Author Interview: Mainak Dhar

This interview first appeared in Sunday Mid Day dated 4 November, 2012

Author of Zombiestan (read my review here) Mainak Dhar isn’t done unleashing zombies into Indian bookstores just yet; his Alice in Deadland trilogy will make an appearance early next year.  I spoke with him about his ostensibly favourite monsters and writing for children. Excerpts from the interview:

What inspired you to write a book about zombies?

I have always enjoyed post-apocalyptic fiction, because it really forces us to confront what things would be like if all the usual rules and norms that make for ‘civilized’ society disappear. If there’s anything history teaches us it is that our civilized veneer is at best a thin layer, which often enough is peeled back to reveal the savagery and cruelty we’re capable of. For a writer, that makes for rich territory, to showcase both the cruelty we’re capable of, and yet paint a picture of how even in such desperate conditions, we can discover hope. Zombies for me were a way of bringing that message to life and I try and treat zombies a bit differently than just mindless brain eating monsters, almost a metaphor for the evil we ourselves are capable of unleashing.

You can hardly expect a zombie novel to be devoid of gore. Was there anything you left out of the final copy because it was too gruesome for young adults?

Of course, while writing for younger readers, you do need to exercise some common sense and caution and not get too explicit – so you need the action without the gore, the romance without the explicit sex. But that’s not much of a challenge for me. In general, I believe in leaving things a bit to the imagination – sometimes, you can evoke stronger reactions and connections by letting the reader imagine what comes next instead of laying it all out in its gory details.

You’ve brought zombies to young Indian readers, which in itself is pretty unusual. Can you tell us a few of your favourite Indian books that deal with unconventional themes or plots?

One of my personal favourite novels by an Indian author is The Great Indian Novel that wonderfully weaves the Mahabharata with contemporary characters and events. Other books that are on my bookshelf next to my bed even today are The Inscrutable Americans and English, August. As a writer, I like putting unlikely protagonists into situations where they must discover themselves and what they are truly capable of, and both these books are great examples.

What’s your favourite part about writing for children?

It comes from the memory of how important books were in shaping me as a person. My love of writing was stoked by reading The Lord of the Rings as an eleven year old, and the dream of creating equally fantastic worlds and characters was born, one I carry in my head to this day, and try and live up to with every book I write. I’m certainly no Tolkien, but what motivates me about writing for younger readers is the knowledge that through my words and my ideas, I can aspire to evoke a similar love of reading and writing among them.

What advice would you give budding children’s authors?

The same advice I’d give any aspiring writer- read a lot, keep your mind open and fresh to new ideas and then sit yourself down and write! Don’t believe all the bullshit you hear about Writer’s Block – if you ever want to be a novelist, you need above all the discipline, and indeed the sheer bull-headedness to stick in there, and keep at it. Specifically for someone trying to write for younger readers – as the saying goes, walk a mile in their shoes. Understand what makes them tick, understand what’s on their mind, understand how they relate to things around them.

Any zombie survival tactics should someone get caught in an apocalypse of their own?

First, get lots of canned food and bottled water (hunger and thirst will kill you even if the zombies don’t). Second, find others to build up numbers since you won’t survive too long on your own. Finally, get a copy of Zombiestan – it should tell you all you need to know!

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