Longlisted author Tanuj Solanki, on why his protagonist is not an anti-hero, and what influenced his book.
No, no, none of that. The influences for Manjhi's Mayhem are all in American crime (and pulp) fiction since the 1930s. Dorothy Hughes, Chester Himes, Donald Westlake, and, more recently, James Sallis. There is a certain kind of crime novel that is neither a grim police procedural nor a hermetic manor mystery nor out-and-out noir, though it has noirish elements ('noir' is anyway a term soiled for literature by what it has come to mean for cinema). One could call this niche a caper, I guess, and I'm mightily impressed by the American tradition in it. And, you know, while procedurals and mysteries have come to Indian writing in English this way or that, the caper hasn't, not really. So I thought -- mostly for kicks -- of writing a caper set in one of our big cities. But then a caper is a novel of the underclass, and English isn't a terribly suitable language for writing a novel of the underclass in India. Issues around implicit translation crop up, and these limit the English repertoire one can employ. It was fun finding my own solutions for these issues.
I was conscious of who Manjhi was and which situations I wanted to put him in and what his reactions were going to be. I didn't much care about his likeability, but I guess he's more a hero than an anti-hero. I don't mind the guy myself. Every time he punches someone, I have the momentary, sanguine feeling of righting a wrong in the world.
I have mentioned a few in response to the first question. But that list is perhaps specific to a certain kind of novel. More generally, Naipaul, Nabokov, and Bolaño have been huge for me. Among Indian writers, there are too many to name and the list keeps increasing every year.
A fiction writer is also influenced by literary criticism and literary history, of which there is some shortage in India at the moment. In their lack, and because of the availability of ebooks and global recommendation ecosystems, Indian English writers of my age or younger are likely to do an immersive world tour, so to speak, before even attempting to locate themselves in any Indian literary tradition. One notes this tendency in readers, too. I'm still grappling with what this might come to mean.
As much as you can of History, especially 20th-century History. I would recommend Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, to witness how a language can make for a lush home. And The Enigma of Arrival by V.S. Naipaul, for perhaps the opposite reason.
I'm writing another novel with Sewaram Manjhi. And I'm working on a novella that might be said to belong to the classification usually termed 'literary fiction'.