Tejas Desai, Interview With a Queens Fiction Author

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On October 4th, Tejas Desai came to my library as part of an Author Expo event. The event went well and I bought a copy of ‘The Brotherhood.’  I did not immediately read it, but when I did I was impressed with the gritty noir type writing with Queens as the setting. From that Author Expo I also read Richard Livsey’s self-published book. So in a short time I read two quality self-published books. As an aspiring writer, this captivated my attention. I contacted Tejas and asked if I could interview him for my blog.

Tejas suggested I read his story collection ‘Good Americans’ first and he sent me a copy. Again I was impressed with the quality of writing and I always love reading fiction with vice as a theme. Shortly after finishing reading the story collection I emailed Tejas Desai ten questions. His answers are informative, interesting, and really tell his writing background. Without much more of an introduction, I’m going to go straight into my questions and his answers. This is the first mallisonwhat interview! Tejas Desai is a colleague of mine at Queens Library and a quality independent author, consider purchasing his books.

Mallisonwhat (MW): ‘The Brotherhood’ and some stories in ‘Good Americans’ take place in Queens. Why did you choose Queens as a setting?

Tejas Desai (TD): Queens is what I know. Queens is where I was born, raised, and I’ve lived most of my adult life here too.  And, with my goal in The Human Tragedy of representing life in our time and the human condition in as diverse a way as possible, Queens is the best setting, or at least the one to keep going back to, because it is one of the diverse places on earth in terms of ethnicity, class, national origin, ways of speaking, manner of living, philosophies of life etc.

MW: ‘The Brotherhood’ shows a network of a Hindu/Indian family, and also has a Korean/Asian criminal network. Explain how the diversity in Queens, 21st century immigration, and the first generation experience has influenced your work?

TD: I am first generation American, so that’s personal.  And more than that, I grew up in a very ethnically diverse place.  My best friends were Chinese, African-American, Polish, Jewish, my classmates were Latino, Russian, Romanian, Thai–you name an ethnicity, I knew a kid who was it, I had a friend or an enemy who was it.  That’s how diverse it was.  And unlike what people think, while there are ethnic enclaves in Queens, much of it is different ethnicities living in close proximity, mostly in single family homes or apartments.  Of course Queens has always been diverse–I know an Indian-American who was born here in the 1940s–but it was mostly white/European before, whereas after the 1965 Immigration Act, it’s exploded with people from everywhere.  And then going to an elite liberal arts college in CT, that was also eye-opening, as I’d never before hung out with so many upper middle class white kids.

Anyway, in terms of stories like Old Guido, Good Americans, and to an extent The Apprentice and Dhan’s Debut, there is this tension between the old Queens and the new Queens, and by extension the old America and the new America.  We are more diverse now and more dynamic in that sense yet also more regimented in other ways and possibly less sure of ourselves and what we are.  And also, the dynamics of immigration have changed today, in a time when an immigrant can become a high-paid professional or a billionaire and be much better educated than someone whose family has been here for many generations (and Indian-Americans esp. come to mind in that sense, as statistically we are the wealthiest and best educated Americans by ethnicity, even though most of us are either immigrant or first generation–of course, the realities are far more complex than a statistic).  So, the question through the collection Good Americans is, what does it mean to be an American today?  How does one define that?  And we’re so diverse, there’s no one answer, there are many answers.

Regarding The Brotherhood Trilogy, the second book of The Brotherhood will go more in depth into many ethnic gangs, families and organizations, and there will be much overlap.  It’s a crime book so it will focus on the criminal element, but it will show that people of different ethnicities work together but sometimes the same ethnicities stick together and also betray each other.  While people of different ethnicities do work and live and mix and fuck so well together in America, nevertheless there’s still a lot of tension underneath. photo (5)

MW: When I took a picture of the cover of ‘Good Americans’ and posted it on my instagram feed, one of my friends commented, “There are none.” Reading your short story collection the characters are morally flawed and don’t make the clear right or legal decisions. Do themes of crime, vice, and people involved in criminal lifestyles influence your work?

TD: That’s funny, because many self-styled patriots have condemned me as being anti-American even though they haven’t read the book.  It’s easy to wave a flag around, much harder to delve into a national identity, isn’t it?  Regarding what I write about, I think most people would agree that most people aren’t good or bad, they are in the middle and more often they are more flawed than perfect.  There are so many different types of people so I love to delve into that diversity, but also, I just love creating great characters and personalities.  Usually the more flawed they are the more interesting they are, to me.  And I think you’d find that in the great Classics too.

MW: In Good Americans, there are 2 stories in particular, ‘Old Guido’ and ‘Malta.’  In these two stories you have statutory rape, prostitution, violence, domestic violence, and drugs. Did any banned books or controversial fiction influence these stories? Lastly, why do you write on such dark subjects?

TD: I can’t say any one book or author has influenced me, since I’ve read so widely, and anyway, the entire point is to create an oeuvre that is unique to you and your time, not someone else’s.  Generally the darker and more perverse they are, the more interesting.  I love Balzac, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, even Zola and Huysmans, give me those 19th and early 20th century guys any time, and of course I love controversial and banned books.  I also love the noir writers, Leonard, Richard Price, Chandler etc.  As for why, well, when I was little I preferred electrons to protons, negative to positive, darkness to light.  My favorite colors are black and red.  When I was a teenager I preferred the crime dramas, I liked watching pictures and shows about serial killers, gangsters, and hookers, the more provocative the better, and that’s what I wrote about too.  I prefer the drunken peasant scenes and dead animals in 16th and 17th century Flemish paintings to Titian or the Italians from the same period.

But this is true to my own personal experience too.  Queens and NYC was a much more dangerous place when I was growing up than it is now.  I was mugged and bullied, family members were held up at gunpoint many times, I had friends join gangs and murder people, I’ve seen people beaten up to a pulp, bodies in bags.  I’ve had eggs thrown at me, people have spit at me and said racist shit to me.  All kinds of things have gone down in Queens, and actually they do continue.  And often it’s even more a class thing than a race thing, or maybe some people are just born cruel.  But I’m trying to tell the truth through a lie.  Filtering truth through the imagination until it becomes literature.  That’s what it is all about.

MW: In ‘The Brotherhood’ the Indian detective Niral drives a lot in Queens. I got a joy out of recognizing locations I knew like Queens Blvd, LIC, Flushing, Middle Village, Forest Hills, Corona, and so forth. I felt the location and how you described it to ring true. What mystery writers do you appreciate based on their description of the city they write about? Do you feel mystery writers really need to know a lot about the cities they place as their settings?

TD: I’m not going to generalize, because I don’t want to tell writers to do this or that.  For me, it depends, sometimes I can write better if I make something up and even the setting, but usually I will write about things I know, or a friend has told me about, or something I observed or overheard, or to a lesser extent read about.  There must be a realism component, even if the work goes into the surreal or fantastical.

In terms of setting, obviously I know Queens, and most of the settings I know, though not all.  The second book of The Brotherhood Trilogy is set partially in Southeast Asia and the American South, and yes, I’ve been to India many times, to Thailand three times, to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Australia, Japan, North Carolina, Tennessee.  I do my research, I don’t just pretend to know a place, but that doesn’t mean I don’t veer into things I don’t know.  I do find that research is a good background, but imagination makes for better story and writing.

For mystery, or noir, you know Elmore Leonard mostly stuck to Detroit, Price to NY/NJ, Chandler to LA.  Doesn’t mean they never veered away, but they kept coming back home, like any writer, just as I do to Queens.  But while the first Brotherhood is a mystery, the trilogy is a thriller series in the noir tradition.  The second book isn’t a mystery, it’s more of a noir family saga.  And so I veer more towards Balzac and Faulkner, guys who always pushed themselves to be better, who had big visions and wrote in many styles and had a diversity of characterization but who always came home in the end, wrote about what was around them. photo (6)

MW: In ‘Good Americans’ I was surprised by several of the endings. I simply did not expect them, but it enhanced my appreciation for them.  Do you have a certain type of formula for your short stories? If a genre could be attached to them, what would it be?

TD: Hell no, I hate formula!  Genres are what is wrong with literature.  I mean we have to put them into genres to sell or whatever but it’s a joke.  What genre was Dostoyevsky, or Dickens?  Poe created genres, he didn’t just place his work into them.  This is exactly the problem with literature today, it’s driven by the industry which is driven by sales and nothing else.  And that means books that are exactly like everything that’s ever been written, with slight variations thrown in.  The audience is complacent and most expect to be pleased, not challenged, so the industry feeds that.  So our literary culture is essentially regressive.  Genres were created by the industry not by literary tradition.  And then academia, by focusing more on the effect of literature, on trauma and all this, basically made the author who had something to say into a bad thing.  The idea became, literature does not represent, it merely offends, and we cannot offend.  But the offensive stuff is what makes us progress!  We need to go back to building on narrative traditions and telling brutal truths and genuine stories from our time.

Other than “Desaian” perhaps, I would classify all my work as either noir or literary, but not “literary” as publishers describe the word today, which is basically boring and contentless.  As you’ve read, my stories have plots, interesting characters, vivid dialogue, unexpected endings, but they also have strong literary elements and themes.  All the stories in Good Americans are written in different styles, and that will continue in The Human Tragedy.  These days I don’t even plan, I just pump them out.  Old Guido was written in one continuous stream, The Apprentice and Malta were also.  They just came out of me, they weren’t formula except the formula devised for the specific story by my brain cells.  And Malta is 150 pages long.  So think about that.

MW: The last part of ‘The Brotherhood’ sets it up for a sequel, and it’s advertised as a trilogy. Do you have a timeframe for when the sequel will come out?

TD: I’m saying 2 years right now, assuming The New Wei publishes it independently.  I’m giving myself some time.  This is going to be a long and ambitious book, and plus there’s still much marketing to do for the first two.  I’m also probably going to be doing much more pre-publication promotion for it than the previous books.  So it’s possible it will go over 2 years, but I’m saying two years.  And if by happenstance there’s a publishing or marketing entity who believes in The New Wei and my two series and is willing to distribute it on a larger level, or if the collective ends up forming, then it would inevitably be longer.  But I’m saying two years.

MW: In the creative introduction to ‘Good Americans’ you clearly through a story state some problems you perceive with the publishing industry. Explain your experience with self-publishing and starting your own publishing company. Are you going to publish works by other authors, or keep it small?

TD: Self-publishing was freeing, as I’ve said in previous interviews.  It’s also proved to be a lot of work.  Obviously one man can only do so much alone, so I will inevitably have to include others eventually, and hopefully they will believe in my mission.  And that is to renew the pulse of literature, to make it alive again.

It’s funny, it seems like getting agents and published and all that is pretty random, and anyone in the industry who isn’t lying will admit that it is just luck, yet all the bland literary writers of my generation I know have agents, are published, have teaching jobs etc., while the interesting ones don’t!  Pretty much all my agent responses used to be “While this does sound interesting, I just don’t think it’s right for my list.”  They all agreed it was interesting and well-written, but thought it couldn’t sell.  So obviously they are saying that publishers don’t want to publish interesting books!  And by extension that people don’t want to read interesting books, just bland and contentless books where there are no interesting characters and people have mundane problems.  And this is what I’ve found in most literary books, they are well-written, but basically have no content.  That includes revered people like Murakami, for example.  And Stieg Larsson?  Don’t get me started with him.  I mean based on the first book, this guy was not a genius.  There are no characters in that book.  It isn’t even well-written!  They found no other stories on his computer.  You know why?  Because he was a hack.  He happened to die after delivering his random ms and some PR person thought it would be prudent to sell him as a genius.  And the ploy worked.

Even the books on bestseller lists that seem to have exciting plots are all about WWII (either the realities or its generational effects), Hollywood in the 1950s, go-girl sisterhood or something else that’s been done a gad zillion times.  Because most readers like familiarity, they don’t want to go out of their comfort-zone   And yet, in real life, we live in a more dynamic age when all kinds of people are interacting and conflicts are emerging.  Asians, Latinos, mixed race people, trannies etc. are a lot more interesting to read about than yet another book about Hitler or the Holocaust.  I’ve consumed plenty myself, don’t get me wrong, but come on, can we have nothing else?  This is what I mean about a regressive culture I want to transform into a progressive culture.  And even worse than that, there is no philosophy of life, no genuine investigation into the human condition, character, society, or anything.  Just “intricate and satisfying plots” that have nothing to add or well-written boredom.

So, to finally answer your question, my goal is to create a Magnificent Seven, to use yet another trite concept which nevertheless should be renewed, of genuinely great narrative artists, who constantly push themselves, who observe humanity and society and put it down into exciting and dynamically structured narrative, who actually have a vision of humanity and society and life which isn’t just spoon-fed to us.  You would think that would be par for the course but not today, apparently (outside of cable TV).  So yes, it will have to be small, no more than seven at most.  Although right now I’m not even sure that I’ll find any.

MA: You got an MFA in creative writing. Was it worth it, did it help?

TD: Yes and no.  Would I have become the same writer without a MFA?  Almost certainly.  Did I learn anything about writing in the program, and become a better writer as a result?  Yes I did.  I also learned to read better as a writer, and I had good professors and readers/classmates.  And while I’m well-read in literary criticism and am creating my own aesthetic philosophy, I think that the craft component is much more important to teach, and writing every day and observing and rewriting and pushing yourself is the best bet in terms of creating a body of work.

The truth is that, in general, MFA programs don’t look for the best writers, just like agents they look for people they can control and who are likely to be patsies who will turn into low-paid adjuncts.  The most interesting people who actually have something to say are rejected, while the mediocre and bland are accepted.  Because they are looking for academics, not artists, and apparently today that means followers.  True artists aren’t easy to control.  They’re too busy writing and observing and all that.  I mean Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis would have definitely gotten rejected from every program they applied to.

So while they can be helpful, I certainly wouldn’t say MFAs are necessary.  I would prefer it if they were more like craft schools that ultimately turned into collectives (although this is happening more and more).  And anyway, if you do want to get that tenure-track academic job and get sold as a conventional literary “success”, it seems writing a bland multicultural book published through a lit agent and major publisher is your best bet, rather than the MFA.  Which, considering publication is only based on luck, is pretty embarrassing for the intellectual and literary tradition of our nation.  But apparently, everyone involved believes this is okay.

MW: Does your career as a librarian help your writing career?

TD: I’ve seen a lot more of the diversity of Queens and have been able to process my childhood in Queens much better having worked for the Queens Library.  I’ve also been able to do writing workshops, host literary events etc.  And I feel a lot more satisfaction as a librarian than when I worked in publishing, when I felt like a low-paid, two-faced fraud.  I can’t exactly read (or write) a book at work, so no, it doesn’t help in that way, but in terms of having a job that is satisfying and that contrasts well with producing and marketing the other 8 hours of the day outside of sleep, it works.

End of interview.

Here is Tejas Desai’s amazon page. The trade paper and the ebook versions are reasonable priced. ‘The Brotherhood’ is also available at Queens Library: http://www.amazon.com/Tejas-Desai/e/B009G8YAT4/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1387479576&sr=8-1

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