March 3, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad in the West Indies and
educated at Oxford University in England. His work has often explored
the enduring tensions between rich and poor, colonizers and the colonized
in a rapidly-changing world. He's a winner of the prestigious Booker
Prize and has written more than 20 books in the last 45 years, fiction
such as "A House for Mr. Biswas," "A Bend in the River,"
and "Away in the World," and nonfiction, including "The
Middle Passage," on the West Indies, "Among the Believers:
An Islamic Journey," and "A Turn in the South," on the
changing American South. Now his letters to and from family from half
a century ago have been collected in a revealing new volume, "Between
Father and Son: Family Letters." V.S. Naipaul joins us now. Good
to have you here.
V.S. NAIPAUL: Well, I had no hand in the book, actually. The idea was suggested to me by people who went to look at the letters in the archive where they were deposited. I never read them through. There are certain things that are too painful for people to even write about sometimes, and there are certain things that are too hard to read about again. One doesn't want to be reminded of those difficult years. They were very hard years. They didn't last... when you speak about people having hard times, it sounds "hard times," but hard times go on and on and on and I didn't want to live again and face all that pain, and if there are other things in that period where I'm glad, but I wish to stay away from the time being, from the pain.
RAY SUAREZ: The world that you have put between the covers of books, both in nonfiction and in fiction, is a world that we quite often talk about here on this program.
V.S. NAIPAUL: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: But a world that isn't very much visited by Americans.
V.S. NAIPAUL: What world are you thinking of?
RAY SUAREZ: Places like Southeast Asia, Africa in the post-colonial era, the Caribbean and the small struggling nations there. They fill up our news pages but are very distant. But you've had a chance to see them up close and I wonder what you would want Americans to understand when they pick up their morning paper and see a story about Africa today.
V.S. NAIPAUL: I would not think in that big way. I would not tell people what they should find. It's for other people to, you know, to pick their way through the news. But, I've been taking snapshots of cultures in difficult stages, or civilizations in difficult stages. I'm doing it purely in human terms, seeing the pressures worked out in people's lives. That's what I've been doing a lot of since I began traveling, especially those Islamic books and the books about India, exploring that side of one's inheritance, because although I come from the Caribbean-- Trinidad-- I'm of Indian origin, and the Indian experience has always been interesting to me and necessary for me to explore and to come to terms with. You see, my interest begins with my community and my place of birth. My community commits me to an exploration of India and the Islamic world. My place of birth commits me to an understanding of the new world, the Spanish invasion, slavery, revolution in the new world. It also commits me to an attempt to understand Africa. So from that starting point, I have looked at the world, or tried to look at the world, and this is the venture I've been engaged in. It's lasted a long time.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's talk a little bit about the novel, a form that you've worked in...
V.S. NAIPAUL: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: But you've also done a great deal of journalism and first- person reporting.
V.S. NAIPAUL: Yes, yes.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there a difference in approach to the two, and do you still want to continue to write novels?
V.S. NAIPAUL: The thing about the novel is that you carry only so much experience in yourself, so you quickly come to an end of the material because to write imaginatively, you do a kind of intimate processing of your own experience, if you're a serious writer. There are other kinds of novelists who do, in fact, what are situation-tragedies or situation-comedies. But the person who, as it were, converts experience into imaginative adventure, he can only do a limited amount of work. I did my own background. I did about people moving around the world. Then I was interested in the world. I have a great interest in the world and I had to find ways of expressing my interest in the world, so that's why I turned to doing these travel books. It didn't... they were not strictly about me traveling. They were about the people I was among. And they weren't about great characters, they were about cultures, civilizations.
RAY SUAREZ: Are you suggesting that after a certain number of novels, and it may vary from writer to writer, you're mined out...
V.S. NAIPAUL: Yes.
RAY SUAREZ: And if you're still compelled to write, you should turn to nonfiction?
V.S. NAIPAUL: I think... Well, no one's -- never recommending to other people. I speak only of my own experience. I would have been dead if I had tried just to keep on manufacturing narratives. Shaw used a phrase about that years ago, out of one's entrails, out of one's unfurnished entrails, trying to pull out inventions and stories. It didn't mean that I lost a feeling for narrative. And the other thing is that I got more and more convinced that, in this century, we are just carrying out and repeating the programs that were laid down by the great novelists in the last century, when the novel was new. And I think that, therefore, a lot of the novels being written in our own time, how intelligent and amusing, do not have any lasting power. They do not have that tension, that convincingness of what is absolutely new. They are novels written by people who have too many models, and possibly the same thing is true of the cinema, which is a fair comparison. The first 50 years of the cinema were absolutely great years. Original minds were at work establishing the ways to tell a story. And what is happening now is a copying, a pastiche-ing of what was done by great men.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, you've been a writer for about 50 years now...
V.S. NAIPAUL: Yes, yes.
RAY SUAREZ: ...Does it still energize you to sit at the keyboard? Are there still things that you really feel you must write or is there sometimes, maybe if you have a little bit of a grippe or it's raining outside and a very gray day where you just think "let me just let people compliment me for a couple of days and I'll take it easy?"
V.S. NAIPAUL: No, no, no. I don't work... I mean, writing isn't like that, sitting at the keyboard. No, no, it isn't done like that. It's... If you... Your mind is always at work. And a lot of the writing is done away from the keyboard. One hardly is at the keyboard, in fact. A lot of it occurs in the mind.
RAY SUAREZ: So it's composed?
V.S. NAIPAUL: Already in my mind. A lot of it's in my... A lot of the ideas, and then the difficult thing of fitting words to ideas, all of that occurs when one is walking or taking a bath, so...
RAY SUAREZ: Because I've just recently read the letters where you report your first couple of sales, and there's a joy in that, an excitement in that that any young writer, I think, would recognize, and I was wondering as I read that whether you still had the joy.
V.S. NAIPAUL: Oh, goodness. No, I don't think of it like "joy." No, I don't think of joy any longer. I think one is simply doing one's work, you understand. One is doing one's work and trying to do it well, and work is not complete until it has been received, until it's found someone to read it, you know. It isn't something you just do for yourself. So it's a rather serious matter, really, not the writing and joy and sitting at the keyboard and success. No, I don't think of it like that at all.
RAY SUAREZ: But you do need the reader? They complete the circuit?
V.S. NAIPAUL: You need a reader. You need someone to see what you've done, to read it and to understand it and to appreciate what's gone into it.
RAY SUAREZ: Thank you very much for being here.