Samuel Johnson Shortlist Q&A:Samanth Subramanian

Posted on 27th October 2015 by Samanth Subramanian
The Samuel Johnson Prize 2015 winner will be announced on November 2nd - in the meantime, the shortlisters answered seven quick questions.

Describe your book in one sentence?

This Divided Island uncovers a host of human stories from Sri Lanka's three-decade civil war - stories that illustrate the effects of brutality, the dangerous lure of violence, and the religious and linguistic faultlines in a lush, compact island nation. 

What drew you to this topic in the first place – was it your own desire to know more or that you wanted to shine a light on the issue for other people?

A little of both. I was curious about life during such a long war: how did unceasing violence affect people? What did it do to their perspectives upon life? What drove people to kill? I wanted to search for people who could explain these answers to me by narrating the stories of their own lives. 

How do you go about your research? Can an author read too much into the subject matter?

My research is primarily journalistic rather than textual. This Divided Island is based on ten months of reporting and hundreds of interviews. Certainly it's possible for an author to read too much into subject matter. Part of the challenge of writing such books is to refrain from that, and to search constantly for reliable evidence to support your impressions. 

What book do you wish that you had written?

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. It's both a small and large book - small in its intimate scale, but large in its ambition and its profound revelations about slum life in Mumbai. It's an astonishing achievement. 

Do you read your reviews? How do you respond to them, good or bad? Any advice on how to deal with the bad?

I do read them, and with both good and bad reviews, I try to forget about them after I've finished reading them. It's harder with the bad reviews, admittedly. They can rankle, and the best way to deal with them is to press ahead with my work. I feel then that I'm being productive again - that I'm improving. 

If you were trapped on a desert island, which two books would you want to have with you and why?

The Lord of the Rings, for its capaciousness, its stories within stories within stories, guaranteed to keep me occupied until help arrives. The Mahabharatha, in its entirety, for similar reasons. Additionally, both can be plentiful sources of kindling. 

What was the last book you read?

 HHhH by Laurent Binet


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