Five Questions With Creative Writing Professor Tania James

Five Questions With Creative Writing Professor Tania James

Creative writing professor Tania James's latest novel, Loot (Knopf, 2023), was named to the longlist for the National Book Award—one of the top ten contenders for the prize in the fiction category—and earned a spot on the Washington Post's "10 Best Books of the Year." 

"In Tania James’s epic 18th-century tale, Loot, a young woodcarver is commissioned by the sultan to build a life-size, mauling tiger automaton, which is stolen by the British," wrote the National Book Foundation. "Spanning decades and ranging from India to Europe, this novel is an interrogation of war and colonialism that asks who has the right to claim ownership over art and history."

The Post praised James's plotting and prose both: "James moves within the historical record while freely exploiting its considerable gaps and silences. Her prose is lush with the sights, sounds and smells of India, France and England, and always laced with Dickensian wit."

In addition to Loot, James is the author of three other books, all published by Knopf: The Tusk That Did the Damage, a finalist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Financial Times Oppenheimer Award; Aerogrammes and Other Stories, named a Best Book of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and The San Francisco Chronicle; and the novel Atlas of Unknowns, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Her short stories have appeared in Freeman’s: The Future of New Writing; Granta; The New Yorker; O, The Oprah Magazine; and One Story, among other places, and featured on Symphony Space Selected Shorts. 

In our "Five Questions" feature, James shared some thoughts on her writing and teaching and more.

Loot has been met with widespread acclaim and terrific honors—congratulations!—seeming to move your career to a new level in many ways. When you were writing the novel, did you anticipate it being a “breakout book"—or how was it a departure in any way from previous books?

I wish I were gifted with the instinct to anticipate a breakout book! Initially I’d imagined Loot as a much narrower book, focused on a single location (a country house in England), but the novel soon grew beyond those parameters. The only ambition I had—that I always have when writing a new book—was to depart in some way, stylistically or formally or otherwise, from the books I’ve written before. There are several ways in which Loot differs from my previous books, but perhaps the most obvious is that it’s a novel of historical fiction, with a real-life automaton at the center of it.

How does your writing enhance your teaching—and vice-versa, your teaching enhance your writing?

Teaching forces me to read more widely and deeply, which in turn inspires me to experiment in ways I might not have done otherwise. One example: there’s an epistolary passage at the center of Loot that was probably informed by a class I taught on epistolary fictions. I also think there’s a level of comfort in community, in working and struggling alongside one another, and in devoting our time to the same craft.

As a professor, you’re leading workshops with students who often have a wide range of aesthetic values or stylistic approaches or thematic concerns. How do you advise and encourage and manage workshops for students whose goals and visions might be different from yours—and from one another’s?

I’ve come to value hearing from the writer being critiqued during workshop. I let the writer decide the extent to which they want to speak (or not), but participation often helps to shape the direction that workshop can take. That’s when the conversation gets really interesting, when we’ve departed from the opinions we’d thought were set in stone.

What two or three pieces of writing advice (process or product) do you find yourself returning to most often in your teaching?

A novel-in-progress can collapse at any minute. A short story may take years to draft. So I think learning to make peace with uncertainty is a big part of the process. This can be demoralizing at times, but most good work arrives through patience. As for another piece of advice, I’ll quote from one of Virginia Woolf’s diaries about writing Mrs. Dalloway: “There should be a bit of fun.” Which I take to mean: if the work is torturing you 100% of the time, maybe turn to something that feels closer to play than pain.

Dateline April 2024 (time-stamping this interview!): What’s the last book you read just for fun

Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan. Told through the voice of a horse trainer, this is a swift book that manages to make you slow down and savor each vignette. I loved it.


Find out more at James and her work at her website here