Born in India and raised in Madison, Jay Antani knows a few things about coming of age cross-culturally. Using his own experiences as a guide, he wrote a novel about a local teen named Vikram, who gets sent to India after a weekend of drunken rebellion. Titled The Leaving of Things, the book has numerous references to Madison, from Monroe Street to Vitense Golfland. I asked the L.A.-area author about the book's local roots and its journey on Amazon, where it was recognized in the Breakthrough Novel Contest recently.
Isthmus: How did Vikram first appear in your head? Was he a fully formed character or something more vague?
Antani: The outline for Vikram took shape in my mind over the years. As I went to flesh out the story, he began to evolve and become his own person...He's like a Jay from another dimension, or a mirror of who I am.
Why did you set parts of the novel in Madison?
I wanted the book to be like a love letter to Madison. Everything Vikram is and loves about the world is shaped by his experience growing up there, and it's the place he wants to redeem himself...I knew I could be really specific in describing Madison since I grew up there.
Were there any books or films you used as reference points when writing this novel? On your blog, you mention that Jhumpa Lahiri and Bret Easton Ellis have influenced you.
Bret Easton Ellis for sure. I love Less Than Zero, especially because it taught me you can use music to denote time and setting. I was reading Jhumpa Lahiri's book The Namesake when I was writing the rough draft of The Leaving of Things. I like a lot of her writing, which is really graceful, but I was not satisfied with that book. I thought, "I've got to do better with my book. I want it to speak to immigrants of my generation in a more direct way, a more emotionally raw and intimate way." I have learned a lot from her as a writer, though. She connects with [India's] traditions and past in an elegant way, like a late 19th-century writer might...
I also like Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, the author of The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart. She's like the antidote to Jhumpa Lahiri. She's very modern and not as much of a celebrity. Then there is Knut Hamsun, the Norwegian author who wrote Hunger and Mysteries. He's a lot like Kafka, but he uses surreal situations in a different way. Hunger is about a writer who literally starves rather than selling out. It's a different type of psychosis than you see in Gregor Samsa. And of course there's J.D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye, and Hemingway is huge.
I found the dialogue in your book to be very natural, especially its rhythms. Has writing dialogue always come easily to you, or is it you developed with help from others?
When I first started writing [film] scripts and short stories at the UW, the people who read them were like, "The dialogue reads really stiff." I took that to heart and did a lot of reading. Little by little, I figured out how to incorporate dialogue into the rhythm of the story, and to feel my way into how it ought to sound. So it took a lot of practice. I'm glad I [practiced], because dialogue is essential to character development and helps the story move from panel to panel, page to page, and line to line. It's been helpful to think in terms of film structure and storyboards, which makes you focus on how one part of the story connects to the next part. You can never really go back to the previous scene; your character changes as one scene progresses to the next.
How did you make your way to L.A. and then USC?
I moved from Madison to L.A. in 1996. Before that, I studied film at the UW. My passion for writing grew out of that, but I didn't go to L.A. to write or review movies. Instead, I found work as a storyboard artist for commercials and indie films. Eventually the work got to be too much of a hustle...I started writing film reviews for local alt newspapers in the early 2000s, and by 2005 or so, I knew I wanted to hone in on writing. I applied to USC, and two years later I had a draft of the book. Of course, it took another six years to publish it.
Your book reads like something from one of the big publishing houses, but you published it yourself. What was that process like?
My initial plan was to pursue an agent and get it published traditionally...Agents and editors would tell me they really liked the manuscript, but that the book was mid-list. I think that meant it wasn't edgy enough to be a YA bestseller like the Twilight novels. There's no drugs or sex or zombies, but I knew it was good enough to share with a wide variety of readers, not just teenagers...Amazon has been huge for me, and certain blogs have been very helpful in promoting the book. It hasn't been gangbusters sales-wise, but I've more than made back my investment, not only in terms of money but in terms of learning. The number of readers and buyers has totally exceeded my expectations...I don't know if I'd ever pursue an agent again.
Are you working on another novel or a different type of writing project?
I've got a possible sequel to The Leaving of Things in the pipeline. I want to see how Vikram copes with his new life back in America. There's also a possible sci-fi adventure-fantasy in the works. That goes back to my illustration and comic-books roots. It has time machines, dinosaurs and alien invasions. And then there's a much darker piece about L.A.
It seems that Indians and Indian Americans are finally getting more attention in the world of literature, and in film and television. Any thoughts on why this might be happening right now?
Voices from immigrant America...often speak to universal themes of family and identity, and questions about what it means to be American...And there are always the voices on the fringe that need to be heard. We all feel like we're on the fringe of something, whether it's our ethnicity or our gender or our sexuality. Books like The Leaving of Things speak to that. We're all trying to make sense of ourselves and our place in our culture.