Tania James Breaks Down Loot, One of the Year’s Best Historical Novels

Books Features Tania James
Tania James Breaks Down Loot, One of the Year’s Best Historical Novels

Even if you’re not a person who tends to gravitate to historical fiction as a reader, you’ve probably heard of Tania James’s Loot. The novel, which hit shelves earlier this summer, landed with a ton of buzz behind it, and rightly so From its unique subject matter (the origins of an eighteenth-century automaton from the Kingdom of Mysore) to its timely reflections on art, history, and Western attitudes about who is capable of owning either of those things, this is a complex story about creation, ownership, colonialism, and memory, and it’s going to land on a ton of “Best Of” lists come the end of the year. 

Loot follows the story of Abbas, a poor 17-year-old artist who’s recruited by Tipu Sultan, the ruler of Mysore, to apprentice with French clockmaker Lucien Du Leze. Their task: Create a giant wooden automaton of a tiger mauling a near-life-size British soldier. This giant toy—which once played music as the great cat snorted and attacked—is a real thing, and is currently housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. But how did it get there? And who were the men who made it?

Those are just some of the questions at the heart of this novel, which spans multiple decades and continents, features almost half a dozen main characters, and tells a story that walks a fine line between whimsy and tragedy. And the end result is something that is as beautiful and strange as the object at its center.

We got the chance to chat with James herself about her decision to try her hand at historical fiction, the real-life Tipu Sultan, and lots more.


Paste Magazine: Loot was your first historical fiction novel — how was writing in this genre, about fictionalized versions of real historical figures different (or more challenging or more fun) than your previous work?

Tania James: Let’s start with the fun! Writing historical fiction is the closest I’ve ever come to writing collaboratively, not with another person but with history itself. 

Sometimes—well, a lot of times—I found the historical research to be a bit tedious, but then I’d stumble across a detail that would prompt my own imagination in a direction I hadn’t anticipated beforehand.

Paste: Tell us about where the idea for Loot came from and the themes you wanted to make sure the book explored. 

 James: The earliest and clearest inspiration for Loot was the automaton itself, Tipu’s Tiger, which is housed in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Tipu’s Tiger is a spectacular 18th century automaton composed of a six-foot-long wooden tiger that’s mauling the throat of a prone English soldier. Back in the day, you could turn the hand crank, and the tiger would grunt while the soldier groaned, all while organ music played from within. I’d never seen a work of art—mechanized or otherwise—that was so bold in its contempt of British power, so irreverent and anti-colonialist. So I knew I wanted to write about Tipu’s Tiger, but it took me a while to realize that the novel would focus more on the makers of the automaton than the automaton itself.

In terms of theme, part of my revision process is keeping close track of certain words and phrases that keep echoing and mutating throughout the novel. Foremost was the title itself—loot—which is an English word with Sanskritic origins. So we’re not only talking about the movement of art, but also the movement of people, of power, of culture and language itself, and what is lost and gained along those migrations. Another recurring phrase was “leaving a mark,” which is one of Abbas’s early ambitions: to create a work of art that will outlast him. But to what extent can one control their own artistic destiny, let alone the trajectory of one’s work? And what defines an artist, great or otherwise? 

Paste: I had only just learned about Tipu Sultan and his tiger on a history podcast I listen to called Noble Blood, which I was catching up on right before I got an email that this book existed. (Kismet!) How did you learn about the story of this artifact and what made you decide it was worth writing a book about?

 James: I have to look up this podcast! Have you heard of Empire, hosted by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand? Also excellent. 

I can’t remember where I read about Tipu’s Tiger, only that it appeared as a sort of footnote in some longer book about more famous and mechanically sophisticated automata that were popular in 17th  and 18th century Europe. 

But I soon learned that there wasn’t much to learn about Tipu’s Tiger! There was very little written research about the automaton, and much less about the people who made it. That was sort of frustrating at first, but maybe that’s also what signaled to me that this object was worth writing about—the fact that its story (and its makers) had been omitted from the human record.

Paste: What kind of research did you do in order to bring eighteenth-century Mysore to life?

James: There were a lot of phases of research because the book moves across a number of different places. At one point, Abbas, the protagonist, joins the crew of an East India Company ship, and becomes a seaman—and that was probably the most fun for me, reading these memoirs of retired sea captains who have been through the most extraordinary adventures and hardships at sea, and just the grammar and culture of seafaring. But whatever field of expertise I was wading into—seafaring, woodcarving, fox hunting—I regarded it as a closed culture whose language I would never really be fluent in. I was learning just enough to get by, to write the scene.

Paste: Loot is a story about war and art, and how the former often means the latter is no longer even housed in the country where it was created. The real tiger automaton is still at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London despite it essentially being stolen from its country of origin. Your book doesn’t offer any easy answers to this question of who should own a thing, or who art really belongs to. Did writing this story give you any insight into what those answers should be?

James: I do think writing this story has changed the way I move through history museums and art museums. I’m more attentive to the placards, to the use of passive voice to conceal or obscure state-sanctioned violence. And there are other subtler choices too, that change the way we view an object. 

For example, what if Tipu’s Tiger were featured in an exhibit that displayed various items of woodcarving or mechanical engineering, rather than as simply another prize of war? Might that shift the emphasis to the artisans who made it, rather than the act of conquest itself? And what if contemporary artists from the country of origin were invited to respond via their own mediums? I’m thinking of artists like Titus Kaphar and Yinka Shonibare among many others, who use their art to explore the distortions of historical record.

Paste: The narrative format of this book is fascinating to me—we switch sort of focal characters between and among Abbas, Jehane, Du Leze, Lady Selwyn, and Rum—there’s even a chronicle of the sea voyage of Thomass Beddicker in the middle that reads like a diary (which I utterly loved by the way.) How did you decide which characters were going to be the focal points of the story, and why did you choose these particular figures?

James: Well, I originally thought Loot would be a heist novel that would take place in an English country house. I’d thought it would follow two people in their attempt to swindle a wealthy Englishwoman out of Tipu’s Tiger, which is part of her art collection, so it actually began with this broader cast of characters. But a question that kept nagging at me was: what would motivate someone to want this object so badly that they’d be willing to risk their reputation, their life, their freedom for it? And so I kept coming back to the artist who made it. 

As I was exploring that character, I traced his journey back to India, to the time when he was first assigned this task of constructing Tipu’s Tiger. I discovered what it meant to him, to be apprenticed to a French clockmaker who believed in his gifts, and to find a sense of purpose through art. So while the novel begins with a fairly tight spotlight on Abbas, that was something I had to arrive at, over time.

 Paste: Did you have a favorite character to write—either in terms of their voice or the fact that their heads were just the most interesting place to occupy?

James: I really enjoyed writing Lady Selwyn and Rum. There was a wry sense of humor that each one inhabited, which was really natural and fun to access. I also enjoyed the particulars of their relationship, and how differently they conduct themselves in public and in private. 

Paste: What was the most surprising historical fact you learned over the course of writing this book?

James: Here’s something I found fascinating, but which I couldn’t include: Tipu Sultan’s great-great-great granddaughter, Noor-un-Nisa Inayat Khan, was a British spy during World War II. She was captured by the Germans, imprisoned and interrogated for months, but revealed no intelligence. She was finally executed by the Germans at the age of 30 and received posthumous honors from both Britain and France.

Paste: What’s next for you as a writer? Are you working on anything you can tell us about yet? If not, what do you think your next project might be?

James: I’ve been doing a lot of research on book-making and rare book conservation, though I’m not sure exactly where it will lead me in terms of narrative. I often tell my students to pay attention to their obsessions, so that’s where I’m at right now—simply allowing the obsession to grow before I can give it to a character.

Paste: And my favorite question, always: What are you reading right now? 

James: A story collection called Why Visit America by Matthew Baker. After spending so much time in novel land, it’s refreshing to dip into these wild, adventurous, deeply felt stories.

Loot is available now wherever books are sold. 

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB

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