Interview 13- Rebecca Lloyd

Interview 13- Rebecca Lloyd

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Rebecca Lloyd writes short stories, novellas and novels. Her story collection Mercy, nominated for a World Fantasy Award, was published by Tartarus Press in 2014 alongside The View from Endless Street, a collection with WiDo Publishing. Her recent publications include Ragman and Other Family Curses (Egaeus Press) and Jack Werrett, the Flood Man (Dunhams Manor Press). She was short-listed for the Aestas short story prize 2016 with Fabula Press for her story The Ringers, her novel, Oothangbart, was published in October 2016 by Pillar International Publishing, and her novella Woolfy and Scrapo was published by the Fantasist magazine. Her latest collection, Seven Strange Stories, was published by Tartarus Press in 2017. She is presently working on The Child Cephalina, a Gothic horror novel set in 1850.


1- (i) What draws you to the literary horror genre?

Several different things draw me to this genre— firstly I suspect that it is by far the most difficult genre to write well within, and so it’s very challenging, and I like that, because if writing feels too easy, it doesn’t stretch you and you don’t learn anything new. Secondly, I don’t have any interest in lightweight subjects or ideas like romance or comedy, although I am very happy when other people make me laugh! The original writers of Gothic/horror/dark material were writers that I admire, people like Mary Shelley, Walter de la Mare, Henry James and some of the Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Caron McCullers. Although these last three are not thought of at all as ‘horror’ writers, some of their works are dark, Gothic and very strange. In truth, I find the word ‘horror’ in connection with writing embarrassing because B movies and modern writers like Stephen King have put their own brand on the idea and we get left with drawers full of hopeless zombies and shape-shifters of various kinds, all of them terrible clichés. [Although Stephen King has had some great story ideas.]


(ii) In one of our discussions, you mentioned that your work is more like Walter de la Mare than Stephen King. Would you please elaborate?

I think I meant that I would rather my work was thought of as being more like that of Walter de la Mare than Stephen King because de la Mare is a literary writer and Stephen King is a popularist one. 


2- I heard of you from Out of Print magazine editor Indira Chandrashekhar’s social media posts about the anthology PANGEA which you co-edited.

How was the experience?

It was great working with Indira on Pangea, we hadn’t met in person at that stage and we communicated and put together the anthology online. I learnt some editing tricks along the way, and I think the experience was useful when I came to work as Debalina Haldar’s editor on her novel The Female Ward.


3- Your story published in Out of Print titled ‘Finger Buffet’ is disturbing and hard-hitting. It is based on an incident you witnessed.

(i)What gave you the courage to write about it and submit it to a magazine?

One of the really good things about being a writer is that when bad things happen to you, you can sometimes exorcise them by making them into a story, so it wasn’t courage I needed to write about the incident, but just writerly instinct. I didn’t write about it straight away however, it took a while, and the police had taken my writer’s notebook because I was the only witness to the crime, so I needed that back before I started the story.

In addition to writerly instinct, I feel it is an absolute human obligation! I spent a lot of time after that visiting their families and consoling their mum and dads.


(ii) Would you call your story fiction or creative non-fiction?

I’d call it fiction because the story is told by a local white East Ender character, and it is his wife who comes across the slaughtered boys. Creative non-fiction tends to stick quite closely to facts, and Finger Buffet doesn’t do that.


4- Do your literary horror stories like in your book ‘Mercy’ that I’m currently reading, draw from the people you have encountered in real life?

No, I don’t particularly think so. Not whole people anyway. Occasionally I might be struck by a particular posture, a way of dressing, a spoken sentence that I come across while I’m out that later on crops up in my writing somewhere, but it doesn’t necessarily happen at a very conscious or contrived level. Although, I have to confess that I once wrote out the entirety of an argument I had with someone, and it worked wonderfully in the story I was writing.


5- Your protagonists in ‘Mercy’ are dysfunctional in their own way posing a potential danger to society. They reminded me of the TV series ‘Criminal Minds’.

Your stories empathise with characters who have a twisted bend of mind and are somehow trapped in it. Any comments?

What I try to do is to write my characters as I see and feel them, and it really is for the reader to empathise or not with them. That’s not to say I am necessarily neutral myself to my characters, but I don’t go out of my way to lay down my personal position in a story, or in a novel. But because in my writing I’m not confined by moral judgements or notions of right or wrong, it probably can appear that I care about my particularly warped characters. But, I should say that I think most living people have warped elements about them, it’s what makes them interesting.


6- Other than the main protagonists I noticed that you pay equal emphasis to the characters who live/interact with such disturbed characters and the impact on them. Any comments?

I don’t ever think in terms of antagonists and protagonists and therefore I probably don’t confine myself to the same kind of writing ‘rules’ that some writers might use. I remember an occasion, a long time ago when one of my characters was a dead man, and the person who was critiquing the work pointed out that I couldn’t have a dead person as a character because he wouldn’t be able to speak … so it wouldn’t be realistic. But that was before the great blanket of vampires, the undead, and zombies came into play in fiction. I think the antagonist/protagonist idea should be booted out too as it is very rigid and restricting… a protagonist can also be the antagonist. I guess that my novel Oothangbart published last year says more about me and my writing than most of my other books put together. The way I feel about fiction is that it really is fiction and a writer can do what he or she wants with it…treat fiction like plasticine and build what you want out of it and ignore other people’s rules . I’m not sure that this answers your question very directly; it might just be simpler to say all characters in a book are important and all have their particular role to play.


7- Have you attempted other genres?

Well, I never particularly wanted to write within a genre in the first place, but I’ll go along with literary horror as an idea… but the part of it that challenges and interests me is the literary, not the horror. The novel I am working on at the moment is set in 1850, and so, theoretically, you could call it an historical novel, and I do make a big effort to do the research needed and get it right. However, the novel is also Gothic, and so like much of my work, it could easily fall between the genres. But not fitting in with other people’s constructs either in real life or writing is fine; it keeps you energetic. 


8- You now have 5 short story collections, 2 novels and anthologies to your credit. What next?

The Gothic novel that I’m working on now, The Child Cephalina. I finished the first draft in two and one half months by writing 1,000 words each morning, and now I have to start the second draft… the tidying up process. However, my last novel Oothangbart, has just come out and of everything I have written, this is special to me and I would love it to be read by youngish people who are having a hard time fitting in with the societies in which they live. I’ve never written a story like it before, and never will again. It’s a story of discovery, and it’s a love story and I really hope it moves people.


9- On your website you talk about the New Dark or New Weird genre that your long short stories fall under. What is this new genre according to you?

For me, the new weird or the new dark simply is an attempt to put the literary back into horror, so that a hybrid evolves, a type of writing that is beautiful in its own right, [no pun intended], is sensitive, original, contains not a single cliché either in sentence use or ideas themselves, has dignity, depth and nuance and so on. Put more simply, I hope it’s going to produce some stunning writing, and the one or two writers I’d put in that category are already doing so.


10- (i) Tell us about your new book ‘Seven strange stories by Tartarus Press 2017.

These seven long stories are my last year’s work. This time, I was attempting to write into the horror/fantasy genre deliberately, rather than it simply being where my writing best fits anyway. I particularly wanted Tartarus Press to publish these stories, as I admire Tartarus greatly, the care they take, the beauty of the books they produce, their taste in writers and their knowledge of the world of books. It was very pleasing to be writing long short stories as opposed to highly edited very short ones, and yet which did not quite have the burden and responsibility that undertaking a novel has. It also made a lot of sense of a holiday I went on in Sicily, as one of the stories was inspired by my trip there. Seven Strange Stories is now published, and available from Tartarus Press, or in bookshops.


(ii) You have been published before by Tartarus Press. What is your view on small niche presses as opposed to big publishing houses?

Well, there are two paths you can travel down as a writer looking for publication, and both have their dangers and disappointments. I don’t really have an opinion as such on independent presses and the conglomerates, but I do know quite a lot about both —my novel ‘Halfling’ was published by Walker Books, one of the giants in the publishing world. The onus is upon the writer to thoroughly research any publishing house that they are interested in, and you very quickly come to know which are the vanity publishers; sometimes you only have to glance at their websites to see that they are fake. This is quite a detailed subject and a complex one, but in general, the large publishing houses, whose names everyone recognises, have good distribution for their books and sometimes, good promotion of their different titles. Trouble is, on the whole, you need an agent to get you into one of the big houses, and with a few exceptions, agents are interested not in literature or books, but money, and they will treat your book merely as a commodity and then want 15% of your royalties. If you opted instead for an independent publisher, you might find that there was scant promotion of your book and very poor distribution. On the other hand a good and established independent press might have excellent distribution and promotion and a workable business model, they might pay you individual attention in a manner that the large houses aren’t famous for doing, and they could even have decent book jackets! So, in the end, I don’t have a view on small as opposed to big publishing houses, but I do wish other writers all the best in their quest to find one they feel comfortable with.


11- On a different note, I love your hair. Haha. It looks like fairy hair. What’s the secret?

The secret is being old, or am I really Gandalf’s sister? She’d be ancient anyway.


 

Thank you!

Thank you for the interview, Michelle, and the interesting questions.


 

Buy her books on AMAZON- 

Seven Strange Stories

Mercy

Oothangbart


 

Interview 12- Deepti Kapoor

Interview 12- Deepti Kapoor

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This interview was conducted by e-mail. It is about Deepti Kapoor’s novel A Bad Character, first published by Penguin Random House, 2014.

Summary of the novel (from Goodreads)

A highly charged fiction debut about a young woman in India, and the love that both shatters and transforms her. She is twenty, restless in New Delhi. Her mother has died; her father has left for Singapore. He is a few years older, just back to India from New York. When they meet in a café one afternoon, she—lonely, hungry for experience, yearning to break free of tradition—casts aside her fears and throws herself headlong into a love affair, one that takes her where she has never been before. Told in a voice at once gritty and lyrical, mournful and frank, A Bad Character marks the arrival of an astonishingly gifted new writer. It is an unforgettable hymn to a dangerous, exhilarating city, and a portrait of desire and its consequences as timeless as it is universal.

Read the interview in The Bombay Literary Magazine‘s latest issue.


Interview 11- Tejaswini Apte-Rahm

Interview 11- Tejaswini Apte-Rahm

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Tejaswini Apte-Rahm is the author of the short story collection These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape published by Aleph Book Company in December 2016. She is a full-time writer from Mumbai. Her short stories have been published in Himal Southasian (Nepal), BLink (Hindu Business Line, India) The Big Chilli (Thailand), Six Seasons Review (Bangladesh) and The Daily Star (Bangladesh), as well as in Monsoon Midnights, an e-book anthology of stories about Bangkok. Tejaswini worked as an environmental researcher for ten years, during which time she wrote two non-fiction books. She was also a journalist in Mumbai, and has written on cinema, photography and environmental issues for Screen, The Times of India, Hindustan Times and The Asian Age. She studied at the JB Petit High School for Girls (Mumbai), the United World College of South-East Asia (Singapore), the University of Sussex and the University of Kent (England). Tejaswini has lived in Serbia, Israel, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Bangladesh, spending a year or two in each country with her husband and daughter. Currently she lives in Azerbaijan.


Hello Tejaswini,

I read your story ‘Sandalwood‘ in BL ink and loved it. Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. It will be about your story, the craft of writing and other things literary.

  • The story is about abandonment. In stories that I have read on the same theme, usually the person being abandoned stays and the abandoner leaves. The abandoned (like in Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment) is supposed to learn to live with what they always had with only a small yet major change.

(i)Why do you snatch away this whole world of familiarity for our protagonist?

(ii) Will it make her cope better in the long run?

TA: The genesis of the story was the idea that someone can be in your house, and use your house on a regular basis, without your knowing it. I found that a creepy, fascinating thought, and I started to think of ways that someone might do that, and how they might cover up their trail to hide the fact that they have been there. A great dynamic to explore, I felt, would be an abandoned housewife secretly visiting her former home, because she could think of no other way to spend her empty days. The idea was for her to re-enter her comfort zone, though the comfort is now simply an illusion. So it was absolutely necessary for this scenario, that she be dragged out of her world of domesticity.


  • There is a sense of voyeurism in the story. As I came to care for the protagonist I realized I did not feel she is wrong in this context. She was the victim here. She was only trying to cope. (Others may see it differently, like it was all her making and she must not play the victim. Free will, boundaries etc.)

I feel when someone undergoes a crisis only they themselves can feel the pain and the way they deal with it, well, who are we to judge? This reminds me of the protagonist T in Neon Noon by Tanuj Solanki who goes to Pattaya after a heartbreak. What do you have to say about this?

TA: I think the sense of voyeurism is what makes the story work, because it creates a creepiness. She is an invisible voyeur, observing her family by being in their midst without them knowing it. And meanwhile, we are watching her watch her family. As far as her being a victim is concerned – yes, of course she is a victim. The most shocking part of the story for me is how easily her children accept her abandonment. But it is equally apparent that she has also disempowered herself over the years, and created the conditions whereby she is so easily turned into a victim.


  • What do you think of BL ink’s special fiction issue and how does it help emerging writers to be noticed?

TA: I thought it was a great idea. There are very limited avenues for short story writers to be published in India. You can try to get your work into a literary journal, but the readership remains relatively limited. So for a mainstream newspaper to carry contemporary short fiction is brilliant. I don’t know why newspapers and magazines don’t do so regularly. Surely their readers also enjoy being introduced to the work of new writers. The DNA short story contest is a great initiative, for example.


  • Can you tell us about how your short story collection was published by Aleph. Does it have a theme? I have heard that unthemed collections are tougher to place with mainstream literary publishers.

TA: I had sent my short story collection to three different publishers. I had a very quick response from Aleph Book Company, within a few days, saying that they wanted to publish it. Needless to say I was thrilled because Aleph is one of the top publishers of literary fiction and non-fiction in India, with a small, selective list of authors.

When I wrote the stories I did not have any theme in mind. But when I looked at it as a collection, I realized that the stories were rather dark and twisty, often with a dangerous edge to them. I think that is what binds the collection together. As a writer I would not worry about not having a theme to a collection of stories – the main thing is to write honestly and from deep within, even if that means facing uncomfortable truths about yourself. In the end it is the writer’s unique sensibility that will bind a collection together.


  • How do you go about constructing a story?

TA: Each story has a different origin. It might be a fragment of an overheard conversation, or an image in a magazine, or just a creepy idea that enters my head and won’t go away – like the idea of someone using your house without your knowing it. For example, the idea for my story Drinks at Seven came from a scene I witnessed in Delhi many years ago – a well-dressed man was standing on the road next to his car and shouting into his phone in the most vile manner, at his wife or girlfriend. It made me wonder what social circumstances this couple might find themselves in, what kind of nastiness their normal life might hide, and why his wife would tolerate that kind of shouting. That man appears in Drinks at Seven right down to his physical description – but transported to the setting of a classy drawing room.


  • (i) I think this story defies gender norms because here Chandan/Sandalwood is a man and when the protagonist is replaced by a man the conflict is heightened because he can do everything that the protagonist thought only a woman could do that she could do. She had limited herself to do all that and she had thought it was enough to keep her position stable in the family. But the cruel reality she faces is that it is not so. Any comments?

Also, why did you choose to include a man and not a woman as the ‘other’ person here?

TA: The only reason that the husband’s new lover is a man, is because the dynamic would have been completely different if it had been a woman. The over-riding dynamic would have been one of sexual jealousy of ‘the other woman’. But in this case, since her husband is homosexual, there is no question of sexual jealousy – the wife has been completely knocked out of the running. This suited me perfectly because I was not interested in exploring the theme of jealousy. Secretly entering the house of ‘the other woman’ would have led to a very different story, with a different ending, and characters with very different motivations. From the point of view of the children too, accepting a new mother would have created a totally different dynamic to the relationships within the family.


  • That is, till I discovered that I still had the keys to the house buried in my purse.

This line reminded me of Raymond Carver’s story ‘Neighbours’.  In the story ‘A couple had the key to their neighbours’ flat and whenever their neighbours went on vacations they would entrust them with the keys to the house. This couple who was left  behind would find that they spent too much time in that house to get a taste of their neighbours’ life and when they realize that they might not be able to go into the house again. They get panicked.

I saw this panic at the end of your story too. Any comments?

TA: Yes, there is panic at the end of the story when she realizes she has been found out – but also there is humiliation – and a decision that she needs to make. She has this strange invitation from her husband’s lover to return as often as she wishes, secretly, as long as she does not cook and does not interact with anyone. Is she going to accept? If the answer is yes, it would mean accepting a strange kind of twilight existence where she is present and yet invisible. And if the answer is no, it would mean looking into the abyss of an empty life – and trying to find the strength to create something new out of that darkness.


  • Favourite short story writers?

My favourite writers of short fiction are Roald Dahl (for his adult short stories) and Doris Lessing. Both use language with the precision of a knife edge to get to the dark heart of their characters. Dahl is deliciously ruthless in the way he does this. And Lessing is not afraid to look deeply uncomfortable truths in the eye.


  • Your story also reminded me of the Bollywood film English Vinglish– the theme of the unappreciated housewife who discovers herself later in life. In your story, the spouse of the housewife feels he has discovered himself. Any comments?

TA: Yes, her husband does discover himself. But that is not the theme of my story. I don’t explore the struggle he may have gone through to arrive at the conclusion that he is homosexual – which is not to be dismissive of it – but he has already discovered his homosexuality long before my story begins. My focus is the selfish and pitiless way in which he constructs a new life for himself. Instead of treating his wife with compassion and care through their separation, he stacks the cards against her.


  • The story is set in London. I was thinking of how geography and law plays a huge role in this story. It would have been different had the story been set in India. Any comments?

TA: There would be no way for this particular story to be set in India. For the simple reason that in India there are people everywhere – a scenario in which a woman regularly enters her previous home, unnoticed by anyone, would be impossible.


  • As the sub- theme of the story is also sexual orientation, I was also reminded of the film The Danish Girl. In the movie, the wife stays strong like a rock and supports her partner in his journey of transformation. We got to see her unconditional love for her partner but we didn’t get to see her struggle at all.

Your story shows the spouse in focus. Her struggle and again in this context I came to ponder on how time, geography, and legislation affects relationships. What do you think?

TA: I think the passing of time is certainly a focal point of the wife’s struggle. She has let 17 years go by without doing anything to carve out a position of strength or independent identity for herself. Her identity is inextricable from her children and husband. She thinks it is time well-spent – till it turns out that it was in fact time wasted. That is a large part of the horror of the story – there is a chilling finality to the loss of time – it can never be regained.

All too often I’ve seen situations where the wife, even if well educated, slides into a shadow of her former self, content with having no independent identity other than as a mother or wife – leaving her in an incredibly vulnerable position, both psychologically as well as financially. When this situation is transferred to a different country, where the traditional networks and support systems of India are not available to a woman, the vulnerability increases. I don’t mean to say that such marriages are always unhappy or exploitative – but it is equally true that a woman’s lack of independence and empowerment becomes an integral part of the dynamics of a marriage.


  • You have had book signings in colleges in Mumbai.

(i)How important are such events for new writers?

(ii) In your interaction with young students, did you gauge their awareness of Indian contemporary fiction? Do they read literary writers?

TA: Interacting with college students was one of the best experiences of my book promotion. There was always a really good vibe in the room, and the students were enthusiastic and engaged in the discussions. Many were aspiring writers. I didn’t get a chance to gauge awareness of Indian contemporary fiction among them, but I would assume they are very well read, given their participation.

For me these events were a validation that the stories in These Circuses That Sweep Through the Landscape are of interest, and can generate extensive discussion. Connecting with readers is rare for an author – you spend months and years hunched over your desk, so to finally go out and get direct feedback from people is like a tonic. And it gives you a psychological boost to embark on your next writing project.


  • Did you intend this as an empowerment story? A ‘read-between-the-lines’ message to women to make something of themselves as opposed to just being a family woman so as to deal better with contingencies such as the one in your story?

TA: No, that was not the intention. Of course, my own opinions will inform my writing – in this case, a frustration at the fact that women often end up disempowering themselves. But writing fiction with a moral or social message in mind never works. Nobody likes to be preached at. My only aim is to make the story as entertaining and thought-provoking as possible. If Sandalwood creeped you out, and kept you hooked up to the end, then I have achieved my aim.


  • Do you have a background in literature?

TA: I did a BA in English Literature and Development Studies from the University of Sussex in the UK. Having a degree in literature is obviously not a requirement for writing fiction, but it certainly helps in terms of introducing you to a wide range of authors and genres, and to different ways of seeing.


  • Advice to young aspiring writers.

TA: My advice is to read and write as much as possible. Develop a writing schedule – don’t write only when you feel like it. A story or novel will not come gushing out of you just because you feel inspired – the inspiration has to be harnessed to discipline and writing techniques, which can only come through writing practice and wide reading. You have to be prepared to throw away what you’ve written and start again. This is essential for experimenting with creative decisions such as what narrative voice to use, or even what genre to write in.


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Buy her short story collection  on Amazon


 

Interview 10- Anjum Hasan

Interview 10- Anjum Hasan

 

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Anjum Hasan is the author of the novels The Cosmopolitans, Neti, Neti and Lunatic in my Head, and the short story collection Difficult Pleasures. She has also published a book of poems called Street on the Hill. Her books have been nominated for various awards including the Man Asian Literary Prize, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the Hindu Best Fiction Award and the Crossword Fiction Award. She was the Charles Wallace Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury. Her short stories, essays and poems are widely published including in Granta and Griffith Review, as well as in Five Dials, Wasafiri, Drawbridge, Los Angeles Review of Books, Asia Literary Review, Caravan and anthologies such as A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present and The Bloodaxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. Anjum is books editor at The Caravan, India’s leading magazine of long-form reporting and essays. She lives in Bangalore.


Hello Anjum,

It is an honour to interview you.  It is tough to come across a writer as prolific as you. You write Poetry, Fiction (Short stories and novels) and Non-fiction.

I hope this interview will benefit writers who wish to learn from you.

(a) Poetry

I loved this poem of yours and I wish to discuss it a bit.

COMING OF AGE IN A CONVENT SCHOOL by Anjum Hasan

The year is 1985

and Phoebe comes to class wearing a golden wig.

A group of girls walk around school with moles

carefully drawn above their lips in blue ballpoint ink.

They’re in love with Madonna.

This is the year that Sister Carmel, our English teacher,

will refuse to believe that Boy George is not a woman,

the year she will talk animatedly about Live Aid.

This year everyone loves the sex education class

but pretends not to.

Sister Monica shows us a film in the library

about an American teenager whom everybody bullies

because he’s still a virgin.

The point of the film is that he’s a winner nevertheless,

and can’t be cowed down.

Next year Prisca will have a baby

but this year she giggles and squirms like everyone else,

and when the girl I sit with stains her overall,

I’m so utterly envious.

I long to be part of this sisterhood.

This is the year of George Michael’s stubble,

the year of Stevie Wonder jokes.

This is the year I realise that there are only,

only women in the entire school building

and am astonished at the thought.


1-  Is this poem inspired from your life? (You have been asked before in other interviews whether your protagonists are ‘you’ and you have answered: it is you and also not you.) Can you please elaborate?

AH: Delighted you liked the poem. Some of my poetry is definitely autobiographical, my fiction less so. This poem is from my own life – I studied, came of age and was introduced to the idea of sex and the lure of pop music in my convent school. I wanted to bring those things together in the poem the way they were in my experience – the discipline of the convent as well the discoveries one makes as a teenager. And also how the nuns took it upon themselves to educate us about sex in a remarkably frank, almost humorous, way.


2-How do you decide on enjambment in a free verse poem?

AH: It’s based on the breath, one reads the poem out loud and there is a natural break according to the rhythm of one’s breathing when one reads.


3- Why have you structured this poem as 5-5-5-5-5(2+3)?

I’m not sure! It came out that way – the longer initial verses and then the last two shorter ones, closing down on the experience, each beginning with the same “This is the year…” I don’t really believe in analyzing structure too much. It comes instinctively to me when it does and I go with that. Which is not to say I don’t edit and rewrite. But there is something like the intrinsic core of a poem which often just suggests itself.


(b) Fiction

1- I have read your books ‘Neti Neti’, ‘Lunatic in my Head’ and currently reading your short story collection ‘Difficult Pleasures’. I feel your prose attempts to capture the nomadic nature of people in cities in India. Any comments?

AH: Cities can be great, monstrous, impersonal things and I am always interested in the ambivalent relationships people might have with them. There is an alienation even if there might be love for a place. So, yes, I am interested in this slight feeling of rootlessness which is not the result of a major disaster – not war or dictatorship – but still people asking themselves if they really belong to the places they live in? I think in other genres of writing and not just fiction we are asking that question much more in this century.


2- You have judged different contests like Helter Skelter new writing, TOTO fund the arts etc. What do you see in new unpublished writing from India that pleases/displeases you?

AH: I think the hardest thing as a young writer, or maybe as a writer at any age, is describing experience in a way that it is not so abstract so as to seem unhuman but neither is it so personal that it’s of relevance to no one but the author. That’s the fine and difficult balance one has to strike. I’ve learnt the hard way, I’m still learning, that one can sound sophisticated and well-read without having that core experience holding the writing up, and it’s also easy to give in to sentimentalizing. We live in an age where we’re increasingly living similar lives so how do you create a sense of your own uniqueness and that of the world and characters you want to create?


3- (i) What is your take on fiction from other North East Indian writers like Janice Pariat, Kaushik Barua, Jahnavi Barua and others?

AH: I very much like Jahnavi’s work, particularly that first book of stories, and also some of Janice’s stories. I’m afraid I haven’t read Kaushik Barua.


(ii) Do you consciously consider them as competition?

AH: I think for a writer on some days all other writers are competition but on other days you’re writing for yourself and it doesn’t matter. I also don’t consider myself only a North-east writer, however one might define that. I write about Shillong but also about Bangalore, music, art, loneliness, travel, love, children, water problems, servants – life.


(iii) How according to you your fiction differs from theirs?

AH: I think that’s for readers to decide!


( c) Non-fiction

1- I loved your article: Why do people seem so weary with literature? How do we rebuild the alphabet for writing?

On one hand we have new writers who wish to write good fiction and suffer from anxiety of influence, on the other hand we have writers like Ravinder Singh who says he hasn’t read anything before publishing his book.

You mention this about his book:

The young man’s grief at losing his fiancée-to-be is genuine but the novel is not a tragic one. Our man is secure in the choices he makes and it’s just the ugly hand of fate that intrudes. Shit happens is the only conclusion one might draw from the novel in a moral sense. So we encounter pain at a personal loss here but no wrestling with life itself.

Do you think his fans (young readers in India) sense this or even care about the lack of existential crisis in his work even though they might be experiencing it in some way or another every day?

AH: That’s a good question! If our fiction in English provides a mirror of what it is to be Indian then that mirror is showing up a very shrunken image at the moment. There is an obsession with middle-class success in the popular fiction of the moment. We have different phrases with which to dismiss better writing – elite literature, novels of ideas, boring, high-brow – but what we’re really dismissing is the possibility of looking beyond that constricting middle-class paradigm. So, yes, I do think it is limiting that young people might read only Ravinder Singh and Chetan Bhagat growing up. In fact if one looks to literature in the Indian languages the legacy of modernism (including the existential questioning that you refer to) is stronger there. I am thinking of writers such as Geetanjali Shree or Vinod Kumar Shukla in Hindi, for instance.


 

(d) General

1- What is your next book?

AH: It’s a book of short stories which doesn’t have a name at the moment. I’m still working on it.


2- Is your marriage to Zac O’ Yeah(a writer himself) a contributor to your prolific career?

Being married to Zac and being a writer have been very intertwined experiences for me. I think I wanted to be a writer since I was about seven years old. But the daily work of writing, the setting of writerly goals, the enjoyment of and patience with the slog – all of that I learnt from him. And we edit each other’s work which has been great for me.


* * *

 

10 Contemporary books by Indian male writers which have memorable female characters

In my second article for Women’s Web, I mention 10 books by Indian male writers which have memorable female characters.

When men write about women, women cringe, but what if the female characters in the books are written well with a unique voice and are memorable? In recent fiction in India, men have created female characters who demand their own space in their critically acclaimed books.


 

Interview 9– Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar

 

 

Author photo credit: MRINAL KUMAR

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is the author of the novel, “The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey”, which won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar 2015, jointly won the Muse India-Satish Verma Young Writer Award 2015, was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2014 and a Crossword Book Award 2014, and was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2016; a collection of short stories, “The Adivasi Will Not Dance”, which has been recommended for a course at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and was shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2016; and a number of non-fiction, fiction, and photographs that have been published in The International New York Times, The Indian Express, The Times of India, The Caravan Vantage, The Asian Age, Outlook, The Hindu Business Line BLink, Scroll, TheWire, The Sunday Guardian, American Book Review, Economic Times Blog, The Punch Magazine, Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II, and other places. His next novel, tentatively titled “A Memorial”, is forthcoming in late-2017.


Greetings Sowvendra,

It is an honour to interview a writer as accomplished as you. I just finished reading your debut book ‘The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey’ published by Aleph in 2014.


1- Let’s begin with your name. From your novel I found out that ‘Hansda’ is a family name. How is it your first name?

A- My father wanted me to have an impressive name, so he gave me a looong name with my surname placed at the beginning.


2- (i) It is a coincidence that I finished reading Doctors by Erich Segal just before your book. After reading it I concluded that one need not be a doctor to write a good story about doctors’ lives and maybe that conclusion came about because I’m not a doctor myself. As you are a doctor, what do you think?

A- If writing is not the primary profession of a person who writes, it is not necessary that that person’s primary profession should influence that person’s literary works. In some stories of mine, I have written about doctors and hospitals, but that is because I found a story in them and not because I am a doctor. I think anyone can write about anything.


(ii) In other interviews, you have been asked how your profession as a doctor affects your writing. Especially this book, because it is about a mysterious ‘ailment.’ In my reading of the book I did not feel that the doctor in you overshadowed the writer in you because to write well one has to be observant. The novel is a good observation of society, how the society perceives illness, human suffering, black magic, injustice, character, gender identity, caste etc. Any comments?

A- In one of my interviews, I said: “Doctors see things, not only ailments.” So, yes, we doctors are observant. But we doctors have to be observant. That is a prerequisite in our job. But as far as observing people and society and etc. goes, anyone can observe those. One just needs to be interested in what is happening in the world outside and keep one’s eyes and ears open.


3- You have created poles apart female characters in this book. Putki who had had many affairs before she got married and her daughter-in-law Rupi who doesn’t even know what being touched in the ‘conceiving’ way means. This self-awareness was brought out well in the novel. Can you tell us why you did it?

A- This wasn’t done consciously. I had not aimed to create some kind of a contrast between Putki and Rupi. It just happened.


4- Each chapter is broken down into small scenes with a little backstory about each character. You separate scenes with tildes. Did you do this to retain the reader’s attention span keeping in mind the novel form and the risk it poses when the reader gets distracted?

A- Well, I get distracted. My attention span is really poor and I have a hundred things running in my mind at a given moment. So if you think the chapters are like how you have described, that was probably because I wanted the chapters to suit my own poor attention span.


5- There is a witch family in the novel. The naikay family. You bring alive ghosts in your novel. They were really haunting, to be honest. Is this all from folklore or do women really have rolling eyes like the naikay’s wife?

A- They were all an amalgamation of the stories that I grew up hearing and my own imagination.


6- Della, the defiant daughter of the naikay family somehow escapes the grip of her witch mother. This reminds me of the movie Titli, in which the protagonist wishes to escape his patriarchal family and he eventually does. Any comments?

A- Yes, Della escapes. J And I have seen “Titli”. A very fine film. There is a difference between Della’s escape and Titli’s escape. Titli arranges for his brothers to be arrested before he starts a new life with Neelu. Della just leaves her family the way they are. Also, in both cases, I don’t think Della and Titli escaped. They just tried to seek the lives they thought were better and happier, with the people they loved.


7– Since this was your first book, can you tell us how you plotted the book. Minutely or you wrote it as it came? Considering the many characters, was it difficult?

A- Although “The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey” is my first book, the plot and characters were there in my mind for several years. I just had to sit down one day and write it all out. So I did it in May 2011. Started writing. I finished in October 2011. Despite the many characters, it wasn’t difficult because, like I said, everything was in my mind from quite early on.


8- Through your novel, I found out that Adivasis/Santhals/STs eat beef, pork and more. I have often been asked by vegetarians whether I eat ‘everything’ as it is quite common among Goans and Mangaloreans to consume meat. I feel like an outsider at such times and wonder why we are looked down upon for what we eat. You mention in the book that other people from the village look down upon Santhals for their eating habits. Any comments?

A- Well, yes, despite my own village being primarily a Santhal village, we Santhals have experienced discrimination at the hands of Hindus. Forget higher caste Hindus, even those lower caste Hindus that the upper caste Hindus wouldn’t want to see discriminated against the Santhals. They did not allow their things to be touched by Santhals. They did not consume food or water from or at a Santhal home. Things have improved a lot over the years. The discrimination of those years is not there anymore. But yes, discrimination is there. Adivasis are still considered impure and uncouth. Sometimes I think this entire hyphenated “Dalit-Adivasi” thing that we have created is an absolute sham. Just because Dalits and Adivasis hang around together in university campuses and offices does not mean that Dalits all over India have started seeing Adivasis as equals. It is OK for educated Dalits to see Adivasis as equals, but what about in the villages, in the interiors of our great country where traditions rule and inequality is a norm? University campuses might be hunky dory, but go into a village and all your education and idealism will fall flat on their faces. As long as caste and religious pride is there, people of different communities wouldn’t be seen as equal. Walls of caste and notions of who can be touched and who cannot be touched have to be demolished completely before even Dalits – the higher up Hindus are a far different story – accept Adivasis as equal.


9- I have been quite ignorant about Adivasis, please forgive my unintentional ignorance. When I was a child, on vacation in India, when I did not know something simple I guess, I was called an Adivasi. When I inquired what that meant. I was told it meant I don’t know anything just like the tribals and later on in my mind I thought they were tribals like the Amazon forest tribes.

 In your second book, The Adivasi will not dance, the protagonists have well-paid jobs and live in cities and towns. Your book sheds light on educated Adivasis. Is this possible because of the ST quota in college admissions etc.? Any comments?

A- Absolutely. Though I am not OK with the term Scheduled Tribe for Adivasis, I have to admit that the reservation for the Adivasis has helped us a lot in realising our dreams.


10- From stories narrated to me about life in Goa, I have had a certain picture of life there in my head. Rice fields in which women have to work, belief that black magic exists and is all powerful, ghosts wander about looking for lone people, people gossiping about each other… All this came to mind as I read your book where you have painted a similar picture of the Santhal village. Any comments?

A- I think in every part of the world, not only in India, not only in Jharkhand or in Goa, there might be things that are beyond rational explanation. That’s all I can say.


11- You faced a backlash after the publication of your second book. Can you tell us more?

A- Well, from what I know, after the publication of “The Adivasi Will Not Dance”, apparently, a non-Adivasi man, from an apparently higher up Hindu caste, masquerading as a champion of Adivasi issues, incited some Adivasis to spew poison against me and they did it. This is all I can say because I do not think people like these deserve even an alphabet from me or a nanosecond of my time.


12– (i) From your Facebook posts, I see that you love to bake. How did this hobby come about and are you as passionate about it as you are towards writing?

A- Not only baking, cooking, in general. I find cooking therapeutic. After returning home from a hypertension-inducing day of a government doctor, cooking a fine dish or a full meal is a total stress buster. How did I veer towards cooking? Because I love to eat. Sometimes I think I live to eat. And my mother and my aunt (my father’s sister, who taught me alphabets and raised me), are fabulous cooks. I am living away from my family, and I often wonder what will happen if my mother and aunt aren’t there tomorrow? So I am trying to learn to cook all the dishes that I have loved since my childhood and which my mother and aunt used to cook for me. Also, my mother and aunt – my aunt, especially – are fine knitters. All the fabulous sweaters in red and pink and green and golden that I wear at lit fests have been knitted by my aunt. So I am also learning how to knit because I want to be able to learn to knit at least one decent sweater before my mother and my aunt leave. Who will I turn to for hand-knitted woolens after they are gone? No one else can take their place. So I am preparing myself. But knitting is so difficult! Cooking and knitting—I am like obsessed with both.


(ii) in your novel, you describe how men and women are looked at differently by society, what defines their roles. Do you think people still consider baking as a feminine thing?

A- I cannot really say why men and women are seen differently by the society because gender roles and gender stereotypes have already been established. As for baking being a feminine activity, I do not see any activity as masculine and feminine. Why does one bake? Because one wishes to eat something to fill one’s stomach or to taste something good. Don’t men eat? So how can baking be a feminine activity? Basic tasks like cooking, washing clothes, cleaning the house, changing a light bulb, replacing the coil of an electric heater, ironing clothes, stitching a broken button—these are basic survival tasks. Everyone – whether boy or girl or man or woman – should know how to do these tasks.


13- (i) Your book was longlisted for the International Dublin Award last year. It is one of the most prestigious international literary awards.How did it feel?

A- It felt good. For 24 hours, at least, I was flying in the sky. Then I returned to my job, realised that I was in Pakur and not in Dublin, and was immediately grounded. I take this opportunity to thank the library at the India International Centre, New Delhi for nominating “The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey” to the International Dublin Literary Award 2016.

(ii) Akhil Sharma won it for his novel ‘Family Life’. Have you read his book?

A- No, I haven’t.


14- What do awards for your writing mean to you?

A- Well, I feel like living longer and writing some more.


15- Books you would recommend that shed light about Adivasis.

A- I will recommend three novels by Easterine Kire: “Bitter Wormwood”, “When The River Sleeps”, and “Son Of The Thundercloud”; and three books by Mamang Dai: “Legends Of Pensam”, “Stupid Cupid”, and “The Black Hill”.

And books published by the Kolkata-based independent, not-for-profit publishing house “Adivaani” which is a publishing house set up by an Adivasi, Ruby Hembrom, a Santhal woman, to publish works by Adivasi writers on Adivasi issues. Their website is: http://adivaani.org
Also, there are books published by the Sahitya Akademi in Santhali and other Adivasi languages which are recognised by the Constitution of India. I am not sure if these books are available in English translation or not, but they sure are a formidable source of information on the Adivasi communities in India.”

 


16- Your book has been translated into regional languages. What happens to the words from the novel that are written in english script but are of regional languages like Bengali/Santhali?

A- The words which are in Santhali or Bengali or Hindi or Odia in my stories originally written in English, I let the translator know that I do not want them translated. I want them in the original form. If the Santhali words can remain in original Santhali in an English story, I don’t see any reason to have them translated. So far, only “The Adivasi Will Not Dance” has been published in translation: in Hindi and in Marathi. So in the Hindi translation too, the Santhali words will remain in Santhali.


17- What are you working on next?

A- My third book, which is my second novel, is in the editing stage, and will be published by Speaking Tiger, hopefully, in November 2017. Right now, the working title of this novel is “A Memorial”, but I think this title will be changed and we will go with a new title. I am also writing my fourth book, which will be my third novel. This too has a working title but I won’t reveal it as, I am sure, it will end up revealing the entire plot. This too will be published by Speaking Tiger, hopefully in 2018.


 

Thank you!

Buy his books here

The Adivasi will not dance- Speaking Tiger, Amazon (Hindi version), Amazon (English).

The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey- Amazon, Flipkart, Aleph.