Because my first novel is called Shakespeare Loves Bollywood (NYU English professor reinvents herself through her passion for Indian film – the book’s sequel, Shakespeare Loves Monsoon, will come out this summer), people believe I know India well. They ask for tips on non-Agra tourist sites (try the Rajasthan palaces or the Alp-like areas around Leh and Manali), food (stay away from beach snacks like bhel puri, never let any part of a bottle of water touch your lips), and how to get along in the sub-continent (be cautious about your belongings, learn to express thanks, and, for a sure icebreaker, express interest in Indian films – Indians are movie-mad).
But I don’t know the country well at all. In fact, I’ve never been there.
Shock! Dismay! Confusion . . ..
I’m not alone in writing about India without having landed in Delhi. This past week saw the death at age 84 of a writer who for many years had done the same, compiled volumes of fiction set in India from the comparative comfort of Notting Hill in the west of London, where he lived in the same house for over fifty years.
His name was H. R. F. “Harry” Keating, and from 1964 to 2008 he authored the Inspector Ganesh Ghote crime novels set in Bombay, though it wasn’t until 1974 that he visited India, where the gentle Inspector Ghote already had many fans.
Keating himself may have been aware of American antecedents in the “never been there” stakes. Mary Mapes Dodge returned to the parental home as a young widow in 1858, bringing two small sons. With her father, she edited and produced magazines. Eager to earn the money a novel would bring, she decided to set a book in the Netherlands, on which she’d done much research, both in libraries and with Dutch immigrant neighbors willing to talk of life in Holland. The book, about the Dutch sport of speed-skating, was an instant bestseller: Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. Yet Dodge visited the Netherlands only after it was published.
Is it chutzpah, to set stories in places we’ve never been? If so, then science fiction and fantasy writers have a lot of nerve! So do authors of historical fiction, who may live in today’s Manhattan but never walked its streets in 1890. Likewise people such as Richard Adams of Watership Down fame, who knows England well but doesn’t tread its hills as a rabbit or fox.
“Write what you know” gets you started. It’s writing what you don’t know that keeps you moving.
A dear friend will be returning to India this summer, and has invited me to spend time there. Perhaps I’ll take her up on her offer, see for myself the cities I’ve set my protagonist in, visit sites to use in future books. For now, I’ll continue to use the most powerful device in the writing toolbox: imagination.