Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory is a portrayal of dreams of people in a modern-day industrialised Indian city. In a conversation with Yogesh Vajpeyi, the debutant novelist talks about writing, her switch from short stories, comparisons with Dickens and more. Excerpts:
How will you describe the transition from The Red Carpet to The Hope Factory?
I was shifting from short stories to a novel, and I had to master the new form. I also didn’t want to write another The Red Carpet, so The Hope Factory took a little while to gestate. A short story shows characters at a particular moment of their lives. A novel follows a much longer journey — where people are transformed by the events of the story. I enjoyed writing both tremendously, and learned very different things each time.
The Hope Factory is part of a two-book deal (including The Red Carpet, 2005) that was brokered by Lane Zachary of Zachary, Shuster Harmsworth in New York. The auction lasted over three days, involved nine publishers and was written up in Publisher’s Weekly and other trade magazines.
When did you conceive the idea of the novel?
The Hope Factory is a story of modern India — so chaotic, captivating, bewildering, heartbreaking – that had to be told.
The crux of Anand’s story — a good, capable man, fighting to keep his head above water — clarified for me late one night after, of all things, a television programme. I was watching a National Geographic special on American pioneers and what it took for them to survive and succeed in such a hostile environment — and that’s when it clicked. I realised I was seeing something similar all about me: for years, I had been watching Indian business people struggling to build world class businesses in an environment that didn’t support them in any of the crucial ways. When a government is corrupt and inefficient and does not deliver on its basic promises, it leaves its citizens in a fearsome, dangerous and lonely world — and those who succeed, like those rugged pioneers, are the exceptional individuals, hardy, uncompromising, uncomplaining.
Kamala’s story, the awkward, wonderful, fiercely protective relationship between a single mother and her 12-year-old son, had a different genesis. It was born in a single moment one rain-filled evening. I had just fired a maid in my house for repeated absenteeism. She pleaded for another chance; I told her I simply couldn’t; she was a sweet woman but I needed someone reliable. It was an awful, uncomfortable talk, both of us repeating our statements until there was nothing left to say. When she turned to leave, I saw her son waiting for her at the open door; he had heard every word. He looked at me as if he hated me. He picked up her bag and, his arm protectively about her shoulders, walked his sorrowing mother across the street into the rain. I have never seen him again, but he has stayed with me.
How much time and effort did it take to develop it?
The Hope Factory crosses so many landscapes: social, political, industrial, familial, a changing world full of growing pains. I wanted to capture all the nuances very carefully and also structure this complex, multi-layered story very tightly. The writing took me six long years and I am so grateful that my editors Susan Kamil of Random House (New York) and Charlotte Mendelson of Headline (UK) and my publishers in India (Hachette India) kept the faith.
Can one describe it as a portrait of a city?
It is a character-driven book, and the modern Indian city is a significant character in this story. The Hope Factory is both a portrait of a city and of a country. Bangalore provides the setting for the novel, and it is a wonderful example of all the opportunities and hardships of contemporary life in a big Indian city.
Aren’t there echoes of Dickens in it?
Indeed, top UK critics have been comparing The Hope Factory to Dickens – and I think this is because, like many of the works of Dickens, The Hope Factory examines a society as it industrialises and transforms, as people are pulled into big cities by the opportunities they present.
Who are your favourite authors?
I read voraciously, of writers past and present, every day. I was a reader before I was a writer. From classical epics to contemporary fiction and non-fiction. Indian writers to Western, Russian to Japanese. Everything I read is also something I learn from.
What are you planning to write next?
I have started work on my next book, a novel – and am also working on a couple of short stories. I experiment with various forms. I write a great deal of poetry, and someday would like to try my hand at a play.