Sophie James, travel writer, author, novelist, photographer
Sophie James interview


When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was always fooling around on my Dad’s old typewriter as a child, making scripts and weird little stories, but honestly I didn’t arrive at writing until I went to India.

Sounds romantic…

Doesn’t it? But I was hideously homesick. It was 1993 and I was teaching in Shimla at a boarding school way up in the Himalayas – this before mobile and Internet.

In return for my Dad sending me the recorded weekly omnibus of The Archers, I used to write long, long letters home, full of anecdotes, descriptions, vignettes. Looking back it was quite monastic – curfews for the teachers, no television - but I learned my craft there and India as a place of fascination stuck.

Had you never written like that before?

Not that amount of letter writing … and also there was something ritualistic about the posting of the letter. You know, it was always a game of roulette if your letter ever got home from India. Un-franked stamps could get ‘re-used’; envelopes would be opened. So you simply didn’t pop your treasured letter in a letterbox - you had to escort them. Protect them. Walk them into the anarchic postal back rooms of the Shimla sorting office and make sure they got the right treatment. Posting a letter added a liturgical frisson to the whole deal of writing one.

And that shaped your writing?

Well after a few weeks I wasn’t homesick anymore but the habit of writing had stuck; and after a year of writing I knew exactly what I wanted to do coming home.

Your first novel is set in Jaipur in 2002. Is it biographical?

No. I did indeed take my baby to Jaipur when he was four-months old – to live. I took myself to live! I was a single mother and I didn’t want that obvious labeling in England. I also wanted a good life without worrying about money. I freelanced whilst I was there, writing articles. There is a baby in the novel but it’s not him – its just Baby: a touchstone around which the plot develops. And the main character has no similarities to me either.
Having said that almost everyone in the novel is based on people I knew in Jaipur – Indian friends (and not so friendly). I made serious connections out there with other humans, good and bad. The intensity – purity – eccentricity of my experience did feel magical.

Was it unusual to travel like that?

Sure, as this wasn’t a hippie Goa scene – it was conventional Rajasthani society and I was renting a flat from a traditional Rajput family. I was a single mother travelling with a single baby. So many times did I end up lying about my husband (I had none) but it was the times I chose not to that opened the doors. It was like admitting to a strange disease no one had ever heard of: but what are your symptoms?

Some people say Jaipur is a dirty un-loveable place – as a tourist.

Oh shame – I think Jaipur is very compelling. You need to stay there – I mean really stay there, not just breeze through. It’s a very layered society. You won’t see that on a two-day stop-over en route to Jodhpur.

What is your novel about?

Love Hate Jaipur is about magic – not only religious magic per se but the magic of relationships, the charm, the power, the almost supernatural emphasis we put on human connection: feelings of fate, powers of attraction. Why are we more familiar with some people than others? Why do we sometimes recoil? Sometimes relationships feel ancient – there is no better word for describing the emotion.

And is there anything you particularly like in the novel?

In the whole novel… actually I love the chapter on the Shekawat region. It’s in the deserts of north Rajasthan and utterly decaying - and that was ten years ago. I knew I had to set scenes there. Instead of Eastern promise (or any sort of promise) it’s full of sandy decay. There was a sense then that everyone had given up on it. It was romantic, dusty copper yellow and wistful. But you wouldn’t ever want to live there. Sand dunes, camels, palaces in decay – and all of it Indian, the Brits never got a root there during the Raj. I wrote about it at length in a chapter called Memory – I had to set it in the past because it always struck me that it was a place that has no present. And that’s pretty weird isn’t it?

You are talking as if India is a dark place?

I think it can be. The poverty, the animals, the religion – and all everywhere, you can’t hide your eyes from it. That’s a theme in all my India-novels. People talk about being attracted to the colour of India - or the beauty of India - it’s spirit and spirituality - but really – secretly – I think they are attracted to the powerful appalling inner darkness of India; and it casts a spell on them. It goes from India-aahh to India-aarrggh.

And what does that mean for a writer translating that?

Of course all countries have their own energy – historically, metaphysically, and spiritually too – and for a writer that’s very interesting and necessary to communicate, but terrifically challenging. To absorb the light of your host and shine it back at them. I think it’s easier for the visual artist: a colour, a shape, an angle – abstract, abstracting the essence. Extracting! For the prose writer you must constantly interrupt narrative impact with she felt, she saw, he wondered etc. etc. With poetry it’s several degrees easier, more immediate like art.
I’m sure people will say it’s not real India but it is my take on it and I was living there. Art is about translating experience, so… this is my translation of India.

Would you do it again?

Ha! Nope. I couldn’t do it now. In fact I can’t believe I did it back then. I must have been… slightly unhappy I think – although it was a very happy and healing time. But people are attracted to being abroad for the very reason that you can be … better translated.
You pack a rucksack and drop the old baggage. You can re-invent yourself.

So why did you come back?

Well. After two years out there my son was speaking Hindi but I decided to… root him here, for want of a better word. I’d been a middle-class nomad for too long. I’d been a travel journalist before I had him and there comes a time when you think – hang on… In the end I decided my imagination was big enough to plant my feet. I’d been freelancing and I wanted to give novel writing a go. I didn’t have to be constantly moving to do this; in fact, it was imperative to stop. Stop.

And the idea of roots interest you?

Yes, I’ve spent so long exploring my own roots and with it, identities. The Tea Jungle is all about roots and belonging, or not belonging. It’s a story really about misfits. And in any case, who ever thinks they fit the life they have? People are always casting around for other lives that may fit them better… Almost everyone in the novel feels they don’t fit in – the wife, the husband, the lover, the spinster, the narrator, the prince.

Set in India again?

It’s set in Calcutta and Darjeeling during the Second World War – the end of the Raj, the threat of the Japanese invading. But it’s not about the fabric of India, like LHJ was, more the idea of it. A great background for conflict, to explore the theme of roots.

What was your inspiration?

Well, the inspiration was my mother’s stories of her childhood on a tea estate – and her elder sisters stories of young womanhood in India, fooling around with planters and rajas.

Isn’t it a novel about spying though?

Spying is in the plot yes. My grandfather was a spy on his tea garden in what is now Bangladesh. The British army called up tea-planters to be part of the force against the Japanese who were threatening to enter India. He was made an acting Brigadier. My Aunt tells me the story of her father taking his Ghurkha guards (they guarded the plantation) into the jungle; she also says there was a mysterious black trunk in the bungalow that was taken into the jungle and buried.

Do you have a favourite misfit?

Character? In this novel, I explore the idea of roots with different characters, especially one character called Aunty - and she is pivotal to the whole plot; in fact she is based on the old lady pianist who used to play a teatime slot at the Windermere Hotel in Darjeeling in the 1990s.

She was Indian?

Yes. She was a sweet funny woman – spinster - who was beyond the piano keys, terribly sad and cut off in that famous Windermere Hotel where she worked. But in her life she had no options – she had never married – her parents had died on a trip to England and she had never seen their grave – she was an exile in her own community. I hate to think what happened to her. She had no money. She would sit at her piano and play wonderful 1930s’ tunes, all so incongruous with the 1990s’ politics of Darjeeling. A veil, like much of India. I wrote to her once years ago at the guesthouse she stayed in, in Calcutta – but my letter was returned: return to sender, lady unknown. Born without roots and died without them too. For good or ill she caught my imagination and here she is, or some aspect of her.

The Tea Jungle sounds very different to Love Hate Jaipur…

Yes - that had to be set in Rajasthan; it was absolutely to do with the fabric of that place, the weave of it – as unpicked by me. The character Quinn had to go through some oriental baptism by fire – she had to be filtered by Jaipur. She was in denial and passed finally into a state of being. Through India – because of India. But the novel is more than that – it’s about the place itself – Rajasthan – the colour, the taste, the smell of it, the touch of it.

If you don’t mind my saying, sounds like a travel article?

Well there is that around it and of course that’s my journalistic background. In fact, a very wise man once said that to me… ‘’Well…’’ he said, over lunch, ‘‘Travel writing or novels? Make your mind up…’’ – but it took me a while.

Who was that?

Alan Ross. He was editor of a small literary magazine called London Magazine, one of the most influential small prints in the world for recognizing and publishing unknown authors. He just gave you a buzz about literature; he was gossipy and literary and had great integrity. He had nothing to prove, he had nothing to lose. He wasn’t motivated by profit. The publishing houses all looked out for these bi-monthly editions and in fact I was contacted by a couple of editors when pieces of mine were published. He was a literary talent-spotter, in short.

And he spotted you?

Well he took a punt on me, like he took a punt on many young talented writers. It meant a huge amount. He was a literary guru. I’m glad he died before the Internet took hold. That would never have suited him. He used to write to wannabe authors on postcards – or post-it notes - messages of encouragement or acceptance or rejection.

Nice editor to have…

But on a heart level, he was more than that. He was deeply sympathetic with large dark green eyes and a kind face. He worked from a shed in an SW3 back garden surrounded by books, and his black Labrador. If he really liked you, you got invited to lunch – which I was – to a South Kensington curry house.

Why you?

Honestly I had connected with him because of India – see India is my main portal. Is the way so far my writing has arrived: the entrance, the threshold. Alan Ross was born in Calcutta. He died of heart failure on Valentine’s Day – isn’t that beautiful?

Isn’t that rather sad?

Maybe not to the novelist. To the novelist it’s a perfect ending to a chapter.

Do you have any other literary mentors?

When I was on the Independent on Sunday my boss was an amazing man, a far better writer than a travel journalist as well he knew – he was a gentleman called Jeremy Atiyah. He was a real maverick, a fantastic writer, who fell into the job with almost no editorial experience at all. And did a great job. But he wanted to write novels… We left the newspaper at roughly the same time… had he lived he would have gone on to write some great books, I’ve no doubt.

What happened to him?

Very tragically he died of a heart attack on Mount Sibillini, in Italy. Yes, in this case, I can’t spin it, it is just so sad. It totally sucked. Tragic. We used to meet – for curry – and discuss plots and books and what made plots and books work. I miss him.

You finished a Masters degree in Creative Writing last year. What was that like?

Honestly within the first day I wished I had done such a course years ago. We’re still quite snobby about creative writing on an academic curriculum. But my experience was terrific – especially the push and pull of group work. The weekly critiquing of your own writing (and others) was immensely valuable. I think we started out softly-softly and by the end of the year we were all pretty raptor-like.

Do you think you can be taught to write?

No, but you can be trained to be a good self-critic. For me during the Masters I learned to be in active meditation of my writing – to be being present in the process. I mean - really awake. It’s really bullshit to think writers do well in isolation. Writing gets much fitter with group work. Treat the skill of writing like a muscle. The Masters toned me up. I could name several well-established writers now who would hugely benefit from a rigorous Master’s type group work out.

Go on then…

Actually call me tomorrow and I’ll have a list....

Any famous literary figures teaching on the course?

Fay Weldon taught on this course, and became my Tutor.

The advertising guru?

The novelist.

What was that like?

The end game of this particular MA was a dissertation, which was meant to be a chunk of novel. I had originally applied to the Masters to finish my novel The Tea Jungle. But I got carried away, and started a whole new novel, and a rather strange one, whose plot was strewn with magical portals through which you could time travel. Not the usual thing I write at all. It was called Stuck.
Fay was anti-portal, and said these portals were my psyche dancing through hoops of therapy. She meant that novel Stuck was one big portal for me. It was a rite of passage. I was stuck, literally.

You were stuck?

Yes, Fay said, ‘You have written a portal into Being.’
She said passing through portals is the function of fiction, not the stuff of it (discuss!) and strongly advised me to listen to my subconscious and ditch the occult element of Stuck and get on with the characters. Of course I knew she was wrong; and then one month later when I returned to the novel after a break – I saw immediately she was right. I did return to it, and changed it to a novella, Susan, and it’s far better for it.

So would you say there was a difference in your writing on the Masters and before? Why was that?

I think I was so self-conscious about being a student again – and conscious about the prescriptions on the course – how we were studying writing as we wrote – that I thought too hard about what I was producing. Maybe I was too awake. Hence a clever, sophisticated but artificial idea that had no legs until I got to what Fay called the nub of it.

The nub of the story?

Yes she loved that phrase. ‘What,’ she used to ask me, ‘Is on the movie poster? What’s the nub?’ It’s also what they call the elevator pitch – basically an ability to sum up your novel such that you can fit it in a teacup. Or a thimble. Or an atom.
But I used to think… can you ever imagine saying to George Eliot, ‘‘Mary Anne dear, just run it by us again, what’s the nub of Middlemarch? What’s on the movie poster dear?’’

So over all was the Masters in Creative Writing was a good experience?

Yes it was excellent because I realized are born and cannot be made; and I was born to write, because it’s the way I am human.

What do you think you have to say?

In my writing I’m always trying to cover the cracks in life – I mean, the metaphysical cracks – that feeling of fate or synchronicity, that almost indescribable feeling of ‘energy’ – or how we put meaning on what might be meaninglessness.
So I’m quite theological without ever raving about God.
In my own personal life I don’t have a specific God-system but I do feel esoteric elements strongly. In my novels I’ve tried to make tangible through words the sense of energy that I feel working in my own life.

What’s the most important process for you in writing novels?

Honestly? Stamina. I really think that. You might expect a writer to say imagination. I don’t say it immediately because we all have that wonderful capacity: to daydream, to fantasize: our minds are a stage, and we can shift the scenery around at unconscious will. It’s the getting it down on paper that’s really the toughie. It’s the sitting at the desk and cool hard labor, not romantic.

You’re spoiling my idea of a writer…

Well I often think there is no such thing as writing, only re-writing.
But - how unappetizing to say to people when asked over a gin what you do, not ‘I’m a writer,’ but ‘I’m a re-writer…’
That gin just won’t taste half as nice.


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