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Priya Guns on her debut novel 'Your Driver is Waiting'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Check your phone. Your driver is two minutes away. Ah. Wait. Priya Guns' novel, "Your Driver Is Waiting," tells the story of a driver named Damani who is Tamil, queer, straining to make ends meet, and driving for a living, but she hopes not a life, in an unnamed North American city that roils with protests, squashed dreams and part-time gigs. And then, Damani runs into someone special who upends her life and not in a good way. Priya Guns joins us now from Amman, Jordan. Thank you so much for being with us.

PRIYA GUNS: Thank you for having me. Your voice is super buttery. I feel like I need to up my sultry right now.

SIMON: Nobody has ever said that to me, and I include my wife. Thank you very, very much. You acknowledge that seeing Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" set you to thinking, right?

GUNS: It's not like "Taxi Driver," but I definitely took a lot of inspiration from the film. For me, my interest was in unpacking and unpicking everything about Travis Bickle. I really like to think about how we can reimagine who Travis Bickle would be today. And that's kind of - was my starting point.

SIMON: Let me get you to read a section, please, that helps us set up what Damani - forgive me for putting it this way - drives through every day in life.

GUNS: Absolutely.

(Reading) Rent was due 45 days before yesterday. The electric was about to get cut off again, and I needed as many pings as I could get - five stars, please; tips and cash if possible. As I maneuvered on four wheels through the city without being the change I wanted to see in the world, passed protest after protest - Jesus had two dads; the police enforce white supremacy - I'd rather be in bed - arson or climate disaster; OK-K-K, boomer - then, alongside, Reclaim the Night for the thousandth time - passed a march for taxing the rich where there were also signs for decriminalizing sex work, I felt myself becoming smaller, so much so that I wondered how my feet still reached the pedals.

SIMON: How much time have you spent in ride-share cars and driving or being a passenger?

GUNS: Before writing this novel, I probably took three ride-share drives. I've only downloaded the app about a couple months ago. But I mean, in terms of taking taxis - I mean, I've always taken taxis. I don't really drive. I started taking lessons while I was writing the book so I could understand what it feels like to drive stick and to actually drive on the road.

SIMON: I don't have a driver's license.

GUNS: I feel like the smartest people I know don't have driver's licenses.

SIMON: Oh, God bless you for saying that.

GUNS: It's true.

SIMON: In a distinctive way, driving a ride-share and having to deal with passengers is a way of getting kind of a full serving of life experience, isn't it?

GUNS: Oh, absolutely. There's no escaping. You are inviting people into your personal space, people that you normally wouldn't even talk to. And then, you're responsible for getting them to where they need to be, on time and safe. And they come in, and they treat you like doo-doo. I was told I shouldn't swear, so I'm trying really hard.

SIMON: You can say doo-doo on this show.

(LAUGHTER)

GUNS: I thought so. I thought so.

SIMON: Tell us what happens when she runs into Jolene. And I - you know, I use that phrase in all ways.

GUNS: I think this is a moment for Damani in so many different ways. Damani sees Jolene. And just through her appearance and through her mannerisms, she knows this. She knows that this person is very different. They are not the same. And I think sometimes there's an air. I mean, we all have something about us that tells us so much about ourselves that maybe we don't even realize. But Jolene definitely is kind of Damani's way to escape from her reality.

SIMON: Well, let's explain Jolene a little, if we could, because they have what sound like very similar principles about the world, don't they?

GUNS: It seems like that would be the case though Damani is reluctant to connect in the beginning. But I mean, bless her, she thinks, you know what - and her friends help her - it's not about Jolene being white. And that was made very clear by her friends. Like, that's not the case. It's more about, I guess, her class, her position.

What was really important to me in writing Jolene was that I wasn't creating this caricature of, say, a white, liberal, wealthy woman. And writing her was interesting for me also because I was drawing on my own experiences where I had a Jolene tendency. And I think, for me, what's important is that readers read my novel, and they don't just, you know, shun Jolene to a corner and think, oh, my God, what a terrible person. But I hope that she acts as a mirror in many ways where you stop to think, oh, doo-doo. I've been like that before. Like, I've done something like that. And that's OK.

SIMON: Sometimes - and you're a terrific writer. But sometimes the characterization of Jolene made me squirm a little bit. I wrote down a phrase - (reading) her blue eyes glistened, leading me to believe she had never cried a tear in her life.

Well, obviously, that's not true of anyone. Is your narrative voice inferring that because Jolene is white, blonde and what so much of the world considers beautiful, she could never have cried a tear; she could never have had a problem; she could never know the meaning of loss?

GUNS: I mean, OK, so speaking for myself here as a brown, dark-skinned woman living in the society in which we live in, like, there has been so much that we have been told about ourselves. And I'm not here to talk about, like, representation and identity politics or whatnot, but things do have an impact on certain communities. And so I think the line that you mentioned or you quoted is - was Damani's kind of unraveling of the things that she's been taught and told and trying to understand this person who she's now connecting with.

SIMON: I have seen you have said in interviews you wanted to write this book for people with short attention spans.

GUNS: Yeah.

SIMON: How was that done? - 'cause it strikes me that it takes discipline and a long attention span to write a novel, even in short spurts, doesn't it?

GUNS: One of my many heroes is A. Sivanandan. He was a Tamil British activist and writer. And he said, we write for the people we're fighting for. So I think what is important - and even thinking about his work in terms of accessibility, whatever we work on, what we're writing, it should be accessible to the people who, you know, the work reflects. So I've joked when I said I'm writing for people with short attention spans. That is true. But ultimately, I really want to write work that brings a different audience to literature and fiction because I'm thinking about my sister, the people I grew up with, the people from my block, you know, who don't have the time necessarily to read because they're working.

SIMON: Do you worry with so many people struggling between two and three jobs in a gig economy that the experience of reading is just something we don't have time for; we don't have space for; we don't have the energy for?

GUNS: I definitely do think that's the case. And I think - I mean, even in terms of, like, watching a movie or a TV series, especially when it deals with a subject that you can really connect with in regards to race and class and those experiences, sometimes it can feel really heavy. Like, there are so many shows. I'm like, oh, yes, that's totally up my alley, but I'm tired, you know? I'm not even working two jobs anymore, but I'm tired. And I'm tired because I am a person who has to deal with certain things because I am who I am. So again, as a writer, for me, I'm also very interested in how we can deal with these sorts of themes and make it light and make it entertaining.

SIMON: Priya Guns, her new novel, "Your Driver Is Waiting." Thank you so much for being with us.

GUNS: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.