“It’s Bloody And Beautiful”: Author Jerry Pinto On Crime Fiction, And More

Posted on January 16, 2015 in Culture-Vulture, Staff Picks

This post is a part of Youth Ki Awaaz’s coverage of the Crime Writers Festival:

By Kanika Katyal:

Jerry Pinto lives in a city.
This is a pity.
Because cities ain’t pretty.
– Jerry Pinto

Back in 2011, this is what Amitav Ghosh said of Jerry Pinto’s first book, “ ‘Em and the Big Hoom’ is a profoundly moving book: I cannot remember when I last read something as touching as this”.

There is so much that can be said of this writer who having done everything from teaching mathematics and journalism to being a librarian, to writing television scripts, prose and children’s fiction in English, and editing a travel dotcom, at the end of the day calls himself a poet.

That is Jerry Pinto for you.

One who as he says, by means of “allegedly performing acts of journalism in the somnolent hours of the afternoon” managed a superb chronicle on the life of Helen and bagged the National Award for the Best Book on Cinema for it (Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb).

You cannot just read Jerry’s work. Sure he puts in the funny bits, but just when the reader kind of settles in, he throws in something deep. Famous for his complex and intricate layers of narrative voices, Pinto now changes gears to present to us a compelling mystery – Murder in Mahim and Other Stories. And this time the stakes are very high, for it is a question of life and death.

YKA catches the eccentric writer in a fun interview to tell us about his changing tracks, his obsession with Mumbai, what he thinks of the crime fiction scene in India and much more.

Q: According to you, what is it about murder mysteries that makes them the most popular in the crime fiction genre?

A: Right since Oedipus Rex, we’ve been fascinated by the whodunit. But a whodunit presupposes an ‘it’. What ‘it’ then makes the best possible subject? The worst possible happening: murder. That’s how it works. It tells you something about how the human mind works, I suppose. Oh dear. What a way to begin.

Q: Do tell us a little about Murder in Mahim and Other Stories, and what about Mumbai made it an apt setting for your work?

A: Murder in Mahim and Other Stories owes its existence to Altaf Tyrewalla who asked me if I would write a noir story for Mumbai Noir, an anthology he was editing. I have always liked the self-conscious stylishness of noir and I thought it would be a bit of a lark to try it out and so I wrote the first of the Peter-Jende stories. (Peter is a retired journalist; Jende is his policeman buddy.) It wasn’t too stylish and it wasn’t self-conscious but Altaf was kind enough (or desperate enough) to include it.

Then TimeOut Mumbai had some kind of anniversary and the editor, Gauri Vij, asked me if I would write a poem set in Mumbai. I didn’t think I could write a poem for a magazine so I returned to Peter and Jende and gave Millie, Peter’s wife, a starring role. And then Ravi Singh came up with the idea of a book of Peter-Jende stories, and Murder in Mahim and Other Stories began.

Q: What is the kind of research that went into writing Murder in Mahim and Other Stories?

A: I do huge amounts of research. I research every single word of every single story for years before I commit it to paper. Now take the simple word ‘the’. You can’t mis-use ‘the’. If ‘The’ shows up where ‘the’ ought not to be, you’re not going to be taken seriously…
Sorry, sorry, couldn’t resist.
I am going to go out now and do some research. I will make notes and tell you about it.

Q: Håkan Nesser believes, “A crime is born in the gap between the morality of society and that of the individual.” What is your take on this?

A: Håkan Nesser is right. Anyone who has a little dot on the first ‘a’ of his name tends to be right. As far as I am concerned, almost everything of interest develops in the space between what we think we ought to be doing and what we are doing. Love affairs, for instance. Gambling on the stock markets, for another. Playing Spider Solitaire with only one suit when you know you should be now graduating to many suits. Changing your Facebook picture every alternate hour.

Q: You have said – “Crime writing is an attempt to deal with life as if it is a logical thing. Crime writing is an attempt to deal with death as if it is a logical end to life.” Do elaborate on this.

A: Life is not a logical thing. We hurt our friends. That’s not logical. We live as if we are immortal. That’s not logical. We save money in banks which lend money to us at huge interest and pay us spare change on our money which is with them. That’s not logical. People invest in the air between the seventeenth floor and the eighteenth floor of a building and then call it real estate. That’s not logical. Environmental journalists have the largest carbon footprints, that’s not logical. But in a crime fiction novel, you can’t say: “Oh well, she killed him because there was nothing on the telly.” That stuff Camus can pull off but Christie can’t. So you must invent a universe where this leads to that and that leads to murder. In the real world, this leads to that and these and those and somewhere along the line, murder happens and because this is so terrifying, we enjoy the logic of these novels and the way they hide clues inside them as if they were giant crossword puzzles.

Q: “Ninety-five per cent fact, 95 per cent fiction,” you said of Em and The Big Hoom. But when it comes to writing about crime, this transforms into a debate between truth and lies. What do you pick?

A: It does, does it? In what writing does it not? You begin with the first binary: fiction or non-fiction. The second binary: popular or high-brow? You could go on like that. Only there’s nothing real about these binaries. Suppose you’re writing a work of non-fiction. You’re reporting an event. Someone lies to you. You put down that lie in good faith, thinking it to be the truth. Or you put down that lie, knowing it to be a lie, but assuming that your reader will also know it is a lie. How have you played with the truth?
So no, I can’t choose.
But here I am a fiction writer. So lies, lies, damned lies.

Q: Your writing displays a startling perspective on human nature, as we saw in Em and The Big Hoom. Do tell us a little about the difference in approaches between these two books of yours – Em and Mahim.

A: I don’t know how to compare. I love writing. I enjoy it. It is also hard work. I would rather have written. But it doesn’t work that way. First you write. Then you edit. Then you destroy. Then you rewrite. Then you edit. Then you put back some stuff in. Then you cut it all out again. Then you go and have a cup of tea. Then you come back and write some more. Then you wait. You read. You smell that it isn’t half bad. Now, you can start keying it in. As you key it in, you work on the material. Then you realise that what you added to paragraph three of page four you have put in on paragraph seven of page eight. Another pass at the stuff. You howl. You thump your chest. Then you settle down to type it straight, as it exists on the page of the battered notebook. This is the process, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction.

Perhaps the only difference between Em and Mahim is which part of me it came from. But I can’t map those either.
Thank heavens for the critics. They get to do this stuff.

Q: Besides a tight plot, good crime thrillers need a convincing character that writers could invest in and return to for several books. The readers want to know more about the chief character. The novel then somewhere boils down to the good versus evil debate, with the protagonist becoming the man on a mission and driving the novel. Do you agree? If yes, then why, and if not, then why not?

A: I agree I suppose because you put it so convincingly. Then I don’t have to think it through. I must go back now and revise Murder in Mahim and put in some more stuff about Peter.

Q: You have been a journalist and have experienced the thrilling ‘been there when it happened’ part. Now when you write fiction, is the difference only between writing about the crime versus writing about the criminal? What do you prefer?

A: No, no, no, journalists are almost never there when it happened. It’s almost always like the police, you turn up when it has happened and then you have to piece together what happened from conflicting accounts. See?

Q: What do you think about the crime fiction scene in India?

A: It’s bloody and beautiful.

Q: Who are you favourite writers? And what inspires your work?

A: I don’t know how to answer this. My favourite crime writers are the usual suspects, the leddis of Lunnon and thereabouts: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Margery Allingham, P D James. Then those weird British gents: Edmund Crispin, G K Chesterton, lately Alexander McCall Smith. From other nations: Ed McBain, Hakan Nesser, Sjowall and Wahloo.

But I am already feeling uncomfortable with this because I will now need to go and look at my bookshelves and say: Oh gosh, of course, and no, no, maybe not. And so on.

Q: What is your advice to aspiring crime fiction writers?

A: • Agatha Christie is alive and well. She still sells millions of copies. You cannot be Agatha Christie.
• You should write your crime fiction novel with as much dedication and intensity as if you were trying to out-do Shakespeare, but you cannot let any of the effort show.
• Write your book. Don’t talk your book. Don’t plan your book. Write your book.
• Writing is hard work. Do you like hard work?
• Did you say “I don’t mind hard work as long as I get paid in proportion?” The money is rarely in proportion to the work.
• Come on in, the water is icy-cold but you get used to it.
• This advice is free. You know the value of free advice.

Jerry Pinto (Photo by Chirodeep Chaudhuri)

[alert type=white ]

Quickies!

What does your writing space look like?

My writing space is inside my head. It looks grey and pink and curly-wurly.

The view from your window…

The wall of another building.

What keeps you from writing/work…

Friends. Dirty clothes. Uncooked food.

What aspiring authors must not do…

Say: “If I had the time I would write my book.” No one is going to give you the time. You have to make it.

Tea Or Coffee?

Tea.

Early Bird or Creature of the Night?

Creature of the mid-morning.

Road trip or flying?

Flying.

Okay to sip wine while writing?

What floats your boat? Float.

What do you do when you hit the mythical Writer’s Block?

I ask myself: would I approve of a doctor saying, ‘I have doctor’s block so please don’t expect me to finish this operation’?

And where does one find that mystical Muse?

In the mirror.

If not a writer, you’d be?

Sad.

A character of your own creation you have fallen for?

The teddy bear in A Bear for Felicia. Saawri in When Crows are White.

A character from a movie or book you wish you could be…

No fictional life can ever amount to a hill of beans when compared to the real thing. So, no, however attractive it might be to live in two dimensions, I’ll take the life I’ve got and do the best I can.

A book’s ending you wish you could change (not yours) and how…

I’d turn every single book into a happy ending.

Critical acclaim or crazy screaming fans in a mosh pit?

How about critical acclaim from screaming fans in a mosh pit where they throw gold biscuits at you? How about the Nobel Prize as well as the bestseller lists? How about telling the truth about our desires for a change?

The one author you’d be happy to swap lives with?

Jerry Pinto. He talks a good life.[/alert]

What is it about the city that drives an individual to crime? How does the city which is so magnificent on the one hand, is on the other hand also mysterious and capable of disrupting your view in an instant? Catch Håkan Nesser and Jerry Pinto unravel the enigma behind this and much more this Saturday (January 17th), at the Crime Writers Festival at India Habitat Centre.

Youth Ki Awaaz is an open platform where anybody can publish. This post does not necessarily represent the platform's views and opinions.