In Tania James’ gorgeous and profound third novel, Loot (Knopf, June 13), preternaturally talented woodcarver Abbas, 17, is recruited by Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, circa 1794, to co-create a magnificent six-foot automaton with a French master craftsman. The book is on our list of the Best Fiction of 2023. James answered some questions by email.
How does the opportunity to co-create Tipu’s Tiger, a six-foot-long automaton in the shape of a fierce tiger mauling an Englishman, modify the future Abbas imagines for himself?
At the start of the novel, Abbas is basically doing as he’s told, making whatever piece of furniture he’s been assigned to make. In his free time, he funnels his artistic energy and curiosity into making small hand-cranked toys. But it’s only through his mentorship with Lucien Du Leze, a French clockmaker, that he discovers his own sense of artistic ambition, and subsequently, his need to “leave a mark” in the form of a great work of art. The fact that his world is so precarious, ever on the edge of war, only intensifies that need.
Do you (or did you) have an artistic mentor or mentors?
The mentors who have meant the most to me simply offered the right words at the right time. For example, in my postgraduate years, a mentor once told me, “I’m not worried about you.” Such a simple thing to say! But it temporarily relieved the immense pressure I was putting on myself, and it gave me something to hold on to in the years to come. As I was writing Loot, I gave Abbas something of a similar experience. Someone asks him what made his mentor, Du Leze, a good teacher, and Abbas’ answer is simple: “He had faith in me.”
What’s the highest compliment a reader of Loot could pay you?
I’m always pleased when people are (happily) surprised by some aspect of the book that they weren’t expecting, whether it’s a swerve in the plot, or the voice, or the humor. Surprise and urgency are things I look for in the fiction I read and which I hope to provide in the stories I write.
Would you share a book tour highlight with us?
I will forever remember when my kids decided to monopolize the microphone during the Q&A section of my reading at Politics & Prose [in Washington, D.C.]. In their defense, I’d told them not to make noise during my reading, but I hadn’t said anything about the Q&A part. Their zeal to ask questions emboldened other kids in the audience to line up and ask questions, too. Among the ones I’ll remember: “Why do [you] not write sequels,” and, from my 5-year old, “How is your breath right now?”
Megan Labrise is the editor at large and host of Kirkus’ Fully Booked podcast.