Q&A with Arjun Basu

This is your first foray into fiction. How did you come up with the idea for this work?

An editor walks into a bar….Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, I know, but it’s true. The editor in this case is Dave McGimpsey, poet, pop culture critic, guitarist, essayist and friend. He had called me and said “I need to ask you something. Wanna meet for a beer?” Sounds ominous – guys don’t talk this way. So a few days later I go to the bar. And . . . an editor walks in. He asks me if I want to write a book. He says think about it. I say ok. And now, the book is out. Writing the stories (there were three that had already been written and published), I didn’t set out to create an over arching theme. But as I thought about what I wanted to write, a theme developed, a loose theme about chance and choice and the collision between the two. Life isn’t black and white. No matter how much control we want to or try to exert on our lives, we can’t. Life is more gray. Or, using my word, squishy.

What was the creative process like for you?

I have a full time job. When I was writing the stories, I was editing a magazine (enRoute) and I was overseeing a dozen other editorial projects. I don’t know how I managed to get this thing done to be honest. I wrote the first draft of the entire book in about four months. I used any spare time I had: mornings, evenings, weekends. Each story had me lost in a different world during its creation. After the first two stories were on paper, I had a very productive evening where I mapped out, in very basic form, another five or six. I had one line synopses or situations down on paper, four of which ended up in the book. I’ve never been one to plan out my fiction much – especially short stories. But the process worked. As an editor, I understand the importance of deadlines. At least I like to think so. Dave had given me a deadline and that date loomed over my head with a force that I found kind of surprising. I handed in my manuscript with a day to spare. And then the real work began.

Who did you read as a kid, and how did these first forays into reading fiction affect your sensibilities as a writer?

I wasn’t a huge reader as a kid. I liked dinosaurs and whales and space (I still do). I had lots of books – I was a big Dr. Seuss fan. Charlie Brown. I got into the Hardy Boys. The latter aren’t squishy at all, though Dr. Seuss and Charlie Brown both, come to think of it, celebrate squishiness, albeit in simple ways.

What are you reading right now?

I don’t have much time to read. It’s one of the ironies of my life. I just finished an advance review copy of Mark Abley’s The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English. I’m in the middle of The Falling Man, by Don Dellilo. I have four or five books on my nightstand and another two in my office, waiting to be read.

Do you write with a certain audience in mind? Who is your “ideal reader”?

I write for myself. When I’m working on a magazine, I have an audience in mind. An ideal reader. But when I’m writing fiction, it’s for me. If other people connect with my writing, that’s a bonus.

Name one person in your life who profoundly infuenced your work, and why did you choose this person?

Raymond Carver. Does that age me? Reading Carver, I understood, finally, that art exists in every moment of every life. Art doesn’t have to be “big.” A real story, no matter how seemingly insignificant, exists everywhere. You just have to look for it. Carver influenced me profoundly. My son’s middle name is Carver.

Who is your favourite protagonist in a work of fiction or poetry, and why?

Frank Bascombe. I think. The protagonist in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter is a world weary kind of guy, someone who has been punched more than once by life, though much of his weariness is self-inflicted. Though I’m not entirely sure about Bascombe: by the time Independence Day came around, I wasn’t interested in him anywhere. He’d grown too melancholy – to me, at least, he was the same person as he was in The Sportswriter. I have to throw in Holden Caulfield in here as well. Maybe because he was the first character who voiced some of the same concerns I was feeling – of course, I read him when I was 15. And The Lorax. Yes, he’s the first pop environmentalist but later I also saw him as the personification of William Buckley’s definition of a conservative: who want to sit athwart history and yell “stop!” Ironic, then, that conservatives don’t naturally embrace environmentalism. I’m not a conservative. But I can see The Lorax in that vein. In any case, The Lorax is a tremendous character – his defeat at the end is our collective loss.

Tell us a little about the overarching theme of your work, and why you felt compelled to explore it.

I’ve always been interested by the tangents life takes. That Sliding Doors movie explored this theme and I wanted to like that movie but just couldn’t. I’m not a Gwyneth Paltrow fan, I guess – and all Hollywood movies set in London seem false to me. Back to tangents: we’re like pinballs in a pinball machine. Minute moments or insignificant decisions change our lives without our knowing it. That’s what the stories in Squishy are about mostly. An example: Elliott Spitzer. Getting caught wasn’t the squishy moment. The first time he decided to call the escort service, or even the first time he thought about using an escort at all – which may have occurred years before he actually picked up the phone – that was the squishy moment. Everything that transpired started there. That’s the moment I’m interested in.

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