Kiran Desaiís life changed a year ago when her second novel, The Inheritance of Loss, won the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Since then itís been a blur of interviews, signings, hotels and airports for the Indian-born author who lives in New York.
"Awards are such a lottery," said Desai, laughing as she recalled the four-hour event, "full of nervous publishers," in London that culminated with her name being called out. "You see behind the scenes and you become conscious of how much awards are down to luck. It depends on which books are put forward by the publishers and if a major author has a book out then the publishers are obliged to put those ones forward.
"Each year the shortlist of books is drastically different. The judges are always different so you get a different sense of what the awards are about each time."
Desai, 36, has read just one novel from this yearís shortlist Ė The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. "He is a friend and I was one of the early readers of his book," she said. "Heís got a huge amount of talent and his first book, Moth Smoke (published in 2000), was extremely good and hasnít got the attention that it deserved. Heís a talent that isnít going to go away or be a one book thing."
The Inheritance of Loss deals with several themes but the notion of travel Ė from India to England and back again, and from India to New York and back again Ė provides some of the novelís backbone. Ironically, Desai admits she herself has "been on the road for almost two years now" in a global effort to promote the book from India to Poland to Canada.
The Inheritance of Loss took almost eight years to finish and was delivered "five years late at least" to the publisher. "I was very lucky," she adds when reminded that the Booker Prize victory repaid her publisherís patience in spades.
"It (the Booker win) had a really serious effect," she said. "You realize that to win a prize is basically childish. The pleasure you feel is childish, which is nice too. But the frightening thing is that it has a serious, serious effect."
The eight-year writing process is remembered fondly by the author, who is eager to return to writing with the end of her promotional work finally in sight.
"They were completely happy years," she said. "I canít wait to go for another eight years. Difficult maybe and at times exhausting, but you really do grow moss. On the other hand it was heaven. In a way, the novel was beside the point as I was writing in every direction."
She admits financial pressure eventually forced her to formulate a finished product from the legions of pages she had written over the years. "I was growing more and more poor," said Desai who lived off an advance from her publisher and royalties from her debut book, Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard.
The Inheritance of Loss describes how the inhabitants of a household near Kalimpong, where northern India borders the Himalayas, are affected by a Nepalese insurgency in the mid-1980s. A retired judge, his cook whose son is an illegal immigrant in New York, the judgeís granddaughter and her tutor go under the microscope as their peace is broken by what becomes a bitter and bloody dispute for an independent state.
Desai lived in India until she was 14 before moving to the university town of Cambridge in the UK where her mother, the author Anita Desai, spent a year as a writer-in-residence. She then moved to Massachusetts before eventually settling in New York.
"The book was received very well in India in comparison to my first book, except for one area in Darjeeling, Kalimpong, where there were lots of protests against the book after the Booker. There were demonstrations and book burning, and I canít go back to that part of the country.
"I could have written about an insurgency in Assam or Punjab or Kashmir where things are very complicated but this was a part of the country that I know and we were in these mountains just before we left India when I was 14 Ė about the age of the girl (Sai) in the book. I went back there and tried to understand what I didnít understand when I was a child. India is a country of states, and it has never been resolved how the country should be structured. I still have an aunt who lives there and I wrote all the parts about Kalimpong while living there.
"My aunt was very much harassed (after the Booker Prize win) and we were going to go there but we were advised not to go. People from a Nepali background thought they had not been represented fairly but I think I am sympathetic to what they have to say as I am an immigrant myself. Did the insurgency result in violence? Yes. Was it dealt with severely by the police? Yes."
The Inheritance of Loss also illustrates the life of an illegal immigrant in New Yorkís underground culture where exploited workers staff the cityís restaurants. She describes this life as "a trap.
"My own experiences of travel have been positive but I also realize that things are so complicated," she said. "I think itís impossible to simplify travel or simplify a city like New York when everyone says itís a fantastic multicultural dream, a beacon of hope that brings in people from all over. The stories spill beyond the borders of New York Ė you have to widen your perspective. They call it the American Dream but what about the people who are not living the American dream?"
Desaiís thoughts are now turning to her third novel Ė something thatís in her head but in no true form yet.
"Iím almost writing a book about what itís like to wait for a new book," she said. "The non-book is so big now. I am eager to write and something is there but I keep thinking what is the book, where is it? Itís like a Moby Dick thing, you need to hunt it down but you donít know what it is. You become completely obsessed with this empty space and but I often think that Iíll just lie down for 10 minutes between interviews and think about what my book will be like."
Other Books by Kiran Desai
Hulabaloo in the Guava Orchard
After years of failure at school and work, and of spending his days dreaming in the tea stalls and singing to himself in the public gardens, it doesn't seem as if post-office clerk Sampath Chawla is going to amount to much. But then he climbs a guava tree and becomes unexpectedly famous as a guru.