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AUTHOR INTERVIEW Amish Tripathi

His fantasy trilogy inspired by the stories of Shiva has become a genuine international phenomenon. We quiz the bestselling author on his influences and ambitions

A genuine literary phenomenon in India, Amish Tripathi is known for his record-breaking Shiva trilogy: The Immortals of Meluha , The Secret Of The Nagas and The Oath Of The Vayuputras - the first two parts are available in Britain now, the third in 2014. You can read an interview with him in the pages of SFX magazine issue 243 (available from Wednesday 11 December) but we spoke to him at length last month on his first trip to the UK and here's a lot more about his influences and background...

SFX : You love history, but professionally you were a financier before you became a writer?
Amish Tripathi:
I graduated in mathematics actually. I love history as a subject but growing up in India we were economically pretty much a flop until 1991. We made terrible economic decisions, our leaders were idiots. It’s only post 1991 that things reformed. In the India I was growing up in, history wasn’t really a wise career option. People would joke and say, “History’s okay but what’s your actual job?” I didn’t come from a privileged background and couldn’t afford to be irresponsible so I did the pragmatic thing and did a MBA.

SFX : Did writing begin the same way for you, a pleasure and hobby like history?
Amish Tripathi:
When I was young, I never thought I was going to be a writer! I was academically orientated and active at sports but I didn’t have one creative bone in my body. So for me, the fact that I had these ideas for a book was itself a shocker. When I wrote the books, forget about being successful, I didn’t even think it would get published!

SFX : The first book was rejected a few times before being accepted for publication, right?
Amish Tripathi:
Not just a few times. It was rejected by every single publisher it was sent to. I didn’t know the industry in a working way, I was not part of the "in group". I was told frankly that publishing is a fractious industry in India - if you put ten publishers in a room, you’ll get eleven opinions [laughs]. They felt that it was a religious book. I don’t think it’s a religious book! It’s actually a fiction that happens to be based on a god. But you don’t need to know about that to understand that. It’s an adventure story with some philosophy. In the end, my agent invested in the printing, I invested in the marketing and that’s how we got the book. Then the publishers that rejected us came back...

SFX : You and your agent must have known that you were onto something special then. What drove you to persevere?
Amish Tripathi:
My agent: I really love that guy. He’s backed me from the beginning. He knew that the book was going to work. In a strange way I was detached from it, I didn’t really care whether it would succeed or fail. On one level I was so gobsmacked that I’d actually written a book, I wasn’t the creative one in my family.

SFX : In Britain perhaps the stories of Shiva are less well known than in India. How do you anticipate a British audience taking the stories? Are they going to find it harder to embrace the characters?
Amish Tripathi:
In India, nobody doesn’t know the stories. No disrespect to any other god, but Shiva's an outsider god. He breaks the rules. He’s a brilliant musician, a brilliant dancer, he treats his wife as an equal and she opposes him many times but he obsessively loves her. He smokes marijuana. In other places it's controversial but everyone in India knows who he is. For the Western world... I got interesting feedback from my editor. She said she sees the Shiva character in the book not as a god, but as the perfect "good bad-boy". He has all these bad-boy characteristics that makes him very exciting; he smokes marijuana, he’s a fierce warrior but he’s anti-elitist, fighting for the oppressed. But at the same time he’s a good; he’s loyal to is wife, he has a good heart. This is how she thinks many of the Westerners will approach him. You don’t have to know Hindu mythology to understand the character.

SFX : Does the story draw very heavily on the existing stories of Shiva? Or have you woven in your own fantasy elements?
Amish Tripathi:
It doesn’t follow the scriptures strictly because in the scriptures - in my book he’s a human being. He’s a man. He gets injured in battle, he feels pain, he makes mistakes and he learns from them. In a sense it’s a different interpretation. You can say that the scriptures inspired it but it doesn’t follow them.

SFX : The book sold phenomenally well in India. Is his appeal to the Indian audience the same? Or have they enjoyed the scriptural elements?
Amish Tripathi:
One has to differentiate because there are almost sub-cultures so they’re different market segments. The younger readers appreciate the story. The youth in India tend to be rebellious, as with everywhere else, and that makes Shiva exciting. He has the rebellious qualities that the youths like. They may not know all the scriptures. In a way that may be similar to how the Westerners see it. The older people, with them I have a different conversation, as they know the scriptures.

SFX : You've mentioned both maths and religion. I know you read history and scripture as well as science. Do you not find any of those incompatible? Or are you able to be both scientific and have faith?
Amish Tripathi:
I think in the West there are historical reasons that science and religion have to be in conflict with one another. But in most Eastern cultures, it’s actually not that way. All of the greatest scientists were actually very religious as well. If you see ancient science books, they often began with a prayer. I think the key thing is this: in religion you cannot question, whereas in science you can question. At a fundamental level, that clearly is a difference. But as long as you can follow the simple logic that you’re supposed to question religion as well, why should there be a conflict? The way all the religions are practiced is that you've been given a brain so you’re supposed to frickin' use it. If your god didn’t want you to use it, he wouldn’t have given you a brain. One can find interpretations of this in all scriptures. If things don’t make sense, question. You’re supposed to question. You’re supposed to question god as well, you’re not doing anything wrong in doing that. If you do that, why should there be a conflict?

SFX : Maybe religion and philosophy answer the question how should you live whereas science doesn’t?
Amish Tripathi:
That’s why we need both. Many people follow science and become faithful "believers" and don’t question it. it happens a lot in the West. If you ask in the West, “How many of you believe in the theory of evolution?” everyone will put their hand up. So, I’ll ask “Have you read The Origin Of Species ?” No hands, nobody has read it. They still believe it. Why? Because a teacher told you to believe it in school. How is that different to the priest telling you something in a temple, church or mosque? I’ve read The Origin Of Species . Yes it makes sense. It’s logical to believe in it - but most don’t question it. The key point is nothing is beyond questioning . Nothing, not even god.

SFX : You were a banker and now you’re a writer. Have you turned your back on that life? Are you now a full time writer?
Amish Tripathi:
Yes. I wrote my first two books along with my job. Like I said, I don’t come from a privileged background so I can’t afford to be irresponsible. I always thought, "What if my kids starve because Daddy’s writing?!" In that sense I’m a pragmatic banker. I decided to leave when my royalty check became more than my salary. I left with good relations, I made sure I finished all my projects before I left.

SFX : When you first started writing, you said you were writing for yourself and your family: how have your family received the books?
Amish Tripathi:
They’re a very close part of the process. It’s a joint project which just happens to have my name on the cover. We love reading, we love debating. We’re the typical argumentative Indians. I discuss philosophies with them, I discuss stories with them.

SFX : There are many writers aspiring to the same success you have. What would be your advice to a young writer today?
Amish Tripathi:
I would suggest three main things: 1) When you write you should write with the honesty of your heart and write for yourself. Don’t care about anyone else, not editors, not critics. It’s about your words, you can’t compromise it. Which brings me to the second point: 2) Have a job on the side because it means you don’t have to compromise your writing for the sake of money! There’s no dishonour in having a job because that allows you to keep your writing pure. Money has a way of forcing you to do things you don’t want to do. And: 3) The third thing is that you have to be almost a schizophrenic. Once you’ve finished it, you then have to be a practical and pragmatic person. You have to put your marketing head on and figure out how to sell this thing. There’s a fallacy that’s very popular in the publishing world that a good book sells itself: this is nonsense. It does not. I can give you a long list of books that could have been bestsellers that nobody’s heard of. A good book doesn’t sell itself, you need marketing. You must get closely involved in that, you must harass the publishers.

SFX : How has your life changed since becoming a best selling author? When you go to places do you have to sign books? Are you a celebrity now?
Amish Tripathi:
It’s fun to interact with people, to see different interpretations. It’s the same words but someone will interpret it differently. I love interacting with readers because it gives me ideas. It helps me develop things. And there’s an attitude that I find in some authors that their creativity gives them a licence to be rude. I don’t think it shows creative skill, it shows bad upbringing! A reader is like a customer, the least you can do is be polite. If you’re a banker and you meet a customer you’ll be polite. It’s the same with authors and readers as well.

SFX : Thanks Amish!

The Oath Of The Vayuputras arrives in early 2014 from Jo Fletcher Books . Discover more about Amish Tripathi online at his official site . Read more of this interview in SFX issue 243 on sale from Wednesday 11 December 2013 .