Neel Mukherjee draws his narratives from his native Calcutta. His debut, Past Continuous, was published in India in 2008 and in the UK in 2010 under the title A Life Apart. The story of a young man from Calcutta who pursues an education at Oxford, only to leave and become an illegal immigrant in London, the book won him the praise of critics worldwide. His second novel, The Lives of Others, turned that praise into devotion. Some may regard him as the Thomas Mann of his generation, and of Calcutta, as similarities to the German writer’s Buddenbrooks are uncanny. The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014. He reads from his sophomore effort on September 10, 7:30pm at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.
Who should stay away from your latest book and why?
No one, I hope.
Least favourite praise/favourite criticism about your work?
A large, noisy, rich family saga. “Ugh,” I say.
Describe the genesis of your books. How do you get started?
A theory. And a question. For example: Can realism be sabotaged from within by creating an impeccably realist Trojan Horse of a novel? Or: In which direction can a genre be pushed so that it bends and buckles, but in such subtle ways that the reader can remain entirely unaware of it?
Why do you write?
I don’t know. It’s a compulsion, and not a pleasant one.
Where do you write?
At my kitchen table, in bed, in my living room.
When do you write?
In the daytime. Never after 6 or 6:30 pm, but occasionally late at night.
What do you need to write?
Peace and quiet and total silence. Pens. Non-conservatively coloured ink.
A recurring literary nightmare?
Oh, several. But I shall have to name names and I don’t want to make more enemies than I already have.
Describe your first memory of writing…
Trying to write the letter “E”, in the upper case, as a child learning this alphabet and putting as many horizontal lines as I could fit in at right angles to the vertical one instead of just three.
If you weren’t a writer you’d be…
Your favourite and least favourite word? Why?
Favourite: “sway”. I just love the sound of “sw” words.
Least favourite: “masterpiece”. For obvious reasons.
Your favourite literary character? Why?
Tatiana in Pushkin’s Yevgeniy Onegin for that lethal combination of tenderness and steel.
Which book do you wish you had written?
Oh god, hundreds to choose from. I’ll limit myself to three: The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth. The Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Choose an epitaph
Here lies a restless soul, restless still during eternal rest.