Interview with our judge Neel Mukherjee
8th Feb 2017
The Indian author Neel Mukherjee is a judge for this year’s Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His first novel, A Life Apart, published in 2010, won the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award for best fiction. The Lives of Others, published in 2014, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and won the Encore Prize for best second novel. His third novel, A State of Freedom, is out in July. Interview by Sophie Haydock
You’re a judge in the 2017 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. What do you look for in the perfect short story?
Meaning and surplus. By the first, I mean a strong, complex answer to the question, “What does it amount to?” By the second, I mean that missing extra, that variable that cannot be solved, whose meaning will not be pinned down. This latter quality I prize above everything else in the short story. Often it can be confused with a concluding sleight of hand — don’t be fooled by this. In that sometimes indistinguishable difference between trick and profundity lies the true test of any practitioner of the form.
Are there any common short story pitfalls you can highlight for writers to avoid?
I’m not a short story writer, so my advice should be taken with some amount of scepticism, but this implicit rule seems to be buried in every good short story I read: do not say a word more than is necessary, then go back and take out a little of the necessary stuff, too. Also, do not neglect structure and the carpentry aspect of fitting together the different components — the short story is a punishing form, and all the bagginess and messiness that can be overlooked, and is indeed desirable, in a novel, are fatal here.
Have there been any recurring themes in the stories you’ve read for this year’s award?
No, not really, but politics and “the state we are in” seem to be out, and emotional dynamics, psychological examinations, relationships seem to be in.
Why is the short story such an appealing form? What makes it special?
For writers, it’s the challenge of trying their hand at a fiendishly difficult form. For readers, the steep investment-returns gradient must be very attractive: you read something that spans only 10 or 15 pages, but the resonances and meanings last for much, much longer. The concentration and the distillation are powerful qualities — their pull impossible to resist. Besides, the form can be ideal bedtime reading: 20 pages before your turn out the lights, and you get the experience that many novels or long-form non-fiction regularly fail to deliver.
Do you think the short story is experiencing a revival in popularity? Or did it never go away?
Well, publishers will tell you that they cannot sell short story collections. The data seems to support their claim. While the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, the BBC Short Story Award, etc, have attempted to bring about a renaissance, I think the form is still seen as the lesser sibling of the novel. There are reasons why this is the state of affairs, chief of which is economic, ie, the steady disappearance of a paying market for short stories (journals, magazines, newspaper supplements).
Compare this with the US scene, where the form flourishes because publishers, journals, magazines, small presses and creative writing schools are all seriously invested in the form. It could certainly do with more reviving in this country. There’s no point blaming the publishing industry; if newspaper supplements, magazines, periodicals, websites, online news platforms all start to commission short stories with regularity and pay decent money for them, we’ll soon be on our way.
Where do you find the inspiration for your own work?
In life, of course, but also in reading. If I didn’t read, I wouldn’t write.
You’ve won several awards for your writing, including the Encore Prize for best second novel. Do you think that kind of prize-giving recognition is important for writers?
It’s absolutely vital for literary fiction, the only way for it to get noticed. Some prizes are better marketed than others, so there is no equality in the world of being noticed if you’ve won a prize. But even if a prize does not translate into bigger readership, its marginal benefits are many: encouragement to carry on, a little bit of money, the regard of agents, publishers and other writers, a small fillip of confidence…
What can you tell us about your third novel, A State of Freedom, which will be out in July 2017?
It’s set entirely in contemporary India and is about what people make of the horizon of possibilities they are born into. Being versus becoming, in other words. It’s about the central event of our times — movement, migration — but not as you imagine it (it’s emphatically not a novel about immigration and assimilation). I’ve also tried to think about some formal aspects. And there’s a sloth bear in it as a central character.
Is it important that writers stick to their own experience, do you think?
In these times, when solipsism, masquerading as authenticity, reigns supreme in the novel, I think exactly the opposite: writers need to get out of themselves and inhabit other lives as a matter of moral duty. But, then, the world will always divide into two kinds of writers: those who think that the only subject is the self, and those who think the true subject is the world outside the borders of the self.
Neel Mukherjee’s new novel, A State of Freedom (Chatto & Windus £16.99), is out in July; neelmukherjee.com