The Global Reader

Q&A with Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh, 52, a major figure in the South Asian literary boom, is hard to pigeonhole. The Calcutta native has written nonfiction (In an Antique Land, a brilliant travel-history book focusing on Egypt), a sci-fi thriller (The Calcutta Chromosome), and a prescient environmental epic (The Hungry Tide). His latest, the sweeping historical novel Sea of Poppies (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), has been short-listed for the 2008 Man Booker Prize. The book—the first in a trilogy—is an elaborately plotted tale with an eclectic cast, set on the high seas during the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s.

Q: Can you talk about the role of water—of the sea—in your work, in your new book?

A: Water plays a very large part in my imaginative life. I have spent a lot of time on some of the world’s greatest rivers: the Nile, the Mekong, the Ganges. For this book I learned to sail, and the experience surpassed everything I had imagined.

Q: Did you feel you were rewriting a history that needed to be corrected?

A: I’d say the process of writing this book taught me that the received version of history is skewed beyond our wildest imagining. Much of what is written about the Victorian age is a delusion because opium was what sustained the period’s empires. In a sense, the West’s image of its own past is the most long-lasting and pernicious of the pipe dreams created by opium.

Q: Have you sorted out the story lines and characters you’ll follow across the trilogy?

A: I have a sense of the locales and settings I want to explore and the journey I want to embark on, but the books aren’t all mapped out. Nor do I want to hurry the pace artificially. I want to be able to linger on the small pleasures—visual, culinary, sartorial.

Bookseller Recommends: L.A. Stories

For three decades Book Soup has offered Angelenos an alternative to Hollywood’s celluloid glitz. Being on the Sunset Strip, the shop has naturally seen its share of celebrity authors and auteurs, from Rushdie and García Márquez to Minghella, David Mamet, and Robert Evans. Bibliophile manager and new-media guru Charles Day polled the staff and came up with these favorite L.A.-centric titles. 8818 Sunset Blvd.; 310-659-3110; booksoup.com

The Deer Park

By Norman Mailer (Vintage International) “When Mailer turned his attention to Hollywood, he was as incisive and on-target as anyone. This is his L.A. novel—cynical and desperate but with a tenderness for the lovers and dreamers. A joy to read.”

Semina Culture

By Stephen Fredman, Michael Duncan, Wallace Berman, Cameron, and Kristine McKenna (D.A.P./Santa Monica Museum of Art) “Under the shadow of Senator McCarthy’s America, Wallace Berman and friends put out the small hand-printed magazine ‘Semina,’ which featured the work of artists, writers, and poets who were among the forgotten Beats. This is essential California history with incredible visuals.”

House of Leaves

By Mark Z. Danielewski (Pantheon) “Local author Danielewski mines the city’s capacity for mind-bending horror with this harrowing, thoroughly intriguing tale that puts other haunted house stories to shame.”

Wonderland Avenue

By Danny Sugerman (Little, Brown) “L.A. wouldn’t be L.A. without rock stars and wild excess. This is the memoir of sixties and seventies rock-and-roll lunacy. Naked, raw, and magical.”

Visual Stimulation

Whether you view the seventies airbrush craze as fascinating or merely tacky, Overspray: Riding High with the Kings of California Airbrush Art (PictureBox) will bring back memories. Edited by Norman Hathaway and Dan Nadel, the book explores how four commercial artists, including David Willardson (whose work is above), gave the airbrush a West Coast cool.

Remembering George Plimpton

In ’60, ’61, George was having parties just about every Friday night.…There were painters, most of whose names I don’t remember.…There were other writers—Styron, Mailer, Roth, Terry Southern, Doc Humes, etc.—and a few Wall Street and Society people. Were all these people brilliant? Probably not. My own feeling is that most of the time everybody was too drunk to be brilliant. What was going on was social-sexual interaction. It was interaction among intellectuals, yes, but…it was more about one big bull bumping up against another big bull.” —Anne Roiphe, from George, Being George, a collection of colorful anecdotes about Plimpton’s life from friends, family, colleagues, and foes, edited by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. (Random House).