Interview: Winner of Viking's fiction with a sense of place award

Author: Sarah Riches

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Abraham Verghese discusses The Covenant of Water, which won an award at 2024’s Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards

How do you feel about winning Viking’s Fiction with a Sense of Place award
I’m thrilled because ships feature in all my novels and I love cruising, so it’s doubly meaningful.

Kerala is a coastal strip in India with 44 rivers and there is a recurring trope in the novel, “all water is connected”. Viking embodies that, crossing oceans to link people across the world.

Why did you set The Covenant of Water in India?
I was born and raised in Africa and didn’t feel I had the authority writing about India that I felt writing Cutting for Stone, my first novel in Ethiopia.

However, my parents are Indian, we spent summers with grandparents in Kerala and I went to medical school in Chennai, so it is familiar to me.

Abraham went to medical school in Chennai. Credit: Canva

How did you create a vivid sense of place?
I made several trips to capture sights, sounds, scents and textures to make the novel come alive. I also included conversations with relatives, friends and academics raised there.

How did you develop The Covenant of Water’s multifaceted characters?
It’s a process of revision. A character’s nature is revealed when they make a choice. I frequently changed the story’s direction because a character made a surprising choice that felt authentic – that is when characters truly come alive.

Characters Digby and Rune visit Chennai and Cochin. Credit: Canva

Where in India would you like to cruise?
Characters Digby and Rune visit Chennai and Cochin so it’d be wonderful to retrace their route. Kerala is referred to as the “spice coast” because Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, French and British explorers collected spices there. In cruising to India, I would be recapitulating history and my novel.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read the genre you want to publish in and do a tremendous amount of research on the ground. There’s always a moment where you have done enough research and it is time to write, which is the hardest part.

What do you hope readers will take away from your novel?
My ambition was simple: a good story well told. I hope readers feel inspired to value every moment; I am delighted when I hear they want to visit India because of my novel.

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About Sarah Riches

After a five-year stint living in Asia, Sarah was inspired to become a travel journalist. Sarah has freelanced for Condé Nast Traveller and National Geographic Traveller and is the author of London Almanac (2010) and Culture Smart! The Essential Guide to British Customs & Culture (2024). She was also the deputy editor of Time Out Abu Dhabi, Where London and London Planner, digital editor of Wanderlust – the UK’s oldest travel magazine.