Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Taste of Literary New York

Sujata Massey

One of the perks of East Coast life is the freedom to visit other cities within just a few hours. Recently I caught a 6:30 charter bus to New York City and was midtown by 9:45. I'd temporarily abandoned my peeps in Baltimore to enact a very pleasant yearly ritual: my New York literary weekend. It was a short walk from my friend’s apartment in Cooper Square to Union Square. 

Along Fourth Avenue lies a section once known as Book Row. Only a few bookshops remain out of the 48 that once flourished during the Edwardian era. Still, it was a happy sight to see books and browsers, and the very best bookstore in America is still open nearby.

Yes, I hit the Strand. Inside, big wooden tables were loaded with thousands of brand new books, in addition to venerable old ones packed tightly on industrial shelving that took up a supposed “18 miles” of space. I was astonished by the hordes of intense-looking employees—a number I couldn’t begin to count. Hundreds of customers swirled around me, and getting near a particular bookshelf was a give-and-take between people as carefully negotiated as entering the subway.

Soho Press was around the corner. I met with my new editor, Juliet Grames, and the marketing and publications staff. An energizing conversation was chased by a tasty lunch at a nearby Japanese restaurant. I left a few hours later with Soho’s cute “Crime Has No Time Zone” bag loaded up with the latest from David Downing, Mette Ivie Harrison and Andromeda Romano-Lax. 

Dev Patel plays the lost genius Ramunajan in the film version of The Man Who Knew Infinity

My happy publishing afternoon continued with a cup of tea with my literary agent, Vicky Bijur. As we talked about my career and the general future for fiction, our conversation turned to the good news that three of Vicky’s authors have had books turned into major films in the last year…one of these, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel, is an Indian historical biography of Ramunajan, the mathematician. The film stars two of my favorite guys: Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons.

As Friday wound down, I sat in a Union Square coffee shop with my cousin, Suman Bhattacharya, who also writes fiction. I was intrigued to hear about Suman’s latest novel-in-progress set in a modern slum in Kolkata. The American agent who received his query asked whether there was a white male character in the storyline. My cousin’s depressing report reminded me of some chats screenwriters interested in transferring my Japanese mysteries to US locations and characters. I encouraged him not to give up.

Still, this quandary was on my mind as I headed over to the Indo-American Arts Council’s second annual literary festival. I was so eager for the festival that I was one of the first people to arrive at the new location at Hunter College. The challenge of getting decision-makers to accept diverse works of fiction was a recurring topic on many panels, including one on how to break into publishing, and another about writing for film.

Sujata Massey, Maya Lang, Tania James and Mira Jacob 

I moderated a panel on Sunday with three terrific women literary fiction authors. We discussed whether we thought we wrote different kinds of books because of our gender, and how audiences reacted when several of us chose to write about characters and places that didn’t seem to match up with our Asian names. It was a lively roundtable discussion. One of the panelists, Mira Jacob, recently wrote a Buzzfeed commentary about her odd experience of being talked over while giving a speech on race at a Publishers Weekly event. Mira said the net result of the ignoring drew more far more attention to the issue than a successful speech would have.

 How do we create original, creative books that will be embraced by the English-language publishing universe? Believe it or not, this concern also applies to cookbook authors. Many big Indian foodies abhor the way food is typically photographed in brass dishes, and old-time Punjabi recipes are served a continuous loop. They want to convince us to cook differently.

Food writer Suvir Saran and India's TV journo Saransh Goila react to a question from  from novelist/blogger Pia Padukone

At a panel titled “The Hot New Genre of Food Writing,” a couple of Michelin-rated chefs, an Indian culinary TV host, and a US-based food writer shared tales of beloved family members who set them on their paths and the joy of using with spices with local, organic fruits and vegetables particular to North America. My appetite was whetted, and I wished I’d had a chance to eat at the panelists’ restaurants: Vikas Khanna’s Junoon, and Suvir Saran’s Devi. I also regretted missing the big interview with food writer/actress Madhur Jaffrey on Thursday, and another book talk with writer/actress/Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi.
A final bite and drink at Morrell's withSuvir Saran's Masala Farm

Ten new books barely fit in the three bags I packed at festival's end. As I awaited my bus at a bar near Rockefeller Center,  I realized that, for me, books are the seventh food group. Visiting one of the world’s great publishing capitals each year replenishes the pantry within my heart.


  1. Sujata, you were here, walking beneath my very windows and I didn't know it?? Boohoo for that lost opportunity to meet in person. I hope you will let me know next time you head this way. We will plan something fun and delicious. BTW, I wrote a blog here about The Strand. It is the BEST, but Caro and EvKa won't agree.

    1. Oh, and by the way, I share your predeliction for Dev Patel! What a totally charming guy.

  2. Sounds like a wonderful trip, Sujata. Perhaps you should write a novel about a Japanese girl who travels to France to become a French chef, who ends up being kidnapped to Peru where she escapes with the help of South American natives who smuggle her onto a rich Russian industrialist's yacht where she's a stowaway to China, where she meets and falls in love with a black man from South Africa who's tracking poached rhino horn back to the importers, but they're forced on the run over the Himalaya's when his secret mission is penetrated by Maoist traditionalists, and when they reach India are met by the strongest Monsoons in 60 years.

    And that's just chapter 1.

    Should be an easy book to market. :-)

  3. As an old white guy I revel in other culture's stories, settings, and foods. Being of modest means and living near the edge of the planet the best way to fill this need is through books. I like EvKa's first chapter already.

  4. I must say I find these smaller book conventions much friendlier and more manageable than the big ones - although they are also fun with great buzz.
    We were at Magna cum Murder in Indianapolis last weekend and I think we met most of the people there. It was my first time and I'd really like to do a sequel!

  5. Here is a link to a taste of "the Man Who Knew Infinity":
    There is also a one-hour documentary on YouTube called "Letters from an Indian Clerk," based on the book of the same name. What a fascinating story.

    1. This is a fascinating story - a rare example of a genius with no real context. I haven't seen the movie but I'm looking forward to it after this taste.

  6. As I sit in SEATAC awaiting my flight to JFK, I finally had the chance to catch up on my familial MIE duties ASAP. Enough with the acronyms already, JMS. And what to my wondering eyes should appear but your post on the place of my adult roots. NYC's East Village. And the land of my more maturing years...literary conferences and camaraderie. It's the best of the best, Sujata, not to mention the food. Namaste and Shalom.