Journalist, book reviewer and author Nilanjana Roy’s `The Wildings` goes with sure tread into animal territory, telling us the story of
Mara and a brood of felines, cheels, crows, wild pigs; a whole caboodle of creatures, each one more interesting than the
other. It’s the old tale of Good versus Evil but told in a straight-forward and
most polished manner. Here, the author speaks to Sheila Kumar about cats and cat people. It has now been long-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2014.
Was The Wildings inside your head for a while, or did it just fall half-formed/fully formed one fine day?
The cats lived inside my head for over seven years before I finally allowed them out on paper. By the time I started writing the novel, the world they lived in — sideways to ours, a little under and to the left of the human world — was so sharp that I sometimes felt part cat myself.
Let me ask you to put a label on The Wildings. An urban fable? A fairy tale with a moral?
Cats don’t do allegories, and the author isn’t big on morals, so between the pair of us that takes care of any deeper meanings. It has only two things to say behind the stories of Mara, Beraal and company: there are a thousand stories in the everyday world, and most of them aren’t human; and every creature, including us humans, is far more connected to each other than we care to acknowledge.
It has been a dream debut. Or is there a back story, of pitching it to publishers, of having to cut away swathes, kill characters etc? And does the dream debut bring with it some amount of pressure on the sequel?
In terms of selling The Wildings, I was the world’s worst salesperson. David Godwin asked what I was working on, I said I’d just finished this and added, “But you don’t want to read it — it’s about cats.” He said he did, and that’s how I found my agent. Then he suggested we show the book to David Davidar, among other publishers, and when I met Davidar, I said, “But you wouldn’t be interested—it’s about cats.”
I am very lucky that neither of them listened to me; it’s come as a big surprise that other publishers, reviewers and most of all, readers, seem to have loved it. It wasn’t effortless — I discarded over 140 pages from the first draft, and with great sadness, evicted a character called Major Mynah — but it was worth it.
Were you clear from the start that there will be a sequel? Or is it a trilogy? When does the sequel come out?
Yes, the story can’t end here. There’s definitely one more book, and after that, it’s up to the cats. They’ll probably want to pad off into the darkness. The sequel ought to be out in a couple of months’ time.
Tell us about the writing process.
The hardest part of writing was giving myself permission to write fiction instead of journalism, but once I did that, it felt like freedom. None of my reading, and I’d spent years as a book reviewer, had taught me how to write a novel, so there was a lot of humility involved — thankfully, I had a great editor in Davidar, who pointed out that I had two books in one.
I had to fit fiction in along with the other journalism, so I had fiction mornings, writing afternoons and reading evenings. It took over four years to shape, but those were happy years. You can’t call stepping into another, richer world every day ‘work’.
Did the wraiths of other animal characters, Eliot’s cats, Vikram Seth’s beasts from Beastly Tales, Richard Parker peer over your shoulder while you were at work on The Wildings?
I didn’t realise this until I had finished The Wildings, but I had grown up with animal stories as much as human stories. I wrote with an invisible menagerie to keep me company — the rabbits from Watership Down, the elephants and panthers and bears from The Jungle Book, the voices of Gerald Durrell and James Herriott whispering their love of animals, the early imprint left by a Russian writer, Olga Perevskaya, who’d written a book called Kids and Cubs. All of them made me feel that writing about cats was at least as natural as writing about humans and perhaps more interesting.
Who are the writers you read, who influence you?
So many of them that it would take an alphabet to do them justice. A is for Atwood and Alice Munro, B for Borges and Bibhutibhushan, C for Cortazar and Coetzee and Carroll…
In truth, I have a natural affinity for fantasy writers, whether you’re talking the Latin Americans — the House of Gabriel Garcia Marquez — or George R R Martin, Ursula K Le Guin and company.