Neel Mukherjee: On Writing, the Importance of Literary Awards and the Joy of Irish Food






Neel Mukherjee
Neel Mukherjee

Neel Mukherjee was born and educated in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). He read English at Jadavpur University before travelling to England where he studied at University College, Oxford and went on to complete a PhD at Cambridge. He graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia in 2001.

His debut novel Past Continuous was published in India in 2008 before coming out in the UK as A Life Apart in 2010, where it won the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain for best fiction. Neel’s second novel The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the Man Booker, the Costa Novel and the Folio Prizes. Earlier this month it won the 2015 Encore Award. The Lives of Others explores the limits of empathy and the nature of political action and asks: how do we imagine our place amongst others in the world?

Neel will be interviewed by Martin Doyle, Assistant Literary Editor of the Irish Times on Saturday 30th May at 3.30pm at St. John’s Theatre and Arts Centre. See here for more information and to book.

Q. What was the first book to make an impression on you?


A. Tintin, Red Rackham’s Treasure, in Bengali translation in a children’s magazine.

Q. Where did the seed that became The Lives of Others begin?

A. Rereading Thomas Mann’s early novel, Buddenbrooks.

Q. You have said you dislike the term ‘family saga’ to describe The Lives of Others. How would you describe it?

A. A ‘political novel’? ‘A restaging of the ideological bases of the realist novel’?

Q. Did you physically revisit India as part of your research? Do you enjoy the research part of writing a novel?

A. Yes, I did; several times. No, I don’t think I enjoy the researching bit – I’m too impatient and I always want to get on with the writing. To paraphrase another writer, I think I enjoy ‘having researched’ more than ‘doing the research’.

Q. How well is your work received in the Indian subcontinent?

A. Triangulated between love, hate and (grudging?) admiration.The Lives of Others

Q. How important are literary awards?

A. For literary fiction, extremely important. I think that prizes have increasingly become the only way that literary fiction is noticed. Also, they constitute a form of validation and, therefore, encouragement to the writer to carry on; and a little bit of encouragement never did anybody any harm.

Q. What writers do you most enjoy reading?

A. The list is endless. The writers I revisit most often are George Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Patrick White, V.S. Naipaul, Penelope Fitzgerald, and J.M. Coetzee. I love the poetry of George Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney, and Paul Celan. I’m discovering the (astonishing) work of Robert Walser. I devour crime fiction – my current favourite is Arnaldur Indridason. I have a shrine in my heart to P.D. James.

Q. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to share an airline flight with?

A. No one. Writers are best encountered, in my opinion, through their work, not in person.

Q. Have you visited Ireland before? What were your impressions?

A. Yes, several times. I loved Dublin. And I loved Galway and Connemara and the train journey across the country to the west. It’s a very beautiful country. Also, I ate some of the best food I have ever eaten while I was there. All my Irish friends laugh at me when I say this.