[Interview_2] C. Y. Gopinath

C. Y. Gopinath has worked as a journalist, a film director, and a community development worker.

His books include Travels with the Fish (Harper Collins, 1999) and the novel, Book of Answers.

In this email interview, C. Y. Gopinath talks about his new book, Hoyt’s War.

What is your latest book about?

I just finished writing Hoyt’s War. The story is set in USA 2020, after four years of a very Trump-like President called Barry Codbag have made America the most ridiculed and reviled nation on the planet. It’s strange that my main ‘villain’ was every bit as irrational, maverick, and a dangerous loose cannon as Donald Trump.

Campaigning now for four more years in the Oval Office, Codbag needs new and more diabolical distractions to confuse the electorate.

Along comes an ordinary retiring American, Daniel Hoyt, a man who just would rather be left alone in peace. Hoyt knows he’s in trouble when he inherits an ancient but locked book said to contain answers to all of America’s problems.

And Codbag wants it. He knows this book will help him get re-elected.

Hoyt, wanting no part of this, sells the book to a dollar store. But the shop owner quickly realizes what the book could mean, and re-invents himself as a clergyman, claiming that through this book God speaks straight to him. It’s a matter of time before he is working directly with the President.

The President and the pastor make a lethal pair. For every preposterous law Codbag wants to enact, the pastor makes up ‘divine’ evidence that it comes from God’s words in the book. And a gullible nation laps it up.

Codbag wants to turn America into a monarchy with himself as King, in the name of minimum government.

Decriminalize rape.

Legalize cheating in examinations.

Impose a tax on sex.

Create a special Grey Area for people who think too clearly.

Ban the past and future tense.

Now Daniel Hoyt hates a fight; he’s no hero. But against his wishes, he gets dragged closer and closer to a confrontation with Codbag. The government wants the key to the book, and only Hoyt can get it. Suddenly he is the White House’s crosshairs.

Hoyt’s War is the story of an ordinary American who reluctantly takes on the most powerful man on the planet, in a hard-hitting, riotous and all too plausible satire of a dystopian America.

Is it true that Donald Trump was the inspiration for the character of President Barry Codbag?

Codbag undeniably talks, thinks and feels like Trump. But the truth is that I began writing this book in 2012 and finished it in early 2015, long before Trump was even a feature on the election map. So it’s a moot point whether Trump inspired Codbag — or whether Trump could pick up a few more crazy ideas from him.

The rather audacious promotional campaign I am launching actually is based on a series of ‘news stories’ from a certain fictional newspaper called Washington Psst, in which Trump is seen waving a copy of Hoyt’s War and saying it should be banned. It feels completely appropriate to take full advantage of someone as amoral, unethical, unprincipled and self-serving as Trump.

What sets the book apart from other things you've written?

Imagine a story set in the culture and society of one country — being re-written and re-imagined in the socio-political setting of a completely different country. I would go out on a limb and say Hoyt’s War might be the first book in literary history to do that.

In 2011, HarperCollins India published my first novel, The Book of Answers, a sharp political satire along Orwellian lines, set in India. The novel got shortlisted for the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize, though its sales in India were in the hundreds. My literary agent at that time, Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown Limited, mentioned once that the Indian cultural setting made the story harder to sell in the US.

This troubled me — the story was quintessentially about the madness of the extreme right ideologies that are dragging the world towards chaos. India and America had comparable madness. In 2013 I decided to completely re-write the story as an American political thriller. Patros Patranobis, the reluctant protagonist, became Daniel Hoyt. Prime Minister Ishwar Prasad, heading a parliamentary democracy, became Barry Codbag, leading a federal union called the United States of America.

Mumbai became the Tribeca district of New York. The royal palaces of Kerala morphed into the cotton plantations of Shongaloo, Louisiana, and Kerala itself became the Everglades. Miami and the circus town of Gibsonton.

The story could not stay the same either, I soon discovered. America was heading into its own elections, and the extreme right white-supremacist Christian evangelical environment needed serious tweaks in the story itself. Most importantly, I had to master the different dialects and idioms of the parts of America that featured in my story.

Best of all, a certain Mr Donald Trump landed with a crash-boom-bang on the election scene, bringing his own blustering, aggressive brand of unreasonable madness with him — and suddenly my President Codbag began to feel like the right villain at the right time. Codbag was already Trump, no two ways about it.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

Writing intimately about neighborhoods and cities that I had neither seen nor lived in was one of the challenges in writing Hoyt’s War.

The Book of Answers dealt with my country, India, and descriptions were textured and detailed because I had experienced them. To get the same level of familiar detail about American settings, I spent weeks and weeks in Google Street View. It is astonishing how much of the world you can now see in continuous street-level view thanks to Google’s mapping software. Once I had a sense of what a street or neighborhood looked like, my imagination added texture and other details.

I have now walked the streets of Tribeca, down to the metro stations; the sea fronting villas of Little Neck Bay, and where East River widens to become Long Island Sound; I have trolled the evening streets of Miami looking for a bar; and sweated in the humid marshes of the Everglades. Dr Basin’s clinic in New York is authentically sited near a waterfront that bustles with streetwalking sex workers in the evening.

I also had to research local government institutions, hierarchies, ranks, so that my details about police, precincts, and officialdom rang true.

What did you enjoy most?

I most enjoyed tweaking the story politically to align it better to the frightening lunacy of modern-day Trumpian politics in the USA.

India and the USA share frightening similarities in their right wing establishments, but in the USA at the moment, a particularly virulent form is in full expression.

For example, in the years since I began work on Hoyt’s War, rape has been a major issue in India — and the whole world saw how easily the Indian male patriarchy condoned and excused it. But curiously, the US extreme right does not view women’s bodies all that differently from an orthodox Hindu fundamentalist. I have heard ignorant Republicans speaking of how the woman’s body “shuts down” pregnancy after a rape; and the number of insane and nearly barbaric laws to pressure women away from choosing abortion.

In Hoyt’s War, I decided to go out on a limb and have the President decriminalize rape in the USA, partly to protect himself when his connection to a real-life rape in the Oval Office surfaces. Of course, he does this in a very Trump-like way, by referring to some spurious ‘evidence’ that rape makes women stronger in spirit, and better managers of men.

This is probably the most controversial part of the story. A reading club in New York with whom I had a Skype meeting went literally speechless when they heard this detail of the plot. You just don't satirize rape, it’s too serious, they said. Yet the reality of how men discuss women’s bodies in America and India and pass legislation to control it — is shocking, preposterous — and far worse that any satire I could conjure up. I can easily hear Trump say that there’s nothing wrong with rape, that it’s one of life’s trials that makes a woman stronger. I can see him producing some victim of rape at a town hall and saying, Isn't she fantastic? Can you even tell she was once raped?

Another pleasurable part of the writing was the stylistics. When I was young, one of my pleasures used to be in trying to imitate the writing styles of authors I loved — P G Wodehouse; Vladimir Nabokov; Gerald Durrell; Adam Hall. It’s a kind of literary muscle-flexing that actually builds skill.

In transposing Hoyt’s War to the USA, I had to change the way I used English. My voice, which had been the sometimes stiff English of a literate Indian, had to became the easy, slangy and colorful English of the American continent. Except that not all Americans speak and use English the same way. A black American from New Orleans would speak it differently from a Puerto Rican in New York.

One of the joys of writing Hoyt’s War was getting the voice right. I learned a lot, I crafted a lot, and I edited a lot. The narrative, in becoming American, also became tighter.

How did you choose a publisher for the book?

The novel has been published by Amazon’s CreateSpace. I have been doing all the things writers are supposed to do these days — send queries to agents, wait for weeks and weeks and weeks, try not to be too depressed by the inevitable ‘compassionate’ rejection letter. But the days of being at a publisher’s mercy are over. Amazon is actually an empowering option. I know I have a great and timely story, and I see no reason to wait and wait till the American elections are over. So, yes, Hoyt’s War has been available through Amazon since mid- April 2016.

Why Amazon CreateSpace? What advantages and disadvantages has this presented?

In the past, I have been wary of Amazon. I released The Book of Answers on Smashwords and on the Apple Bookstore as an e-book, since HarperCollins only had publishing rights for India. I was put off by Amazon’s requirement that anyone publishing with them had to forgo all other channels. That makes them a monopoly — and I instinctively rebel against those. But the traditional publishing route is slow, completely depressing, and based on randomness and lucky strikes. I am still looking for a publisher, but my story is linked to a fast changing political reality and I want to be out there right now. So I am on Amazon — and I’m seeing that it is a huge and viable option — and could actually play a role in helping me get noticed by a publisher.

What will your next book be about?

I have two books in progress right, one non-fiction, called Letters to a son @ McGill, and one fiction, titled Balman the Matruist.

Letters started as something I wrote to my son who started undergraduate studies in McGill University in August last year, traveling from Bangkok (where we live as expatriate Indians) to Montréal, two oceans away. With his consent, I posted a few of the letters on medium.com, and later on the International McGill Parents Facebook Page.

The response was emotional and heartfelt — and the idea for a book of such letters, called Letters to a son @ McGill grew out of that. One post, on loneliness on the campus, quickly went viral, garnering 22K views. I reposted on the McGill parents Facebook page, and began receiving replies from parents as far afield as California and India. Comments included —
Thank you for sharing your Letters to a son at McGill. They each touch me in a deep and spiritual way. Please continue to be as generous in sharing your (and your son's) experiences. (Fred Cohen)

Thank you. It brought tears to my eyes. (Andree Vezina)

Thank you! This is SO timely given all that is going on in the world, and certainly recently in Quebec and across Canada. Our daughter carries a Canadian passport but has only lived in Canada since beginning her studies at McGill- your writing is touching and relevant to all of us - thank you! (Michelle Rath)
I began working on the book in earnest when I realized that there are so many conversations waiting to happen between fathers my age and their millennial sons and daughters. These kids will live their lives in a world engulfed by crisis. Old rules will not apply. Snowballing technology change, violent politics, climate change, natural disasters and wars will define their world. What can I tell my children to prepare them for this world?

I coined the word maltruist for my next novel, Balman the Maltruist, to signify ‘great harm caused by someone trying to do great good’. The story is set among the Luo tribe of Kenya — where Obama’s father came from, incidentally — and tells of the interaction between an American missionary with dollars, and the Luos of Western Province, and the crafty, charming and amoral Indian who plays the intermediary between the two, translating each for the other, and inserting his own conservative Hindu values and hang-ups into the translation.

The story is written in two voices, the Indian’s, and in every alternate chapter, a young Luo man called King. Through these two we see a culture through two very different eyes. To understand them and their daily hardships, I lived for a month among them, in a hut in a village with no water or electricity, eventually returning to Bangkok with the disease so many Luos die of, malaria.

I will not say more, lest I spoil the story for you.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Certainly the exercise of recrafting an existing story in a dramatically different cultural setting and voice, as I have done in Hoyt’s War, is certainly an achievement that gives me a great deal of pleasure when I think about it.

I suspect that when I finish Balman the Maltruist, I will get similar joy from having told a story in two gentlemen’s voices, one Indian and one Luo, in alternating chapters.

How many books have you written so far?

My four books so far are:

  • Travels with the Fish (HarperCollins India, 1998): A freewheeling and tongue-in-cheek of my globetrotting adventures through places from Chicago to Jerusalem, Turkey to Thailand, and Kerala to Bali; 
  • The Book of Answers (HarperCollins India, 2011): An Orwellian satire of a man who inherits a book of answers to India’s problem but doesn’t want to make the world a better place — and the Machiavellian prime minister who uses the closed book to plunge his country into pandemonium, anarchy and chaos, just so he may win an election; 
  • Hoyt’s War (Createspace, 2016): One ordinary American’s war to get America back from a lunatic, Trump-like President who has made America the most reviled and ridiculed nation on the planet; and 
  • Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand for Indians (Lonely Planet, 2012): A custom made Lonely Planet guide to Thailand for the growing numbers of Indians coming here to vacation.


Collin Piprell said…
Enjoyed this account of Gopi's writing life. I've read the three books he has published so far, and can vouch for his skill as a sharp-witted satirist and fine storyteller. The only bright side I can imagine to a Trump presidency would be the boost to Hoyt's War sales.

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