You don’t become an award-winning author without having a flair for words, and London-based Ardashir Vakil is certainly a good example of that. His impeccable sentences, tinged with the lilting accent that reveals his Mumbai origins, sound like they are plucked from a book.
Not surprising, as words and sentences are kind of an obsession of his, particularly when it comes to writing. And he certainly doesn’t mince his words.
“So many writers are lauded for writing a good ‘page-turner’, but I care massively about how each sentence in a story is written. I pay a lot of attention to the strength of the sentence, both in my own works and the books I read. If I read a page of bad writing, I can’t read the book,” Ardashir says. “The sentence is a microcosm of a story, and a book should be judged sentence by sentence. Look at the works of Raymond Carver or Haruki Murakami – you’re delighted just reading the first page. It’s not at all about turning to the next page!”
Understandably, Ardashir lists authors like J.D. Salinger and R.K. Narayan as his inspirations.
“I’m also drawn to books like Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and the Some Hope trilogy by Edward St Aubyn,” he adds.
His own books also exhibit his love for the written word and attention to detail. His first novel, Beach Boy, charts the adventures of eight-year-old Cyrus Readymoney in 1970s Bombay, capturing the nuances and sensory experiences of his life vividly. The book was translated into eight languages, was shortlisted for the 1997 Whitbread First Novel Award, and won a Betty Trask Award. His second novel, One Day, is set in North London and explores a married couple’s troubled relationship by looking at one day in their lives. Published in 2003, it was shortlisted for the Encore Award.
Ardashir, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently to conduct a series of creative writing workshops known as City of Stories (jointly organised by the British Council, MPH Bookstore, and London-based Spread the Word), explains that his two books are completely different from each other, both stylistically and thematically.
He describes Beach Boy as similar to Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; it is a coming-of-age story with many autobiographical elements, written in what he calls a rambling, relaxed manner (“Though I put a lot of work into making it like that!” he points out.).
One Day, however, employs a more dense and layered style, he says, likening the book to Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (which was recently made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet).
“I can’t do the same thing twice. Now, I’m working on a historical novel set in Mumbai, spanning over 50 years. It isn’t a good thing for the publishers, though, because they like knowing what to expect from a particular author!” he laughs.
Ardashir’s journey to becoming a published author is a rather unconventional one. Born in Mumbai in 1962 to a Parsi family, he was educated in the prestigious Doon School in Dehradun before moving on to study English at Cambridge University. He then took up a teaching degree and began teaching English at several schools in London.
At that time, he was a member of a writing group that shared their work with one another and, in 1995, they decided to compile an anthology of their writings. As luck would have it, publisher Penguin Books noticed Ardashir’s story in the anthology and asked him if he could write something more, which eventually became Beach Boy.
Ardashir however, doesn’t credit Lady Luck.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with luck; it’s to do with whether you’re good or not,” he says with sly smile, already knowing that he’s at risk of sounding somewhat conceited. “Once, I received an offer by a Greek publisher to translate my novel, and someone told me I was lucky to get it. And I replied, as modestly as I could, that some would say they were the lucky ones to have me!”
The reason for his self-assuredness, however, is knowing what it takes to become a successful novelist. This is further enhanced by his current job teaching creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London.
“There is a clear line between those who have some talent (as writers) and those who don’t, and only a tiny number of people have it,” he says.
He emphasises, however, that one does not become a successful author based on writing talent alone.
“There is an important second talent that is also needed, and that is to be able to work hard. When you make it as a writer, it brings you only a pinprick of fame, but behind it is all the perspiration and hard work you put in.”
He explains that many people have romantic notions on how authors write, imagining that they sit in idyllic spots and are inspired to pour out words.
“The truth is, 95% of writers hate writing! And it’s probably easier to do it in a drab room where there are fewer distractions.
“At the very basic level, it is a job, and you have to come back to your desk to write. The challenge is that you have to discipline and motivate yourself to do it on your own, because you don’t have a boss telling you what to do,” he says.
“I do believe, however, that everyone has something to say and, as a creative writing teacher, that’s what I teach. Everybody who would like to write, can write something.”
Malaysia, he feels, is ripe for introduction to the literary world.
“There is definitely space in literature for new cultures and spaces; in fact, there is a hunger for it. That is what Malaysia has to offer.
“I think you have really fascinating culture, history and geography. I read about it before coming in Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory, and got to experience it firsthand in both Penang and Kuala Lumpur. There is so much to show about this country.”
“Hopefully, someone like Aw can open the door for more Malaysian writers,” he says.