In her day job, Megha Majumdar publishes other authors' books. And now, her debut novel, A Burning (Knopf) is a finalist for the American Library Association's prestigious Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. PW caught up with Majumdar to talk about how she balances editing and writing, and how it feels to see her work recognized by the library community.
You were just named a finalist for the ALA's Carnegie Medal. First of all, I want to express my congratulations for the nomination and for the success of your book! I'd love to know what the nomination means to you.
It's a huge honor to receive this recognition from librarians, and be in the company of icons like James McBride and Claudia Rankine. I wrote parts of this book as a newcomer to New York at various New York Public Library reading rooms—42nd Street, Mulberry Street, the beautiful Jefferson Market building. Just another writer in this city! To have my work recognized as a finalist for the ALA's Carnegie Medal is surreal, it serves as beautiful encouragement to keep writing, and I will hold it so close. I cannot wait for it to be safe to resume library writing again.
You work as an editor for Catapult, as well as writing ficiton. How has it been working as a writer and editing and acquiring for Catapult?
I really love that my life is all about books. I love taking on, and working on, and championing books at work. I wrote a book of my own, and I feel that all of it contributes to a world where we take literature seriously, a world where there are good books that people are sharing and talking about. It’s all part of the same project for me. Editing is very consuming but it’s also very energizing, to be in such close contact with writers who are doing work that you are excited by, that you marvel at, are in awe of, and to participate in some small way in that process.
So far, it hasn’t been something that’s draining. I have to shout out Catapult—it’s a unique workplace. My boss, Jonathan Lee, is a novelist. We have various poets and writers at the office. I really feel like I can bring my full self to work, which helps me to stay energized. Editing has also made me a sharper and more rigorous reader, capable of understanding the velocity of a book, and I’m able to turn that eye to my own writing.
There’s real momentum in this book—it really feels like you’re burning through the pages. Did that sense of pacing come from your experience as an editor?
It was a challenge I set for myself right from the beginning. Part of it was that I knew I wanted this book to say something about how people live when society makes this turn to right wing nationalism, but I also didn’t want it to be preachy. I knew my book would be competing with your favorite Netflix show for your time. I know readers’ attention is pulled in all these different directions, and thinking about TV and Netflix actually helped quite a bit.
Any other particular influences inspire the book?
Honestly, just reading the news, seeing what’s happening in India, but also in Europe, the U.S., and in Brazil, this rise in right wing thought and politics. Yet I wanted to write about how people still hold onto dreams and ambition, even while there’s a collapse going on around them. There is a book, The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton, that felt so vibrant and politically engaged and it was really fascinating how somebody can write such a profoundly activist book that was also artful. I am inspired by books like that.
It’s crazy to think that in the world we live in today, one comment or post can change everything. But that’s what happens to Jivan, in A Burning. She posts something late one night, and come the morning is arrested. And, yet this isn’t a far-fetched scene at all, is it?
I think that fear is very real, and something I’m very aware of in my own life. I’m an immigrant, and I’m very careful of what I post on social media. There have been so many instances of people who have gotten in trouble for drawing cartoons or making jokes on social media. For some people social media is truly a place where they can express themselves and and be fearless in a certain way. But for others, it makes them aware of their vulnerability.
You studied anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. How has that informed your work?
I actually started but didn’t finish a Ph.D at Johns Hopkins—I realized I didn’t want to be in the academy. I was doing social anthropology, which involves fieldwork and doing interviews with people and really trying to understand other peoples’ perspectives without assuming that you can ever fully understand it.
It’s a complex mix of acknowledging that you are on the fence of being an insider and outsider, but you can still make a sincere effort to understand, however complex, another person lives and sees the world. So my studies have really informed the work that I do, especially as an editor. I publish a lot of literary nonfiction at Catapult, and I am always looking for stories that can teach us something about the world, that are engaged with the world. I am always looking for books that are attentive to how other people live and think, and are able to take that seriously without inserting one’s self into the project and displacing them.