Gregory David Roberts is an unusual first-time novelist: convicted of armed robbery in Australia in the 1970s, he made a famous escape from a maximum security prison, spent a decade on the run in India and was finally recaptured in 1990. His novel, Shantaram, was a bestseller in Australia. PW contacted him by e-mail for this interview.
PW: I've read that your first drafts were destroyed in prison—how did you overcome what must have been tremendously depressing obstacles?
Gregory David Roberts: I think there are two kinds of writers in the world: those who write because they think it's a good idea, and those who have no choice but to write. I'm the second kind. I wrote in solitary confinement without a pen or paper by memorizing the 3,000 words of a new short story, one repeated sentence at a time, day after day and week after week. It's always my first instinct to write, and I've always written my world, no matter what my circumstances.
When I was chained to a wall in an Indian prison and being tortured, there was a moment when it seemed to me that I was going to die. I was chained face down. My body was stripped bare. The razor-sharp bamboo canes were whistling scars onto my shaved head, my back, my legs, and the bare soles of my feet. In the constant struggle to lift my face from the bleeding, red puddle of sweat and tears, I was choked by the fear that I would drown in my own blood. But in that terror, in that clamp-jawed defiance, I heard the clear, indomitable writer's voice in the deepest part of my mind: "Damn, this is good material! If you live through this, you've got to write it down!"
Your novel is crafted in terms of the old epic novelistic tradition—like many contemporary novels from India, from Rohnton Mistry, Vikram Seth, etc. Who are your influences?
I'm a defender of the canon, and my work proceeds from the various influences of Melville, Stendahl, Sir Walter Scott, Virginia Woolf, Flaubert, William Faulkner, Henry James, Jane Austen, Thomas Mann, Lawrence Durrell, Djuna Barnes and many others.
Shantaram's portrayal of the shantytowns of Bombay is so intimate that it poses the question: how did you, as a non-native, assimilate to this very different culture?
I didn't assimilate to India's culture, I surrendered to it. And I didn't just live in the city of Bombay: I fell in love with Her. I opened my life to Bharat Mataji, or Mother India. The city, Bombay, amchi Mumbai, did what love always does to the heart: she raised me up to the great view of the high ground, and let me walk with the lions. That's how I interacted with the city and the nation. I fell in love, and I surrendered to the passion.