But comparisons between him and Naipaul have been drawn since he wrote his first book, “The Interloper and Other Stories”, and continue today with the reviewer from “The Globe and Mail” saying that Maharaj’s new book “shares the comically neutral tone of Naipaul’s earlier novels except that.Maharaj’s mirth belies an implacable tenderness.”
Although, like Naipaul, Maharaj was born in Trinidad, his literary life began differently. Naipaul left the island at 18 years of age to go and get his degree in England and become a writer. Maharaj did not leave Trinidad until he was 37 years old, having already acquired a Master’s degree in English at UWI. Maharaj was also married, had three small children, and was teaching at a secondary school in Rio Claro. And, although he had not yet written a book, he knew he
wanted to make his living as a fiction writer.
So, in 1992, he and his family moved to Canada, where Maharaj enrolled in University of New Brunswick to do a Master’s degree in Creative Writing. “ It was a big sacrifice and I couldn’t afford to fail,” he says. “I had to finish in a year because I didn’t have money to go on after that.” He did complete the degree, his final thesis being the collection of short stories that would become his first book, and he returned to Trinidad with his family. “But I got lucky,” Maharaj
It turned out that the wife of the English department’s dean worked at Canada’s largest publishing house, and he had showed her Maharaj’s stories. She liked them, and shortly after Maharaj returned to Trinidad he got word that the collection would be published in 1995. So he and his family returned to Canada. The book got good reviews and, twelve years later, Maharaj’s life is very different.
He recently started teaching a creative writing course at a university, consisting of two classes of three-and-half-hours each. He is now divorced, and his three children - a boy and two girls aged 22, 20, and 18 - shuttle between him and his ex-wife. Every month he does readings at various venues, from pubs to book fairs, and spends the rest of his time writing fiction. It takes him from 12 to 18 months to complete a book. His last three were published by Random House, one of the world’s most prestigious publishers.
“My last novel was the first one I wrote on a computer,” he says. “I used to write long-hand and
then, when I type it, it’s almost like a second draft. Now, I realise I should have started using a computer long ago. But these writing rituals are kind of hard to break.”
Nowadays, he also goes out to a coffee-shop to do his writing. “You kind of associate home with a certain domesticity,” he says. “A coffee shop is a new place, a new environment, and so on. I suspect, but I’m not sure, you have to concentrate more carefully, wipe out all the noise in the background.”
Maharaj usually writes in the morning and later in the evening. “During the early parts of a book, it’s kinda flexible, in the sense that I probably try to write a couple hours every day, as much as that is possible.
Once I’m past the halfway point, I begin to think about finishing the book a lil bit, and thinking about the structure, and what kind of audience I’m thinking about, and how I expect this book to finish.
Then there are times when I’d be focused on the book for almost the entire day.”
He adds, “For me, coming to the end of a book is a mixture of real insecurity and pride - there are times when I feel nobody’d want to read this book, is a waste of time, then there are times I feel it’s a good book and I should probably finish it.”
He likes the interaction with the audience that he gets as a writer in Toronto, and that there’s a community of writers there. “Sometimes I go and talk to some of these people and they tell you, This is what I writing now, and this is how long this took me to write - just the idea that there were these people, who seemed to be ordinary, writing about these things that were worthwhile, that was important to me.”
Maharaj thinks that had he stayed in Trinidad he would not have become a writer. “The things that I wanted to write, they may have crossed my mind, but I might have ended up in a lil group ole talking about it rather than writing about it.
There’s a kind of solitariness to Canada for most immigrants, especially for people in my profession, and that to me is one of the real benefits of writing - the fact that you don’t have that kind of social interaction, that kind of liming that you have in Trinidad.”
Nonetheless, all Maharaj’s books have Trinidadian characters and The Perfect Pledge is set entirely in the island. But he is very aware that he is writing mainly for Canadian readers and book reviewers and publishers. “I am always trying to make my writing more accessible,” he says. “I’m trying to write so more people would understand what I’m saying.”
He cites one example where his editor told him that she found the characters laughed out loudly too often, and he realised this was a Trinidadian device for defusing tension that the Canadian audience might not understand.
Nonetheless, Maharaj does see his writing as informed by a Trinidadian sensibility in terms of humour.
“Canadian writers are very earnest,” he says. “I might treat with the same topic, but deal with it with a certain kind of satirical bent.”
Ironically, he finds that this particular quality is changing in the real Trinidad.
He visits here more often now as his parents are getting older - his father is a retired school principal, his mother a housewife. “I find people nowadays are losing their sense of humour. People have become grim, there’s always an edge of tension,” Maharaj says.