The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Zac O’Yeah
By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
To make enough royalties to always afford to buy myself a beer whenever I feel thirsty.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing/editing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
If I hadn’t stepped off the train in Bengaluru, a city in South India, in 1992 and checked into the cheapest lodge in the “Majestic” area, a neighbourhood where practically all the cheaper hotels are located, I don’t think I would have been a novelist today. It takes a bit of luck to help us find our true calling. I still recall in vivid Technicolor and wide-angle the morning when I got off the train and there, Majestic was sprawled out like a tattered red carpet welcoming me, its streets crammed with Art Deco cinema halls, the maddest bazaars for grey market goods – basically everything one might need but wouldn’t have thought of until one saw it there.
Back in the 1990s, it was possible to get a room for under 90 rupees a night, which suited my budget. Also, there were no special tourist attractions in Majestic, so no sightseeing agendas. I spent my days in bookshops and nameless second-hand bookstalls, dreaming that I might write a book that would be on display there some day. Only after getting married to an Indian girl, the novelist Anjum Hasan, and settling down in the city in the year 2000, did I learn that Majestic, which by then I was so backpacker-nostalgic about, was something of a terra incognita for the average upper middleclass city-dweller, which made it interesting to explore. Another reason why I chose to set my books about the fictional detective Mr Majestic there is because until fairly recently, detective fiction used to be dominated by Anglo-American locations and concerns, but nowadays you have globally bestselling detective novels set in places like Botswana, Thailand or Sweden. So why not Bengaluru? I strongly felt that every self respecting city should have a shelf full of detective novels dedicated to it.
A detective in a novel is something of an urban explorer, so writing or reading a detective novel can ideally be a way of getting to know a place better. So for me, Hari Majestic, the private eye, became my key to unlock the city and chronicle it. And at that point, when the idea came to me, it felt like so obvious! Why hadn’t I thought of it much before? I doubt I could have imagined the character Hari Majestic without Bengaluru, the city where I’ve lived for the last fifteen years since leaving Sweden. So far I’ve published two books about Hari Majestic: ‘Mr. Majestic! The tout of Bengaluru’ (2012) and ‘Hari, a Hero for Hire’ (2015). A third one is in the pipeline, might come out after a year or so.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I’m a pretty obsessive writer. I write in an almost mathematical way where I try to calculate the extent of the whole text and then I fit the right points of the plot in the right positions in the whole equation. Because a novel is on some level a construction; and a novelist must be a bit of an architect-slash-mathematician who can make the construction very solid. I’m of course not always successful, though. I get too many crazy ideas that I try to fit in there.
Who are your favorite authors?
I mostly enjoy reading Indian authors since I’ve been living in India for such a long time, and I’ve always felt that a good novel helps you make sense of a place better than some travel guidebook, so I’d count RK Narayan, Amitav Ghosh, Upamanyu Chatterjee, Vikram Chandra and Manu Joseph among the all-time favourites of mine.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
Every new book is a huge challenge, actually, because you start out with absolutely nothing and you have to create something that somebody will find worth reading, somebody else will find worth publishing and risking their money on. And no matter how efficient I try to be, I can never complete a book in less than three years – three hard years of rewriting, brain pain, and that constantly nagging feeling of inadequacy: that this might finally be the book that end sup a catastrophe and sinks my career.
What’s your idea of bliss?
I was about to say a cold beer, but then I had this feeling that my wife will think that the answer isn’t good enough. Actually, bliss is reading a review of your book and feeling the reader has totally got it.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
I never get that angry or smash any plates or cups, but I do occasionally get a bit impatient with people who have messy lifestyles. I can’t be friends with people like that. I like ambitious, creative people who have their mess in good order.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
I always have these very good intentions of reading my friends’ books – and many of my friends are novelists – but you know, since I am also a literary critic I end up reading everybody but my friends. For obvious reasons, I couldn’t review a novel by somebody who is close to me. Writing criticism and novels leaves me with very little time for leisure reading. So I’d pack all those signed copies I have and find a nice coconut tree to sit under, and read every day.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My wife. If she’s already out I’d grab the hard drive with my collected works on it and maybe a bottle of beer in case the heat from the fire makes me thirsty.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
To cause as little harm to our planet as possible and perhaps even leave it in a better shape than how I found it, when I was born.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of popular comic thrillers Hari, a Hero for Hire (2015), described as “one of the best crime novels set in India written by anyone”, and also Mr. Majestic! (2013) and Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan (2010), plus ten other books. He has been translated into several languages. Earlier, he worked in the theatre and music business in Sweden until he retired early, at 25, to come to India. His writings also include history and travelogue, and he has also translated Indian literature into Swedish. Download his updates from www.zacoyeah.com