An interview by author Ruchira Khanna on her website. I enjoyed answering her insightful questions.
What sparked off the idea for your first book?
When I started writing seriously, 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 protagonists whose narrative interweaves between fiction and reality in the world of the novel while being cognizant at the same time of the reader’s world outside it. This was my primary inspiration.
The Reengineers grew from a few stories that I wrote about a character Siddharth who was forced to live in Conchpore – a place that he hated, and his relationship with his dysfunctional family. I thought about developing this into a full-length collection. 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 family. Sometime later, I began to write a story about three teenagers from Madras in the early nineties who were displaced into another time and space in a fictional world. I wrote many drafts of the story of these three youngsters.
Somewhere along the way, they met Siddharth and the metafictional premise took over the novel that became The Reengineers.
2. Does the journey of seeing an idea develop and flourish into a full-fledged book teach you something about yourself or make you a better person in any way?
In her wonderful book ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’, Anne Lamott writes about ‘shitty first drafts’ which 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 and perhaps several draft versions before they take on a solid shape.
It is an immense learning experience, each time. I started my second novel as a light-hearted story of a young woman’s encounters with potential suitors on a matrimony site. I had intended it to be a gentle story with fluffy humour, fuzzy sentiments and a neatly tied up happy ending, as I created the plot framework, wrote the step-sheet and defined the characters. But the first draft of the manuscript did not simply work for me, even though a few kind friends who read it said that they enjoyed it. I rewrote the entire novel from scratch, retaining just a few bits and pieces from the first, and found that it had turned into an exploration of the power balance between genders in man-woman relationships through the twentieth century until the present day. I was surprised at the things that the characters revealed about themselves in the second draft. It certainly gave me deeper insights into my own character and worldview, which was quite an enriching experience. I have a growing pile of notes and a clear plot outline for my third novel which I intend to be a light comedy, but when I get to the second draft of the manuscript, I am really not sure how it will turn out.
3. Writing is a craft that requires extended periods of alone time to allow creative juices to flow and take shape. Do you have any personal favourites of combatting this isolation?
I have always enjoyed the sweetness of solitude, with books as much as with my own thoughts. As a writer and as an empath, I often find the company of other people predictable and stifling. I avoid crowded places as far as possible and have no qualms about skipping social visits and events that I feel do not add value. When I used to stay with my parents in the city where they currently live, I had a tough time avoiding their relatives, friends and neighbours who would drop in without notice and stay for hours, they even brought their pesky children sometimes – it was quite annoying. Ever since I moved into my own home, I have relished the peace and quiet that I have to myself after office hours. I have a select circle of close extended family and friends with whom I enjoy occasional meetings and conversations, interactions which stimulate and inspire me as a person and writer, but most of the time I rejoice in solitude.
4. What is your life philosophy?
Short Answer: As a spiritual seeker, I explore the dimensions of meaning of the self through the study and practice of literature.
Long Answer: To add to why I arrived at the above, I have often wondered why my life did not take the standard trajectory followed by most of my peers. As a topper throughout school and college, I had very specific goals at different stages of my school and undergraduate years. At fourteen, I wanted to do research in applied mathematics. At eighteen, I wanted to get into consumer electronics design. At twenty one, I nearly got admission into an integrated program for a doctorate in astrophysics. What I had not expected was that I would get depressed at fifteen and the condition would persist on and off for the next few years, hampering my courage to make independent decisions towards my life goals, each time.
Soon after graduation, I found myself working in the IT industry like most of my classmates, not in the chip research firm of my dreams in New Jersey, not even in my hometown Chennai, but in a nondescript little city where my parents had chosen to move for its mild climate. Depression while it lasted, kept me in that place, and books kept me alive during that phase of exile, both literal and otherwise. Soon after I was cured, I moved back home to Chennai and rewrote the story of my life, even as I wrote this experience into what would become my first published novel, The Reengineers. My forthcoming two novels likewise explore dimensions of life through the prism of fiction.
5. Artists in any creative field are thought leaders. Do you agree?
I think that statement is a sweeping generalisation. The artist’s primary role is to create, and create true to their inspiration, and keep practicing their art. An artist needs to have a wide knowledge of the work done in their field, a formidable body of their own work as well as acknowledgement of their work among the thinking audience, both academic as well as the general reader (public), before they can be considered a thought leader.
6. Do you lead your imagination or do you allow imagination to lead you?
It happens both ways. It is always wonderful to feel imagination stirring within the mind, evoking words, images and ideas, though very often these impressions turn out to be quite different once they are written down on the page. A certain amount of discipline and organisation is required to plot and structure a novel. I approach this the same way I plan my software projects in my day job (I had used Microsoft Project to make a project plan for creating the first draft of The Reengineers). But during the actual writing, I let imagination take over. Of course, there are always many, many revisions.
7. How important is the commercial side of writing and promoting your book as opposed to the sheer joy of the creative art of expression
I write because I have to write. I cannot not write. Writing is at the core of my life. It is my purpose, my passion and my greatest joy.
With so many books being published every day, many of them exceptionally good (my to-be-read list covers a few good miles), authors must promote their books if they are to reach as many readers as possible.
Since it was published, I have been delighted and gratified with the readers’ response to The Reengineers. Many people wrote to me saying that they enjoyed the book and could strongly identify with the characters. However, I realise that I must help promote the book if it has to reach a wider audience. Promoting too is an interesting exercise, a time to retrospect on the process of writing, on the book itself with respect to the feedback from the critics and readers. (For example, I greatly enjoyed answering your insightful questions in this interview).
The Reengineers is the story of a character and his author, which becomes complete when it is read, which I mention in the book’s acknowledgements as: “And you, Dear Reader, for it is when you read, that this story of the author and his hero becomes complete.”
So yes, promotion is quite important.