Why he wanted to become a writer
I wanted to be a writer, I suppose, because of my father. But to be a writer, you had to have something to write about. I discovered very early that I have nothing to write about.
There was all the anxiety about what I was going to do and everything else, what was going to happen to me when I came out into the world. I had to work out all of that.
I will say that to ask this question now is for me to forget all of that horrible anxiety of being a writer, of having something to write about. It was a great thrill, you know... and, well, I did succeed in doing something.
I have found many people who wish to be writers who have the same kind of anxiety. They don't want to write anything, they have nothing to write about—they just want to be this lovely thing called a writer. This is true of me, certainly.
How he started writing
I came down from Oxford to hang around London for a bit. And then this thing about not having anything to write about rather worked on me and I became very irritated with myself. I decided I had to do something about it. I had to begin to write—difficult thing to do because the essence of being a writer is that you have all this anxiety, you have all this work to do, and you cannot play the fool with idleness.
Then, one day, rather like a blind man, in the BBC freelancers' room, I began to write something. I didn't know what I was writing or where it was going to take me. What I did was a bit of magic with myself. I said, I would not leave this room until I know where this writing is taking me. That is how it began.
It began in this strange way. Strange because it sprang from nothing, but at that stage, my life was piling up behind me and so I was discovering material that was going to be useful to me later. So, I had a lot of things to write about without knowing.
How could you tell people you were leaving Oxford and coming down to London to be a writer? People asked what I was going to write about and I said I don't know yet, it will come to me later. Bizarre, but that is the way it happened.
On sending his early work to a critic
I had begun to write something, something very foolish and trivial, and there was a critic.
I asked him whether he would take a look at what I was writing, which was a very foolish thing to do. If you're writing badly and you know you're writing badly, no amount of excitement or encouragement will make it better writing.
He broke my heart. He replied very promptly to my letter and the manuscript I had sent him. He said I think you should abandon this book immediately. And of course, he was right. What I was doing was nonsense.
On writing A House for Mr Biswas and A Bend in the River
On A House for Mr Biswas: I thought I should do something with my father's memories, my father's life. What I'm trying to tell you is that it's all very chaotic. It's all just happening. No one knows where you're going, least of all, the writer. Then, miraculously, the books began to come—from this early attempt to write where I knew nothing about where I was going, I arrived at the stage where I knew where I was going and I began to write real books.
On A Bend in the River: Deep into one's career, one writes with more conviction and confidence than at the beginning.
I have no trouble with [finding new material] now. When I was beginning to write, that seemed a great hill to climb—where do you get all your material, what kind of book would come to you?
It will sound very vain to say but if I hadn't kept on trying to write, I'd have had nothing to do.
Excerpts of the interview, available on YouTube, have been condensed and edited for brevity and clarity.