Aug 4, 2019 • 17M

Ep 10 - On a Call With Vikram Chandra, Novelist

Lee Schneider
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500 Words is a podcast about living a creative life. Short-form interviews with creative people from film, music, design, multi-media and more. Conducted by Lee Schneider.

This week's call is with Vikram Chandra, novelist, software developer, and deep thinker about the creative process. I first discovered his work when I read his bestseller Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a book about the creative drives and lives shared by writers and coders. One of the book's most mind- blowing sections (I am re-reading it this week) is about the precision of Sanskrit as a language. In 500 BCE, a scholar named Panini wrote a grammar of Sanskrit that fit in just 40 dense pages. His work has influenced Western grammatical theory for centuries, and that theory "became the seedbed for high-level computer languages," as Vikram points out in his book. You can draw a line connecting Sanskrit with how computer programs are conceived and written. 

That was my point of entry into his work, but I wanted to interview him because he wrote something that terrified me. 

I learned from reading a blog he wrote that he doesn't outline his long, complex novels. He writes with purposeful ambiguity. 

As you begin, you know very little about what the book is. But the thoughts and visions persist, which means that this character and her world have some kind of special energy for you, and you want to know more about this character, what her situation is. - Vikram Chandra

This means that he may spend years writing his way into a story, leaving big plot holes, learning about the characters as he goes, until the novel comes into focus. 

This seems like a scary way to write, but it has successful practitioners. His first novel, Red Earth and Pouring Rain, won the 1996 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. 

Sacred Games is a literary novel that is also a crime novel, a detective story, and a thriller. It has a hundred characters. It became the first original television series from India on Netflix.

So feeling along in the dark might be a good way to write a book. Novelist E. L. Doctorow described his writing process like this: “You know the headlights are on in the fog and you can see just so far, but you realize you can drive the whole way like that.” 

Joan Didion wrote something like, I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see, and what I think it means.

I can keep throwing quotes at you all day. They will do nothing to push back my terror of wading into a long book without an outline. On the call, Vikram and I talk about his discovery process and my planning process. 

Since he is the rare person who values purposeful ambiguity and also has an engineer's mind, he is working on a kind of super-software for writers that keeps track of who, what, where, and when. 

You can use kind of hacky solutions like the old-time honored index cards on the wall, your hand drawn or a software based timelines. But the problem is again that none of this knowledge is attached to the text. And so that's what I obsessed about for nearly a decade and discovered that it's actually a pretty hard problem, attaching facts to text, which has a very honorable and long effort.  - Vikram Chandra

His answer is called Granthika, which is in beta now with an official launch coming in October. You can try it out. Here’s the link:  

Easily as mind expanding as Sanskrit grammar forming the conceptual basis of computer programming languages, Granthika is an AI word processor that tracks and corrects continuity errors in your timeline, characters, and events. It's an editor by your side who constantly tests your story's factual correctness. As Vikram suggested in our call, "if you move the inquest up before the murder, it tells you" and you can fix it. 

Learn more about Granthika.

Read the blog that got me terrified about feeling you way through writing: Finding a Book: The Writer’s Journey

Check out Vikram Chandra's books on his website.

Thanks for listening,


A technical note

A reminder, On a Call With … is just a phone call. Actually, a Zoom call. But it’s not a fancy podcast with all the fancy studio equipment. It’s meant to be informal and easy to do. If you want to hear some fancy studio stuff with engineers, multiple cities synced up, location recording, custom music, and all of that, have a listen at this link.