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An Interview with Vauhini Vara, 2022 First Novel Prize Finalist for The Immortal King Rao

Photo of Celeste Kaufman

Celeste Kaufman

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Vauhini Vara, author of The Immortal King Rao, spoke with Celeste Kaufman, The Center’s Manager of Marketing and Public Relations, in celebration of being shortlisted for the 2022 First Novel Prize. This novel takes place in a future in which the world is run by the Board of Corporations, when a woman uses her access to her father’s memories to plead her case for a radical act of communion in the face of raging climate change. As she relays the story of her father’s life from growing up on a South Indian coconut plantation to changing the world with his wife in the United States, the novel examines how we arrived at the age of technological capitalism and where our actions might take us next.

What was the first seed of the idea of this book? What were you obsessed with and couldn’t stop thinking about that led to the creation of this story?

After graduating from college, where I studied creative writing and journalism, I started working right away as a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. They put me in the San Francisco bureau of the Journal, which was the bureau that covered technology, and my first beat was writing about Oracle, which was this big business software company, and about Larry Ellison, the CEO at the time of that company. So, I was spending a lot of time learning about the software industry that started in the ’70s. Larry Ellison, when I was writing about him, was and still is one of the richest people in the world, and I was fascinated by how he got there. Then, at the same time, it was 2006 and Facebook had just started and the Wall Street Journal didn’t have anyone writing about Facebook because it was such a small company at the time. Since I was the youngest person in the office, I just ended up being the person who was writing about Facebook as it got bigger and bigger. So, while I was writing about this big long-existing tech company that started in the ’70s, I was also getting to know Mark Zuckerberg and writing the Wall Street Journal’s first stories about Facebook. It was a fascinating experience.

After a couple of years of that, I felt like I needed a break. I ended up going to graduate school for creative writing and I was working on short stories—I have a book of them coming out next year (This Is Salvaged, W.W. Norton)—but I was on a trip with my dad and he was saying, “Why do you keep writing short stories? You should write a novel!” And I was like, “Okay Dad, give me an idea for a novel then.” He gave me a couple of really bad ideas, and then the third or fourth idea was, “Why don’t you write about our family coconut grove back in India?” There had been some interesting drama on my dad’s side of the family on this coconut grove where he had grown up, and I thought, huh, there probably is a book to write about that. I think somewhere along the way wanting to write about a kid growing up on a coconut grove in the fifties collided with my past experience writing about these tech CEOs, and finding them both fascinating and really problematic. So, I ended up envisioning this character who was born on a coconut grove in southern India and then ends up moving to the U.S. and starting a tech company in the seventies, and then everything evolved from there.

I would love to hear more about the early days of reporting on Facebook and if you could’ve predicted what it would’ve become at the time, but, I guess I’ll focus on your novel for our First Novel Prize interview. What were your biggest challenges while writing the book?

One challenge was that after my two years of graduate school I went back to work full time and all the writing I was doing was in my free time— mornings, evenings, weekends—and then I had my son in 2015, so it took me a really long time to write it. From beginning to end, it took me thirteen years to write the book. There are all kinds of craft-related ways to answer that question but I think for a lot of us as writers it just comes down to time and commitment and actually being able to sit down and put the words on paper, so I would say that was the biggest thing for me.

Well, my next question was going to be about what your writing practice is like, but it sounds like you were fitting it in whenever you got the chance, so I’ll rework that question to be more about how you manage juggling all of that? Were there things that helped you get in the groove when you did find those little moments to fit in working on the book?

I’ve always been a very distractible person, so it was hard. I wrote this novel largely in Google Docs. I’d have the Google Docs app open on my phone while I was in bed getting ready to sleep and would write a couple sentences, or I’d be up in the morning and I wouldn’t have to be at work yet so I’d write a paragraph before going to work. I did have a few sustained periods of time where I could work on the book that really helped me. I went to three residencies while writing the book so I took two weeks at a time, three times, at Yaddo and MacDowell, to just sit down and be with the book intensely. Since I was so used to writing in fits and starts I got more done in each of those two-week periods than I normally got done in months.

Honestly, this is such a nuts-and-bolts way to answer the question but, another thing that was really helpful for me was getting support. I got a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts that bought me time to not be working on my multiple day jobs and instead just focus on my book. This was toward the tail end and that’s something that allowed me to spend months just working on the book for the first time. So, I can’t say that I have any routines, or that I need to drink a particular thing, or that there’s a certain way I need to write. I have so much going on in my life—I teach, I do journalism, I edit, and I’m deeply involved with this mentorship collective called Periplus—and so really I just do it whenever I can under whatever circumstances I have.

That’s inspiring. You have so much going on. Could you walk me through how you created the structure of the story, and how you managed all these different story arcs and interweaving plots? Did you treat them individually and then combine them, or envision it as one big arc from the beginning?

It was a nightmare. It was one of the reasons it took me so long to write. I knew what the component parts of the story were: one was the story of King’s childhood and coming-of-age in this coconut grove up until when he leaves, another was the story of the creation of his company and this new world order and his decline as well, and then the third—which came really late—is the part of the book that’s set in the future in which King’s daughter is telling the story. I didn’t know for many years of writing the book that that future timeline would exist. I just started telling the story of this kid growing up on the coconut grove and then starting this company, and I didn’t know who the narrator was. I had this narrative voice and it wasn’t King and I knew there was some technology that was allowing this story to be told, but I didn’t know who it was. I didn’t know whether it had a gender or a body or anything like that, and so I really had to just figure out through writing who was telling the story until I came to understand that it was King’s daughter, Athena. Then once I had Athena, I had friends read drafts of the book and they kept saying, “We know nothing about this narrator, what’s going on in her life. What’s her story?” So, I started writing more and more of that, and then it became a bigger part of the novel. It’s been interesting to me to see that as the novel gets reviewed or talked about, it’s talked about as this novel about a dystopian future world, but that was never intended to be part of the book. It just sort of became part of the book as I realized that’s what the book was telling me that it wanted to be.

That’s really interesting because it definitely is such a large part of the book. So, those dystopian elements touch on some larger themes this book speaks to—capitalism, climate change, technology—and I’m curious if over the course of writing this dystopian version of the world, did the real world ever catch up to the dystopia you were creating on the page? Especially now that I know it took 13 years to write, when those topics are getting worse all the time and so quickly, did your world-building and your plot ever have to shift in response to what was happening with any of those realms?

Yes, absolutely. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I had a kind of Trump-like character, who was very much based on Trump, who I wrote into the book as part of the explanation of the process by which the new world order emerges. I wrote this character before Trump was at all a credible candidate. I think I wrote it in 2014 when there were rumbles that he wanted to run but nobody thought that he was really going to do it and be taken seriously. So, in my attempt at world-building, I thought, okay, there’s no way Trump is going to win now, but I could totally imagine a world in which somebody like him comes along and wins in a decade, or something. Then, later on, when he became President, friends would read that version of the book and be like, “I don’t understand why Trump is here when it’s supposed to be many years in the future.” So, I had to change that character and turn the screw a little bit more to make it not as realistic.

Another example is that, early on in the process of writing the book, I came up with this technology by which the narrator could access the internet with their mind and could access King Rao’s consciousness with their mind. I got that idea from watching Battlestar Galactica in the mid to late-2000s, where there’s technology like this, and at the time it felt very fantastical, very sci-fi to me. Then, as I was writing, these startups kept getting founded that were planning on connecting people’s brains to the internet, including Elon Musk’s Neuralink. The way in which that was helpful was because I could never quite figure out how a technology like this would work such that I could explain it in the book, but then once companies started getting founded there were all these white papers and YouTube videos that I could use to try and understand how I could credibly describe this technology in such a way that a reader might think this could actually exist.

Since you worked as a tech reporter focusing on these kinds of issues, what do you think fiction can do for telling stories about these themes that go beyond reporting? What made you want to explore these themes with fiction rather than journalism?

I think the speculative fiction mode is a really useful one for considering these things because in journalism it’s not journalistically responsible to look at this current state of affairs and write an article saying a possible path along which this could continue could take us to this dystopian future, and try to describe what that future might look like. It’s not grounded enough in fact to be credible and to be ethical. So, I was having these questions—I think a lot of tech reporters were having these questions about the tech industry in the mid-2000s and late-2000s—but we didn’t really have the language to make those predictions in a journalistically responsible way. Fiction, for me, felt like a rich space in which to engage with these questions because in fiction it’s perfectly responsible to imagine a potential future. Readers aren’t going to read it and think that it’s intended to describe an actual future that is 100% for sure going to come to pass.

Now that I know that this element of the story didn’t come into it until several years into the writing process, I am both more interested in this question and worried it’s no longer relevant, but we’ll see. To me, at its core, this is a story about a father and daughter, and I’m assuming it wasn’t an accident naming her Athena with the allusion to mythology. It stuck out to me because you see a lot of mother-daughter relationships in literature, and you see a lot of absent fathers in literature, but I still find it pretty rare to have this father-daughter relationship be so central to the story. What interested you about exploring that particular dynamic?

It was certainly intentional that her name’s Athena. I’m interested in female power, and all of the ways in which it manifests. I have rarely written from a male perspective; writing from the perspective of a woman feels comfortable and natural to me. Then, I’m also interested in inheritance, what we get from our parents, but then also more broadly what we as a society and a species have inherited from our ancestors. So, for those reasons, this way of telling the story started to feel natural to me, but none of that was conscious. I just started realizing, oh, this is his daughter.

I’d love to talk a little bit about King Rao as a character himself, because his character, his story, can be used as a lens through which to think and talk about so many things like the model minority myth, class consciousness, or lack thereof while you’re going through the process of upward mobility, how he succeeds by basically assimilating into this more capitalistic society while other characters who have more radical ideas do not. How did you go about developing him as a character, and what’s your relationship to him? Do you consider him a hero, an anti-hero, a villain?

Thank you for that really thoughtful question and reading because some people have read the book and said to me something along the lines of, “This is a Dalit character, this is a character who comes from the most oppressed class in India, isn’t it problematic that when he moves to the U.S. and finds success he replicates many of the oppressive class structures that he left behind in India?” But it was very intentional that I had this particular character who moves to the U.S. and gets an education and starts a company not try to break down these structures because it felt to me that the character who sees the structure that oppresses him and wants to dismantle it is not going to be the character who succeeds academically and professionally and financially. He brushes these things aside and might feel personally affronted, but nothing beyond that when it comes to casteism directed at him. For those two things to be true within one character I think would be really dissonant, and so I wanted to show what happens when a character whose family has faced historical oppression decides to react to that by finding a way to build a structure upon which he can be on top.

Having a character with that kind of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality writ large was an interesting take on all of that.

A friend of mine read the book and said, “I really prefer books with clearly good characters and clearly evil characters, and you know whose side to be on, and I couldn’t figure it out with your book.” She was essentially like, “I don’t think I loved your book for these reasons.” I get that. It’s a book in which every character doesn’t have a clear sense of whether they’re meant to be good, whether they’re meant to be evil. I think as a fiction writer, as a journalist, I’m more concerned with the systems in place that allow for certain behaviors to go unchecked, and in fact allow certain negative behaviors to be rewarded, than I am in this question of whether an individual human is good or evil, because I don’t know that the real world actually functions that way.

Another element that I thought was interesting about this world was that you address the issue with algorithms and AI and how they’re held up to be this unbiased, pure system because they’re machines, they’re supposed to not be human, but they’re built by humans who encode their own biases into this thing that’s held up as objective. This could very well be a gap in my own knowledge because speculative fiction and dystopian fiction is not something I read as often, but I don’t think there’s a ton of representation of Indian authors when it comes to speculative fiction, or really any people of color, so I was wondering if you’ve noticed in your reading if there have been unconsciously biased conclusions within these worlds built across the genre, and the technologies created within them, that are meant to be universal commentaries about the state of our world, but really just end up reflecting the author’s own biases too?

Oh, that’s an interesting question, and a meta question in a way. If AI contains human biases, does the representation of AI in fiction contain societal biases or the writer’s biases? I have to admit to you, I’m not widely read in science fiction or in speculative or dystopian fiction either. As I said, I didn’t set out to write a speculative or dystopian or science fiction book. I set out to write a book about this kid who grows up and starts a company and then things go crazy with the company, and the next thing I knew there were dystopian elements in the book and so I wrote toward that. Writing those elements was actually really difficult for me because I’m not as well-read in those areas, and felt like I didn’t have the proper training to be delving deeply into it. So, I don’t know if I can effectively answer the question, but, what I can say is that representations of AI in art have historically been really concerned with the idea of technology as an entity that’s separate from humanity. Technology is set up as a potential adversary—often, the metaphors are these war metaphors, right? But, there’s a growing realization among writers, artists of other kinds, filmmakers, journalists, that the really interesting problem with AI as it exists today is actually that it has this inherently, intrinsically human problem. I don’t know if you’ve come across it but I wrote this essay using AI called “Ghosts”

Yes, it was incredible.

Thank you. So, only after writing it did I do some additional research to understand how the AI was functioning in that essay that we co-wrote together. These AI text engines are often trained on self-published novels, and if you dig a little deeper and you understand what those novels are, they’re disproportionately romance novels. So, in this essay that I co-wrote with GPT 3, where I provided it with some language that was actually about the death of my sister, in a couple of cases it started writing what felt like romance stories. That was just a reflection of the world it was trained on. In a more serious version, a more consequential version of this, a lot of AI text engines are trained on English language data, and on data like Wikipedia that’s disproportionately created by men, and you can see the ways in which there are biases that get replicated in what it spits out. I find that really fascinating.

My last question is, since this is your debut as a novelist, what do you hope this book says about you as a writer and what can we expect more of from you in the future?

I think all I’ve ever wanted to do as a writer has been to produce writing that feels original and authentic and singular to my own voice and what I have to say. I’ve been gratified that in both the positive reviews and the negative reviews of the book a consistent thread has been, “Huh, haven’t read anything like this before.” So, I hope that continues to be true with my writing in the future.

About Vauhini Vara

  • vauhini vara_c_andrew altschul

    Vauhini Vara

    Vauhini Vara

    Vauhini Vara has worked as a Wall Street Journal technology reporter and as the business editor for the New Yorker. From a Dalit background, she is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and an O. Henry Prize winner. The Immortal King Rao is her first novel.

    Photo Credit: Andrew Altschul