“Lessons from Reading” (by Vikram Kapur)

Dr. Vikram Kapur, who has been shortlisted for many awards, including the British Commonwealth’s Short Story Prize, has a PhD. in creative and critical writing from the University of East Anglia. His short stories and essays appear or are forthcoming in places like The Hong Kong Review, Mekong Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Huffington Post, and he is the author of three novels. His evocative short story “10” appears in the November/December 2022 issue of EQMM. Here he talks about lessons he has learned from reading two influential texts.

I first encountered Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants” as an undergraduate in the early nineties. I don’t recall the year. What I do recall clearly is how much the story mystified me. It was the first story I’d ever read that was as much a mystery to me by the end as it was at the beginning. And it wasn’t even a mystery story. Well, not the way I saw mystery stories back then. There was no crime, no action, no detective, no great reveal . . . To tell the truth, it was unlike any story, mystery or otherwise, that I’d read until then. Growing up in India in the eighties and nineties meant growing up on a steady diet of maximalist movies and novels that told you exactly what you were supposed to think at any given moment. (If you’ve ever seen a Bollywood film or read a Salman Rushdie novel you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.) “Hills like White Elephants” was anything but maximalist. The description was minimal, the prose spare. The two people at the center of the story were not even named; they were merely identified as the American and the girl. All they did in the entire story was argue with each other at a bar in a railway station somewhere in Spain. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why they were arguing. Somewhere, an operation was mentioned. I had no idea what it entailed. I’d heard that Hemingway wrote about wars. But the operation didn’t seem to be a military operation. The argument appeared to resolve itself by the end of the story as the girl agreed to do what the American wanted. But she did so with a reluctance that made me pessimistic about the future of the relationship. What she agreed to, however, remained a mystery.

To be a good writer you have to be a good reader. Of your own work as well as the work of others. The first thing I learned while reading “Hills like White Elephants” was that I just wasn’t a good reader. I’d been spoon fed by writers for so long that I’d become lazy. I didn’t have the patience or insight to read between the lines, which made it impossible for me to read someone like Hemingway whose omissions are just as canny as anything he put in his stories. I read absinthe without thinking of its hallucinatory quality. Or white elephant without picking up on the various meanings behind the use of the word.

Ultimately, I was able to figure out the story with the help of my professor. (The operation actually referred to an abortion.) Once I did, I didn’t know what to marvel at more; my incompetence as a reader or Hemingway’s brilliance in packing so much in a short piece. I resolved to read far more closely from then on. I also took two important writerly lessons to heart. Until then, I’d believed that size mattered in writing. “Hills like White Elephants” put that idea away for good. The story was no more than a few pages long. Yet it packed more depth and complexity than stories five times its length. Several novels for that matter. Furthermore, I got to know how cageyness can be used in a story to intrigue the reader. Merely being cagey doesn’t work for a writer. But when cageyness is employed in a manner that makes the reader care enough about the story to want to unwrap its layers then it is worth its weight in gold.

A few years later I read Peter Hoeg’s Danish novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow in English translation. At the time, I knew nothing about Scandinavian fiction. It was just that the cover caught my eye one night at a Barnes and Noble store. The blurbs on the jacket told me that the novel had been heaped with critical acclaim. The synopsis on the back promised a beguiling mystery. I was intrigued enough to buy the book.

Until then, I’d only read straight-out mysteries—think Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I thought all a mystery novel was supposed to do was set up a crime that sent the detective, and by extension the reader, down a twisting, turning path that eventually led to the criminal. The main thing was to keep the plot moving quickly and the surprises coming thick and fast. Everything led to the great reveal at the end which had to be the biggest surprise of all.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow quickly disabused me of such notions by turning everything I believed about the mystery novel on its head. The writing was poetic rather than functional. There were vivid descriptions of Copenhagen and Greenland. Snow was used as a motif right through the novel. And the most interesting part was not the way the novel solved the crime but how it examined identity by delving into what it is like to belong to two cultures that are incompatible with each other. (The central character, Smilla Jaspersen, is half-Danish and half-Greenlandic.)

Furthermore, Smilla was unlike any fictional detective I’d met. For starters, she wasn’t even a detective; she was a glaciologist. She was also rather hard to like. Her experience of life had left her bitter and unsentimental. She didn’t trust easily and reveled in being a loner. Her only redeeming feature, as far as I could see, was her commitment to getting justice for Isaiah, the six-year-old boy she had befriended, who dies at the beginning of the novel. And that was what made me care about what happened to her. As I read on, I found myself caring less about the mystery and more about what happened to Smilla. By the time I reached the end of the novel, I realized that was the author’s greatest accomplishment. He had got me to root for a deeply flawed character.

Over the years, the lessons I learned from “Hills like White Elephants” and Smilla’s Sense of Snow have found their way into everything I have written. The moment I find myself getting verbose, I think of “Hills like White Elephants” and see if I can’t say the same in fewer words. I work hard to make my prose lean and keep the action moving. But not at the cost of building character. It may not be possible to develop each and every character, but it is important that the main character is well-rounded. I guess it is possible to hook a reader simply through plot in really short stories. But, as the story gets longer, it is more likely that the reader will stay with it because she cares about the main character. For novels it is a no-brainer. I can’t see anyone investing the amount of time it takes to read a novel if they don’t fall in love with the characters.

The abiding lesson of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, however, goes far deeper than craft. As an Indian writing in English, I often find myself writing for an audience that is as unfamiliar with the world I’m writing about as I was about the world depicted in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. The memory of how the novel managed to immerse me, in spite of that, gives me confidence that I might be able to do the same while evoking India on the page.

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