Amitava Kumar

How did you become a writer?

I must have been fifteen or sixteen. I had recently moved to Delhi, the capital city, and I had decided that I needed better English. I read an essay in the school text-book by George Orwell. The British writer had been born near my own village in eastern India, in 1903, but I hadn't known this connection at that time. The essay was "Why I Write." Orwell had written that there was a voice in his head describing what he was doing and what was going on around him. This also became true of me. I could be in a bus and a voice running in my head would name the objects I saw being sold on the streets, their colors, the looks in the eyes of the sellers. That basic desire, to use words to give shape to the world around me, made me a writer.

Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).

My roommate in college had on his shelf a copy of V.S. Naipaul's Finding the Center. This was one of the first literary autobiographies that I read. Its very first sentence established in my mind the idea of writing as an opening in time or a beginning. It conveyed to me, with its movement and rhythm, a history of repeated striving, and of things coming together, at last, in the achievement of the printed word: “It is now nearly thirty years since, in a BBC room in London, on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth, ‘non-rustle’ BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my first publishable book.” This first sentence—about a first sentence—created an echo in my head. It has lasted through all the years of my writing life. Other writers have influenced me in the decades that followed, numerous writers, perhaps too many to mention, with their language and their technique. But no one has so consistently dramatized for me the narrative of a writer's struggle. Barely a day passed when I'm not reminded of his phrase: "such anxiety, such ambition."

When and where do you write?

I have only worked in my study unless I've been away for a short-term writing residency. We moved house recently. My study overlooks a creek. I like looking at the changing light on the water. Once, I was on a very comfortable flight across the Atlantic. Jimmy Cliff was singing "You Can Get It If You Really Want." A short-story came tumbling out of me. It came out of the relaxation of the moment, and also perhaps the isolation, but such happenings are rare.

Mornings are best for fresh writing. As soon as the children leave for school, I turn to work. If I dawdle over coffee and nothing else, we can be off to a good start. Otherwise it is easy to lose the rhythm, the intensity.

What are you working on now?

About fifteen years ago, while on a visit to Mumbai, an acquaintance gave me a copy of your book Advice to Writers. (The best advice I remember reading while walking around the Fort area in Mumbai came from E.L. Doctorow: Writing a book is "like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.") Anyway, right now, I'm trying to do a long essay that provides advice for academic writers. I want to provoke us to think about style. My argument is a modest one. We shouldn't feel duty-bound as academics to produce writing the texture of drying cement. 

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? 

No, but that doesn't mean I lead an ideal existence. I'm conscious of the lack of time. There's never enough time. I'm happy that I can write regularly but what disturbs me, no, distresses me, is that whenever I get the gift of large chunk of time, I seem to write less.

What’s your advice to new writers?

The same advice that I offer my students and myself: write every day and walk every day. Your output needn't be huge but writing needs to be practiced daily. A goal of writing 150 words is achievable even on busy days. The same goes for walking. You don't need to hike for miles. Even ten minutes of mindful walking will suffice.

Amitava Kumar is the author of several works of non-fiction and a novel. The New York Times described his book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb, as a "perceptive and soulful...meditation on the global war on terror and its cultural and human repercussions." Kumar's latest book is a collection of essays entitled Lunch with a Bigot. He teaches English at Vassar College. His website is and is on Twitter @amitavakumar.