In the dusty, crowded streets of Kolkata, two monkey species struggle for dominance and power. It’s rhesus versus langur in Richard Kurti’s Planet of the Apes-eque debut novel, Monkey Wars. Political stakes are high, blood is spilled, morality becomes hazy and a forbidden romance ignites in this smart, fast-paced story. BookPage contacted Kurti to talk about the inspiration behind his debut, his career as a screenwriter, the darker side of teen lit and more.
What was the inspiration for this unique story?
No one can choose their parents or which community they’re born into, but what if you happen to be born into evil? What if accident of birth puts you in the heart of a society built on the oppression of others, but one which also gives you huge privileges, so there is no incentive to question or rebel?
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve wanted to write about this dramatic problem, but when I thought about placing the story in a particular society, the specific issues of that situation always seemed to overshadow the bigger philosophical problem. By complete accident I heard about a real war that broke out on the streets of Indian cities between rival monkey troops. Immediately I realized that by going back up the evolutionary tree I could write about all human societies by writing about none.
What kind of research did you do for this novel?
Huge amounts. I read books about monkeys and the politics of tyranny, and watched TV documentaries about India and animal behavior; I spent many hours online doing picture research and studying maps of Kolkata; I even downloaded Pentagon documents about military strategy and guerrilla warfare! I visited Gibraltar to see the wild apes, and of course went to different zoos . . . but the one place I didn’t get to was India (see next question).
Have you ever traveled to Kolkata, India? What is it about India that inspired you to set your novel there?
I fully intended to visit India to complete my research, but that turned out to be more complicated than I’d thought.
My first idea was to write a rough draft and then go to Kolkata, as that way I’d know exactly what I was looking for. By the end of the first draft, though, I realized the big things that needed to be sorted in the manuscript were about plot and character, not location; so I decided to finish the second and third drafts, then do the research trip.
But by the end of draft three, I thought I might as well try and get a publisher interested before I went; no point spending all that money if I couldn’t sell the story. Then as soon as the publisher made an offer, I was plunged straight into a hectic schedule of rewrites, so there was no time to go off to India!
Cut to the present, and now I’m almost scared to go in case the reality is nothing like the story.
You have many years of experience working in television and writing screenplays. How did this influence your writing process for the novel?
Organization. That was the main influence—I mapped out the plot and arcs of the entire story before I began writing chapter one. In screenwriting I have always done this, and it’s usually a contractual stage. The producers want to know the whole story before you write it.
Going for a cinematic feel was also very important. I wanted the key beats to be played out through action sequences rather than pure introspection, and often imagined myself watching the story unfold as a movie.
If you were a character in the world of Monkey Wars, what species of monkey would you be?
A Bonnet Macaque. Even though they’re wiped out early on in the novel, they have such style and seem so at one with the world.
This story is quite brutal and violent. Why was it important to include these darker aspects in a story aimed at teens?
My son is 15, and like a lot of people his age, his life has unfolded against a background of shocking violence in the world. He saw 9/11 happen live on TV; he has seen the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on news footage and in movies; he knows people who lost family in the terror attacks in London.
Telling a story about tyranny and the struggle to defeat it has to involve the portrayal of violent conflict, and it would have been irresponsible to gloss over the horror of what that actually means. As long as the violence isn’t exploitative, I hope it earns its place in the novel.
Why do you think young readers are especially drawn to animal-based allegory?
Maybe it’s because animals are such a universal access point. You don’t have to cut through layers of cultural difference; you can look into their eyes and immediately relate to them.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just finished the second draft of the next book. It’s a fast-paced thriller set in a cutting edge, modern world. Although on the surface it’s very different to Monkey Wars, the new book is also built around a very tricky moral problem that has no easy solution, with two teenage protagonists caught up in the very heart of the conflict.