India’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Navtej Sarna’s new book Second Thoughts is a collection of short, reflective essays (published as newspaper columns from 2006 to 2013) on books, authors and his literary sojourns. Excerpts from an interview by Supriya Sharma:
In the introduction, you write that a “curiosity about the writer’s mental landscape” inspired your journeys. What have you gleaned about the process of literary creation?
Any keen reader or wannabe writer inevitably wants to know how an author came to write a particular book, the process, problems, inspiration, etc., either to understand the book or learn how s/he can do it. Ultimately, what you end up gleaning is that there is no universal formula. Everybody has done it in their own way. A poem, a short story or a novel always has a certain amount of the objective going into it. For e.g., a character based on three people the author may know. And then there is the melting pot of the author’s subconscious, where it combines with all his experiences and something new emerges.
Who among these writers did you find most reclusive?
JD Salinger. There is another writer, who made a fetish out of not wanting to be seen or interviewed: Henry Green. He has been described as “the writer’s writer’s writer”. He has the ultimate exposition of the pure art of writing prose. After a few very successful books, he just stopped writing. Writing is a very private business and a lot of energy gets lost in socialising. It is a necessary part of publication, but it does take away from the main preoccupation of a writer, which should be writing.
And most colourful?
My icon of a colourful and jet-set life has been Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby. He was the golden boy of the Jazz Age in America. He lived a life in keeping with him being the icon of the Jazz Age—partying, drinking, cavorting. He died at 44, after producing some of the best novels of American literature.
There’s no one formula for a creative process. But are there any traits common to most great writers?
One is that people who are really writers feel this overpowering impulse to—one way or the other—express themselves. That is the basic commonality. Everybody finds their own formulas in their own ways. The other is the process itself. No matter what writing habits a writer may have, everybody has to spend that much amount of time putting pen to paper. There is no escape from that.
What books did you read in 2015?
Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Ian Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.
What are you reading at present?
Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind.
Which books do you often re-read?
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, a lot of P G Wodehouse, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, poetry by T S Eliot and Faiz Ahmad Faiz.
Do you have one or more favourite opening sentences from literature?
Some great ones are from the books covered in Second Thoughts: “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of expression from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” (Graham Greene’s The End of an Affair).
“I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” (Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge).