Vox – Nicholson Baker at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015


On last day of the five day long gala of the Jaipur Literature Festival, the audiences that trickle in are almost bitter sweet. After all, who would want such a wonderful experience to ever end? As the audiences comfortably seat themselves in the Baithak, Nicholson Baker and Jeet Thayil take their seats on centre stage. Nicholson Baker looks into the audience and gives them a heart-warming smile. The audience almost immediately warms up to him and the sheer kindness of Baker’s persona, gives you all the more reason to listen to him.

Jeet Thayil introduces Baker as a musician, right at the commencement of the session. “Nicholson Baker plays the bassoon,” says Thayil. The audience smiles. This good natured man has clearly many a talents that just his writing expertise. As Thayil and Baker continue to talk about their individual music sojourns, both agree that music in some form or another helps them write. In fact, Baker tells the audience with amusement that he became a writer only because he couldn’t compose. Though Baker stopped practicing and composing music to pursue dreams of being a writer, he informs the audience that now, he is back to writing music and he’s enjoying every bit of it.

Thayil urges Baker to describe to the audience what his journey to becoming an author was like. Baker looks at Thayil and says with a child-like smile, “Back home we’re just writers but here, in Jaipur, we are authors.” The audience simply smiles along. Baker now starts describing his journey, “In the fourth grade, I started writing short stories but it was after reading Lolita that I wanted to become a writer.” Thayil questions him about his first book The Mezzanine and more importantly why the use of such an arbitrary word, to which Nicholson replies, “The mezzanine is a good word. You’re not actually there. You’re actually halfway there. And I knew my novel was going to be that halfway.” A book about what goes through a man’s head during a lunch break at office hour, Nicholson now attempts to make the audience why he chose such an insignificant event in our daily lives to base his first novel. He says, “I wanted to be true to the way people actually live their lives. The Mezzanine is my attempt to be sentimental about things you’re not normally supposed to be sentimental about.”

With his first novel still being the focus of the discussion, Thayil points out to the audience Baker’s unique habit of writing long footnotes. Sometimes Baker’s footnotes are so big that they exceed the main text on the page! Baker now is visibly amused with what seems to be a bewildering thought to the audience. He describes footnotes as “traps at the bottom”. A trap at the bottom? Who would have come up with such an interesting way to describe a mere foot note? “Footnotes are my salvation. I always have so much to say,” says Baker. As Thayil now steps in and mentions with amusement, “His last footnote was a footnote about a footnote!”


As the conversation progresses, the two men talk about the rejections that every writer must face on his path to success. “Rejection is a good thing. It is a helpful thing. It helps your character,” says Baker. “I had about 50 rejection letters before my final acceptance,” he continues. An important life lesson is learnt here by those in the audience. One must stumble before one stands tall. As Thayil circles back to Baker’s writing style, he comments “Your narratives are sometimes obsessively observant.” “Close observation leads to preservation,” answers Baker.

Thayil now discusses with Baker his book- Vox. The book was the beginning of the series of his two other novels – The Fermata and The House of Holes. Written in the form of a phone conversation between strangers, Vox is an erotic novel that was hugely famous across the United States. When the topic of erotic literature is brought up, the world-wide phenomenon that is 50 Shades of Grey, cannot help but be discussed. But Baker makes his stance very clear, “I am not interested in creating fear. Creating arousal is a worthy goal,” referring to the use of violent sexual scenes in the book.

“I’m saying much more than I should have,” says Baker as the session comes to an end. The audience cannot help but fall in love with the lovable nature of Baker. His obsessions with things that one would not normally care to notice, makes Nicholson Baker an even more interesting person. His love for literature and his love for music urge the audience to pursue what they love, come what may.



Buy your copy of Vox by Nicholson Baker here: bit.ly/1zVGfLJ


The Penguin India Blog

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