A Never Ending Affair with Writing

Well, Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and it doesn’t make even a smidgen of difference to me. Yes, really. I write romances because I like the genre (and I enjoy reading them as well) but that’s about it. I thought it would be nice however, to put up this little chat I had with my friend Kanchana Bannerjee whose book A Forgotten Affair I recently read.

Congratulations on your first book. It’s a great debut. But as a reader I first want to know if Sagarika will ever get her memory back.

Honestly I don’t know. It doesn’t matter if she gets her memory back or not; what’s important is that she realizes and discovers her self. She understands the abusive marriage she was in and stands up to that, rejects it, confronts her husband and walks out. The story isn’t about memory loss or getting it back. It’s really about a woman’s quest to find her inner strength.

What was the inspiration for this story?

The society we live in, the marriages I see around me. I see so many women who have accepted submission in their personal relationships. They are minimized and put down. It’s a myth that abuse happens only in the lower strata of society. It is just as rampant in so-called educated and affluent homes. I wanted to write about this. Often this happens in such a subtle form that women themselves don’t think much about it. Some don’t reveal how much they earn, some tell the husband they are going to the salon when they are off for a meeting. They joke about this, saying what’s the harm in a small white lie if it keeps him happy. This is wrong, so wrong. Women need to accept this first.

There are times when I felt that if Rishab had been a grey character instead of outright black, there would have been more conflict for Sagarika and the readers. Were you ever tempted to make him the suffering husband?

In my first draft Rishab was mildly bad and the four friends who stepped in as beta readers, unanimously said, the story is very placid. Why does Sagarika not like the husband? That’s when I re-worked and made him a dark and despicable. I enjoyed his character more when he became so psychotic and crazy. I love dark and evil characters. They are more fun. In my novel 2 there are two characters who are unapologetically bad. Very very bad, evil and nasty and there’s no sad story to justify their actions. I love such characters.

Do you like naming your books before you write them or after you write them? What was the case with A Forgotten Affair?

I’m horrible with naming my books. I can write 80K words, even more easily but to think of a title; I’m no good. Clearly I’m not a woman of few words. So the novel was called The Accident till my editor stepped in and christened it A Forgotten Affair. My second novel is called Novel 2. That should tell you how awful I am with titles.

As a reader I’m not sure how I feel about open ended endings but as a writer I love them because there’s always the chance for a sequel. Any plans for a sequel?

No, there will be no sequels. I don’t like sequels. In my opinion all sequels are awful except for very few books like Harry Potter, Hunger Games. A Forgotten Affair had to be open-ended. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I know the ending soon after I start writing. I know the beginning and the end; so then it’s all about reaching the end.

Sagarika’s affair with Akash is presented in a very non-judgmental manner which I liked but do you think it gives out the message that people should take happiness where they can find and to hell with commitments? Her friend Roohi does act as her voice of conscience which she ignores.

We live in a society where such relationships happen. As a writer it isn’t my job to pass judgement. I’m not a moral cop. Neither am I writing a book to sermonize people or impart a lesson. I write because I enjoy writing. Through the story I’m not trying to send any message at all. I’m just presenting a slice of life as I see. Read it, enjoy it and if it triggers some thought in you, that’s great. 

What’s your typical working day like, as a writer?

I’m a morning writer. I write best in the morning and like to be done with at least 3 hours of it before noon. I have worked from home as a freelance writer for a long time so I’m very disciplined about my work.

It was great chatting with Kanchana and her book is an unusual love story. One that tells you to love yourself first, and its devoid of mushiness. It’s a mature story and perfect for Valentine’s Day. Go read it!

 

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Musing about Super Zeroes and Heartbreak with Jane De Suza

I met Jane a couple of years ago at Imli with a group of other writers where all of us were trying to figure out how we could market our work better. Jane and I met again in Atta Galatta for the first Super Zero book launch and we soon became part of a secret society that is trying hard to break the bestseller code (seriously. Okay not serious. Just kidding).

Jane moderated a session at the launch of my book When She Went Away and both of us were recently part of a panel at BLF called Badass Women. Ahem. Jane writes for adults and children and I’ve read both and admire how well she manages both. So naturally, I had to pick her brain and make her do this for my blog.

Since you write for children and adults with such ease (as it appears to us readers),which do you prefer to write? Why?
Writing for children came as unplanned as almost every other move in my life. A Penguin commissioning editor was looking for good ideas and writers, and I spoke to her about mine – and the rest was SuperZero.  After diving into the children’s writing genre, I have to admit I enjoy the workshops and festivals and interactions with small readers much more. I find meeting kids more fun.
However, when it comes to the writing, I feel I grow a little more with each book I write for adults. I have to dig much deeper and it’s a much more thoughtful journey. The writing changes me as a human being, with the range of questions it makes me ask myself.

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How did the idea for Super Zero come to you? And what about the other amazing supporting characters? Like each one of them is unique and special.

It was while staring at one of those Pre-IIT course ads in the papers and feeling really miffed that every kid in our country was to be judged on whether he could make it to an engineering degree or not –that the idea hit me. I mean, every kid is a hero, right? My own boy used to run around with a cape his grandma fashioned out of my dupatta. SuperZero is about each kid’s special power. Each one is unique, and needs to recognize that – and I hope the little readers get that message.

 

In Happily Never After, the parts where the daughter intrudes in the blog through her diary are often quite hilarious. But the rest of the book while still dealing with a heavy issue is presented in a light manner through much comedy of errors. Did you plan it all?

Hmm, yes, I do have a tongue-in-cheek syndrome. And I do see the world through a funny filter, and that helps me put across the most wrenching of issues without any sob-inducing narrative.  My book for me, needs to be, as you say, hilarious but not flippant – that’s a fine line. The style may be humorous, the issues deep.

That reminds me a bit of Marian Keyes’ books also. She tackles issues like depression and domestic abuse through her books. Do you enjoy writing those kind of books too?

I haven’t yet read Marian Keyes, but you’re right, I lean towards books which thread humour into the telling of life’s toughest problems.

Who are your favourite authors?

Roddy Doyle, Nick Hornby, Anees Salim, Sue Townsend and their ilk.

Who’s your favourite female protagonist? Tina or Gulabi?

Gulabi is a wild child. She’s the burning anger at injustice I have inside me. Tina’s the thoughtful one, the gentle, muddling one.  She’s me too. I’d need to be schizophrenic to answer this question, so I won’t.

 

gGulabi is not just a badass but also makes a kickass entry into the city from her small village. How did this story come about in your head?

From growing up in the cow belt. I was brought up among women whose attire was as colourful as their language. Yellow saris and paan-soaked lips, and jokes as raunchy as they come. And yet, they are portrayed to the world at large as a head-covered, voiceless, unfortunately-born-female. Gulabi sprang out , brandishing her own brand of humour and craziness from this world.

 

How come the head that Gulabi finds in The Spy Who Lost her Head doesn’t smell and alert her that it’s not a pumpkin but an actual head she’s got with her?

All’s fair in love, war and fiction. The book’s set up as a farce, so deviations from reality are generously scattered throughout.

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Vikrant in Happily Never After was not as developed as I would have liked to see him but then it’s a blog from Tina’s POV, so yes, understandable. Are you planning to write something from a male POV sometime soon?

The female voice comes naturally to me. And the male voice would be forced, I’d think. However, I will attempt a male point of view – just not in his voice. As a third person…
Of course, the SuperZero series has a boy relating it all, which is easy, because I have two boys of my own, and their “think”-ummijigs are familiar territory.

Would you like to tell us about your writing method?

I am a temperamental writer. I can’t write unless it’s bubbling within me, and then it just writes itself out –through one late night after another. I write when it’s absolutely quiet and relentlessly into the night hours. I don’t belong to the school of writing where I sit at my manuscript everyt day and churn out 1000 words. Those words would then be as light as the paper they were printed on. The book needs to write itself, and for that, I need to feel crazily, passionately and unstoppably like writing it.

 

What’s next for you? Children’s fiction or adult fiction?

I have ideas and scribbles in both, and it’s a matter of whoever (like the older twin) pushes itself out first. I seriously feel that a book writes itself when it’s time is right -I’m helpless to make that happen unless it’s ready.

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In search of thrills and chills with Shweta Taneja

The best part about being friends with other writers is that you can press pause while reading their books and quickly fire off a Whatsapp message to them, asking what they meant by this or that. The other advantage is that you can harass them for longer answers which you can then proceed to put up on your own blog.

I met Shweta recently at lunch (with some other writer friends) and I had just started reading her book How to steal a ghost @Manipal on the Juggernaut app. So, I couldn’t ask her much immediately but once I was done with the book, I knew I had several questions to ask her.

Without further ado –

 

AW: Were you always interested in writing about ​the ​paranormal? How did you get interested in it​?

ST: Oh yes, my interested in the paranormal, in supernatural, in ghosts, monsters, aliens, and the idea of ‘others’ has been with me way before I chose the medium of writing. What continues to fascinate me is the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ conundrum. With monsters or the paranormal creatures, we always think of them as the ‘others’. I continue to look at this clash of what human versus others in most of my work in fantasy. And it’s been a fascination for as long as I can remember. When I was little, all I wanted to do was sit in a story circle with my cousins on a dark, stormy night when there was no electricity and scare the heebie-jeebies out of them with horror tales of a monster than had floppy, replaceable gooey eyes and claw-like hands. I love the freedom fantasy gives me to create and explore, to make new rules, new societies and new behaviours of creatures.

AW: Whenever I watch a lot of horror (like American Horror Story for example), I get a lot of dreams and nightmares about it. What about you? Do you get nightmares too?

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ST: Absolutely. Especially when I’m in the middle of writing a thriller scene—which considering I write thrillers for a living, is on a regular basis. The scariest I remember was in the middle of a scene from my tantric fantasy, Anantya Tantrist series. I was writing a scene where Anantya’s teacher Dhuma dances with skeletons for a ritual. Now I’m in the middle of this scene, it’s late at night, I also happen to be home alone. I lie in bed to sleep, close my eyes and maybe I doze off, or maybe my imagination is still rolling, but I see this old woman, very similar to the one I’m writing about, a halo of uncombed striking white hair around her face and she’s two inches away from my face and well…she screamed, like she was supposed to do in the scene, except this was right in my face and my eyes flew open and I was just so, so, so scared. With no one to console me, of course. Oh well. The pitfalls of the work we be in.

AW: I read How to Steal a Ghost @ Manipal ​and thought it was an interesting combination of sci-fi and paranormal fiction. Especially with all those gadgets that Twinkle uses. Did you do a lot of research into all of this?

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ST: Thanks for your kind feedback on the Manipal book! It did take a lot of research for me to get there, for there are a lot of aspects I wanted to ring true in the book. On one hand were the urban legends, folklore and myths of places in and around Manipal that I wanted to include. Then I wanted to base these stories on real-life clashes, themes that we hear in the area, concerns that people have. My research included listening in to people, reading blogs, news from Mangalore coastal area, even a few books about the unique legends that lie in the area. Finally to build up a paranormal gadgety layer on the world and to create a paranormal fiction, I researched real ghost hunter groups and the gadgets they use across the world. It was a fascinating thing. A few gadgets I included in the book, like EMF meters actually exist, while a few gadgets we see Twinkle making are pure fiction. It was fun to create this layer of fiction on the rockbed of research. I like doing that. Mixing real and fiction so closely that you’re never sure what’s what.

AW: What are your favorite genres in reading?

ST:  I can’t get enough of science fiction, diverse fantasy, narrative non-fiction and sometimes for a change literary fiction. Favourite authors include William Darlymple, Samit Basu, Isaac Asimov, Ursula Le Guin, Hillary Mantel, GRR Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Terry Pratchett.

AW: Which is your favourite horror book/movie/tv show?

ST: There are so many. I’ve always loved the way Stephen King creates a horror tale. It’s not an obvious oh-my-god-the-monsters-attacking type of fiction, more psychological, like you’re never sure if the narrator is reliable or not and the character keeps on falling deeper and deeper into that ditch. Amazing. Other horror fic writers that I’ve liked are a few stories from Roald Dahl, thriller-horrors like The Silence of the Lambs. In movies I absolutely adore the B-grade Ramsay Brother Bollywood  ones (yes, I know, I know) and Korean horror gives me the absolute terrors. I like fantastical horror TV shows with a lot of blood and gore like Dexter and American Horror Story.

AW: Which is the favourite character you’ve written?

ST: Till now? Definitely Anantya Tantrist. I’ve written three books of hers so far and I know I will be writing more of her in future. She’s this kickass tantric who is confident enough to walk on the streets of Delhi at night, solving supernatural crime. She is sassy, with a lot of attitude, a breathless freedom and don’t-care attitude about her which I absolutely adore. I also love the world I’ve build up around her that’s full of rich and colourful takes from Indian mythology and the books kind of run from one scene to another as she faces tantrics, deals with monsters, creatures, supernatural beings, alternating between ruthlessness and empathy. It’s been quite a rich experience and quite fun creating her and the world she inhabits.

AW: How much of all your ghost/paranormal stories are inspired by real-life?

ST:  It’s a mix of both reality and fiction. I get a lot of my ideas from real life stories I either read in blogs, in social media updates or now that people know I’m interested in both paranormal and supernatural, people message me or tell me stories on phone! I’ve always believed and continue to believe that reality as much, much weirder than things I can ever imagine myself, so yes there’s definitely a tadka of real-life in my stories, though the setting, the way the story plays or the characters might be different.

AW: What’s the creepiest thing that has ever happened to you?

ST: Oh well. The above episode I mentioned was pretty creepy. Then these was this ghost sighting I mentioned in a blog on real-life ghost stories I heard. A long time ago, as a teen, I’d gone to a camp from my school. We camped in a valley near Manali. It was a beautiful clear night, the sky was laden with stars. We’d finished dinner. It was late and we sat on a ledge away from the camps, chatting. About 30 meters behind the ledge, I saw a figure in white. At first I thought it was girl, but there was something weird about the figure. It was hazy and gliding towards us. Not walking. I blinked and asked others if they saw the same thing as me. The figure shimmered in the starlight almost like she had a torch under the white ensemble. And kept gliding towards us. All of us were now looking at the figure, wondering what it was. We tried to fit a lot of logics, but nothing worked. The figure vanished a few minutes later. Till now I don’t know what it was.

 

Whoa, that was creepy. If you love this kind of fiction, then you definitely should read Shweta’s books. I do enjoy horror (recent development) so I’m surely going to give her Anantya books a try!

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A chat with Zainab Sulaiman

Zainab and I met early last year when our common publishers treated us for ice cream (yes, they’re very cool like that!) and we met on and off at book launches etc. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the book launch of Simply Nanju but I had the pleasure of reading it recently. What can I say? Totally wowed by it.

In case you’re not aware, Simply Nanju is set in a school for disabled children and Zainab writes from her own experience as being a teacher at such a school in Bangalore. I got the chance to ask her some questions about her writing and everything and decided to put it up here. By the way, I’ll be doing more of this soon, meaning talking to other writers and putting up our conversations here. Here goes:

AW: What’s your writing routine like? As in when do you prefer to write?

ZS:  No routine at the moment, as am swamped with work – I work at a sports company and head their HR. But otherwise like to write in the mornings when I’m fresh and well-fed. I wake up ravenous and can’t do anything until I’ve eaten a good breakfast 🙂

AW: Are all the characters in Simply Nanju based on real kids you met while you taught at that special school, or did some fictional ones also creep in? Tell us the names of one real character and one fictional character please?

ZS: Mostly, ‘inspired’ by real children 🙂 Nanju’s a real enough character; Pratik’s more fictional.

AW: I guffawed when I read about ‘Gussel Market’. Any reason why you changed this name as well?

ZS:  Pure laziness! Couldn’t think up a good name and so just changed poor old Russel market into Gussel market, haha. There’s another such change I made – again out of sheer sloth; those familiar with Fraser Town might have picked up on it.

AW: Was your experience as a teacher enough to write this book or did you do more research? Any books you read?

ZS: I set out by volunteering, then moved to fund raising, then got a special Ed degree in inclusive education. So yes, a lot of research in that sense 🙂 Didn’t read any specific books in this genre though as I had a fair idea of what I wanted to write – though the plot was a killer! – and didn’t want to be too influenced by anything written in a similar vein; though books about disability and inclusion are honestly few and far between.

AW: What genre of books do you enjoy reading? Anything you’d like to recommend?

ZS: I love crime stories but the gentler ones – can’t handle the very dark violent versions; there’s enough chaos in the world as it is. Good ole Agatha Christie and now, Alexander McCall Smith are favourites.

AW: Are you writing something else now? Fiction? Non-fiction?

ZS: Yes, and it’s fiction. Hopefully it won’t take me another three years to write though!

AW: How did you decide the name of this book? I’m always at a loss when it comes to this part of writing.

ZS: I didn’t actually. Sayoni and Anushka thought it up 🙂 And no one sucks more than me at finding an appropriate name!

AW: Is your next book also for children? Do you want to tell us a bit about it?

ZS: No, it’s for adults. And wouldn’t really want to talk about it till it’s clearer in my head 🙂

And finally, since there are hardly any books about disability in India, especially fiction,

AW: Any advice for writers who want to write about disability?

ZS: Write from the heart. Don’t be scared.

 

Friends, this is a book that you must read!

 

Buy Simply Nanju here.

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What’s in a name?

 

Judy Balan, author of the best selling novel Two Fates, Sophie Says and the more recent Nina the Philosopher series is a very good friend of mine. Since both of us are writers, we do talk a lot about the writing process and what works or doesn’t. One thing I’ve noticed about Judy is her fascination for naming her characters correctly.

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I thought it would be fun to have a Q and A with her about this for both our readers. So here goes.

AW: As someone who would happily name her characters X, Y and Z if given the option, I find it to be one of the most taxing parts of getting started with writing a novel. Does the right name for a character matter much to you? And why? 

JB: Agree it’s taxing but yes, it’s extremely important to me. In fact, I can’t get on with the story if I don’t get the name right. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a great name. If I feel it doesn’t completely align with the character (and this is an entirely subjective, irrational process), I just can’t tell the story. Have you tried walking with a pair of fabulous shoes that are a size too small? It’s like that. 

AW:Okay, J K Rowling is a league apart in every possible way. She’s also one of the authors who has given the most interesting names to her characters except the titular character of Harry Potter. I’d love to hear what you think about this. 

JB: Oh, I had read in an interview a long time ago that she wanted a common name for the protagonist in order to make him relatable. Since she was writing for children, she wanted every child to see himself/herself as Harry. And I agree with that logic because Harry is so common, it’s almost like a non-name. Which means, you can easily replace it with your own. 

AW:Two of my favourite writers, J K Rowling and Rick Riordan hold the notion in their books that ‘names have powers’. On the other hand, we have Shakespeare saying, what’s in a name, a rose by any name would smell as sweet. What do you think? A name is a name is a name or is it something more? 

JB: For me, it’s more. But I also know that many of us don’t identify with our own names, especially those of us with a weird combination of names (yes, Judy Pavithra Balan was traumatic). So I like having some fun with this as well. In my second book, my lead character was called Sophia Thilagam but insisted on calling herself Sophia Tilgum. I’m not saying that a fabulous person can’t make a dull name dazzle, or an obnoxious combination of names sound cool. But I’d leave that job for people who want to write life-changing, path-breaking fiction. Also – just saying – Vera Mindy Chockalingam simply does not have the same ring to it as Mindy Kaling. 

AW: Is there any special name you like a lot? Please don’t say Yatan. Apart from that. 

JB : Ha ha. Funnily, someone liked Yatan because he said it looked like ‘Satan’ and someone else had trouble seeing him as this badass in the book because he knew someone named Yatan who was quite the opposite. As for favourite names, where do I begin! I love the name iola (I’ve used small i ’cause I don’t want it to be confused with Lola) from Hardy Boys. I wanted to name my daughter that but picked Kiara ’cause I thought the chances of people butchering this name would be much less. Couldn’t have been more wrong – she gets called Kyaara, Keera, Kyra and Keerai (which means spinach in Tamil). 

As for last names, I have a terrible weakness for names that include three consonants in a row or names that end with z next to a consonant. Like, Horowitz. Noticed that’s the last name of one of the creators of Once Upon A Time. Also, it’s combined with ‘Adam’ (another favourite) so that’s kind of like an ideal name in my head. Other favourites are names that include ‘owska,’ ‘vrski’ and such. Add an accent (` ~ ‘) to it and I’m weak in the knees. Yes, it’s almost a fetish. 

AW: How do you go about choosing a name for your characters? Crowd sourcing? Or Internet? 

JB : Facebook friends list 😀 I don’t usually find anything that works for the character but since my characters are Indian, I usually go there to see if anything clicks. But usually, the name just happens. On its own. And yes, I’ve crowd-sourced too! That’s how I got Ryan for Sophie Says.

AW: Do you feel that the name of the character has something to do with the reader’s expectation from the character? For example, someone named Anya comes across as modern and sassy while Anita is old school and frumpy. 

JB: Of course. If I’m writing a romantic comedy, I can’t name my sizzling male lead Murugusundaram. No matter how unconventional I might want to be, that’s just not done. Also, I’m yet to meet a sizzling Murugusundaram. 

AW: How much time do you actually spend over naming your characters? And do the characters adopt the name properly?

JB: I don’t start the book till I have the names. While I might know exactly what the character is like, I can’t get her voice right if I can’t get her name right. It’s a pain and this is how I end up procrastinating. 

AW: I recently finished writing a book and I changed the main character’s sister’s name. Now I feel like this character is a stranger to me. Has that happened to you? A character that you’ve renamed for some reason and now the world knows them with this name and yet in your head you still call him/her something else? 

JB: Nope. I couldn’t name a character anything other than what I call her/him in my head. I’d feel like I’m sending her out into the world under cover or something. Wait, that’s kind of cool, now that I think of it. It might be the closest I’d come to writing a mystery novel. 

AW: Which is easier? Male or female names? 

JB: Female. But then again, this is because of the Indian name restriction. It’s very annoying. 

AW: I find I’m fond of the letter R when it comes to naming my other characters. Don’t know why. Do you have any such quirks? 

JB: Yes. Vrski. Say it out loud and you’d agree with me. That purring sound it makes in your mouth makes it the perfect name to scream in a fit of passion. Vrrrssssskkkiiiii. 

Thanks for the funny and entertaining answers Judy. Guess everyone knows now what weirdos we are!

Judy’s second book in the Nina series is coming soon! Watch out for it as well as some, ahem, amazing books by her next year!

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