x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Summer Reads: Chetan Bhagat credits good books for his writing success

In the fifth of our six-part series, Erin McCafferty talks to the bests-selling author Chetan Bhagat about his influences and some of his favourite books.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

He's the biggest-selling Indian author of our time and yet, Chetan Bhagat is surprisingly down to earth. The 38-year-old, who was born in New Delhi, readily admits that he does not read as much as you'd expect a writer to. "I love to read, but like many people these days I find I don't have enough time. And while I always have a book on the go, it can take me weeks sometimes to get through it. It's a failing of modern life, I think - none of us have enough time to read."

This is a man who in 2008 the New York Times called the "biggest selling English-language novelist in India's history". Time magazine included him in its selection of the 100 most influential people in the world and Fast Company USA listed him as one of the world's 100 most creative people in business.

A former investment banker, Bhagat quit his job in 2009 to commit himself to writing full time. He has written five novels - Five Point Someone (2004), One Night @ the Call Center (2005), The 3 Mistakes of Life (2008), 2 States (2009) and Revolution 2020 (2011). Every one of them has been a bestseller and two have been made into successful Bollywood movies. He's also a newspaper columnist and a motivational speaker.

So what is the secret to his success? "I've been told I'm good at understanding people and they seem to find it easy to open up to me. They think I am their long-lost friend," he says, laughing. "I hope that comes across in my writing. I've always loved to write but when I was young I doubted my ability and, like most writers, I still do. A lot of it is luck and, of course, it's hard work, too - you've got to keep at it.

"My writing is all about modern life and relationships. I don't write crime novels or fantasy, for example," he explains. "I'm interested in people and social situations."

When it comes to other people's books, he also favours fiction over fact and likes to read novels with well-drawn characters. "I read a lot of modern bestsellers from around the world because I'm curious about why they're so popular. I even read Twilight recently. It did little for me, but I could see why it worked. I can imagine the character of the girl in the book really connected with a lot of young people. What's more, the story had lots of twists and turns - it never bored me. That's what I aim to do with my own writing - keep the reader's interest at all times."

He's also been influenced, he says, by classical writers, the likes of Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell and Charles Dickens. "I find their writing informative and their wisdom could easily apply to contemporary times."

"Reading definitely inspired me to write in the first place," he says. "I believe every writer should have a book by their bedside. You don't have to read a lot to learn from it and improve your writing. You can take a week, or even a month, to finish it. It's not important. The important thing is that you enjoy it. But you must read in order to write."

Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts

"Shantaram is a very big book - 900 pages in total. But I like the fact it keeps you engaged throughout. It is also well written and I admire the story itself - it's a real story. What's more, I believe I see India as the author Gregory David Roberts does, even though I am Indian and he's not. I've lived abroad for years, but these days I live in Mumbai, where Shantaram is set. It is, in my opinion, the quintessential Mumbai book."

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith

"This is the first of a series of books by Alexander McCall Smith - all of which centres on a detective agency in Gaborone, Botswana, run by a female detective. I would take any of the books from this series and find them highly entertaining. They are as much about the characters portrayed as solving mysteries. I enjoyed each and every one of them and found them very sweet and comforting to read."

Diary of a Wimpy Kid - Jeff Kinny

"Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a book written for children. However, it has become a publishing sensation. It's sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and I can see why. My two kids, for example, love it and all their friends are reading it at the moment. It's very funny. It's the kind of book that lifts you if you're feeling depressed. It makes you feel young and light-hearted again."

Catch-22 - Joseph Heller

"Catch-22 is an extremely funny book and I admire the direct type of humour it features. The humorous writing I believe is similar to mine or at least similar to what I try to achieve. Most of my books deal with serious social issues through humour."

Life of Pi - Yann Martel

"This is another novel I admire - I thought it was very clever. It's about a little boy from India who is stranded at sea over a long period of time and he has no one for company but a Bengal tiger. If I were stranded … I think it would be very apt. I might find new ways of coping."

The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works - William Shakespeare

"I studied a couple of Shakespeare's plays at school - Othello is one that springs to mind. You have to admire his use of language, his brilliant characterisation and his wisdom. Although I have long been a fan of his writing, like a lot of people, I never seem to have the time to read more of his work."