Interview: Abhishek Prasad, winner of the Bath Novel Award 2021

“They say rejection is part of the writer’s life, and I get that. But after a certain number of eerily similar emails about how much there is to admire in your writing, followed by the dreaded ‘however’, you do reach a point where you just cannot do it again. When I submitted to the Bath Novel Award, I was simply checking the last box off my list. I was never going to look at this manuscript again.” INTERVIEW with Abhishek Prasad.


Where were you when you heard the news?

Stuck in a Mumbai monsoon downpour without an umbrella.

What’s the reaction been like from friends and family?

Overwhelming, to say the least. And a relief, too, if only to shut up that constant voice in my head that keeps wondering if this whole ‘being a writer’ thing is a delusional waste of time.

Award judge and literary agent Julia Silk said Ghost Time “swept me off my feet from the first page” with “exceptionally skilful characterisation and page-turning storytelling” which left her “holding my breath one minute, holding back tears the next”. How did it feel to read those comments?

My first thought was that there has been a mistake — surely she could not be talking about my novel? So, I read them again, and again, until I, for one, could not hold back the tears.

You were unrepresented when you won. Can you say what’s happened since? 

I was unrepresented, though I can’t say it was for lack of trying. They say rejection is part of the writer’s life, and I get that. But after a certain number of eerily similar emails about how much there is to admire in your writing, followed by the dreaded ‘however’, you do reach a point where you just cannot do it again. When I submitted to the Bath Novel Award, I was simply checking the last box off my list. I was never going to look at this manuscript again.

And then, this happened. Within a week, agents began to reach out to me. To me! It was all very flattering, and I thought I’d take a couple of weeks to think about my options (listen to me, it still sounds ridiculous). In the end, it was really a simple decision to make. It was Julia.

How did you know Julia was the agent for you?

Like many writers, I imagine, I look at the entire publishing machine with a mix of bewilderment and fear. I have great respect for the work that agents do, and I have no interest in second-guessing them. I mean, I’m lucky if I can just manage the writing part. So, the most important thing for me was to find an agent who believed in the work and felt as deeply about it as I did. It was clear right from Julia’s comments that she felt deeply connected with the writing and saw great potential in the novel. After speaking to her a couple of times, I knew I had found the right person. It’s a bit like spinning the perfect sentence, that way — you can post-rationalise as much as you wish, but when you know, you know.

You hold an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where you were awarded an International Excellence Scholarship and wrote / researched much of Ghost Time. What was the best thing you learned? 

That writing is mostly editing. I knew that it was important, but working with so many incredible writers at UEA showed just how vital it was, and how it can transform a manuscript, draft by draft, sentence by sentence, into something nearly unimaginable. Having my work edited and commented upon by engaged readers, and doing the same for others, helped me approach my writing in a way that would just not have been possible otherwise.

Much of Ghost Time was written during “the plague years” – do you think it would have been a different book if written during less unusual times?

I doubt it. That lost year of 2020 may have given me more time to write, mostly as a way to cope with, or hide from, all that was happening in the world — is still happening — but it had little impact on the story itself. That may be, partly, because I feel it will take me a long time to process the experience of living through a pandemic, and partly because this novel was always an escape into another world for me — one that was born of memory and imagination and nostalgia, but often felt more real than this utterly confounding world we now find ourselves in.

You write fiction at night – can you say a little about your writing routine and how many drafts / years went into your book?

I do generally write at night, more out of necessity than anything else. I have been writing fiction for a decade while also working in advertising, so the only time I could steal for myself was late nights and weekends, if at all.

This novel was different, as it was mostly written during my MA and the pandemic, so I was able to treat it as a 10-6 job. I had been thinking about it for two years, and had rewritten the opening chapter a few times, but it was at UEA that I truly began writing it. The first draft took about nine months, despite those hours, because I edit as I go, polishing sentences right from the start. The editing took another nine months or so, going into at least 13 drafts. All the drafts and the months were not equal, of course, as I tend to work in bursts. I use Scrivener, which can show you the total number of words you have typed each week, including those you wrote and deleted. I remember discovering that there was a two-month period in the summer of 2020 during which I wrote over 120,000 words. Most of the novel may have been written and edited during just that period, over two or three drafts. That is still a little stunning to me, that I could do that at all. I might even say that I was possessed by the novel, when I’m in the mood to believe such things.

You write ads as a day job – do you have a particular product area and can you give an example of a favourite campaign? 

I have worked on almost every product category, in very diverse markets across Asia and Europe, and the things I’ve enjoyed most are the weird (to me) and the culturally specific. For instance, I worked for a Traditional Chinese Medicine brand in Singapore, selling things like ‘Bird’s Nest’ — the edible nests of swiftlets, made from their solidified saliva, which are supposed to have great nutritional benefits. It may be scientifically dubious, but it beats working for HSBC.

I struggle to think of a favourite campaign because nearly everything I like is from the last century, before the internet came along and ruined advertising. These days, I genuinely don’t understand most ads (often including the ones I write), and the vast majority are so bland, uniform, committee-designed and full of corporate newspeak, that they make me curse the industry and spur me on to stay up at night and write something more worthwhile.

We all fell in love with Adi, your 12 year old main character. Julia emphasised his “uniquely confident voice that had me holding my breath one minute, holding back tears the next, and always cheering Adi on as he navigates an adult world that he turns out to be better equipped for than most of the grown-ups around him.” Is there a bit of Abhi in Adi?

The first chapter of this novel began from a vague childhood memory — I’m sitting in a park, alone, waiting for my mother to return, as the sky begins to darken around me and I try to distract myself from the dark thoughts peeking into my head, the panic rising in my chest. Although that chapter is no longer there, it set the stage for the story, the character and the themes in this novel. It is very much a work of fiction though, and all the characters borrow (steal?) a little bit from me, and many others too. Adi, specifically, is far from being a version of myself, and even surprised me with some of the things he does. The central conflicts of the adolescent character, however — the pull of childish fears against the desperate desire to grow up; the frustration of being surrounded by clueless adults along with the longing for a mentor who can guide you into adulthood without treating you as a child — these are indeed things I am familiar with, as I suspect are most others.

Your prize included a compilation of readers’ comments. Any favourite responses?

The readers’ comments were the greatest gift that I got from these awards, and each of them were kind and generous enough to make me cry. One of them said that the novel had ‘A world drawn so well and so fast that I could almost reach out and touch it’. That meant a lot to me, as it was one of things I had worked hard at — constructing this world from fragments of memory and imagination, but showing it with as light a touch as I could — and I had never been sure if the readers would really see and feel the dreariness and the beauty, the constraints and the possibilities of this world, the way that Adi feels it. It was wonderful to know that it worked.

Any plans for the £3,000 prize money?

Some of it will go towards getting a Berlin transport card, so I can wander around in the trams and pick up things to write down later; some will be used at the Lindt pick-and-mix section at the supermarket; and the rest should help my battered, seven-year old computer finally claim its hard-earned retirement. 

What are your favourite novels?

A few novels I have recently read and loved are Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, Frog by Mo Yan (Translated by Howard Goldblatt), and Em and the Big Hoom by Jerry Pinto.

What’s next for you?

Working with Julia to bring this novel into the world, getting started with an absurdly ambitious historical novel that I have been researching for over a year, but before all that, settling into a new home in Berlin with my partner, my first reader, and the love of my life.

Interview by Caroline Ambrose

 

ABHISHEK PRASAD has worked as a writer for over a decade—in Mumbai, New Delhi, Singapore, and London—writing ads by day and fiction by night. He holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, where he was awarded an International Excellence Scholarship, and where he spent “the plague years” researching and writing Ghost Time, his second unpublished novel.

Named after an alternative translation of the Sanskrit ‘bhoot kaal’—past tense—Ghost Time is set in India in 1997-98, the year of 50th anniversary celebrations and nuclear jingoism. The protagonist, however, is a 12-year-old boy who has bigger problems—his Ma is missing, and no adult can offer any answers. The novel began from a childhood memory which grew into an excavation of historical trauma that runs deep across generations, unspoken but never forgotten, from the scars of British India’s Partition to the buried toll of female infanticide. It ended up with a central question: How do you forget the horrors of the past and move on?

Read the opening page of Ghost Time by Abhishek Prasad…

Delhi, 1997

He knew, the instant he opened his eyes, that Ma was gone. Rina Auntie was in the kitchen and he could tell by the way the dishes clattered in the sink. If Ma had been around, she would have been more careful. He could not hear his father mumbling his prayers for the morning puja, nor could he smell the agarbatti sticks that welcomed each morning with their sickly-sweet fumes. Amma, too, was quiet in her room, the way she went quiet when she was perched on the edge of her bed, trying to catch Ma’s voice so she could start calling out to her.

But Adi knew before he could register any of these things. He knew from the shift in the magnetic field of the house, from the way his body seemed tense and restless, sensing that something was wrong, aching like a part of it was gone.

He fished his Casio from under the pillows and clicked a button, and it glowed blue-green, bright as a daydream, making him squint. He thought of the plankton he had seen on Discovery Channel, those ants of the sea that glowed in that same shade of blue. Fluorescent plankton, they were called. Or was it luminous?

Sitting up in bed, he shook his head and forced himself to focus. It was 09:24—way too late for the house to be this quiet, even on a Sunday. He looked around the drawing room trying to find a clue but nothing seemed to be out of place. The coffee table was wiped spotless, its four wooden coasters arranged in a perfect square, and all his books were stacked neatly on the shelf underneath, just as Ma left them every night, often after he had fallen asleep.

Ever since Amma had shown up one evening, months ago, and taken over his room, he had been sleeping on the divan outside. He had grown to like his half-bed in the drawing room from where he could watch TV without the glare of the tube light and sleep right in front of the big cooler. Ma insisted, however, that it was a temporary arrangement. She refused to let Adi think that he had lost his room forever. Every night, she battled the mess he created, hiding away the comics and homework notebooks abandoned mid-sentence, clearing out the forgotten glasses of orange squash left on the table, collecting all the remains of his day to restore the drawing room to its pre-Amma status. She had done it last night too, he could see, so maybe he was mistaken, he wondered. Maybe Ma had, for the first time in his life, slept through the morning?

The monsoon-thirsty sky was on fire. Already, the sun was burning white through the thin curtains, and as the morning fog cleared from his mind, he began to remember things from the night before. He had been hoping to speak to Ma after dinner, but something had ignited between his parents and their bedroom door had slammed shut.

With all his years of practice, he had developed a special skill—a superpower, you could call it—to tune into whispers behind walls. In the drawing room, however, with the roar of the big cooler, it was proving harder to hear them. Turning the cooler off would have made his parents suspicious, so he had decided to give up. Their fights were the same anyway, like action replays of all the ones he had grown up hearing, with his father ranting on about Pakistani spies and ‘national security’, accusing Ma of everything from taking advantage of his ‘good nature’ to plotting to put him in jail. Through it all, Ma never shouted back. At times, when she reached the end of her patience, she calmly reminded him, through clenched teeth, that she could leave any time. His father often laughed at this, but however empty the threat may have been, it usually ended the fight.

With Amma’s arrival, something had cracked open Ma’s quiet, controlled face, and Adi had glimpsed a fury underneath, like a bubbling, popping layer of magma. He had tried to ignore it, hoping that things would calm down on their own, but last night, there had been a new edge to Ma’s voice, a boldness that he had not heard before. It was not a wail, a whine, a call for help. It was a battle cry. This time, when she had screamed her usual threat, it had made him turn to the wall and shut his eyes tight, and he had lain there determined to stay awake, until he had fallen asleep.