Q. Your debut novel, Londonstani achieved a six-figure advance and was applauded by critics. Looking back, do you think it was a victim of its own early success?
The book was clearly a victim of its own hype, but at the same time I actually reckon the hype was this necessary evilness. Because the hype meant that Londonstani found its way into the hands of many young desis who didn’t think books were for them – and I explicitly told my publisher I wanted the book to reach people who weren’t into books. Otherwise what’s the point in a book like that? And my publisher convinced me with a very clear and carefully reasoned strategy: they argued there was no point trying to reach non-readers with targeted media and marketing and via MySpace and Facebook and so on – instead we had to make such a massively loud noise in the mainstream media that non-readers just wouldn’t be able to ignore it. So the hype was one means to two different ends: the publisher’s goal of flogging as many books as they could and my goal of getting the book noticed by non-readers. Obviously neither the publisher nor I expected the backlash to be quite so bruising, but at the same time the strategy did actually work: the hype really did help the book reach people who couldn’t have cared less about reading a book. For example, it was featured in hip-hop magazines and radio shows that had never covered books before, and they covered it because they just couldn’t ignore it. Sure, it’s a shame that the hype ended up hurting me in other ways because the book failed to live up to the hype, but just imagine if the opposite scenario had played out instead: that the book was embraced by the book-loving literati but shunned by the actual desi rudeboys I was writing about. That would be pretty icky. So I still think we did the right thing courting all that hype, even though it hurt me. Some people say that I sound like I’m post-rationalising it when I explain all this to them, but I promise you I’m not post-rationalising it. I had these conversations with my publisher before they even bought the book, never mind published it – we did the right thing because Londonstani reached kids who didn’t think books were for them.
Q. Did it take a while to get back into writing fiction? And what did you learn most about yourself during that time?
It didn’t take me long to get back into writing, but what took me long was figuring out how to make a novel about young carers work. It’s a really difficult subject to build a compelling story around. There’s nothing sexy about it, there’s no suspense, no surprise, no villain, no wrongdoer even. It’s just a shitty situation for all involved. And if you try to introduce more compelling elements, then the act of being a young carer just becomes a character trait or a sub-plot rather than the meat of the story. So I failed with it again and again and again before I could even see a glimmer of how I might it work. I wrote so many 300-page drafts that just unravelled under the weight of their unworkability, or they ran into a dead end or they were just crap or, worse, they nearly worked but didn’t. And of course after a three or so versions of the book, you can no longer see the wood for the trees, which generally means things are gonna get a lot worse for you before they start to get better. And things did get very bad for me and also for those around me. But what I learned from all this was something very specific that I now often tell younger journalists and writers at work: I don’t think you can make a story work without properly defining what the problems are. You’ve really got to know the problems and be able to clearly articulate them before you have a hope of solving them. And properly defining a problem is hard work in itself. Me personally, I just simply wasn’t able to define the problems with this book without first writing full drafts that didn’t work and then pulling them apart to figure out exactly why they didn’t work. Now obviously that’s just a glorified way of saying I had to learn from my mistakes, but the point is I don’t think that’s the lesson from all this. The lesson is that I should have been smart enough to define all the possible problems at the outset so that I didn’t have to make those mistakes. And the thing is, it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in muses or some other form of divine or mystical inspiration or if you think you do this stuff unaided, the same principle still holds: you’ve got to properly define your problems before those problems can be solved.
Q. Do you think terms like success and failure are actually unhelpful or somehow counter-intuitive to the inner artist, in that they don’t make you a better writer?
Well, if you attain the Zooey Glass ideal of succeeding on your own terms rather than anyone else’s, then, yeah, those terms are irrelevant. But if you can’t attain that ideal, then I think success is less relevant than failure because failure wrecks my confidence in a way that success just never bolsters my confidence. And I write complete crap when my confidence is shot to shit – and of course I then get stuck in one of those vicious circle situations. Not everyone is like that, of course. I keep meeting people whose confidence and self-belief seem completely unscathed by failure and fuck-ups. But they’re basically a different species and that’s the basis on which I engage with them.
Q. So it’s been ten years and in the interim, you’ve been working on The Story Distorted. This is a new project that you’re hoping to crowdfund through Unbound. Tell us more about it.
It feels like an old project because I’ve been working on it for ten years. The pitch video and first chapter, which we’ve published online, will give you the best sense of the book. But it’s basically a novel about a 19-year-old uni student called Dillon who has spent the whole of his teens being the primary carer for his perpetually dying mother. And that situation – the 999 calls, the mother-son marriage guidance therapy and the pre-bereavement bereavement counselling – has twisted him out of all recognition so that he’s some seriously high-functioning fuck-up. The thing with young carers is that it becomes a very lonely, very private high-wire act and although they’re robbed of their childhoods, no person or institution actually robs it – there’s no one to blame and so you’re left shadow-boxing yourself. The other thing is you get stuck living double-lives because you can’t exactly go to school and talk about you parent’s depression or bodily fluids and so on and so your fictitious lives just keep growing. Dillon uses social media and separate mobile phones to hard-wire his double lives and triple lives – even his sort-of-but-not-quite girlfriend doesn’t know what’s going on with him. Plus he’s the CEO of his own student start-up, partly to be the golden-boy breadwinner for his mum but partly to get away from her. He thinks he’s on top of all this but everything unravels when he’s forced to seek out his long estranged father and he ends up backing himself into a very bad place. The point of the book – which is actually the dedication because there’s no sense being subtle about this – is a message to young carers to say that even if you do your worst, you’re still doing your best. In many ways it’s very different from Londonstani, but there are two very key things that both books share: a preoccupation with complicated family-related crap and also difficult mother-son dynamics. In Londonstani it was all about what the Italians call “mammismo”, which is the kind of machismo that results from having overbearing mothers, and in The Story Distorted it’s a more messed-up love-hate Oedipal thing. Dillon is fixated on the physical horror of his mother’s illness in order to drown out his emotional pain.
Q. In your pitch video you highlight the reasons why you wrote this book. What is it about the lives of young carers that interests you?
There are estimated to be 700,000 young carers in the UK and they’re generally completely hidden from view, living these sometimes horribly distorted lives in secret. Sometimes they don’t even realise that they’re a young carer, especially in the Asian community – they think they’re doing their duty without realising just how inappropriate certain things have become and how much weight they’ve taken on their little shoulders. I knew very soon after Londonstani was published that I wanted to write a novel about a young carer – to raise awareness of this world and also to write something that would have helped me cope better as a teenager and prevented all my stupid, self-destructive bullshit. But I had no idea how difficult it would be to make a novel about this subject work.
Q. What experiences or observations have you drawn from to write this novel?
That world was the four walls of my life from the age of 13 to 21, but I’d rather not dwell on the autobiographical elements of this book because I’ve worked really hard to make it a real work of fiction rather than a memoir disguised as a novel.
Q. Why have you decided to go down the crowdfunded route to get it published and can you explain what it means to those who might not know what it is and how the model works?
Basically, crowdfunding means we need about 600-700 people to pre-order the hardback in order for this book to be published. Other publishers were trying to prejudge whether or not a novel about such an admittedly ugly subject could be made to work in the market. Unbound don’t try to prejudge the market like that – they let readers decide whether the book should exist and those readers effectively foot the bill for its publication by pre-ordering the hardback. So the model actually allows Unbound to take more editorial risks because the business risk is eliminated. And, in turn, that gives me more creative freedom to publish the book I want rather than some watered-down more palatable version of it. I really love that model, I love the philosophy behind it and what it means for books generally. Readers get to decide what deserves to be published and that should mean less homogeneity and less risk-aversion. The downside, however, is that it’s by no means a done deal that this novel will even get published – it all depends on whether people take the time and effort to get out their credit cards over the next few days and few weeks, pledge their support for the book by pre-ordering a hardback, spreading the word and making this happen. Right now, two weeks into the crowdfunding, we’re only 25 per cent funded and we’ve got to get to 100 per cent for this to happen. Otherwise the manuscript literally goes back in the drawer – I’m not exaggerating.
Q. There’s been a huge push this year, at grassroots level to tackle the publishing industry’s lack of diversity. Are you surprised that so little has changed since you secured your first publishing deal?
Like everyone I’m completely disgusted. What’s really insidious is that books are meant to open your mind and expand your horizons and so on, but the lack of diversity means the opposite – a narrowing of perspectives and possibilities and the reinforcement of what the dominant culture considers to be ethnic and exotic. It’s so bonkers – even from a hard, cold business perspective it makes no sense. But I can’t say I’m surprised because mainstream publishers are by definition people who like reading books and that immediately puts them in the minority. And that narrowness begets other forms of narrowness and before you know it they’re completely removed from the real world. You’ve got to properly shake it up – either by getting more non-publishers into publishing houses because, let’s face it, even a basic breakfast cereal executive would immediately demand greater diversity. Or, alternatively, you use technology and bring in some serious tech industry talent to open up the industry model and you defer to readers more, which is exactly what Unbound is doing.
Gautam Malkani born in 1976 and grew up in Hounslow. Have been a journalist at the Financial Times since 1997, most recently as a commissioning editor for FT Weekend Magazine. First novel, Londonstani, was published by 4th Estate in 2006.
Support Gautam Malkani’s crowdfunding project, The Story Distorted over on Unbound.