interested in talking about my private life, and about the episode that happened a year and a half ago, I made a really detailed statement for a reason. I have nothing more to say about it. I haven’t moved an inch from my position then, the whole matter’s been settled, so I don’t see what I can say about it. I can invent stuff about it, if you like Honestly, it was really difficult to make that detailed statement. My wife and I talked about it and I said, for this reason and this reason alone we must make a statement where it is absolutely, 100 per cent crystal clear that this is what happened, obviously from my perspective. And you can ask me a hundred times, you can ask me now, you can ask me 10 years from now, you can ask me 100 years from now, I can’t tell you anything more because there is nothing more to tell, frankly (shrugs).
But you did choose to write after the Canada episode, and you did choose to set your third novel in the publishing industry…
(before I can finish my question) People can’t be blamed for… really, you can’t be blamed for, you know, (people) trying to see something that’s not there there…
But you knew there would be interest because of that — because of where your story is set, and because of the Canada episode
Ok, let me put it this way — I wasn’t trying to be strategic about it I write a novel when a story occurs to me, when a story is pushing itself outside of me… So when this story came to me, this story of Seppi, Zach, the story of Litmus, I had to write the novel.
You talk a lot in your book about old days of publishing — good writing and meticulous, obsessive editors — with nostalgia. Is your new publishing house, Aleph, born out of that nostalgia
That’s actually a very good perception because, yes, I think, that’s disappeared, and I think there was a time when editors actually edited, and stayed with a book, paid great attention to a lot of things about the making of a book, along with the author. Today publishers can’t afford to do that because revenues are coming down, you have to keep publishing in order to keep revenues coming, which means that the time between acquiring and publishing a book is getting shorter. A lot of those things are at play at the moment. So, ya, that is what I hope to do with Aleph, you know, lavish care and attention on my books and writers.
Was this something you always wanted to do
Ya, ya, ya, the timing was off. You know, if this (Ms Rundle’s lawsuit) hadn’t happened, I might have done it three to five years from now, because that seemed to me the eventual progression from my career at Penguin… Don’t get me wrong. I was having a good time doing what I was doing at Penguin, but, eventually, this was what I wanted. I wanted to have my own company, I wanted to publish a few books that I absolutely loved and believed in, but I didn’t know the timeline… I thought, when I get closer to 60 maybe… it’s come up before. And in some ways it’s a good thing because I still have the energy and the passion and the stamina.
Aaaa, I don’t, you know, I (fumbles), I find that it’s a (pauses) very exhausting emotion.
But it can also be very…
Cathartic? It could be more creating, but, you know, why will I waste my anger on a situation that I thought was (pauses) so, from my point of view, reprehensible
You are not angry
I don’t think I have the time to be angry. I’m just doing so much…
In Ithaca you’ve written about an agent who moonlighted as a dominatrix, about a publisher who offers a seven-figure advance based on just one paragraph. What’s the most bizarre story from the publishing industry that you can tell me, one that’s not in the book
Hmmm… I’ll have to think about that. Nothing springs to mind.
Nothing shocked you in so many years
It’s a very bizarre world, you know, because publishers are quite sort of weird, authors are weird, agents are weird… weird is the new normal in publishing… but nothing springs to mind.
But it is, according to you, a noble profession
I think it’s an astounding profession, because it’s where the heart and soul of a culture reside, in the stories we tell. That’s true of the writing game, it’s true of movie making game, true of music business. So how great it is to be a part of it. I think it’s astonishing.
There’s a lot in your book about the Indian publishing scene as it is today. You write about frenzy and a lot of missteps. What do you make of new authors being published practically every week
You know, it’s better than countries in which new authors are published practically every day. America publishes hundreds of thousands of books, most of which disappear into oblivion. Britain publishes tens of thousands of books, most of which disappear into oblivion. India is only the seventh-largest publisher of books. You know what, every book that’s published, hopefully, there is some thought behind it, there is some reason for it to be published, but 50 to 70 per cent of those books will fail every book that you publish you are taking a risk with… It’s a gamble. Every book is a gamble. That’s one of the most interesting things about the profession.
Few books have come out of Pakistan, but there is a very distinct quality in the writing that’s coming out of Pakistan compared to books in India today, if we leave Vikram Seth etc out.
Hmmm. Well, let’s put it this way, there has been absolute flowering of Pakistani writers writing in English over the last decade or so. Some of them are truly exceptional. And I think we had a similar thing in India between 1980 to 2000 — a huge wave, great writers… I haven’t read everything that’s come out of Pakistan, I haven’t read everything that’s come out of India (but) I wouldn’t hasten to make such a conclusion… Truth is, there are great writers from Pakistan, great writers from India
You don’t think it has something to do with crisis time in a country, and its politics Because of the time you are talking about India producing good books, and what’s coming out of Pakistan now… the quality of literature it produces.
I think countries that have rather interesting, fissured political ancestry rather than countries which are bland political and social environments, the countries which have the most difficult backdrop tend to always produce more interesting writers. Because if you have a bland suburban village, country, which is largely suburban, what are you going to write about. Cooking dinner at 4 So I think, yes, that is true to an extent. But most countries in the world have rather traumatic history. We tend to, our everyday reality seems to be bit more exciting that other parts of the world, so I think our writers have more material. I think that’s a good observation.
In Ithaca, you write about books that make the reader go “awww”. Tell me about one recent Indian book, from 2011, that made you go “awww”.
That is the most difficult question you have asked me.
Because there isn’t?
I didn’t say that… maybe there are so many. I am blanking out a bit here You know, truthfully, I haven’t read anything recently from here that actually made me say “wow”.
Ok, if not this year, then last year.
Aaaa. I think one of the most exceptional books I have read is the book that’s actually quoted in my novel, Daniel Mendelson’s translation of C.P. Cavafy’s Collected Poems. Exceptional. A great, great book. Then I’ve read (drags) older books… I’m trying to think of brand new books that I’ve read…
“Rachna,” he calls out to his wife. Turns to me and says, “She has a better memory than I”.
“Can you think of any great books I’ve read in the last year, because my memory is blanking out.” “Aaa… why don’t you check your iPad.”
“That’s true. Give me a second.” Fetches his iPad, and starts browsing.
You read books on your iPad
Ya, I do. I read, both, sort of…
If you are switching over to iPad, what is the future of books…
(In a tender, reassuring voice) It doesn’t matter. I think the future is fine. I think people can read on iPads. There should be no problem… because it’s just a format thing, I don’t think it’s any big deal.
You are not a romantic — about holding a book, paper…
I am, up to a point, but you have to give people what they want, right. (Browses, moves colourful book covers up and down the screen.) Ok. The book that made me go “wow” was actually a fantasy book by George R.R. Martin. It’s called A Dance With Dragons. It’s one of the most amazing books. (Resumes browsing.) I’ve got about a hundred books, and, oh, I’m starting to read pretty much all the Murakami, who is somebody I love to bits. I think he is amazing.
Murakami! No, I don’t think so. I don’t know. Really I don’t know… I’m waiting for Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84.
During your publishing career, tell me one book that you were absolutely sure would be a huge hit but it tanked.
There must be dozens of books which tanked but fortunately I have very selective memory… But, there was one of the most amazing novels I have ever published, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra. An astonishing book on Bombay. I’d have thought, a) it should have won the Booker, b) it should have sold a hundred times what it sold. So while it sold well, it didn’t sell like, I don’t know, The God of Small Things, or A Suitable Boy… I was a bit disappointed… while the reviews were ecstatic, it didn’t quite sell to expectations.
In Ithaca, Zach talks twice about why young first-time novelists don’t write great, attention-grabbing books. Do you share that view
I totally, totally, totally share that view. I talk about it in two ways. First time he’s really irritated with a young novelist who is writing some sort of stupid, mish-mash of styles and all that, which I see a lot, you know, where people haven’t found their own voice, they’re trying to copy somebody, and it is just… horrible. Or they write autobiographical… most people’s style is so boring that, you know… Why can’t you use the power of the imagination.
And then later on he is more charitable when he says, well, perhaps the reason they can’t do that is because they have to get that out of their system, by writing maybe a failed novel, which is then sort of put aside, and then get the power of imagination, as they live a bit more, as they… you know…
The problem I think most novelists feel is, when you are writing fiction, it’s like (pauses) swinging from a trapeze without a safety net… with non-fiction you are writing a story, you know what the contours of your story are, you are actually basing it on facts. Once you start writing fiction there is always a nagging sensation that “what if people thought… this novel part is completely unbelievable and unnecessary”…
For something that’s just come out of your head, that’s a very frightening experience. So you try to moor it in reality. So the freedom to invent, the freedom to write fiction, the freedom to just go crazy with your imagination, I think, is a frightening thing. So I think first you have to get through… to start. It’s like a dwarf, you get up and stumble along, and once you are used to, you sort of walk faster, and you run. Ya, I think that’s what young writers need to learn. I think they to be able to learn to fly.
You are putting a hierarchy to this. Imagination and delving inside – past or life. You are putting imagination way above non-fiction.
No. No, no, no. I think if that’s what you want to do. You can write a completely dull and boring memoir, and there are equal number of dull and boring non-fiction books as well. The thing is, they probably outnumber the number of boring novels you get. There again you need to have the skill and the power of imagination to be able to… I mean, if you are writing history, you can either write like Ian Kershaw or you can write like half a dozen JNU academics who are dull as ditchwater.
There is the dull academic writing and there is the soaring imagination and ability of great historians… Kershaw, Gilmore, Ram Guha et cetera. And they are standouts. Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City is one of the greatest books written by an Indian, or a person of Indian origin. It’s not a novel. I am not giving fiction a special place. If you are inclined towards fiction, I think this is the process. Non-fiction has its very, very unforgiving conditions that you have to meet before you can write a good book.
This emotion appears twice in your book. Is this a frustration you live with
Ya, ya, constantly, constantly. Because again, you know, like I say in the book, you get one shot at a debut. And today, because sales inform how your next book is going to be treated, if your first book fails, your second book also fails, it’s almost impossible to get a crack at… He’s written a great book, but you know… Writers need to understand this: Take the risk, write the big, flawed novel, rather than write small, quiet novel, because you are not going to get that chance again.
Except that your book, Ithaca, is about the big third book.
Ya. So, my thing is, that is rare. Why not grab your chance when you have it.
So you’ve thrown out and flung a lot of manuscripts
And you do that today
Today, you know, it’s very, very interesting. Because I don’t need to manage a programme of 150 or 200 books a year — I’m only going to do my 12 or 15 books a year, and Ravi (Singh, former editor-in-chief of of Penguin India who has joined Aleph) is going to do his 12 or 15 books a year, and that’s it. There’s no panic. If I don’t find a great book this week, maybe I’ll find a great book next week.
So, finally, autobiography is not something you are contemplating at all
There are some people who like to write autobiographies, I don’t think I have done enough with my life, I don’t think I have led a dramatic enough life…
And here people are sifting through your book looking for that one chapter.
(Giggles) Let them. Best of luck to them.
Rachna answers the doorbell and hands him the Canadian edition of Ithaca.
(Flips through it.) Looks good, I must say.