Sidin Vadukut and his (Bombay) fever for writing : An Interview

2 weeks ago Shaili Desai 0

Sometimes, a person’s twitter handle can tell you lots about them.  With 178K tweets (as of 5th Aug, 2017 12:24 PM IST), Sidin Vadukut is a prolific tweeter (I am sure that’s a word!). His tweets are a mix of intelligent and sometimes self deprecating puns, historical trivia, lit references and an unbridled enthusiasm for sports. There are also spurts of RTs – about very silly people and equally silly things that happen to them, stuff that gets inevitably featured in our ‘serious’ newspapers, sorry, tabloids. His RTs are almost a satirical commentary on such ‘news’.

A simple google search on Sidin Vadukut will tell you more about him. It will reveal his currently role as the managing editor of Livemint.com and his blog, Domain Maximus, will – predictably – be one of the top five search results. As the story goes, he became famous when Travails of Single South Indian Men of Conservative Upbringing happened. And this ultimately led to his becoming a full time writer and the release of the Dork Trilogy.

When I left my job last month, my boss in Bangalore came to Delhi for bidding adieu (and make sure the handover to my successor was effectively done, I guess). We were talking about my writing plans and he talked about a friend of a colleague that I also know, who started writing full time after a blog post went viral. Unsurprisingly, Sidin Vadukut now gets cited as an inspiration for bloggers who turned into successful full time writers.

It was also a coincidence that just a day before our conversation about Sidin Vadukut, I had reached out to him with a few questions about his passion for writing, the Dork Trilogy and his upcoming book, Bombay Fever. And Sidin Vadukut replied back promptly.

About the time in life when he decided to become a writer

The closest I came to an epiphany was when I finished William Dalrymple’s From The Holy Mountain sometime in late 2005. I wondered to myself… could I evoke such images in reader’s with my own writing? This itself happened many years after I had started writing with any real intent. Which was in engineering college in 1995 or so. I wrote and wrote. And then blogged. And my blog really took off in the summer of 2004. This gave me a certain confidence to elevate writing from a pastime to a… calling. If you will. But it was in 2005 that I decided that I had to take chances with my career when I was young and didn’t have liabilities. And here I am.

On the exceptional response Sidin Vadukut received after the release of the Dork trilogy and how it has changed his life

I am still amazed that those books are out in bookstores. Penguin even re-jacketed them last year I think. Remarkable given that these are books set in a very very specific world. Of MBAs and Management consulting. And yet people seem to like the books and protagonist. I am constantly surprised by people who recall instances from the books that I had long forgotten.

The books changed my life but not in the sense that I am a billionaire. That was never the point. The books gave me a tremendous sense of satisfaction in that I can write a bit, make up stories, engage readers and so on. Today the very fact that publishers are happy to work with me on fiction or nonfiction proposals is entirely down to the success of the Dork trilogy.

On the inspiration behind the character of Robin Varghese, the protagonist of the Dork trilogy

Ho ho. This was the question I was asked the most for years and years. The origins of the character are from a blogpost I wrote whilst still at Business School. Much later when I was thinking of writing a novel ,my wife – then girlfriend – took a print out of all my posts and sifted through them for any ideas expandable into novel form. And she picked out the Robin post. To be fair it was the most fictional of all my posts. 

The first book was heavily influenced by my own experience as a consultant. The second and third were much more inspired by the experiences of other people who then got in touch with me to tell me their horror stories. The books were great fun to write. Tremendous fun.

On the obstacles Sidin Vadukut faced, how he overcame them and his journey as a writer

Many of these are obstacles that anybody in any livelihood faces. How do I make ends meet? How do I balance creative and commercial imperatives? How do I develop a technique? How do I find a voice and so on.

Over time I have realised that the solution to these problems are two-fold. First of all you must read a lot. Of all kinds of things. Indiscriminately. This makes you a much better writer. This sounds simple enough. But I know many many writers who struggle with this. I have met writers who tell me with some pride that they don’t read much of anything. I still find this flabbergasting. How can you be proud of NOT reading things.

The second thing is to develop a process. Not just in terms of the hardware and software of being a writer, but also in terms of thinking, and planning one work. Being a writer is very hard work. Especially if you also have a day job which also involves writing of a different style. So balancing all these things, still maintaining a standard that you are happy with, dealing with the highs of a good piece and the lows of a bad one. A lot of this is a mental process. 

On the kind of writing that he enjoys more – fiction or non-fiction

A couple of years ago I would have said they both give me equal pleasure. But not I think I find both enjoyable, but non-fiction as a whole more rewarding. I think there is an element of knowledge-sharing and journalistic achievement in non-fiction writing that I find very very enjoyable. But I need to do both. That keeps me sane and on my toes.

On his favourite places or circumstances to write in

Over the years I have developed a capacity to write in almost any circumstance. I have written columns on the browser of a Kindle reader. Columns on a Blackberry on the side upper berth of a train. God. Usually I work in an office I have at home. This is a discipline I have developed over the last few years. A dedicated space for thinking, reading, and, most importantly, using a two-monitor desktop setup that I use for work. Everything is just perfectly set up for me to work, think, listen to a bit of music. Nothing sophisticated or expensive of course. But everything is familiar and clean and there is a place for everything. I find the familiarity of all this helps me to do day to day tasks very well.

I tend to work in really productive focussed bursts from an hour to three hours long. Once or twice a week I step out of the home to work. This is partly because I tend to use libraries. But also because the commute often helps me deal with a stick piece or provoke a new solution to something I am grappling with.

However when it comes to book manuscripts, I like to take a week off, towards the end of the book, when I sequester myself somewhere alone, away from all humanity, and focus on nothing but writing and editing. The last couple of years I have been doing this at the Gladstone Library in Hawarden just over the Welsh border near Chester. A wonderful place. 

On writers that influenced him while growing up and how their work helped him become the writer he is today

I have always been a reader of all kinds of things. So there are always lots of influences in the things I write. Alistair Maclean, Martin Cruz Smith, Dave Barry, Bill Bryson, Tony Judt, Hobsbawm, AJP Taylor, Sjowall and Wahloo, Lindsey Davis. They have all influenced me in different ways. Some in the way they have developed a style. Others in the way they deal with vast amounts of information and substance in their work.

I always look at style and substance being the scaffolding on which I build my work. And different types of writers and books provide different things.

Bombay Fever is his first thriller novel. The Dork trilogy was a satirical and witty take on everyday corporate life. On how Sidin Vadukut decided to shift from humor to writing a thriller, and whether it has personally worked out for him.

It is perhaps too early to say how it has personally worked out at this point. A few months down the line I can give you a fuller picture incorporating reader feedback and so on. But that ‘demand’ side factor apart, I have thoroughly enjoyed. I think I become a better write with each book I write. With each book I learn new techniques and unlearn a few old ones. For instance I always struggled with second and third drafts right up till Bombay Fever. Because my innate insecurity as a write made it very hard for me to go back to a long manuscript objectively. It used to make me very squirmy. But Bombay Fever was edited and reworked and tweaked many times. The very fact that I have reread this some 30 times without hating it is, for me, kind of a wonderful validation. That it doesn’t suck.

The shift was entirely down to chance. I had initially planned to write a history of public transport in Mumbai. And then other things got in the way. And then I wrote a Mint column on the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic in India. Which made me think… what if a new outbreak hit Mumbai today? What would happen. Et voila. Bombay Fever.

And now the Mother-of-all-cliched questions that I am sure he gets asked repeatedly, as do most writers. A  piece of advice to young, aspiring writers.

There is no output without input. Read a lot. Think a lot. And, this is something I am a big believer in these days, talk to people, face to face, eyeballs to eyeballs, about ideas, problems, inspirations and things. The internet gives you a sense of community but it is an inadequate one. We are social creatures. Not social media creatures.

Also, a message to readers from Sidin Vadukut, before they pick up his new novel, Bombay Fever

Oh prepare to set aside a day or two. It is a book that is best read in one sitting. I am hoping that the writing will anyway force people to read it like that. Also for a work of fiction it has a LOT of historical research in it. Enjoy!

Sidin Vadukut has lots to say in his latest novel, Bombay Fever, which releases on August 8th, 2017. You can order his book on Amazon by clicking the link below:

Written with inputs from Sherry Verma. Illustration by Dhwani Desai.