Friday, September 9, 2016

Interview of Stuart Blackburn, 2016 Winner

1) Congratulation on winning the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction for your novel, Into the Hidden Valley! Did you plan a life in India as it turned out? Or what led you down that path?

I first went to India in 1970 as a Peace Corps Volunteer (similar to the British VSO). It was either that or go fight in Vietnam. When I applied, I said I’d like to go to Japan, not knowing that Japan didn’t need any ‘help.’ I was sent to south India, to train primary school teachers to teach English. I stayed for 2 ½ years, learned the Tamil language and my life was changed forever.

2) Did you think of being a writer as a child? Or when and how did the thought develop?

I’m not sure I think of myself as a writer, even now. For most of my life I was an academic, doing research and writing it up into books and articles. But the research was always the best part. When I retired some years ago, I wanted to write but wasn’t doing research, so I turned to India. I’m still learning how to write fiction, which is so rewarding because there’s so much to learn. You can improve day by day.

3) Please give us a brief idea of the story.

The book tells the story of two men—a British civil servant and an Apatani tribesman—whose lives intersect in late nineteenth-century India. These two men, the officer and the shaman, are brought closer and closer, until they meet face-to-face and become entangled in events that blight both their lives.
The novel explores the power and inadequacy of words, spoken and written. George, the British officer, documents events in notebooks and official reports, while Gyati, the shaman, is immersed in chants that describe the seen and unseen. The officer relies on his writing box and its tools; the shaman manipulates sounds and pieces of bamboo.
Another theme is concealment and its consequences. False family backgrounds are invented, protective spaces are coveted and shamanic language is deliberately confusing. Most importantly, lies are told and discovered, leaving a terrible burden of knowing the truth.

4) Do you feel you've had a personal connection to the native people of the valley? How has that affected your life?

Over a period of about ten years, beginning in 1999, I did various stints of research in the Apatani valley, recording oral stories and documenting ritual ceremonies. That’s how I got into the shaman’s world. I made some good friends, mostly among the many shamans in the Apatani community.

5) How long did the book take you from starting the specific research to final edits?

The whole process was nearly two years. I write slowly, a little each day. The research on the tribe and the shaman’s world had already been done, although I had to do new research on the colonial side of things, how one became an ICS officer and what life was like for these officers in India. It is amazing that so few British officials ‘ran’ the whole of the subcontinent, relying of course on a huge cadre of ‘native’ assistants. Of course, sometimes they didn’t run it very well, as we see in the novel.

6) I know you based some characters on real people. Did you do interviews of these people to guide the story line or just create on your own?

Well, I had known these people from my research and from our friendship, so, no, I didn’t do any special interviews when I embarked on writing the novel.

7) Did you have to bend history at all?

Yes, more collapse and foreshorten the chronology of the main events, all of which did occur. For example, the ‘massacre’ actually took place fifty years after the time I set it in the book. Those killings, however, were never recorded in official documents, and I only found out about them from oral history among the Apatanis. It was this discrepancy between oral and official history that inspired the events in the second-half of the book, the moral dilemmas and their resolution.
I also want to say that I wrote this book largely because this chapter of colonialism—the clash between the British and tribal groups—has rarely been told in fiction.

8) I know there is a change in publishers coming up. Will the book continue to be available on Amazon? Where else can it be purchased?

Currently, it is available on Amazon. It is also available from Speaking Tiger Books in New Delhi, who published the Indian edition. Unfortunately, the US publisher (Bygone Era Books) has gone out of business.

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