Interview with Manu Pillai


I hope you are doing well. I am very excited to publish a written interview with Manu Pillai, eminent historian and author of fine books like False AlliesThe Ivory Throne, and my favourite, The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin in this edition. I ask Manu questions about what he enjoys, how he wrote his first book at a very young age, his writing style, and more.

Q:  Hi Manu, Thanks for this interview.  Now that your latest book, False Allies, is out, how do you feel?  Is it a sense of relief now that the book is out or is it excitement on how your readers enjoy your book?  

A: Haha well a mix of both. On the one hand, one does feel like a weight has been lifted off one’s shoulders when a book is finally published. But then there are responses and reviews to think about, not to speak of other projects underway. I have, in that sense, not really taken a break: finishing one project means getting on with others which are in different stages of completion.

Q: Your books explore fascinating stories.  Your prose also makes stories jump out of the page.  As a popular historian, how do you go about scouring and selecting interesting stories?  How does your writing process work, in terms of keeping the prose short to keep the story authentic while injecting your flavour and style into the work? 

A: I am drawn to relatively obscure historical figures, themes, regions, and topics. And I suspect one reason why my books have done well is because others are also interested in aspects of the past that lie outside of the familiar and over-studied. As for how interesting subjects are chosen: they emerge out of a general pattern of research and reading. Digging up one marginalised tale or historical character leads to others, and the brain learns even to approach more familiar subjects with a new gaze and perspective. Often it is not the story itself that determines things as much as how we approach it. The same historical period, for example, would look different from the perspective of a court poet and the position of a peasant leader.

Q: As a popular historian, I presume your work values making stories accessible.  Yet your works seem to withstand academic rigour.  How did you strike a balance between using dense historical records (like archival material) and making the book accessible to non-historians like myself? 

A: I don’t think combining good research and good writing need to be treated as two ends of a spectrum. It is possible to do a great amount of research, apply rigour and analysis, and yet not inflict jargon and boredom on the reader. I write not for academics who sometimes have an active incentive to use jargon and make a virtue out of dullness. I write for a larger audience, and therefore must marry respectable research with a style that appeals. My own love of history was born from the wonderful stories I heard about the past, so storytelling is also personally quite important to me.

Q: You took up writing history at a fairly young age.  As someone in your 20s, how did you find your feet?  As a young professional, wasn’t taking up a big project in your name scary and daunting?  While of course the book was great, I am guessing the process of converting research into a book would have seemed uphill.  How did you go about believing in yourself and preparing yourself for possible negative consequences if the book did not do well?

A: In hindsight, it had its ups and downs. The six years my first book took were also a time when I was growing up. It consumed the first half of my twenties. While I wrote the book, in some ways the book also wrote me and who I was becoming. There were times when things moved slowly, when I put the manuscript aside in irritation, when barely any writing could be done. I tried to fill those spaces by focusing on research and reading, but it had its frustrations. Even so, I suppose in the end I stuck with it, and good, old-fashioned consistency saved the day. As for preparing for consequences—in Kerala, or Trivandrum specifically, I knew the book might be controversial, given the aura around Travancore’s royals and the fact that I was puncturing it somewhat. So at some level I was prepared for the worst. But in the end the overwhelming response was positive. That gave me the confidence to do my subsequent projects.

Q: How does your research and writing process differ between books where you focus on one subject (like The Ivory Throne) versus where you focus on multiple subjects (like The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin)?  

A: The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin is intended as a light read. At one level, I wanted to challenge myself, in that I had got so used to having acres and acres of space with The Ivory Throne (which is the size of two and a half PhD theses) that I wanted to see if I could condense a story reasonably well in just a page and a half or 1000 words. The stories in Courtesan are tales I found interesting in the course of general reading, or on the peripheries of the “main” research projects I was doing. I thought it was worth putting them out there for a larger audience because often at literature festivals and book events I would hear readers express interest in history but also a fear of history books. The idea, therefore, was to produce a collection where readers might obtain a taste of the riches of India’s past without getting overwhelmed—and having formed an appetite, perhaps next time they would hesitate less about picking up a 700-pager like The Ivory Throne, or a more “traditional” history book. And yes the research process naturally varies. Courtesan is largely built on secondary sources—books, essays, etc—while Ivory Throne was constructed on years and years of work with primary material, archival records, and makes a more original contribution.

Q: What makes Manu Pillai tick?  When does a story you come across graduate from “huh, that is interesting” to “damn, I want to read more and write a book on this”?   What gives you the most satisfaction in writing a book, is it the hours of research where you engage your mind, or is it the act of writing where you give birth to lives, or is it the success of the book and the book tours? 

A: Again, I think all of the above. When a book does well, and one mingles with large audiences in person, it does become a source of energy and motivation. But spending days and weeks and months plodding through archival material supplies real purpose. Small things, like deciphering a particularly illegible letter, can give great joy, even though it happens in silence. That is what I love about what I do. And there is no moment as such when I decide I want to write a book: there are several ideas that swirl about in one’s head—some of them end up becoming books soon enough, some of them end up waiting a little longer before they too become books.

I want to thank Manu for being kind enough to agree to do this interview and for his fantastic answers. If you want to learn more about Manu, do check out my podcast episode where I discuss his work and his book, The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin (Spotify and Youtube). Do follow Manu on Twitter.

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