Interview: Varun Gwalani author of ‘The First Storyteller’

Varun Gwalani is a young author living in Mumbai. A TEDx speaker, he has spoken about his struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and the impact it has had on his writing. He is an advocate of better mental health awareness, gender equality, and alternative styles and themes of writing in India. He has previously published a novel, Believe, which represented the setting of a fictional world without any indigenous mythological elements.

Varun Gwalani

‘The First Storyteller’ is his second book. Unhappy with the stifling monotony of everyday life, a storyteller decides to leave everything behind. The First Storyteller recounts the incredible and transformative journey that the storyteller embarks upon. Through a wide variety of styles and genres, the book draws upon the very idea of stories to bring to you a unique tale that is simultaneously funny, tragic and hopeful. It brings to the forefront the emotional turmoil of a deeply conflicted individual, and in the end, the question becomes not what is at the end of the Path, but whether the person who starts the journey would be the same as the one who ends it.

In an exclusive interview with, Varun talks about his journey as an author and inspiration to work on his books.
RL: Please tell us something about your early years and major influences on you?
Varun: I was always a strange kid. I wasn’t interested in conventional activities, especially not for a boy. I played sport on occasion, but only because the few friends I had cajoled me into it. I was more interested in books, stories, TV, video games and board games.
In short, I was a geek. My earliest writing developed as a mishmash of different styles, genres and influenced by a variety of different kinds of storytelling, which I sort of experimented with over years and years before it finally blossomed into ‘The First Storyteller’.
RL: What was your inspiration to work on this novel?
Varun:  I’m not really sure; “inspiration” seems to imply that the work came from something external, when in truth; this book was a manifestation of an internal journey, a much deeper and more intense journey that one would normally find a work of fiction. Essentially, this book was written during my last year with OCD, and as a result of that struggle and trauma, this book was born.
RL: Did you face any challenges while writing “The First Storyteller”?
Varun: Aside from the fact that my brain felt it was exploding every day? There were a few technical challenges to the book, like ensuring the protagonist, who is genderless, faceless, nameless; stayed gender-neutral. The book also blends a variety of styles and genres, so it was a really fun challenge to blend those and bring in unique aspects of a genre in a way such that it both fits that exact emotional moment and at the same time conveys the message to the reader. Overall, though, this book was the way to escape the challenges of my life, and not the other way around.
RL: What is your take on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder? How should we tackle OCD in our day to day life?
Varun: Thank you for asking. It is a common misconception that OCD is some sort of physical tic that causes you to put objects in a straight line, or washing hands a lot, or being excessively neat. OCD however is a serious and often severe mental disorder, which causes debilitating problems. It is a disease, like malaria or typhoid.
My OCD was OCD of aggression, which means I was plagued day in and day out with thoughts of violence, death and horror with all the accompanying emotions that flashed by each image. I had a deep-seated insecurity and isolation and never felt able to connect or truly talk to anyone else. (If anybody wants to know more about this, they can find it in my TED talk:
RL: What books have influenced your life the most?
Varun: I think I’ve learned a little from every book I’ve read and incorporated it in my writing, and I think that that’s why I have so much love and affection tied up in the idea of storytelling.
RL: Who is your favourite author and why?
Varun: I don’t know if I have one favourite author, but I’d like to say that J.K. Rowling, Dan Harmon (the creator of Community) and Leonard Cohen (the creator of so much amazing poetry) are my biggest influences.
RL: What are your future projects?
Varun: I am trying to raise awareness about mental health issues, on which we have an utterly abysmal track record. I’m also trying to mentor and talk to young writers as a way to promote progressive writing styles and themes in fiction.
RL: Are you working on any new book?
Varun: I am developing the idea for a third book, yes.

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