We head back to the 2018 Ubud Writers Festival to talk to journalist and author Carlo Pizzati.
Carlo talks about his cross cultural journey from journalist to author and his life in a small Indian village which inspired his memoir Mappillai
Mappillai meaning ‘son-in-law’ in Tamil, is the story of journalist Carlo Pizzati, a European living with his in-laws in urban Chennai and with his wife in rural Paramankeni, Tamil Nadu, India.
‘A warm, witty and completely charming account of one man’s passionate love affair with the India which has taken over and utterly transformed his life.’ William Dalrymple
Support us by becoming an eBook Revolution patron. Click below for more info.
Become a Patron!
In Episode 28 of the eBook Revolution Podcast, Carlo Pizzati talks about his new book Mappillai as well as…
- The ideas that power his writing
- Why we need to regain a civil exchange of ideas to regain our humanity
- How creative writing creates better journalism
- Why we need to defend people who say the uncomfortable, embarrassing truth
- Why experimentation is essential for a writer
- Why you should not pursue the career of a writer lightly
- How to find the truth in your fiction
- Why the pleasure of writing is in the process
Today’s show is sponsored by Amazon Success Toolkit. Self-publishing expert Tracy Atkins has created an amazing set of tools and methods you can use to publish and optimize your book on Amazon—the right way. Updated for 2019.
Carlo Pizzati is a Swiss-born fiction and non-fiction writer and an award-winning journalist who has published two novels, three non-fiction books and a collection of short stories. He lives with his wife near a fishermen’s village in India where he writes about Asia for the Italian national daily La Stampa and cultural essays and editorials for the Indian national daily The Hindu. He teaches communication theory at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai and he’s also developing a project with his teenage son to produce affordable football shoes for Indian girls.
You can contact Carlo via his blog, right here.
Find out more about Carlo’s other books here.
Transcript of Interview
Carlo Pizzati, thanks for taking the time to talk to us
You’ve said we are the sum of the experiences we have had. What are the ideas that power your writing?
Oh the ideas that power my writing? Yeah, very good question. Well, I think that the main virtue, the power of my writing is honesty, especially in this last book, Mappillai, the intent has been to make the reality entertaining and the secret to do that has been to be extremely honest about my own shortcomings about this ego that through the years gets uncovered for the embarrassing clown it is. So that honesty is brought out in accepting the ridiculous aspect of the proud ego, in a way, and has made for some entertaining texts and chapters somehow. So I think that definitely, in this case, it’s been honest, in the case of this last book.
You’ve lived in India for 10 years of course. How does being a cultural outsider in your adopted home inform your writing? That’s certainly what your book is about.
Well, you know, it’s interesting, the question about the outsider, because it’s true, that obviously you have a survivalist need to be alert of the reality which is unfamiliar. So then it’s a useful tool to have as a writer, because that means that you are more observant, and that you might have also different perspective, of course, of what the local narrative is about the local culture. But then again, also this thing about the outsider is also created a little bit by the host culture. So what I explore here is the bit of the nuances of when is it that you become an insider and you stop being an outsider? Can you ever stop being an outsider in India? And then what I discovered is that India is a country made of many outsiders, because it creates outsiders and because there are people from different states in India who speak different languages and so there, it’s actually a lot more comfortable to be an outsider there than you would imagine and this also explains the necessary destiny that diversity has had in India, meaning we are so diverse, 1,000,300 million people, we better start accepting all the differences or there will be a carnage, which is a problem now with the current political situation, because that is a little bit in crisis. The sacrality of diversity.
There is a crisis globally, really.
Exactly. Unfortunately, yes. I think what’s happening there is I’ve seen it happen in my home country in Italy as well, of course, I’ve seen it in the adopted country of America as well. So yeah, I think that’s also a bit of a reason to make a nomadic multiculturalists stand or multi local, as they call it now with this book, as someone who’s been born in Switzerland, grown up in Italy, in Florida, Washington, New York, all over the world living in Latin America, and then now in India, in saying, let’s preserve this world, this is a conquest and if we’re going to go back in this historical cycle of medieval times – entrenched behind the walls, we’re going to lose something that is helping humanity, which is this exchange of ideas improving humanity.
It’s a frightening thought that we’re moving towards that.
Yes, I think that ignorance, obviously is the cause and something else, and again, maybe some sort of pride and fear of losing ground. In a previous book I’ve written called the ‘Edge of an Era‘ discusses exactly the crisis of globalization and sort of pulling out all the weak spots of our current fears. That brings us to this to this idea of nationality which I can reject, personally, even though I identify with my Venusian culture I grew up, I really don’t embrace so much nationality. I think it’s something that we need to evolve from.
We are continuing to evolve from notions of nationality,
Well, we are continuing to evolve, but the thing is, as you pointed out, in the current zeitgeist, the current spirit of the time, is regressing towards entrenching behind the storytelling, which is ‘I’m Italian’, ‘I am Indian’, ”so very Italian’, ‘So very Australian’. I don’t know it depends where you are from, I’m sure someone from Melbourne is very different to someone from Sydney.
Obviously a young country, but there are those distinct differences. You came to writing through journalism.
Do you think the discipline and craft of journalism makes writing a novel easier?
Well, no, actually and I also think that there is obviously a lot of discrimination in the publishing world against journalists nowadays, because a lot of journalists want to become novelists. So it’s actually tougher very often for journalists to make the cut, and be accepted by the publishing world because it’s a category that is full of ambitious novelists. But I actually, personally because I started working as a journalist at an extremely young age, and supporting myself at 21, in New York, as a correspondent of a national daily, like La Repubblica. I actually in 2005, decided because I always want to write novels and write fiction, literary fiction and move to a different type of writing. In 2005, I decided to take a break from journalists, to wash away from my hands, the journalistic style in order to discover a new type of writing, which then when I returned to journalism, actually enriched my journalistic writing. So I did take a break of this three or four years, in which I devoted myself to write my first novel, and to think about what and how I wanted to write and how I wanted to evolve as a writer and it was a good idea, good decision. So I think that the observing spirit that you develop as a journalist, obviously helps as a writer, but then you need to change perspective and so sometimes the craftiness of journalism actually gets in the way of finding out what you need to say and how you need to say. I think sometimes I’d say that I was, you know, thinking that I’m telling the truth as a writer, when I was probably misleading the truth. And as a fiction writer I think I am playing with imagination, but I’m actually coming closer to the truth.
They say that every journalist has a novel, busting to get out. So the creative urge for you came before the journalism?
I definitely had the creative urge earlier, I also published some poetry in America when I was a teenager in the university. Then it stopped. But I also started writing novels. Very interesting short stories very early in, as an adolescent. So yeah, definitely that was that came first. But it was in parallel. I do respect journalism a lot and I think that not just because even we’re living but I think that nowadays, as we were saying earlier about what’s happened internationally, there is even more of a need to protect journalists in the jobs they are doing and there is a need for legislation to protect them. Special laws have to be made to protect journalists, then of course, journalists have to stick to the truth and there are serious anti defamation laws but at the same time, I’m saying this because in India, they’re killing journalists, sometimes all over the world, of course, but in most democracies, at least, there should be laws protecting a journalist because a journalist is playing a specific, important, special role in society. So I think that there has to be better protection and we’ve seen in Burma journalists being arrested and being in jail still for telling the truth. So I think that there has to be a concerted international effort to give value again to a what a journalist means.
It’s difficult in the United States when they have the chief executive calling journalists the enemy of the people.
Yeah, he’s shutting them up constantly and avoiding them and yes, that happens because I think whenever there is a new technology, society changes and as new technologies change, as Marshall McLuhan told us, changes how we interact it within society. So obviously, some people are better than others at understanding how that works and manipulating it. So it’s a phase, but I am confident that it will pass but it’s a sad phase for journalists, definitely. And also journalists, unfortunately, reacted the wrong way. I think they allow themselves to entrench into partisan journalism. And that has damaged the concept of fairness, which I think we need to bring back.
Do you think that’s possible? Have we reached a tipping point because of social media?
Yeah, I think it’s possible. I think that history goes in cycles. And I think definitely the cycle will obviously end. I mean, I’m sure, maybe I mean, buying too much Indian philosophy, by living there so long, but I do think that it is possible it would be in a new way, of course, but we do need someone who plays the role with honesty, telling us something that is uncomfortable sometimes. Where as I do in Mappillai in my book about race politics, about the fact of being white in a brown country, as well. So yes, it is uncomfortable, like quoting, tropical neurasthenia, and making fun of white people who go to a third world country, you know, like I have living like an American in India. So I think there’s a need for defending people who try to say the uncomfortable, embarrassing truth sometimes.
Mappillai is your third novel?
Yes, actually it is kind of a novel so I’m glad that you said that! (laughs)
A Novoiur? Memovelle?
Memovelle! That’s kind of good. Sounds like a French word a Memovelle. You know, you just gave me a great idea because I have a word in Italian that I had in a dream to describe something that is a half a novel and a half a memoir, but I had not found one in English. So thank you because I’m going to use that. Memovelle is perfect because my novels, that I’ve written – and two novels were published in Italian – are memoirs in a sense they are strongly informed by the research that I’ve done, but personal familial history and the second novel by the three years living in America. So for me, these distinctions are again, commercial needs of publishers. Yeah. So let’s go with my ‘memovelle’!
Well, this is your third ‘memovelle’. Is each ‘memovelle’ easier to write?
Honestly, yes, yes, the first ‘memovelle’ was a total difficult birth. It was really locking myself up in a cabin up on the top of a hill near Rome and crying my heart out literally. You know being in a difficult moment of my life I’d just separated from the mother of my child and I decided to take a break from journalism. So I was a total typical midlife crisis at its darkest. And so it was also that, but also it’s difficult because I had to find the voice. Also in a previous memovelle called TechnoShamans, which is more of a memoir, which is the prequel to Mappillai, how I arrived in India, which might most likely will be published again next year in India. And no, I found it, I found it. And it is easier, it is always tough. Because I believe in strong editing and it’s not easy. If you could reassure writers working on their first novel to just hang in there because after sweating your blood out, it will be worth it. It will be easier. In a certain way. It will always be difficult, but the craft part will be easier.
You develop your own toolbox which is also unique to yourself
Yeah, which is also trap, because then you might get into a formula and then you don’t experiment anymore and that’s part of the fun. The process of experimenting. So yeah, it’s good to get a toolbox, but it’s good to know when to throw it away too, I think.
Talking about process. Do you have any (writing) rituals? It’s a question I’ve asked every writer becuase it fascinates me.
I’m OCD. So with all due respect and people have like obviously been diagnosed with that. So, I haven’t been diagnosed but self diagnose that I need to put things in order. Yeah, my son makes fun of me, because he’s very much, much, much less orderly than I am. But I definitely like to be cleaning up the room, for example, definitely helps. Because for me, it’s like cleaning up my mind. And so I need to do like to put things in place on the desk and everything and then then make a mess of it again, but at least to get started. Then I’ll start bringing out of the paper. But to get started I need a bit of that Zen cleanliness. And yes, I do have that ritual. I chew on a cigar. That’s a recent vice. I don’t smoke it. I liked the tobacco flavor. These are grappa flavors, the ones that I’ve been chewing on, but I’ve been told I need to chew 1000 of them in order to get drunk because they’re only like drenched in it, but you don’t really drink it. So I do that. I think I think it’s this need to put some order, which is in the way the metaphor of writing, right? So you need to put the order in chaos. So I think it’s normal that in my reality, put a little bit of order in the room in the desk. And then we can get started and every morning, you know earlier there after breakfast and get up early. I live in a house on the beach. And then start writing very, very early until lunch.
Do find you write better? Are you a morning writer?
Totally morning writer. And again, this brings me back to the question about the toolbox, right? I think I need to experiment in evening writing exactly because I am naturally a morning writer. I think that that’s one for example, experimentation I’d like to do, to really force myself to change something in the daily metabolism and experiment more. I’ve done some night writing. But I was in a writers residency recently, and I was one of the two or three who were morning writers and many others were evening writers. So I got very tempted by the idea of trying that and actually I have my full energy in the morning until lunchtime.
There’s something to be said about writing in the morning because you’ve just woken up, your brain is in half of a dream state. So the ideas can flow better. At the end of the day, you have worries, tasks and chores
I think that you know, Carl Gustav Jung used to put up the alarm very, very early in the morning and then soak himself in a tepid bathtub to recreate the amniotic fluid of the mother’s womb, so that he would induce his dream that kind of made in the central material and theory, right? So I think you’re right. I mean, definitely it is for me, it is dreamier and also the mind is more agile in the morning. But there are people that in the evening they bring out more of a lyrical voice, I have that anyway, the lyrical. But still, I think that because I like to put myself in new challenges. I would like to see if I’m able to, I think the impression might, to be more poetic in the evening.
After a wine or 2?
I think that there’s a whole subject of intoxication and writing of course and that several writers have had those those experiences and I think in this phase writers are some of the healthiest people. It’s a new phase and it better to keep your mind sharp to make the stories wonderful.
Murakami uses jogging to get through writer’s block
Thank you amateurs! (laughs) I’m okay, if I get fit!
When you began writing your ‘memovelle’s’ what was the best bit of advice you received?
The best bit of advice, I’m trying to think because you know that the sad thing is, I’ve always looked for masters and advisors all my life but not had that many. I’ve had people who believed in me and invested in me, but gurus and teachers, not so many. So I had to find the best advice for myself. So I think the best advice I probably got from a friend who was a writer was I would find my own advice by slamming my forehead on the keyboard a few times every day from the beginning of the writing process.
I think that’s the advice there was no, it’s true. Unfortunately, I’ve read wonderful books that are very helpful in many ways like David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife for example. So on the three acts and that type of writing, yeah, Stephen King has written a wonderful, useful book about writing, On Writing. So it does help, I think, to reach out to people who have proven their mastery. And I think, it does help to read very popular if you’re into literary fiction of quality, it does help to read very, very popular writers as well and understand what is the secret of their success that makes them popular, not that it should change the nature of your of your writing in any way, but understand a bit in the craft. So I think there if you learn things by yourself, like these things that I have just listed, I think they’re worth a lot more than being given advice that could be like a mantra given for you to repeat. I think that you have to find your own mantra.
So what advice would you give to new writers
Don’t listen to me! (laughs)
Krishnamurti, I think it was great it was that he was chosen as the guru by Theosophy Society in Chennai where I go walking every morning when I’m in Chennai. And he was a boy on the beach, I think that they, they realize he was going to be enlightening. And the best advice he gave immediately as soon as he became the great guru was ‘you don’t need a guru’. And that’s what the guru tells you, the good guru tells you, there is no need for a guru so now the advice I would give is run, run, run away from this profession unless you are absolutely in need to pursue it. If you have the necessity because it is so much blood and tears. And I know it sounds like I’ve been told this when I wanted to be a journalist and I’ve been told this to be a writer so I hate to be that old curmudgeon who repeats this thing, but it’s the true test. If you don’t understand that the pleasure of writing is in the process, then you’re wasting your time.
So that means that you might never publish your novel and you should not cry your eyes out until you do like I did. Because if you love writing, you love writing, so just write and don’t worry about the result. Then of course if you are able to convince people that it is beautiful and if you have any kind of success or at least publishing, great! But that frustration of having constructed something that is so difficult, like a book, and not seeing it published, can really destroy you.
So, if you’re gonna enter into this boxing ring, come prepared to lose and in there my advice is only if you really need to get punched come in. (laughs)
I think that’s a great way to wrap it up
Carlo Pizzati. Thank you for talking to us.
Thank you. Good talking to you!
Click here to purchase your copy of Mappillai