'I write for a few, and my books sell poorly'
Irwin Allan Sealy, author of the recently-released book, The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, tells Raj Kanwar about taking eight years to write it and why living too comfortably might ruin his writing
Dehradun-based author Irwin Allan Sealy’s book, The Small Wild Goose Pagoda, has been hailed as yet another masterpiece in which the protagonists are three ordinary, nay extraordinary, workmen and a 433 square-yard piece of land. Four months into the release of his book, Sealy is still basking in the glory of appreciation and rave reviews that have come his way. The book is the seventh milestone in Allan Sealy’s 25-year-long journey as a writer.
Author Irwin Allan Sealy. Pic courtesy/Samimitra
In 1988, Sealy, then 37, astounded the literary world with his first novel, The Trotter-Nama: A Chronicle. It was remarkable for an unknown writer then to have been published by Knopf, and receive critical acclaim from the literati. A year later, Penguin published Trotter-Nama’s British and Indian editions. The book went on to win the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1989 for being the "Best First Book” by a writer in Europe and South Asia.
Sealy’s writing is essentially intuitive, and not measured or laboured; he admits that he does not have a routine wherein he writes 1,000-1,500 words every day. He says his heart guides his fingers. No wonder, then, that Sealy does not write a book every year like many authors attempt to do. After his book, Red: An Alphabet (2006), it took Sealy eight years to write The Small Wild Goose Pagoda.
Sealy tells sunday mid-day about why he became a writer and whom he really writes for.
Q. What inspired you to take up writing? If you were not a writer, what would you have been today?
A. The inspiration to write comes from the writers you revere. You dream of producing something that might approach (if not match) those standards. Then, you take your time, but nothing inferior gets through the gate. If I hadn’t turned to writing, I might have been a quality controller for a pharma company and driven them
Q. St Stephen’s alumni, by and large, opt for civil or foreign services, even though there have been a few authors
among them too. Did you then not think of joining the civil services?
A. I’m not sarkari material. I work too hard, and only for myself.
Q. You had once said at a book release function that you did not read newspapers or even watch news channels. Have you since become comfortable with print and electronic media?
A. I have no interest in this thing called ‘news’. There’s nothing new under the sun — just look at the front page of a newspaper from the ‘60s (when I came of age) and you’ll see how little has changed. There’s never been a TV in my house, but I do browse the net and trawl the world’s media from the New York Times to the Hindu. As a young man, I was what you might call ‘political’ but nowadays, I generally click on a human interest story. The Internet is a great gift to someone living in a mofussil town, and unlike TV, you’re in control.
Q. What really motivated you to write ... Pagoda? Had you conceptualised it in its entirety from the very beginning or did it gradually evolve as you began constructing it?
A. It’s a book about labour, the labour of building and the labour of writing. It most certainly evolved, but I did have a rhythm in mind from the start, like that of the seasons. Our old mali, who is one of the chief characters in the story, and a kind of example for me, embodies this change and constancy. I hope to attain something like that equanimity some day.
Q. The book has won universal praise. Has that translated into sales? Which of your books became a bestseller by the Indian yardstick? Does your writing pay enough to make a comfortable living?
A. I have never written a bestseller, though The Everest Hotel was actually pirated back in 1998. Both facts leave me unreasonably pleased. My books sell poorly, but then I write for a thousand people at most, not 10 or a hundred thousand. I’m middle class, well off by any local measure. Live too comfortably and your writing suffers.
Q. Most people find in you an interesting and lively conversationalist. What is your social life like?
A. I have a small circle of valley folk whose friendship I greatly value; as you get closer to the centre of that circle, the talk gets freer and wilder. It’s very good, for example, to have a poet like Arvind Krishna Mehrotra just up the road, and thanks to email, I’m right next door to the most far-flung friends.
Q. I understand you don’t have a regular writing routine. What is your writing process like?
A. My output is pitiful, especially lately when I’ve turned into wardboy-cum-mali. Prolonged physical work leaves you drained and unfit for writing, but I’m still making notes. The raw stage of writing is in any case far more pleasurable than the finished. Writing hours vary widely depending on the circumstances: certain books were night-owl music, others dawn birds. During the day there’s housework and general upkeep. I sleep four hours
Q. Has your writing career given you, what is called, job satisfaction? Have you reached the goals you carved for yourself?
A. The satisfactions of writing are immense and to my mind immeasurable; I’m convinced that they — not your royalties — are your earnings. The thresholds are reachable, crossable; the ceilings you can’t hope to touch. Chekhov is one ceiling, Calvino is another, Babel a third, and so on; all those idols I spoke of earlier.
Q. How do you feel about the praise for … Pagoda? What’s next?
A. The praise is gratifying when it zeroes in on details you yourself were pleased with; it’s recognition of that kind that matters, things you were hoping wouldn’t go abegging. Next is a long poem, a book of essays, and a novel of a new kind altogether.
Raj Kanwar is a Dehradun-based author and freelance journalist