Finding the plot

Though the path to the end of the story wasn't always clear, C.Y. Gopinath has achieved success with his first novel _ and there's more to come

Within five minutes of meeting to discuss his first novel The Book Of Answers, C.Y. Gopinath has a question: "Did you get bored?"

C.Y. Gopinath says being shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize came as a shock.

It comes as a surprise. The dystopian satire which thrusts a reluctant protagonist into peril in a chaotic India of the near future, one replete with a sex tax and a Ministry of Errors and Regrets, is never dull. Instead, it becomes increasingly intriguing as the plot unfurls. After a deceptively simple start, when Patros Patronobis inherits a book said to contain all the answers to the world's problems, it spirals into a world of political intrigue, women's rights, people trafficking and religious zealotry.

"It is intricate," Gopinath says. "Many people sort of tuned out because of that. They found it kind of lost the plot here and there with side stories."

Maybe the Indian-born, Bangkok-based author is among his own harshest critics, because The Book Of Answers made the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize shortlist _ which he says "felt like a mistake" _ and has enjoyed positive reviews. But perhaps his ability to view the tome dispassionately comes from its complicated inception and because, after many years in journalism and success with a non-fiction book, Travels With The Fish, he was unsure about venturing into fiction. The process took three years and the first 150 pages were written three times.

"There was nothing scientific at all about the way the book came out," he explains. "I didn't know what the story would be at all. I had the beginning and I had the ending, but I didn't have the middle. The process of getting the middle out was very odd. To say the least it was a very odd process.

"I had milestones, I knew where the story needed to reach, but not what happened in between the milestones. I had big markers all the way to the end, but had to figure out what came in between."

The Book Of Answers by C.Y. Gopinath 340 pp, 2012 4th Estate hardcover. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 650 baht.

Gopinath gives credit to author and former Curtis Brown literary agent Nathan Bransford for the book's existence; Bransford was the one to suggest a novel after reading a chapter from Travels With the Fish.

"He played a key role. He was not one of the 700 people I spammed, but he got this chapter I had sent through someone that I had spammed.

"He said, 'This is your travel book, do you have anything else going on?'. I said I have a single sentence, but I don't think I can do a book. I'm a journalist and I don't make up facts. At that time I did think that journalists don't make up facts.

"He came back and said, 'We've discussed it and we kind of feel you might be able to pull it off'. More than anything, it was his faith in my non-existent ability that made me feel... 'Okay, I'll give it a go'. Altogether he feels like an angel _ I respect his credentials completely."

When Gopinath began writing, he set a rule for himself: he would not write about anything he had no experience of. Even though the book is fiction, and is set in 2015, he felt it needed a grounding in reality.

"It was an interesting rule. I stuffed a lot of things in... It's a bit self-indulgent, the first book."

The first review came after he had written 150 pages, from a friend at Oxford University who was scathing in his assessment. The thrust of the complaint was: "You're a writer trying to sound like a writer."

Those 150 pages, and then some, were rewritten in the third person. Bransford's response to that effort was that Gopinath had murdered the best thing going for the book: his voice. That draft could have been written by any thriller writer, Bransford argued. Gopinath went back to the start.

The shift in perspective had opened up narrative possibilities, and the story took a few turns Gopinath didn't want to abandon. "The story blossomed, I didn't want to lose the new stuff." Its heart, however, is a satire about how books such as the Bible and the Koran are misinterpreted or wilfully used for malicious purposes.

Throughout The Book Of Answers, the book in question remains locked; for the most part, the key is missing.

"I've always had this interest in how much harm can be done using a book that no one has read," Gopinath says. "I think the maximum harm on the planet today is coming out of books no one has read that are being interpreted by a few people and then being followed by many people.

"It's not the book itself, it's what someone tells you is in the book and you are willing to believe that person. That's really the metaphor here."

After starting the novel three times, getting it on the shelves in India and Thailand, and on the shortlist of a major literary award, you may think Gopinath has finished his work with The Book Of Answers. Think again: he is keen to secure a US publisher and has embarked on the radical task of rewriting his novel in a new setting.

"A lot of the publishers in the US said, 'We like it, but it's too culturally Indian'." Gopinath is 240 pages into the fourth rewrite, and thanks to multiple visits over the years and a little help from Google Street View, Mumbai and Kerala are becoming New York and Louisiana, while Patros has morphed into Daniel Hoyt.

"It's the most fascinating exercise I have ever undertaken," he says. "Everything's very easy to find a parallel for. I found pretty much everything could be transposed into a totally different culture."

Gopinath has also started on a new novel, titled Balman The Maltruist. He defines "maltruism" as causing great harm through the consequences of trying to do great deeds. The story will be set in Kenya with two protagonists, whose voices will tell each chapter in turn.

Balman is a middle-aged Indian man, while the other main character will be a young Kenyan from the Luhya tribe who works in a photocopy shop.

Gopinath says the story will revolve around Aids, ethnic conflict, and the characters' sexual hang-ups, and promises to be a darker, although equally dystopian, satire.

Whether or not it will have an easier birth than his first novel is a question that remains to be answered.

About the author

Writer: Michael Ruffles