Saturday, May 30, 2009

Brought To Book

The Story Behind The Novel

The MCG, in Melbourne, is where the novel begins and ends.

Photographs copyright: DAVID McMAHON



In December 2006, a beautiful woman walked into the Oxford Bookstore on Park Street, Calcutta. She was on a very brief visit to the Indian city and she wanted six copies of my novel Vegemite Vindaloo, which was No.2 on the store’s bestseller list at the time. One of the staff offered her a signed copy of the book, but she declined with a smile.

A few hours later, she rang me at home in Melbourne to explain why she had refused a signed book. I understood perfectly.

The novel is a tale of many journeys - journeys of distance, journeys of personal growth, journeys of the soul. On the surface, it is a story of how a well-to-do Anglo-Indian family, with a son of their own, gradually open their hearts to the infant son of the woman who, through an unusual series of events, has become their servant. But beyond that simplistic explanation, it is a tale of pride on the one hand and prejudice on the other.

I made a significant journey of my own in writing Vegemite Vindaloo. It began to take shape in 1993, but after writing four chapters I lost impetus and put it aside until my eldest daughter persuaded me to return to the manuscript in 1999. I did, briefly, and then the pressure of my journalism career pushed it into the background again.

Late in 2003, when Ravi Singh at Penguin looked at the half-written version and expressed interest in the unusual theme (and the fact that the synopsis I gave him was just three sentences) I picked it up once more.

This time I wrote with intent. Come what may, I knew I would finish it.

Ravi liked what he saw. In September 2004 I had a publishing contract.

This unique act of hand dexterity by bus conductors is described.

Do you have to be a Calcuttan to warm to the theme of Vegemite Vindaloo? No. Do you have to be Anglo-Indian to enjoy the tapestry of the story? No. Do you have to be a migrant to appreciate it? No. Of the many encouraging reviews in the media, even before the novel began to hit the bestseller lists, it was Portugal-based Terry Fletcher who published a glowing critique, with the telling headline "Wizard From Oz".

Will it bring an occasional tear to your eye? Perhaps. Will it make you laugh? Probably. Is it a true picture of life? Absobloodylutely.

Apart from the multicultural flavour of Vegemite Vindaloo as it traverses rural Bihar, bustling Calcutta, pastoral Melbourne and the stark Australian outback, there is a decidedly international element to the manner in which it was written.

While 90 per cent of it was written on one of the Hewlett-Packard computers in my study at home in Melbourne, one segment was written aboard a flight to Hong Kong; another in the Yukon in northern Canada; a portion materialized on a cruise ship in Alaska; and one key chapter, fittingly enough, during a holiday in Calcutta.

The women in the novel are the strongest characters. Zarina, the servant woman, finds a resolute voice when her husband Ismail, in maudlin mood, turns spitefully to drink instead of trying to solve the problem of their sudden displacement.

Hilary Cooper, initially resistant to her husband Steve’s unconditional affection for the servant’s infant, Azam, is the one who bridles at his suggestion that they turn their backs on the child as they prepare to migrate. Bertha Cooper, Steve’s mother, is forged of pure steel – she kills a cobra in one chapter and thwarts a curse in another.

The Howrah precinct, bridge and the Hooghly River are key elements.

Authors do not have favoured characters. But there is one character, the simple grandmother who lives in Betulnagar, a Calcutta slum, who commands the men of the area to listen to her. She announces her hopes and dreams for her newborn grandson and when the males question her logic, she explains how the child will slip the bonds of seemingly inescapable poverty.

And what of the men in the novel? Sailen Nath Banerji, the little slum boy who becomes a senior pilot, philanderer and a power player in a national airline, seems keen to interfere in the Coopers’ personal decisions. Yet he turns out to be a modern Solomon in a stalemate over how the prestigious Airlines Club will farewell the Coopers. His salutation to them, delivered on the shore of a lake at the Alipore Zoo, is endowed with the uncanny voice of prophecy.

Steve Cooper himself starts out as a man of uncommon depth and compassion, but when stripped of his comfort zone and forced into unfamiliar circumstances, his severely misplaced pride threatens to become his Achilles heel.

Ismail, too, seems to be a pillar of strength until he comes undone in the challenging surroundings of Calcutta. Later, as a last-minute battle of emotions ensues when the Coopers are about to leave India, it is Ismail, seemingly against all odds, who becomes the eloquent voice of reason.

There are, however, two interlopers. The laconic Wally Bennett and the rakishly handsome Frank Walker, the double act from Jindaroo Creek, were only supposed to be passers-by, but they took over my consciousness as they became the basis for two sizeable chapters of comic relief.

Jindaroo Creek might be a fictional bush outpost, but its surrounding geography is as real as it gets – the sand dunes, the sheer Bunda cliffs and the calving southern right whales are all intricately linked to the Eyre Peninsula in coastal South Australia. To see the pictorial and literary links between real life and Jindaroo Creek, visit Dirty Fokker and judge the beautiful surroundings for yourself.

Aussie Rules Football links the two countries in the tale.

The real challenge in writing this novel was in finding authentic voices for two very different countries that share very little, apart from the Indian Ocean that caresses the shores of both nations. Steve and Hilary Cooper speak as Anglo-Indians speak; Wally and Frank embody the dry humour of a sunburnt continent.

There was another challenge. Could I write a novel where readers would get to the last three pages and wonder how on earth this story could possibly reach a logical conclusion? Moreover, could I write a novel where readers would get to the last sentence and immediately turn back to the first chapter to rediscover the little clues they had missed?

Judging by the 2006 bestseller lists and the emails and phone calls I received from all round the world from readers who did just that, it seems I succeeded to a large extent.

Oh, but if you’re wondering about the beautiful woman who didn’t want an autographed copy of the book, you needn’t worry. She actually went back to the bookstore to explain why she didn’t take up their kind offer.

You don’t need an autographed copy when you’re married to the author.

Visit TNChick's Photo Hunt. Today's theme: "Books''.

36 comments:

Mr. Nighttime said...

I went to Amazon to look for the book, and was quite shocked to see that they only had 3 used copies available - starting at $47.95, and this was from someone from California!!

Any ideas as to why it's so expensive, or where a copy can be obtained for a far more reasonable price?

Sniffles and Smiles said...

Clever framework for your synopsis, David! Enjoyed this, and am so glad you gave the run-down as it seems hard to get a copy of your work! It sounds so terrific! ~Janine

Carrie and Troy Keiser said...

I'm intrigued by your description of your book..... will have to go looking for it. Loved the ending to this post....

Sylvia K said...

I will definitely have to get this one! How exciting, David! Sounds fascinating and I hope I can find a copy here. Love the ending of your post! For someone who loves to write also, this would be a dream come true!
Have a great weekend!

Expat From Hell said...

I am immediately intrigued when I read this. This will be a "must add" to my list. My question will follow Mr. Nighttime's....where do we get this now?

Best to you.

ExpatFromHell

LadyFi said...

I'm intrigued. And loved the end of the story...

imbeingheldhostage said...

I am so glad you wrote about this!! I tried to look up the book when I first found your blog and ran into the similar fate as Mr. Nighttime--now I may have more drive to locate it since you've teased us with this little bit. LOVE the photographs you used to illustrate this post too.

airplanejayne said...

WHERE WHERE WHERE CAN WE GET A COPY?!?!?

A Brush with Color said...

Congratulations to you--sounds like an intriguing read. Also, thank you for the POTD note some days ago--that was very kind of you. I am flattered. Your photos here are beautiful, too.

Cheffie-Mom said...

Wow, what an intriguing summary. I think the grandmother would be my favorite character. And the last line of your post is the best! Have a wonderful weekend!

Cheffie-Mom said...

Wow, what an intriguing summary. I think the grandmother would be my favorite character. And the last line of your post is the best! Have a wonderful weekend!

The Things We Carried said...

I loved this. The mysterious women, the story of how you wrote the novel, and then the conclusion of course, the woman- makes perfect sense at the end. she must have enjoyed this post very much, as she knows the author ever so well.

Kim said...

It is hard to get a hold of a copy of the book. Still looking but enjoyed this post very much!

Kirti said...

Your book sounds amazing! I have been going through authorblog withdrawal lately since I seem to have no time to troll blogs...I need to check out your book too...

Pat - Arkansas said...

Delightful and fascinating! Now, we know the rest of the story. :) Any chance some publishing company might negotiate for reprint rights?

Kathleen said...

David--

I had the same experience at Barnes & Nobles as Mr. Nighttime had with Amazon.

Are you sitting on a stash of books? If so, I'd rather purchase a copy from you!

I love that your daughter persuaded you to finish. I've got 4 chapters of a speculative fiction novel written, and the well's gone dry. I need a nudge like that, too!

The entire plot "downloaded" itself in 2005 when I was in the shower. So bizarre how that happens. I really want to finish it before reality precedes my story! (It opens with a amidst a flu pandemic!)

As they say, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

If there are no copies to be had of your novel, perhaps we followers could pass one copy amongst ourselves!

Cheers

Corey~living and loving said...

WOW! I loved reading this post. NOw I should get the book, huh?

you are a talented man!

have a happy weekend.

Tash said...

It's now on my must read list. What a great accomplishment and thanks for the insight.

Maggie May said...

At last! Blogger let me onto your Blog! Was blocked out all yesterday, for some reason or other.
It was worth waiting for though to read this post.

As you know, I read your book Vegemite Vindaloo and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thought it was a brilliant way of bridging two different cultures and at times it was quite a sad story but with a twist at the end that definitely made me go back to the beginning, just as you said!

BUY THIS BOOK EVERYONE! Worth the read!

Upcountrysmiles said...

Aloha David,
Wow..very clever post. Love the ending!!
Happy photo hunting!
Come & visit,
Cindy O

Liz said...

Wow! That is one complex novel! Also sounds better than Midnight's Children, which I hated.

EastCoastLife said...

I'm not married to the author, how do I get your autograph? haha.....

gengen said...

Nice post for today's theme. Happy weekend. Mine is ready too.

just jody said...

adding this to my ever growing list of must reads........ love the shot of the ticket handler.

ancient one said...

If I ever see a copy of this book, I will definitely have to read it... just because I "think" I know the arthor...LOL Great Post!

Shadow said...

your book review's got me interested. good synopsis. and yes, i WAS very curious why she didn't want the signed copy...

Daryl said...

Read it, liked it a lot and have lent it to Annie ... cant wait to read the one you are working on ..

aims said...

I got my copy shipped right from India! and it was cheap!

My only complaint and you know it David - it wasn't a signed copy. Next time you're in Canada.....

Tammy at The Butterfly Mind said...

People might try looking in libraries for the book. Just a thought. Here's my photo hunt entry:

http://thebutterflymind.com/ramblings_0105_photohuntbooks.htm

Annie said...

Ah...good to read all this David...

Annie

ps You didn't say whether you had thought of writing a second novel?

Ananda girl said...

I have looked for your book... here where I live, it is not available! So being the not willing to give up woman that I am... I have it on order. I wanted it before I read this... now I want it even more.

Jennifer H said...

I will read this, I will. :-) (It's on my list)

srp said...

You are an author indeed... got to the end of the post and immediately went back to the beginning to look for those clues that I missed.
I hope this will be in our library!
My books are up here.

Ms. Neha Gandhi said...

woww...is simply the word...

Sarah Laurence said...

David, what a wonderful journey you made through your novel. Your characters and story sound intriguing. How wonderful to have a first novel do so well. Are you thinking of writing another one?

Lee said...

I'm so glad you decided to write this post, David. I've tried to borrow the book from a library but the ones overseas wanted quite a bit for shipping. It would be really nice if your publisher could distribute it new in an outlet that served the United States.

Hope!