Tejas Desai was born in NYC in the early 1980s to Indian immigrants. He attended Wesleyan University, the University of Oxford and Queens College.
After working at the Jed Mattes Literary Agency, which represented clients such as Bill Bryson, Leonard Nimoy and Greg Louganis, he left the publishing industry and became a librarian in Queens so he could interact with a diverse range of society. He graduated from the Queens College MFA program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation in 2009.
His first novel The Brotherhood is now available as an ebook on Amazon.com. A video trailer which he wrote, produced and directed is on Youtube and Vimeo and the official website features photos, character descriptions and much more. He has established The New Wei, an e-publisher and literary movement dedicated to publishing and promoting his own works and those of other prolific, provocative narrative artists who are determined to create oeuvres. His short story collection, Dhan’s Debut and Other Stories is forthcoming as is the sequel to The Brotherhood and a collection of essays describing the artistic philosophy of The New Wei, the future of publishing and the literary world.
For almost two years he taught a well-attended Writer’s Workshop at the Bayside Community Library, where he also conducted International Poetry Discussions sponsored by Poet’s House and planned and hosted the successful Queens Noir Author Event featuring Denis Hamill. He hopes to establish a similar Workshop at the Central Library in Jamaica, Queens, literary events and to help lead its open mic sessions for the public.
In the past he collaborated on short films in the Boston area with director/producer Joseph Sousa and more recently acted in the film version of Tao Lin’s subversive novel Eeeee eee eeee. His numerous roles included The Bear, The Police, and The President of the United States of America.
He loves backpacking across the world. Nations he’s visited include Thailand, Japan, Greece and Botswana. His next trip is to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
1. Out of all professions, why writing?
It’s my passion. I’ve been writing fiction since I was 8 years old. Around middle school I would come home from school and write novels about bullies and gangsters. Even then, I thought about becoming a lawyer or historian. But since I was 15 or 16, I’ve never wanted to be anything else. I’ve always felt it was my destiny to be a great writer and literary figure.
People meet me and they think I’m a doctor, engineer, banker. Many believe I’m a “conservative republican” – whatever that means. Even other writers make snide comments about why I would choose such a constantly frustrating profession when I’m clearly a “smart guy.” As if only the idiots go into the arts. Well maybe I am an idiot then. But I’ve always been an independent spirit, I know what I’m about, I want to create and expand art. I don’t see how I could do that in any other profession.
When I graduated from college, I needed to find a way to make a living while writing. I didn’t really want to write for a living because a) I didn’t think it was possible and b) I didn’t want my work to be controlled. I thought of being a literature professor, a journalist or a filmmaker. I worked for a literary agent for many years. Finally, I decided to become a librarian. I thought I would become an academic librarian, but I fell into public librarianship.
Actually, this has been ideal for me, because I get to work with all aspects of society, in different neighbourhoods, with all types of personalities. There’s an intellectual component but I’m always out there, interacting and observing. I get to help people during the day, balancing my creativity at night. And they’ve allowed me to teach writing workshops and host literary events. It’s pretty amazing. And I believe libraries, as they change and expand, could have a big role in The New Wei as we move forward, something I will definitely press with time.
Of course I am very academically oriented, being as interested in aesthetics as I am in writing fiction itself. It would be nice to be a writing or lit professor, for the right pay and circumstances, for it would allow me to teach, write and run The New Wei without having to work 35-40 hours a week. But so far, no academic institution seems to be interested in taking advantage of my gifts and ambitions. We’ll see.
2. What was it like growing in America, being an Indian? How did it affect your writing, and by extension, your disposition towards the arts?
I’ve always felt like an outsider, both among Indians and Americans. I was born in America, so I’ve always felt myself primarily American, still do and always will. But I never really felt comfortable in any crowd. I’d often sit alone at religious gatherings and parties. I’ve gradually become much more social. I mean there was always that component in me, I just didn’t let it out.
For a long time, in terms of writing, it was difficult to find a balance among Indian and American subjects, to blend them together, that is. Not to mention all the different genres and types of writing I was interested in, making it difficult to find my own aesthetic sense.
For a while I was scared of writing a male Indian character, I would often just make him a white guy. Or white people in the pub industry would read an unemployed angry male Indian character and say, “Well, that’s not believable, why not make him a doctor?” Which is just another illustration of how useless the contemporary publishing industry is for those of us who want to create genuine art and portray society in its truly diverse state, not just repeat stereotypes from the mass media.
3. Why “the Brotherhood”? Why this particular title?
The Brotherhood is actually the title of a short story collection I wrote when I was 19. I pumped it out the summer after my freshman year in college. I was really into “pumping things out” then. I showed it to my professor, who is a famous writer himself now. He admired the sentences and rhythm but had a problem with the narrative component, and advised me to work on that before sending it out. Eventually I sided with him on that, and just shelved it.
That collection was about members of a Hindu religious organization and their differing ideologies, conflicts etc. It didn’t have the crime components of this book, but when I decided to have the book based around a Hindu religious organization, I brought The Brotherhood back, with different characters and ideologies, of course.
As for the title itself, one of my major themes is the conflict between the individual and community. I suppose that is the case in most works, but it’s something I’ve really lived and struggled with, and what I want to portray in my work. In the case of The Brotherhood Trilogy, it is Niral’s struggle with himself and different communities, as you will see in succeeding books.
4. Tell us something about The Brotherhood. When did the idea for it first strike you?
Besides the short story collection, the first seeds were planted when I wrote a short story for my MFA Program Fiction Workshop called “Shiv Sena.” That was in the fall of 2007. That’s when I created Vishal, Amrat and Priya. Basically it was a story about two roommates in conflict for ideological reasons, one who is a superficial materialist, the other religious, and the sister of one who comes between them.
I was very sensitive to criticism then, so whenever people would attack it in the workshop, I would go back and rewrite it completely, sometimes even adopting a different style. Ultimately more characters came in, like Lance, Stan Lorenzo, and of course Niral. I didn’t put in The Brotherhood religious organization until much later. I believe the book has been completely rewritten at least 20 times, probably more, because I’ve lost count. At one point the novel was 500 pages long. Later it stayed at 300. The final version is about 250.
5. What is your inspiration behind The Brotherhood?
The different ideologies inherent in Hinduism and Buddhism, differences of personality and outlook, the relationship between individual and community. I’ve been thinking about, writing about, and observing these things since I was little.
I’ve always disliked organized religion, but I’ve been interested in ideology, personality, and mythology from Hindu and other traditions, as well as what I observe of humanity in my life and travels. So both my attitudes and interests are reflected in this book and, I assume, will be in following books too.
6. Tell us about New Wei, your publishing company?
Well, there is The New Wei company, The New Wei collective and The New Wei movement. They are all connected but slightly different. The New Wei LLC is the company I created to publish The Brotherhood. Under its banner I filmed the book trailer, made the cover, have done marketing etc.
The New Wei collective is an author collective I hope to form. We will be a group of authors with diverse aesthetic impulses but with a hunger to constantly grow and a dedication to create a large body of work that is urgently alive and can, hopefully, stand the test of time.
The New Wei movement is a literary movement based on this collective and my own aesthetic philosophy which celebrates diversity and genuine literary artists. Self-publishing is a wonderful antidote to the conventional publishing industry and even academic and small presses, but right now it is very sales and genre-based. I’m not against sales or genres, but I want it to be more artist-based, so we can celebrate the work of provocative artists and professors can one day study the creation of genuine oeuvres from our time.
7. Being a self-publisher, publishing a book would have been a daunting task. What was the draft-to-print experience like?
No, self-publishing is easy. What’s daunting is having an agent who loves you one day and drops you the next. What’s daunting is dealing with a sketchy publisher who promises you the world, wants to tie you up but can’t deliver anything. What’s daunting is wasting thousands of dollars sending out manuscripts to so-called “contests” which you almost certainly won’t win, and even if you do, pays you $1000 and publishes you 2 years later to obscurity. What’s daunting is a major publisher giving you a small advance, paying you a measly 7.5% royalty rate, taking most of your rights and your artistic independence and then still forcing you to do all the marketing yourself, but only how they want you to. And then never publishing you again. Those things are daunting.
The conventional system is inefficient and useless, and the people who buy into it are riding a dead horse. That’s why I self-published and why I encourage others to do so too. The only thing that conventional publishers offer today that you can’t do yourself is increased distributional capability and the ability to get high-profile reviews or blurbs. But even those things are only for the very few and lucky, and bookstores are closing down, libraries aren’t buying books, and a new class of writers will rise anyway from the internet and self-publishing, so what’s the point of relying on the old guys?
What I see developing from self-publishing is what I am pushing, the rise of author collectives to push certain aesthetic impulses. Of course I expect to have the first and greatest of these. If the writing world needs a leader, then I will be that Leader, as long as I am needed to carry that mantle.
As for my own experience, I wouldn’t say it was hassle-free, but it felt good because I was in control. I didn’t have to ask anyone else what I could and couldn’t do. That’s called genuine hard work, building and creating from the bottom, what America is supposed to be about, even though it isn’t.
The story is too long to relate in detail. Basically I had the 300 page version, which I’d shopped around. In the past, readers, including agents and editors, had criticized the usage of soliloquies and the slower pace, and at the same time, I was dealing with publishers and agents who were interested but whom I didn’t completely trust. So I decided to tighten it up and rewrote the entire book in 6 weeks. I rejected the publisher and the agent didn’t work out. And then I felt totally free and committed to self-publishing and ultimately the collective, which I’d already thought about developing.
From the center of my being I knew that’s what I was meant to do, to save literature from its current decrepit state. First, by creating my own oeuvre based on my aesthetic principles, a parallel fictional world to our own. And second, to help other authors create and consistently publish their oeuvres based on their aesthetics, so together we could create a Renaissance that would be envied by time.
So I formed my own company, casted and hired the actors, made the book trailer, the cover. I pondered using a copywriter but ultimately I decided to do it myself, by reading it over about 4 times myself. Perhaps that wasn’t the wisest move, but I think it worked out anyway. Otherwise much time has been spent formatting, marketing and doing the small things publishers do. It’s been a learning process but it’s also been fun and fulfilling and allowed me to use my creativity outside of writing, to become the Total Artist, in a sense. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
8. What was your first thought when you realized that yes, your book was finally going to be published?
Excitement and liberation. I’m proud of my work. But no true artist is ever satisfied. One must keep on building, growing, perfecting.
9. Who are your heroes (non-fiction, preferably)?
Balzac and Faulkner, definitely. Dostoyevsky and Conrad, a close second. And of course Veda Vyas. They created entire worlds that paralleled and analyzed their own. That’s what I hope to do with mine.
As for the contemporary guys, while I like Elmore Leonard, Russell Banks, Junot Diaz and others, I don’t believe anyone rivals the 19th and early 20th Century masters. We need to delete most of postmodernism, basically, the last 50 years or so. We need to move forward by going backwards.
10. Do you think writing is a solitary pursuit, or do you have early readers – with whom you brainstorm the plot and discuss characters?
Solitary, for sure. All the plot, ideas and characters are my own, and my rewrites have been primarily based on my own impulse. But I have had many, many readers to criticize the style and structure etc., and the rewrites have sometimes been based on these. I usually ignore the content criticisms, unless I truly think they are pertinent. Criticisms like the characters aren’t likable enough, as if I am penning some Lifetime Movie.
I will say, though, that I could not have accomplished this all by myself. My readers, definitely, have helped. That includes people in the publishing industry (again, my criticism is not primarily of the people in it, but rather the system and structure itself, which no longer works for authors like me). Also, and especially, my mother and extended family members, who helped me set up the trailer filming and spread the word about the book. The actors, my DP, my film editor. Etc. Etc. So while writing is a solitary pursuit, it is also a social one, and one can’t achieve anything without some collaboration.
11. What were your favourite books when you were growing up and how did they influence you?
Faulkner’s books were my favourite as a teenager and college student. I read all his major works on my own initiative, many while standing up in a crowded train on my two-hour trip to high school. When I was a kid, I would read Encyclopaedia Brown and other boy detective stories, the Pony Express, all kinds of stuff that American boys read.
But I also loved watching The Mahabharata (the 93 episode Indian version), loved the mythical Indian stories my mother would read to me as a boy. And I’ve been highly influenced by films, particularly Film Noir and the Old Masters: Jean Renoir, Raoul Walsh, Luchino Visconti are among my favorite directors. And also some modern masters like Scorsese, Tarantino, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, Lars Von Trier, Carl Franklin. Unfortunately Hollywood today is even worse the publishing industry, being run by the MBAs and focus group-slaves, so I don’t have much respect for some other directors.
I’ve worked on several independent films in addition to my trailer, and hope to direct films of my books, assuming I can get financing.
12. If there was one person you could claim had influenced your life the most, who would it be?
I dedicated the book to Sesha aunty, who was a tutor of mine and also my first boss. She died early, tragically, of Lupus when I was a teen. She saw my interest in literature and strongly encouraged it, giving me my first taste of Faulkner. So I am indebted to her for that.
But I’d also like to say that, in a nation where teachers are constantly under attack, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a truly bad one. I don’t know what these politicians are talking about. And I went to mostly public schools. The kids, on the other hand, were a different story. And the system.
13. Are you working on something else right now?
Most of my time now is spent marketing and promoting the book. But I am also laying out my aesthetic philosophy on The New Wei website in both print and through audio recordings. Then I will gear up to polish and publish my short story collection Dhan’s Debut and Other Stories. And after I get back from one of my annual trips to Southeast Asia, I will begin writing the second book of The Brotherhood Trilogy in earnest
15. Any authors whom you specifically look to while writing?
Balzac is certainly my hero these days. His oeuvre is astonishing in its size and scope, I have not gone through all of it. And if he could work 16 hours a day in Revolutionary Paris, then certainly I can in our relatively tame society.
16. What has been your most fulfilling experience in life?
Publishing my book and starting my movement, of course. But I don’t believe my most fulfilling days are here yet. I’m sure they won’t come for a while. No doubt this will be a titanic struggle, perhaps never before seen in the history of the Arts. But I’m willing to write and fight for 10 years, 20 years, however long it takes to realize my ambitions. To the Death, if necessary.
17. Any message to struggling writers?
Keep writing. Write every day. Rewrite and revise constantly. Take breaks. Writing is like exercising a muscle. One day you will just feel it.
And if you feel you have what it takes to join my collective and movement, contact me.