Memories of Fire: Ashok Chopra tells us a story about childhood friends, and history
Having penned bestselling titles like Of Love and Other Sorrows and A Scrapbook of Memories: My Life with the Rich, the Famous and the Scandalous, current chief executive of Hay House Publishers India, Ashok Chopra, is out with his first ever fiction novel, Memories of Fire. Son of eminent painter BR Chopra, the Gurgaon-based author’s new offering revolves around five childhood friends who meet after 54 years, tracing their stories with an intermingling of contemporary India-Pakistan history. He speaks with Indulge about his first attempt at fiction, authors he admires, and borrowing from real-life stories.
Take us through your journey as an author. What prompted you to write?
I must admit that I’m not really an author-author. I am a publisher first and last. Writing is very recent and I just happened to delve into it. It was an exercise for myself. Hence, there is no long journey as such. The first book Of Love and Other Sorrows—an anthology of essays on some of the writers whom I admire—was a lazy man’s job, as these essays were recycled from my newspaper columns. A Scrapbook of Memories: My Life with the Rich, the Famous and the Scandalous, hence, was, in many ways, my first book.
Many years ago, I had read Stet: An Editor’s Life by the famous British literary editor Diana Athill, who worked with some of the greatest writers of the 20th century at Andre Deutsch. Since then, I nursed a desire to write about my journey with and through the written word for over 40 years… Four decades of experience of dealing with authors, writers, poets, singers, composers, lyricist, actors, directors, literary agents, publishers and their houses, artists, painters and designers. That’s why I wrote it. Luckily the publishers liked it.
How did the idea for Memories of Fire come by?
I’m a great fan of Isabel Allende and love her style of intermingling the history of her country into her plots — her pain and agony, how she weaves her own history with the politics of her country. That was, in some way, the inspiration for doing a novel interweaving the dark contemporary history of India and Pakistan into my story line. The historical and public figures are the facts. The rest is all imagination.
What research went into the book? The actual writing took about three years. Readers will notice that quite a bit of research was carried out at various points and for incidents described in the book. Whether it is poetry and literature, description of baghs, or the environment and its preservation by the Bishnois, political events of Pakistan, pancreatic cancer... It all required travel and research, and checking and rechecking of facts, so that nothing went wrong.
Why fiction? Was it something that happened organically?
We have been brought up in a land of stories — political, social, mythological, religious. All give us ideas, scenes, characters, language, and dialogues. There is always a story around. One has to be observant and think.
Were there elements from your own life experiences that seeped in?
Oh yes, lots of them, both from my life and even some from those of friends and acquaintances have crept in. They are bound to, in any work of fiction. It’s an amalgamation of various factors. In this particular case, certain minor incidents of my life have crept into the lives of all the protagonists in the novel. I am there in some form or the other in Vijay Thakur, in Radhey Sham, in Deepak, even in Brother Walsh and Bansi Bua.
How has being in the publishing industry influenced your writing?
A publisher is not born, but made. Over the last four decades, I have published and interacted with hundreds of authors from around the world. I observed them, followed them, advised them, got advice from—in brief, got an insight into their thinking, their psyche, which helped me understand them better.