My interview in Techgoss, in conversation with writer and journalist Suneetha Balakrishnan
Chennai techie Indu Muralidharan graduated in Electronics and Communication Engineering at University of Madras and worked in a software product development MNC in Trivandrum and Tokyo before returning to hometown as Senior eCommerce Project Manager in a UK based company. Her word-prowess shows in her debut novel ‘Reengineers’, a coming of age novel with existential overtones.
Indu shares a birthday with noted Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, used to write a column on life in Technopark in the New Indian Express and was a semi-finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2008. She is also an avid bibliophile and keen to improve her writing techniques by conscious study. Here’s our conversation.
Techgoss (TG): Could you give us an intro?
Indu Muralidharan (IM): I grew up in Madras as Chennai was called in the nineties, in a very interesting time just before the advent of the internet. I graduated in Electronics and Communication Engineering from the University of Madras and worked in a software product development MNC in Trivandrum for a few years, was posted in Tokyo for about a year in between. Now I am back in my hometown Chennai where I work as Senior eCommerce Project Manager in a UK based company.
TG: Tell us about Reengineers. The premise is very interesting. How did the book happen? What brought the plot to you? How much time did you take to write this?
IM: When I first started writing, I found myself gravitating to the path of writers who have explored and stretched the boundary lines between fiction and reality. I rejoiced every time I reread Muriel Spark’s novels about literary protagonists whose narrative interweaves between fiction and reality in the world of the book while being cognizant at the same time of the reality of the reader’s world outside it. Thus inspired, I wrote ‘The Reengineers’ which blends the metafiction genre with young adult coming-of-age fiction through the premise of a character who writes the story of his author.
In her wonderful book ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’, Anne Lamott wrote about ‘shitty first drafts’ of books which then become more and more and refined with each revision. As I wrote The Reengineers, I discovered that not only manuscripts but ideas too could go through shitty first, second, third and perhaps several draft versions before they take on a solid shape.
The Reengineers grew from a set of disjoint ideas and a few pages of early stories. A few years ago, I wrote a bunch of short stories about a young man called Siddharth who lived with his sister in the remote town of Conchpore. I thought about developing this into a full-length collection of stories called the chronicles of Siddharth. But I found that I hardly knew anything about Siddharth, except that he was very unhappy and wanted nothing more than to get away from Conchpore and his dysfunctional family.
Sometime later, I was writing random paragraphs about three teenagers from Madras in the early nineties who had been displaced into another time and space in a fictional world. I wrote many drafts of the story of these three kids. Somewhere along the way, they met Siddharth and that was the catalyst for the story, which turned into this book.
TG: You were a finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Award, tell us about the experience. Have you been appreciated likewise at any other podiums?
IM: I was a semi-finalist at the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2008. I finished the first draft of The Reengineers just in time to enter the contest and was surprised and delighted to be chosen as a semifinalist. The semi-finalist’s prize was a review from Publisher’s Weekly which was encouraging, as was the feedback from readers who reviewed the book’s excerpt on Amazon.com. I had wonderful, productive interactions with fellow writers on the Amazon forum, discussing various aspects of writing, editing and publishing. I learnt a great deal from the experience.
I also received some very good constructive criticism from published authors, which made me look at my manuscript objectively and gave me an understanding of where it needed improvement. Based on this feedback, I set about reading a number of books on writing to study the basics of the craft (Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ and James N. Frey’s wonderful ‘damn good novel’ series were especially helpful) and rewrote the novel a couple of times before I eventually got the contract with HarperCollins.
TG: What else have you written?
IM: I have been writing since I was five years old. For a long time my writing was influenced by whatever I happened to be reading during the period. I remember writing my first novel at ten, and another at twelve, and two more when I was in college. I started writing seriously when I started working. I wrote a series of features in the Life Positive magazine, on spirituality in corporate life, management, folk art, travel and lesser-known spiritual masters. For a short while, I wrote a column on life in Technopark in the New Indian Express. My poems, book reviews and short stories have been published in a few magazines and literary journals. However after I wrote my first novel, I realized that I wanted to focus on the form of the novel.
TG: What or Who do you read? You have an active blog where you do book reviews. Tell us about that too.
IM: To quote Yann Martel, the greatness of literature is that in reading about fictional others, we end up reading about ourselves, a self-examination that makes us wiser and existentially thicker. For years, this has been my credo as a reader.
I have too many favourite authors, to list just a few – Muriel Spark, who is one of my greatest influences in writing. I adore her as a writer and as a remarkable woman who knew that her priority in life was her art, and celebrated her life as an artist in her work. Vladimir Nabokov, with whom I share a birthday. Though I was a precocious reader as a child, I stayed away from Lolita for many years due to the disturbing premise. But when I finally read it, I loved it so much that I carried the book with me everywhere for a few days, overwhelmed by the beauty of the prose. I greatly admire Julian Barnes and every once in a while, re-read almost everything he has published (Flaubert’s Parrot is on my top ten of favourite books of all time). Likewise J.D. Salinger, whose four books have been an important presence in my life since my teens.
I see myself as a humanist rather than a feminist but I greatly admire and respect the work of Fay Weldon. Nick Hornby, almost everything he has published (High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked are special favourites). Jeffrey Eugenides, each of whose books are by themselves a study in the craft of writing. Barbara Kingsolver, especially The Bean Trees which is one gem of a debut novel. Alexander McCall Smith is a special favourite – Besides the delightful Von Igelfeld novels, I absolutely love his Scotland Street and Sunday Philosophy Club series of books. Reading his Corduroy Mansions online on The Telegraph online was like being back in the days of Dickens’ serial novels, with the added advantage of interactions with fellow readers and sometimes the author himself on the web page.
Other writers I admire include Amy Tan, Yoko Ogawa, Kate Atkinson, Karen Russell, Julie Otsuka, Diane Setter field, Susanna Clarke, I could go on and on. If I like an author’s work, I try to read everything they have written and I tend to re-read favourite books multiple times.
Metafiction and YA are among my pet genres: Jorges Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Carlos Ruis Zafon, Jonathan Stroud, Alan Bradley (The Flavia de Luce novels), John Green, Neil Gaiman among others. (I adored Stroud’s Lockwood series). I have learnt much about the writing process from Nathan Bransford’s blog and I enjoyed his Jacob Wonderbar novels.
As a technology enthusiast and literature lover, I absolutely loved Robin Sloan’s ‘Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour-Bookstore’. In this context, I greatly enjoyed Vikram Chandra’s ‘Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code’.
The coming of age novel with existential overtones is a favourite subgenre, I think The Reengineers falls in this category. Novels I love in this genre include Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a wallflower, Ned Vizzini’s It’s kind of a funny story and the wonderful ‘The Elegance of the hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery.
Among Indian authors, Ruskin Bond, R K Narayan (but of course), A K Ramanujan, Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Lavanya Sankaran, Kalpana Swaminathan, Rupa Bajwa, Chandrahas Choudhury (Arzee the Dwarf as well as his literary blog), Jerry Pinto, translations from Bengali literature by Arunava Sinha… once again a very long list. Srividya Natarajan’s ‘No Onions nor Garlic’ is an all-time favourite novel, one that I have gifted to several people. I wish she wrote more.
I enjoy reviewing books, diving deep into the various dimensions of the plot, the premise and the characters. I have not been very active on the blog and social media since last November as the edit of The Reengineers and writing my second novel had taken over all my time after office hours. I am slowly resuming blogging now.
TG: What’s your writing schedule?
IM: I spend two hours every weekday morning, writing or studying creative writing textbooks. On weekends, it is anywhere between four to ten hours, depending on my day job which sometimes spills into the weekends (no complaints for I love my day job and it is common enough in the IT industry to work long hours).
My day job in software complements my writing. I find that the precision, problem solving skills and out-of-the-box-thinking needed to create business solutions and project plans, and the mandate to meet tight deadlines, actually nurtures my creativity and gives me the discipline to pursue my writing and studies after office hours.
TG: What is your dream book, the one that hope to write some day?
IM: There are just too many great books that I admire for various reasons, which have reached out to me in different ways, and there is no way I can choose any one of them alone as a dream book.
I am constantly working to evolve my writing voice into one that is both literary and accessible, and I hope I am able to realise that better in each of my succeeding books. In the writing process, I find that all my thoughts are focused on whatever book I am working on at present, which makes my second novel my current dream book.
TG: What’s next?
IM: I see fiction as a teacher and a guide, as a source of strength and nourishment for the mind. Several books have helped me face and overcome setbacks and challenges, raise relevant questions on my life and find my own answers. Towards understanding this aspect of fiction better, I wrote my second novel, which is currently a draft in revision and am working on a third. I am excited about these books, both of which are about the energy that one finds in books and the healing power of fiction.