Interview: Vikas Swarup reads, writes and travels like crazy

Interview: Vikas Swarup reads, writes and travels like crazy

Author of "Q&A," the book that became "Slumdog Millionaire," is a doner-eating, cricket-playing, high-flying diplomat by day

vikas swarupStreet knowledge is more important than book knowledge for Vikas Swarup.

In 2008, Vikas Swarup's debut novel, "Q&A," was adapted into the Oscar-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire." 

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy cut and changed much more than just the title. Yet, Swarup was never anything but tactful when speaking about relinquishing his work to Hollywood.  

It's no surprise. By day, Swarup is a high-flying diplomat who has worked in the Indian Foreign Service for 25 years.

Currently the Consul General of India in Osaka-Kobe, Swarup has been variously posted in Turkey, the U.S., Ethiopia, Britian and South Africa. 

Despite the demands of his work, Swarup found the time to produced a well-received second novel, "Six Suspects," in 2008 and has judged this year's Man Asian Literary Prize alongside Pulitzer-prize nominee Chang-rae Lee and BBC Special Correspondent Razia Iqbal.

The prize was launched in Hong Kong in 2007 to commend Asian fiction published in English. The increasingly prestigious award has the strongest shortlist ever this year. The seven finalists were announced in January, when Iqbal joked that Swarup was the "fastest reader in the world."

Ahead of the Man Asian Literary Prize winner's announcement on March 15 in Hong Kong, Swarup shares his thoughts on literature, ingenuity and living outside India.

CNNGo: You travel so much -- how has it affected your identity?

Vikas Swarup: I think traveling certainly broadens the mind and living outside your home country gives you a more objective perspective.

But even though I have lived outside India for quite some time because of my day job, I have always felt connected to my country.

CNNGo: Is there one foreign posting that stands out? 

Swarup: I have been lucky that all my postings have been interesting, and I have enjoyed them all.

There are many memories associated with each of my postings, whether it's enjoying a doner kebab in Ankara, driving from Washington DC to Las Vegas, rescuing Indians from Asmara during the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, playing cricket in the grounds of Blenheim Palace in England, standing atop Table Mountain in Cape Town, or admiring a Taj Mahal made entirely of ice at the Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan.

Nothing beats the experience I had while flying from Durban to Johannesburg once. The passenger sitting next to me asked me who I was. I told him I was India’s Deputy High Commissioner to South Africa. A little while later, much to my surprise, he took out my book 'Q&A' and began reading it. Then he turned to me. 'Have you read this book?' he asked. 'I wrote it,' I deadpanned. He refused to believe me and was only convinced when he saw my picture on the inside cover.

CNNGo: During your London posting, you wrote 'Q&A' in two months. How on earth is that possible? 

Swarup: I wrote the novel in the last two months of my posting in London, mainly because my wife and two sons had already gone back to India, so I had no comfort but more importantly no distractions.

I would do my research during the weekdays and write on weekends. One weekend I wrote 20,000 words. I could write at such a fast pace because the novel was fully formed in my head.

I have always been interested in the psychological processes which are at work in quiz shows. As one of my characters in the book says, 'A quiz is not so much a test of knowledge as a test of memory.'

And our memories are produced by various things, by our experiences, our dreams and desires, not just by what we are taught in school.

I had also read a news report, a decade ago, of how street children who had never gone to school had learned to use a computer entirely on their own (the Hole in the Wall project, started by a group of computer scientists in a slum in Delhi). This told me that knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of the school-going elite.

There is a tremendous awareness, even among people that you would normally consider disadvantaged.

So the basic idea behind 'Q&A' was to show that privilege and wealth are no bar for ingenuity and that sometimes street knowledge can be as important as book knowledge to win.

CNNGo: What do you think of the shortlist this year for the Man Asian Literary Prize?

Swarup: I think we have a very strong shortlist, one that reflects the diversity of contemporary Asian writing. There’s a wide range of voices, countries and subjects represented, from the heart-wrenching search for a mother in Seoul to the picaresque adventures of an Indian journalist in Guyana.

CNNGo: Did you enjoy being a judge? 

Swarup: It certainly wasn’t easy, especially because I had to balance reading a huge pile of books with the demands of my day job. But yes, I did find it very worthwhile. It allowed me to get acquainted with so many gifted writers from Asia that I would otherwise not have had a chance to read.

It helped that I am a fast reader, usually able to devour a 400-page novel in a couple of days.

CNNGo: How is the prize affecting English-language Asian literature?

Swarup: Asia, today, is defined by change, and the same is true of Asian literature in English, which has truly come into its own.

Writers from India and Japan were already well known to the world, but now you are seeing writers from several other Asian countries, particularly Pakistan, China and Korea, achieve global prominence.

The prize is catalyzing this process. When Miguel Syjuco won the prize for 'Ilustrado' in 2008, it focused international attention on this daring and inventive debut novel from the Philippines. This year’s shortlist will also, I hope, help acquaint international readers with new voices from Asia that need to be heard. 

Samantha Leese is a writer born and raised in Hong Kong. Bound by wanderlust and curiosity, Sam has lived all over the world.

Read more about Samantha Leese
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