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Writers Special

Interview with Gregory David Roberts

Q1: It’s been a while since we touched base with you so what exciting things have happened in the last two years?

A1: Many, many things. For example, I worked as a philosophical consultant for a major corporation. The vision of the CEO was to transform his company, to make it the most ethical, clean & green, forward thinking corporation in the world. He hired me to provide the philosophical foundation for the transformation. It was a very rewarding experience, working with a team that transformed the way 10,000 people work and think about the world. And now the project is being scaled-up to reach the parent company, which has 90,000 employees across the world.

I also worked on The Elders project, which has people with very high moral authority, such as Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan and others, giving their guidance to the world in a council of wise elders. I organized the conference of world thinkers that was the basis for all the foundation documents for The Elders, and I wrote the formal constitution for the group.

My payment for work on that project with The Elders was to have Aung San Suu Kyi incorporated as an Elder In Absentia: that’s what I asked for as payment, and The Elders all agreed that it was a good idea. Now there is an empty chair at every meeting of The Elders, with a plaque in front of it bearing Aung San Suu Kyi’s name. And that empty chair will remain until she is free to take her rightful place amongst The wise Elders.

As well, I’ve written the screenplays for 2 new movies, which will go into production in Hollywood next year. I’m due to write 2 more this year, after the novel is completed.

I’m also working on the Shantaram Opera, which should be in performance internationally from next year.

The big project in the last couple of years, however, has been the sequel to Shantaram, which is the new novel, called The Mountain Shadow.

Q2: I read in one of your interviews that your life took a ‘dramatic change in 1991’ – what brought about that change and what made you take control of your destiny?

A2: My life has moved through a lot of dramatic changes – and that’s still happening, I’m glad to say. But the biggest and most dramatic change of direction happened when I was recaptured after living for 10 years on the run as a wanted man, in 1990, and I was placed into the terrorist prison in Preungesheim, Germany. I planned an escape from that prison, and was all set to make the break, when I had a vision of my Mother’s face, and of her pain, and I knew that I had to change my life, and stop being so selfish and self-destructive.

I gave up all drugs in the moment of that vision of my Mother’s face. I haven’t had a drink of alcohol or smoked a cigarette or taken any drugs of any kind since that day, 20 years ago. I left the world of crime and the life of an outlaw, and focussed on my creative work, and on serving the interests of my loved ones.

That decision – that dramatic change – has allowed me to support my family, to look after my Mother and Father, to establish a charity in Bombay, to create the novel Shantaram, to write movies, to work as a philosophical consultant, to move in the circles of creative friends such as Madonna and Johnny Depp and Sir Richard Branson, to become an ambassador for Medecins Sans Frontieres and other organisations, and to meet my wife, Princess Francoise, and to work with her in her Heart For India Foundation (www.heartforindia.org).

Q3: You are in the midst of writing your next book The Mountain Shadow, what was the inspiration behind it and how much of the book this time is inspired from your own reality?

A3: The new novel, The Mountain Shadow, is the third in the Shantaram Trilogy. It begins about 2 years after the events at the end of Shantaram. Lin is still in Bombay, working with the Bombay mafia. All of the characters who were still standing at the end of Shantaram go on in the new novel, and several new important characters are introduced.

The inspiration for The Mountain Shadow is the theme of the search. This is the search for meaning and purpose in life, the search for love, the search for identity, the search for home, the search for peace: the existential search that defines and fills the lives of all of us, all over the world.

As with the novel Shantaram, the experiences in The Mountain Shadow are derived from my own real experiences, and the characters, dialogue, and narrative structure are all created.

Q4: How have you evolved as a writer and human being from Shantaram to The Mountain Shadow?

A4: That’s a tough question to answer, in the personal sense: how have I evolved as a person since writing Shantaram? I think that the experience of interacting with thousands and thousands of people all over the world, who’ve read Shantaram, has given me much more hope, and has inspired me with a much stronger passion to struggle for the things that matter now, and will be critical to any chance we human beings have to achieve our destiny: liberty, justice, fairness, creativity, constructive cooperation, and sustainability.

As a writer, I’ve developed a sense of filling chapters with as rich a sense of the world I’m creating as possible. The chapters in The Mountain Shadow are longer, and more profoundly layered than in my previous work. Each chapter is an expression of The Search, and each chapter has a structural integrity that should, I hope, make it a self-contained journey that is, however, an integrated part of the great journey of the novel as a whole.

Q5: Lin is a character that has lived with you for many years now so how easy or difficult is it for Gregory to leave and Lin to take over?

A5: This is a question that applies to many writers, I think, and to many actors. My friend, Johnny Depp, once told me that when a movie is finally wrapped and finished, he feels a certain separation anxiety from the character that he has created and played for several months or longer. It always takes him a while to adjust to the change, and to rediscover that he is Johnny Depp, after all, and not the character he created and became for a while.

For me, the identification with the characters in the novels I write is so complete that the world of the novel, the world I’m creating, is often more real to me than the real streets and buildings that I find when I step away from the desk and the hand-written journals. When my characters feel joy or when they suffer, I feel that too. When my characters fail or triumph, when they rage or rejoice, when they laugh and cry, I do it with them, every time.

Specifically, with Lin, the character I created to be the voice of this trilogy, and who bears some of my names, and who shares some of my experiences, there’s certainly some of Johnny Depp’s separation anxiety when I move away from him. There’s a sadness in Lin – an existential tristesse – that fills me with sympathy for him. He loves people and he loves the city where he lives as an exile, but the melancholy tide, the ocean of loss that rises and falls within him holds him back from loving life itself. I know that hollowed out sense of loss far too well. And in recreating it in Lin, so that my readers can move through the tumbling shore of it and reach down to feel the bubbling foam of its sorrow froth against their fingertips, I’ve bonded myself to the character so profoundly that leaving him there, in the sand-coloured pages of the hand-written journals, tears at my heart.

Q6: Shantaram the film has gone through many hands and production dates – so what is the current status of the film?

A6: The film project is still in the hands of Warner Brothers, Johnny Depp, and Graham King, the brilliant producer who gave us The Departed, Blood Diamond, Traffic, and Gangs of New York. They’re still passionate about the project, despite some back luck with the writer’s strike in Hollywood, and a couple of setbacks with directors who’ve been attached to the movie.

They’re a very talented team of people, and they love the project, so I’m sure that one way or another, this movie will be made in the next 2 years, and that it will be a stunning production.

Q7: What are your earliest memories of Mumbai, what fascinated you about it and how would you deconstruct Mumbai.

A7: My first impressions are all there, in the opening pages of Shantaram. The two things that impressed me most about Bombay – then and now – are the freedom that you see in the city, and the beautiful nature of the people.

Because we get caught up in the day-to-day struggles and pleasures of life in Bombay, we sometimes forget just how much freedom there is in the city, compared to many other more rigidly controlled cities in the world.

To give you an example, I was in a taxi a while back, driving along Marine Drive at about 4.30 in the afternoon. Suddenly, I saw a man dancing in the middle of the road. He wore only jeans: no shirt, no shoes. And he danced as if he was in the middle of a wild rave party, instead of in the middle of one of the busiest roads in the world.

I asked the taxi driver if the guy was crazy. The driver said: “No, sir. That is Dancing Man. He is dancing every day here in the road, for about half an hour.”

All the traffic just moved around the Dancing Man, and went on without any problem. And as I looked back through the rear window of the cab, I saw that the Dancing Man kept dancing, listening to the music that played in his head.

Then, a few days later, I passed the same way, in another taxi, at about the same time, and there he was, dancing in the middle of the street. I looked at the driver, and said: “Dancing Man.”

The driver wagged his head from side to side, and said: “Ji, ha. That is Dancing Man.”

In most cities in the world, the Dancing Man would’ve been busted, and thrown into a mental asylum or a prison. In Bombay, people moved around him, and allowed him to do his thing. He wasn’t hurting anybody, and he was obviously having a damn good time, so no problem: why give him more stress, yaar?

That’s the city I love. That’s Bombay: freedom and beautiful people.

Q8: If you had to take a tourist around Mumbai what are the sites that you would show him/her that according to you depict the city?

A8: I’d go to so many places, that it’s impossible to list them all here. For starters, though, I’d take this visitor, whoever she is, to Samovar restaurant, at Jehangir Art Gallery, where so many artists have developed their skills, and where young artists still meet to argue about art and politics. I’d take her to Haji Ali, to cross the waters of past sorrows, stand at the tomb of the saint, and then return across the waters of new beginnings.

I’d go to restaurant Saurabh, near Sassoon Dock, where the best and cleanest vegetarian meals are served in an atmosphere without pretension by staff who love what they do. I’d take her to Kiyani’s, near Metro, for a bun masca. I’d take her to Nariman Point to have a bhel puri or batata wada. I’d take her to Afghan Church, where the history of The Raj is written in blood and stone. I’d take her to Banganga Tank, to Malabar Hill, to Colaba Back Bay, and to Andheri Station, where we’d catch the train to Churchgate, hanging out in the air and dodging the oncoming trains.

I’d take her to Leopold’s and the Taj Mahal Hotel and the Oberoi and the rooftop at The Intercontinental on Marine Drive, and the Koyla restaurant in Arthur Bunder Road, and Moshe’s, and to the bookstores: Crossword, Oxford, and Strand. I’d take her to bandra and Juhu and Thane and Chembur and Mumbra.

I’d take her to the rooftop at The Four Seasons, and to the Worli Seaface, and to Chowpatti at night, and to the Punjabi Kulfi Bar near Opera House turn-off. I’d take her to have a fresh kalinga juice at the Haji Ali juice bar at night, and to eat firni at Mohammed Ali Road, and to drink adrak chai in Chor Bazaar, and then to the perfume bazaar in Dongri to sample perfumes imported from all over the world.

And on, and on, and on …

Q9: What do we look forward to from Greg in the coming years?

A9: The new novel should be completed this year, and will be in the stores early next year. Then the Shantaram Opera will be in production from next year, we hope, and it will be performed in English, French, German and Italian in the coming years.

I’m contracted to write 2 new movies this year, and to produce 2 movies next year in Hollywood.

I’m also working on 2 new video games, based on films that I wrote, and I have 5 graphic novels going into production next year. The creative team I’ve assembled will be using my stories and film projects as the basis for the graphic novels.

My work as a philosopher consultant continues, with a major project beginning at the end of next year, involving a multi-national corporation that wants to move in the direction that helps to create a better world.

I’m establishing a new creative company that will make exclusive content for the iPad. It is based in London, but will have regional offices in Los Angeles, Bombay and Geneva.

There are several new book projects already in outline, so I’ll begin to write them when the Shantaram Opera is in production. One of the book projects, beginning in 2012, will be a series of children’s stories. I’ve been working on that for a long time, and I’m very excited about the possibilities of creating stories that parents and children can enjoy together.

I’m continuing with my charity work, and will expanding the work I’m doing in Bombay from next year. At the end of next year, I’ll be starting a very large social conscience movement, in conjunction with an international group of business development funds who want to move in a more ethical direction. I put the idea to them a while back, and they responded well enough to fund the project.

And every chance I get, I’ll come back home to Bombay, just for me; just for my happiness; just for my soul’s sake.