Award-winning writer and editor Jason Quinn, who is all geared up to be a part of the upcoming Mountain Echoes Literary Festival in Bhutan, tells us why he loves India, the kind of traveller he is and the book that made him sob inconsolably. By Amitha Ameen
1. How do you think a festival like Mountain Echoes is helping today’s youth?
I think that these festivals are of vital importance for today’s youth. Reading promotes eloquence. And, being able to speak and express yourself clearly and interestingly will open doors for you that would otherwise remain shut. It’s always sad to encounter people who have nothing to say for themselves, because really, as human beings we all have something of interest to say. A festival such as Mountain Echoes encourages that. True, everybody who attends will not become a great writer, but you will become more interesting because your mind will be opened to other lives and stories, and imagination.
2. What are common traps for aspiring writers?
The major trap all aspiring writers fall into is not finishing what you start. The key to writing is to plan and plot and make notes. Break it down into chapters and make notes of what you think will happen in each chapter, right up to the end. This will help to stop you from writing yourself into a corner and then not being able to think of a way out. It’s not the fun part. It’s often laborious and dull, but it is vital. The fun part comes when you get to add the flesh and blood and muscles to the skeleton you’ve prepared. If you plan out your work in this way, there’s a much greater chance of finishing it. If you just set off writing from your initial idea, then nine times out of 10 you will dry up and give up way before the end.
The other trick is don’t give up if your work isn’t immediately accepted by a publisher or an agent. Write because you want to write, write because you have to write, and always make notes on anything you see or hear that you think you can use. You may not use it in the work you’re currently creating but chances are you might in the next or in some years down the line. Don’t rely on your memory because that will only let you down.
Also, develop an eye for detail, whether it’s the detail of your grammar, spelling and presentation or the details of your story or work. Remember, the people you are sending it to don’t know how brilliant you are and they only need the smallest excuse to toss your manuscript aside and move onto something else.
3. What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I used to be an actor and studied ‘method’ acting. With writing I adopt a similar technique, which can be pretty strange. On a basic level I might listen to the music that character liked, or music from the period they lived in. However, I have taken it further, when I was writing the book on Steve Jobs, I undertook some of his stranger diets, I survived on apples for a few days, then became a pescatarian and vegetarian. I carried on the vegetarianism when I went on to write the Gandhi book. I also began listening to Indian bhajans and even wore dhoti when writing – to help me identify with him.
4. When did you first realise you wanted to be a writer?
At first it wasn’t a conscious decision. I always enjoyed writing stories and comic books at school and then when I became an actor and was studying, I started writing plays for performance and things just carried on from there. Gradually, I began to realise that I was more comfortable writing than performing.
5. What is the first book that made you cry?
The first book I remember really sobbing inconsolably over was Charlotte’s Web by EB White. I read it at primary school and it changed my attitude towards spiders. I remember being so upset when the spider died and ever since, I have never been scared of or tried to hurt spiders when I see them. Of course, lots of people are scared of them and I know I’ve been called to come into bathrooms to dispose them. But, I always take care to put them carefully outside.
6. A lot of your books have been inspired by Indian elements. What makes you pick these topics?
I find India fascinating. It’s such a land of contrasts — beauty on one side and grotesqueries on the other. I think it is a wonderland for anyone with an imagination because there is always something amazing, horrible, beautiful, hideous, funny or tragic to see. It is so full of extremes and is a bottomless treasure trove of ideas. From the moment I first arrived in India, I fell in love with it.
7. What kind of a traveller are you?
I like to immerse myself when I go travelling with new experience new cultures, new food, new sites and new people. I know when I returned to India with a close friend, I warned them not to get frustrated or annoyed if things don’t go the way you expect them to. Just allow yourself to float downstream wherever the adventure takes you and you will love it. I think that is the key to travelling anywhere. Open yourself up to the new and unexpected.
8. What are the three things you have to have while travelling?
I generally like to travel light and not be bogged down with lots of things. So, as long as I have my iPad for writing and note taking, I’m pretty happy. Oh, and I better bring my phone too to take photos. I say that but I’m generally hopeless at taking photos. There’s a third thing too… I suppose on a practical level I better bring suncreen if I’m going somewhere hot because I always end up looking like a prawn or a boiled lobster if I spend too long in the sun.
9. What is your most favourite destination in India?
There are so many different places and all for different reasons. I love the madness of Delhi. It’s like being on a film set. Then again, I love Jaipur and Jodhpur for totally different reasons, they are just so beautiful. I love heading south too, because I love South Indian food. For me, the tragedy of coming back to live in the United Kingdom is that it’s difficult to find dosas and idlis, which I just love. There are so many other places I visited that I really enjoyed, either for the companionship or the natural beauty of the place. Nainital was fabulous and a great respite from the summer heat of Delhi. And, I really enjoyed visiting Kurukshetra, just for the atmosphere of the place.
10. If not in India, where else would you like to settle down?
That’s a difficult question to answer because I always love discovering new places, but I think one place I feel drawn to and connected to is the Isle of Man. My grandparents used to live there and I would go for my summer holidays. It’s a beautiful, rainswept, dramatic island with a rich history of folklore and is supposed to be home to the ‘little people’. I feel a sense of awe and wonder and mystery when I visit there, and could see myself spending a lot of time there in the future. Yes, it rains a lot but I don’t mind the rain, it makes everything green and lush.
11. Describe Bhutan in one sentence?
I will probably revise this after my trip there because I’m having to rely on what I have read about Bhutan rather than personal experience, but I guess I would say the following:
A kingdom straight out of a rich fantasy novel that almost seems mythological, after all, how many places do you know that have both a Dragon King and a Divine Madman? I can’t wait to see and experience this land of wonder and beauty, and I fully expect to be changed by it and by what I see there.