On Thursday, April 20, Vauhini Vara joined professor of English and National Book Award-winning author Phil Klay as a part of the Inspired Writers Series, a companion series to Fairfield’s low residency MFA program, to speak of her “The Immortal King Rao” as well as her upcoming story collection, “This is Salvaged.”
Born in Saskatchewan, Canada to Indian immigrant parents, Vara grew up in the suburbs of Oklahoma and Seattle. She studied creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and her fiction has been published in “McSweeney’s,” “Tin House,” “Zyzzyva” and other journals.
Vara was an award-winning technology reporter for The Wall Street Journal when she came out with her widely acclaimed debut novel, “The Immortal King Rao”. In her novel, Vara explores some of our most pressing issues and what it means to be human, moving from rural India to the explosion in the computing sector in the second half of the 20th century to a startling vision of our near future, in which big data and algorithms have swallowed up the old political structures without solving our ongoing political problems. Her work was declared a “monumental achievement” by The New York Times and was selected as The New York Times Editor’s Choice. The Immortal King Rao was also the winner of the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize and the Rosebud Award for Fiction.
Having an interesting background as a writer of both journalism and fiction, the first question Kaly asked of Vara was how her tech journalism influenced “The Immortal King Rao” and where the original inspiration for the fictional book came from.
Vara detailed her work as a tech journalist, claiming “I found the industry really innovative and interesting,” as she graduated and began writing in 2004, right around the time Facebook, Google and other “Big Tech” companies were starting up.
“If you looked at how far companies had come in the couple of years that I had started covering them, and imagine their trajectory out into the future it looked potentially scary,” she said.
Vara clarified that by “scary” she means that these companies had already grown so large and obtained so much power and imagining becoming even bigger and even more powerful brings about a sense of fear. So, taking a leave of absence from her journalistic work at the age of 26, she got her degree in Creative Writing and used her extensive knowledge of the tech world to craft a fictional story.
But it was her father who was the true inspiration for her first full-length novel. Vara explained that while on a trip with her father and his wife in Latin America, he had been teasing her about only writing short stories. “Novels are really where it’s at,” he teased. Countering him, she asked if he had any ideas for her first novel. After giving some bad ones, he finally said, “Why don’t you write something having to do with our family coconut grove in India, there was a lot of drama back home.” Considering that her family history has an interesting history, Vara took inspiration from her father’s life growing up on a coconut grove in India in the 1950s and the story eventually took this character to the United States, where he started up a tech company and that’s where the plot was born.
“I was writing a story that was informed by my family history but also very much by the things I had seen in writing about the tech industry,” she said.
In conversation, Kaly points out that there have been a lot of dystopias written over the years that tie to modern dysfunctional American politics. What Vara does is different. She looks at changes in the economy and technology and how that relates to political structures with her fictional writing in “The Immortal King Rao”.
“I find fiction to be a really interesting place for me to just put it all there so I can look at it, and so readers can hopefully look at it and just sort of see it and think about it,” Vara said when talking about how she writes of technology, technological advances, world building and the choices her characters make in relation to changes in technology. “Speculative Fiction and speculative nonfiction can be a really interesting place to think about those potential other worlds that aren’t dystopian; the potential utopian versions,” she continued.
Vara ended her talk with Kaly by explaining what writing means to her, and what she kept in mind while she was writing “The Immortal King Rao”. While some may say that “all a book has to be is made up,” Vara would counter by saying that “all a book has to be is true” as a lot of fictional work is based in fact, much like her novel is based in technological fact. As a journalist, she claimed that this resonates with her.
She also says that to write a novel is to make it interesting from point A to point B. “Somebody needs to want to turn the page,” she said. “Not everybody needs to want to turn the page, but somebody needs to.”