Chaitali Sen on Real Life Inspiration: Traces of My Grandmother

Chaitali Sen  The Pathless Sky

My grandmother was born in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, in a town named Dinajpur, around the year 1909, according to our calculations. She was married at thirteen to a man in his twenties – my grandfather, who outlived her by almost ten years. She had her first child at sixteen and all together gave birth to seven children, raising six to adulthood. She died in 1971 of heart failure, when I was a year old.

For most of my life, the things I knew about my grandmother were like this: numbers, data, isolated facts. None of the bits I collected from my mother or aunts ever came together to form a full picture, or more accurately, the feeling of grandmother that I craved. I don’t know if she was a warm or affectionate person, if she was reserved, gregarious, fond of being alone or in groups, or even if she was a good mother. My mother sometimes joked that by the time she was born, eighteen years after her eldest sister, my grandmother was already worn out. Seemingly, my aunts did their fair share of parenting, and it’s unclear how much time my mother and grandmother actually spent together.

Only one thing I’ve always heard about my grandmother gives me any idea of who she was. My mother often talks about her accomplishments and how intelligent she was. Without a formal education, she had no choice but to seek outlets for intellectual stimulation in the domestic sphere. She managed the complicated household finances of a large family, at one point in two countries while the family was split between Burma and India. She stayed on site day after day as a new house in Calcutta was being built, supervising its construction down to the mixing of the cement that would become the walls and floors of their new home. She was an accomplished cook who learned dishes from a variety of cuisines, and her intricate embroideries have been passed down to us on bedcovers and handkerchiefs.

Perhaps more surprising is that my grandmother became keenly interested in politics during the movement for India’s independence. She attended meetings with Subhas Chandra Bose, a Bengali nationalist who disagreed with a non-violent approach to the freedom struggle. He felt the British would only leave by force, and my grandmother believed in his cause so strongly she enlisted my two eldest aunts into the nascent Indian National Army that was forming in Burma. There are photos of my aunts in uniforms, looking formidable, holding bayonets. Bose was later killed in a plane crash, and after Independence, my grandmother satisfied her interest in politics by reading the newspaper every morning on the veranda. Over their cups of tea, she and my grandfather would sit and discuss world events, my grandmother reading the Bengali paper and my grandfather reading the English.

Then, well into her forties, my grandmother insisted on learning how to drive and tackled the chaos of Calcutta traffic to drop her children off at school every morning. My mother can furnish even more examples to make me imagine a woman who was always moving, always hungry, rarely satisfied with what she already knew. I wonder if she thought of herself as an intelligent woman, and if she’d ever had dreams of achieving things beyond her own household.

In my novel, The Pathless Sky, there is a scene in which one of my characters, a young woman named Mariam, is looking at a picture of her grandmother. Her mother is about to tell her something important about her grandfather, but momentarily, it is her grandmother who holds her interest.

She knew a fair bit about her grandmother, come to think of it, little things Mama had told her over the years. She knew her grandmother was very intelligent, through not highly educated. She was a lover of card games, and ruthlessly competitive at them. It was the only time she raised her voice, playing card games.

I was interested in how notions of women’s intelligence are passed down from one generation to another. Mariam is the first woman in her family to attend college, yet she underestimates her own intelligence, and like her mother and grandmother, her own education is unexpectedly stalled when her father becomes ill.  Despite their best efforts, Mariam is forced to continue a pattern of truncated education that has been repeated in her family through the ages. For her grandmother, and mine, marriage was the great disrupter. For Mariam’s mother, it was war and displacement, and for Mariam, illness and finances. The world over, women have channeled into alternative spheres their aspirations to learn and be thoughtful participants in society. It seems my grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She had people in her life who encouraged, or at least tolerated, her attempts at intellectual stimulation. The women in my novel develop similar coping mechanisms, sometimes hiding their intelligence, sometimes expressing it in unexpected ways, sometimes entrusting it to someone else.

Readers ask me if my characters are inspired by people I know.  In a way, of course, they all are. Not their exact blueprints, but their situations, their struggles, their survival skills can probably be found in someone I have known, or in the case of my grandmother, someone I have never known, who has only left traces. I gave Mariam a moment I have had in relation to my grandmother, the handing over of an inheritance not of heirlooms, but of precious information.


Chaitali Sen is the author of The Pathless Sky, published by Europa Editions in 2015. Born in India and raised in New York and Pennsylvania, she currently lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and stepson. Her short stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, The Aerogram, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other journals. She is a graduate of the Hunter College MFA program in Fiction.


“Pencil and Paper” — EUPHORIA author Lily King on her unique hand-crafted creative process

Lily King

Lily King grew up in Massachusetts and received her B.A. in English Literature from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her M.A. in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. She has taught English and Creative Writing at several universities and high schools in this country and abroad.

King’s first novel, The Pleasing Hour (1999) won the Barnes and Noble Discover Award and was a New York Times Notable Book and an alternate for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her second novel, The English Teacher, was a Publishers Weekly Top Ten Book of the Year, a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the Maine Fiction Award. Her third novel, Father of the Rain (2010), was a New York Times Editors Choice, a Publishers Weekly Best Novel of the Year, and winner of both the New England Book Award for Fiction and the Maine Fiction Award. It was translated into several languages.

King’s latest novel, Euphoria, was released in June 2014. [Read my review here.] It has won the inaugural Kirkus Prize for Fiction and the New England Book Award for Fiction 2014. Reviewed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, Emily Eakin called Euphoria, “a taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace.” The novel has been translated into numerous languages, and a feature film is underway.

King is the recipient of a MacDowell Fellowship and a Whiting Writer’s Award. Her short fiction has appeared in literary magazines including Ploughshares and Glimmer Train, as well as in several anthologies. (

Lily King winkylewis-3617                                                                                    Photo by Winky Lewis

I write by hand with a pencil in a spiral notebook. That’s how I’ve been writing  ever since grade school, and it’s how I’m writing these words right now, though when it gets to you, all traces of that initial draft will be gone.

I like the feel of lead scraping onto paper; I like the way the pencil tip starts to slope in one direction, creating a thick side and a thin side, and how with those two surfaces you get a subtle calligraphic effect. I like the way my brain works when I have a pencil in my hand. Just holding it seems to make the thoughts come, like the way putting food in front of your mouth makes the saliva run, or just smelling coffee makes you feel more awake. On paper you can write in the margin or squeeze ideas in between lines; you can use arrows and balloons and carets to rearrange and to add; you can draw pictures of what you’re trying to describe and you can read what you’ve crossed out and realize the way you said it that first time was better than all the other attempts, and you can run on and on because writing by hand does that, makes your sentences long and serpentine, like a river whose ending you don’t see until you turn the last bend.

When I was in high school I took a creative writing class for two semesters, junior and senior spring. We had to hand in a short story, three and a half pages of “polished prose,” my teacher said, every Monday morning for five months. I would often wake up Sunday mornings with a story already running in my head, the voice of it clear and sure (the editor, that savage critic, wakes up more slowly), and I’d grab my notebook and pencil and start writing it down. I don’t have a lot of memories from high school that are warm or pleasurable to me now, but thinking back to those Sunday mornings writing a story due the next day is one of them.

Lily King winkylewis-3531 copy                                                                              Photo by Winky Lewis

I still write like that, at first, when the story is new and I wake up with it and reach for a notebook. It connects me to my younger self, that sixteen-year-old girl with a broken family, big fears, and terrible hair, writing, it would seem (if you could see her from a high corner of her room—a new room, because her mother just remarried and she’s moved into her stepfather’s house) for her life. Writing about her old family and her new families, writing about her father’s anger and second divorce and breakdown (they won’t take that story for publication in the school’s literary magazine, “too personal”, she’ll be told, though “write what you know” is the mantra in her CW class), writing about unrequited love of all kinds, over and over.

I write the first draft of my novels in pencil in spiral notebooks exactly as I used to write those first short stories. I start at what I think is the beginning of the book and move mostly chronologically through to the end. Occasionally there is a back story, or a side story, but mostly I move forward through the notebooks. I section off the last 20 pages of each one for notes, for ideas I have for future chapters or for chapters I’ve already written. These ideas can be general (“Everything needs to feel relentlessly claustrophobic in this house”) or specific (“Have him give her his dead brother’s glasses”). They can be whole scenes, lines of dialogue, a fragment of detail. When the notes start to accumulate and confuse me, I make a timeline by drawing a line across the top of a page and little vertical notches along it and I make a list of all the things I think will happen, little and big moments I am trying to get to.

Lily King photo - Version 2

E.L. Doctorow once said, in a Paris Review interview, that he tells his students that writing is “like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The timeline is one moment followed by another, my few feet of illumination at a time. Some of those ideas, once I get to them, are ignored. Others I try out and quickly know they don’t work. I go down one road, then another. Often I have no idea where we’re going to end up. I know where I want the characters to be emotionally, but I don’t know yet what needs to happen to get them there. I thought my novel Father of the Rain was just going to have two parts, until I woke up in the middle of the night, the night President Obama had been elected, and realized there was a whole third section to the book. I’d handed in my most recent novel, Euphoria, to my agent when I was turning off a highway exit, late to meet a friend for lunch, and saw a whole new ending play out in my head. At the stoplight I scribbled it down on a pad I keep in my car.

At the back of my notebooks I keep a log, a punch clock of sorts. When the writing day is done, I write the date and how much I’ve written. A good day for me is 3-5 notebook pages, but there are days, many, many days when I don’t write that much. Some days I write one page, or a half page, or one line. I do not force myself to stay in the chair until I’ve written a certain amount. I cannot do that. I know there are writers who force themselves to stay in the chair until they’ve written a certain number of words each day, but those writers, I am certain, don’t have children who need to be picked up at school. I try not to beat myself up about the days of few words. A lot of work is being done that is not writing, a lot of thinking, note-taking, and listening. Because the imagination is always working, churning up something. It’s the writer’s job to listen carefully.

Lily King IMG_1936

No one else can read my handwriting with much success. I can barely read it myself. It is small, mostly finely calibrated squiggles. Sometimes I have to trace these marks later with a pencil to figure out what I’ve written. But the transfer of my handwritten words to the computer is my favorite part of the process, and the most valuable. It is the closest I can get without weird anachronistic imitation to the days when writers had to retype each draft before handing it in to their editors. That step, rewriting every sentence, holding each word up to scrutiny, deciding what is good enough to go on the computer and what needs to stay in the notebook, is essential. And it’s joyful. Before this, when the page is blank, writing is scary and stressful. The unknowns too great. And afterward, there are too few unknowns, and things feel locked in place and small changes can unravel too much fabric. But in this stage it’s still fluid, not yet set, still receptive to reshaping. When I type in that rough draft I can hear it like I did not hear it as I was slowly, day by day, writing it, and like I will not hear it again as I read it over. I can hear it and play with it—it is both a fully creative process and a fully editorial one. It is the one time when the critic and the creator are both working full steam and in harmony. The rough draft relies solely on the creator, the critic banished from the room, while the future drafts demand more and more from the critic and less from the creator who shrieks at every change and chop. But in this step they are in balance. They are a team, passing the ball up the field easily and swiftly.

Sometimes I type up each chapter when it’s finished. Sometimes I go months without typing a thing. Once I spent sixteen weeks putting a whole notebook and a half onto the computer. Eventually everything gets transferred and printed out and read and edited, read and edited, many times.  The notebooks have been forgotten by then, pushed off the desk, flung in some corner of my study like empty chrysalises, dry husks of words.  The story has moved on, the scrape of pencil against paper forgotten. Until the next time, the next idea, the next Sunday morning when a new story starts spooling out and I have to try to catch it before it’s gone.

Laura van den Berg on the complex writing process behind her debut novel FIND ME

Laura-van-den-Berg   Find Me

Laura van den Berg’s first novel (after two acclaimed short story collections), Find Me, was published in early 2015 and has just been issued in softcover by FSG Originals. It was named to “Best of 2015” lists by NPR, Time Out New York, Buzzfeed, Booklist, Bustle, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Baltimore City Paper, and Book Riot, was longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and has just been named to the longlist for the Dylan Thomas Prize. A detailed bio of van den Berg follows her essay. 

Writing a novel is not easy. Of course, I knew that going in—certainly when I began Find Me I did not think, “Hey, this should be easy!”—but as someone who had written only short stories, save for a few half-hearted 50-page stabs at novel writing, I did not appreciate how hard it would be until I was in deep. I wrote the first draft of Find Mein roughly six months, in 2008. I turned in my final edits to my publisher in May 2014. What was I doing with all that time in between?

If you were to compare that very first draft of Find Me and the finished book, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single sentence that carried over from the initial version to the final one. In the six months I spent drafting Find Me, I worked in a frenzy, writing straight through, following every impulse as it occurred to me, no matter how misguided—just as I would when drafting a short story. The result? A hideous 300-page mess.

It took me years—literally years—to understand what I had put on the page and why and what it might become, let alone what it should become. I’ve certainly had short stories that were hard to write, that took me years to write, but I’d never before felt so completely overwhelmed by a fictional landscape and its many possibilities and glaring flaws. And yet my heart was sunk into this story, and into the narrator, a young woman named Joy, and so on I went.

The years that followed were a mix of trial and error. A few knots were successfully unfurled; others were pulled tighter; new ones appeared. I would spend six months or a year writing in one direction only to realize that direction was hopeless and that I needed to delete and begin anew. That was the hardest part for me: the lost time, existing in that unfinished state, with the uncertainty of knowing if I would ever finish and, if I did, what kind of book I would have on my hands.

This process continued even after I was fortunate enough to sell Find Me and to get wonderful notes from my editor. On the one hand, I was so excited my book was going to be out in the world, but on the other I wanted to make sure what I put out into the world represented the absolute best I could do at that time. The novel has a two part structure—the first part is set in a hospital in rural Kansas; the second part is set on the road—and in the summer of 2013, I went to a writers’ colony in Key West feeling queasy about the second part.

One of my biggest mistakes had been holding on to things that weren’t working for way too long, for not letting go sooner, and now I knew I was running out of time. “Write the book you want to read” became my line to myself. In Key West, it was brutally hot and I was plagued with insomnia and most days I would walk to the ocean to swim because that made me feel awake. One morning, in the water, I knew with uncommon certainty that I needed to cut the second part and start over. Totally. And so I did.

When I left Key West, the version of Find Me I took with me was much closer to the final book, though some significant edits still lay in my future. I called all my missteps and detours “lost time” above, but I know that’s not really true, since all those detours played a part in getting me to where I needed to be, and I don’t think it would have been possible to skip over them. They were necessary, in their way.

So I am grateful to this book. I learned a great deal from it. I am in the early stages of a new novel project now and I know that “write the book you want to read” is a good line to listen to. I know that if I get that queasy feeling I will hit “delete” and never look back. I know detours are necessary sometimes and that very few of the sentences I’m putting down now will remain and that I am in no particular rush.

Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her stories have appeared in Conjunctions, The Kenyon Review, American Short Fiction, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and One Story, and have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Pushcart Prize XXIV

Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in November 2013. The Isle of Youth was named a “Best Book of 2013″ by over a dozen outlets, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine; it was a finalist for the Frank O’Connor Award, and received both The Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters and The Bard Fiction Prize.


Author Vanessa Blakeslee on anxiety and depression as inspiration: The Handmaid’s Tale

Vanessa Blakeslee 2014  Juventud cover


“Anxiety and interruptions are the enemy of creativity,” John Cleese said to the audience at the 2014 Miami Book Fair International. “Relaxation and downtime are essential.” I didn’t count myself among the diehard Cleese fans who surrounded me, necks craned forward, a collective twitter of laughter rippling upon their breath at his every quip. Like my longtime friend, Susan, who’d lured me here and now sat on the edge of her seat, beaming. But it was me the aged writer and comedian sent scrambling for her mini-Moleskine, jotting down his pithy aphorism. In the coming months I’d revisit the hastily-scrawled quote time and again. What role does anxiety play in creativity—wellspring or hindrance?

No small quandary, this inner tailspin set off by the glib Mr. Cleese. For I’d been blindly wedded to the belief that much of my creativity was driven by anxiety, and had been for most of my life. And because of that impetus, wouldn’t the disappearance of said anxiety equate to a drying-up of creative output? Of distinct childhood memories I have few, but of the few that I can not only recall but transport myself back to vividly are those where I’m sitting at my mother’s typewriter, dining room table a nest of payroll and bills, and my father flying in, letting loose a string of panic and rage, cutting down my mother, and then me. Peace, at most, only ever lasted a couple of days under our roof, my father’s out-of-the-blue rampages inducing us to mental gymnastics. Through it all, I wrote. Not until recently did a professional confirm his diagnosis: Narcissistic Personality Disorder with a co-occurrence of OCD.

“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity,” T.S. Eliot wrote. But when I found myself in October of 2013 in a depression I was unable to climb out of on my own, the quakes of anxiety confining me to my bed, I could barely eat a banana, let alone write. For the five weeks that I consented to swallowing a Prozac every morning, welcoming the flood of fuzzy calm as the pill kicked in, like being swaddled in cotton, I showed up at my desk to write. But the uneasy urge that had churned through my veins for as long as I could remember, the handmaiden who had compelled me to dwell in the lives of others and invent, was gone, snuffed out. When I went to see 12 Years a Slave with a friend, a film that would ordinarily prompt an inappropriate amount of tears to runnel my face, I took in the most disturbing, moving scenes, my eyes barely moist, while all around me those watching sniffled and cleared their throats. Horrified, I weaned myself off the Prozac and the impetus to create rushed back—along with the relentless thought-loops that I hadn’t realized had been my lifelong companion.

Is it possible both Cleese’s and Eliot’s statements hold true? Does anxiety’s relationship to creativity come down to degrees, or even a type? Is it possible Eliot’s quote speaks more to the writer or artist tapping into the collective anxiety of the moment—of nuclear holocaust, terrorism, climate change—and not the personal anxieties that one battles? Writing may indeed serve as an outlet for obsessive thinking or distress. But perhaps such anxiety can only do so to a point. Because chronic anxiety oftentimes is accompanied by depression, an illness which stagnates, if not cripples, one’s interaction with the flow of life.

If that is the case, then how freeing to believe that one needn’t cling to the notion that creativity will disappear with mental wellness and stable circumstance. As a girl growing up in a high-conflict household, fantasizing about imaginary worlds might have given me reprieve from the constant knot gnawing my stomach. But as an adult, I’ve never accomplished better work, both in quality and output, than the times I’ve spent at writers’ colonies where the anxieties—at least those surrounding daily responsibility—are shut away, the mind cleared by porch-sitting and long walks. Uninterrupted relaxation, in Cleese’s words.

Perhaps his message wouldn’t have struck such a chord if not for when I heard them. For I’d arrived for my reading at the book fair having freshly ended a relationship with a narcissistic filmmaker. In the eight months I’d dated this man, I’d increasingly felt as if a succubus had entered my life; by that summer, his manipulations and verbal abuse left me so rattled that I couldn’t so much as wield a pen. This time fiction refused to open itself up as an escape as it had for me as a girl, trapped in the company of a deluded and tyrannical father. And I can’t help but feel grateful for that—my adult anxiety instead functioning as nature intended, pointing me to disentangle myself from a paranoid and volatile young man before I completely lost myself.

There’s also the factor that creative output breeds anxiety—our doubts and worries about the work, its integrity and reception, whether or not we’ll be able to lift ourselves up a notch or two in the tax bracket on its monetary return. So there truly is no escape, anxiety and creativity inextricably linked, and even success ignites worry anew. But this anxiety needn’t become a shackle, or a hindrance; a certain measure of tension about a work is healthy and necessary for the artist to be driven back, to fix and hone, or else we wouldn’t have anything worthy of the title “masterpiece.”

What’s a writer to do then, if anxiety comes with the territory? All too often, life doesn’t lend itself to “uninterrupted relaxation.” Nor are pharmaceuticals a long-term solution. In my case, the side effects of Prozac quickly outweighed the benefits; I vowed never to take antidepressants again. Dating the filmmaker had left me a shell of myself, however, my recovery impeded by a romantic rebound. Both fiction writers, the two of us had an instant, lovely connection with a chemistry that could not be ignored. But he had just emerged from a different heartbreak and also badly needed to reclaim himself. It was as if we’d met on a lifeboat, each with our own personal Titanic burning and sinking in the background; we clung to one another until, predictably, we sabotaged what was between us. Through most of the rebound I was an anxious mess; when it unraveled I was fraught with abandonment and pain, given to crying spells every day, and later, anger, remorse, and grief.

But this time I refused to numb myself—and my writing, which I had eagerly returned to—with medication. A family friend informed me about B vitamins and amino acids. During the day I popped GABA and Inositol; before bed I tried not to gag as I dissolved 250 mg of tryptophan under my tongue. The first night I had made the mistake of popping a whole capsule, otherwise the equivalent of consuming a whole turkey, and awoke at 3 a.m. with a sickening, pounding headache. Soon I found glutamine worked better at putting me to sleep than the tryptophan; I hadn’t slept so well in years. How easy to forget the extent to which anxiety and emotional distress drain the intellect, robbing us of the ability to do our best work. Only I won’t be so quick to forget again. Keeping the anxiety at bay is as much about determining who one allows into personal space and when, and after the ship sinks, learning how to soothe oneself.

Cleese and Eliot aren’t at odds with one another, not nearly. An outbreak of Ebola or a threat by Putin may prompt a writer to pace or fidget while waiting for the coffee to brew, then disappear at the keyboard for a six-hour stretch, rendering fiction which, with luck, illuminates essential truths. Anxiety becomes a detriment only when kicked into overdrive. For it’s possible to write nearly an entire novel on one’s couch—I’ve done it. Only not while curled up in a fetal position.

Vanessa Blakeslee is the author of the debut novel, Juventud (Curbside Splendor, 2015), hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as a “tale of self-discovery and intense first love.” Her story collection, Train Shots (Burrow Press) won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. The book was also long-listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and has been optioned for a feature film by writer/director Hannah Beth King.
Blakelee’s writing has appeared in The Southern ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewThe Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Finalist for the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Blakeslee earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida.  


Tania James on the terrors of conducting field research for THE TUSK THAT DID THE DAMAGE

The Tusk That Did the Damage  Tania-James-1024x682-MelissaStewartPhotography

Tania James is the author of The Tusk That Did the Damage (published in March by Knopf), a powerful novel about elephant poaching in India that has been critically acclaimed for its three-voice narration, including that of the Gravedigger, a marauding elephant. [My review is here.] Her previous books include the novel Atlas of Unknowns and a short story collection, Aerogrammes. She graduated from Harvard with a BA in Film and went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia. From 2011-2012, she was a Fulbright fellow to India living in New Delhi. She currently teaches creative writing at George Washington University. 

One thing I never properly learned in graduate school: how to do field research. I learned a great many other things about craft, about books, about how to maintain a benign expression while being critiqued by your personal nemesis. And I went on to write two books—a novel and a short story collection—that had mostly grown from my imagination. When they didn’t, I extracted what I needed from safe, silent sources—nonfiction books, online articles, microfiche.

Those were the sources I used when I began researching my current novel, The Tusk That Did the Damage, which concerns human-elephant conflict in a South Indian wildlife park. Unfortunately my sources were limited; the subject was too fresh, the terrain of wildlife preservation and imperiled elephant populations constantly changing. I quickly realized that I’d have to “go into the field,” a phrase that seemed to me kind of romantic and adventurous and altogether terrifying.

It’s not so much that I’m intimidated by strangers; I’m simply sensitive—or maybe hypersensitive—to the potential for offending my interview subject, for coming across as the nosy, exploitative, story-monger that I kind of am. My discomfort was especially acute while preparing to interview a former poacher at the Periyar Wildlife Park. The Forest Department had hired this gentleman—let’s call him “John”—to work for them as a forest guide, due to his extensive knowledge of the forest interior. John had long left poaching behind, but I assumed he still carried a residue of shame.

A forest officer had arranged the interview on my behalf, and on the day in question, I waited for John in a conference room. Before me was a legal pad of numbered notes and questions; I was probably muttering my way through them as if rehearsing for a performance. Preparation was the only way I could maintain a level of control, and therefore comfort, over the proceedings.

So there I was, muttering, preparing, when a platoon of fifteen dudes trooped into the room and halted before me. Their faces were hard, expectant. They wore beige button-downs, except for the smallest one, who was wearing an oversized Dad sweater. The forest officer ordered the men to sit, then introduced me as “a writer from America,” then told me to ask my questions.

I probably cleared my throat a half dozen times while leafing through my notes.

“Well?” my mother said, or something to that effect.

Did I mention that my mother was sitting beside me? I guess her presence, at the outset, sort of detracted from my romantic, adventurous notion of field research, but I needed her to make some sense of my rusty Malayalam, and put my questions into words these Tamil-speaking men would understand. Also, and I only realized this when the men walked in, I was bone-deeply grateful to have her by my side.

I probably asked two of the questions on my checklist. The stories these men volunteered—unabashed and matter-of-fact—were far richer than any answer I could have tried to predict. They spoke about tools and slaughter and how to cook wild game, bickering like brothers over the details. One man showed me the bullet wound in his shoulder, the puckered skin of his scar. My pen could hardly keep up.

Of all the lessons I learned from that interview, here are three:

1) I didn’t have to step so carefully around the subject of poaching. It was a mistake to believe that these men shared my revulsion for killing elephants, that they’d left their former jobs because of some kind of moral epiphany. They stopped poaching because there were better, safer economic opportunities available to them. Simple as that. My caution was a kind of judgment that prevented me, at least at the outset, from seeing these men on their own terms.

2) I didn’t have to prepare so much for that interview. My checklist of questions was based on the assumption that I knew what I was looking for, when in fact, it’s far smarter to work from a state of unknowing, to be flexible along a line of inquiry, to pursue the threads of truth that capture your interest. To rest easy in the belief that you will know what you’re looking for when you find it.

3) Trilingual mothers can make for good sidekicks.

Lost and Found: A Conversation with Janina Matthewson about OF THINGS GONE ASTRAY

Janina Matthewson-700x394

One of the most gratifying aspects of being a passionate reader (and a blogger) is when a book arrives with no fanfare and proceeds to utterly captivate you and carve out a special place for itself among your favorite books. Such is the case with Janina Matthewson’s wonderfully surreal and bittersweet debut novel, Of Things Gone Astray, which was published by The Friday Project (HarperCollins) in the UK in August 2014 and in the U.S. this past January. Novelist Simon Van Booy liked it, too. “Of Things Gone Astray is a brilliant novel that redefines the boundaries of where our lives begin and where they end.” [You can read my review of February 18, 2015 here.]

Matthewson has quite a varied background for someone so young. She studied theater, English, history, and linguistics and trained as an actress; she published a novella, The Understanding of Women, in October 2012; and her play, Human and If, had its first reading in July 2012. Originally from Christchurch, New Zealand, she has been living and working in London for the past few years (and trying to get used to being cold at Christmas). She was kind enough to speak to me about her novel over Easter weekend.

What inspired you to write about people who discover “things gone astray” in their world?

I initially was going to write about people who had something taken away, but that disappeared when I was brainstorming the characters. I don’t know specifically what inspired it, but I did start working on it about a year after I moved to London so it’s possible loss was just on my mind.

What informed your decision regarding how many characters (and narratives) to use? Were you ever concerned that there might be too many, that the plot might become confusing?

I think I just brainstormed characters. Actually, I thought more about things you could lose – until the list felt complete. I didn’t have  a set number in mind, and when I had the six, they stayed. I guess I always assumed that if I could keep track of them all while I was writing — given how messy that process was — it wouldn’t be too complicated for the reader. And I think if it had been, that would have been one of my first notes from my editor.

Was it always your plan to use a third-person narrative, or did you consider/try first-person point of view? Third-person has obvious advantages in a novel of this type, but I think it would be interesting to read each character’s internal monologue, too.

I’m not a huge fan of first person, to be honest. There’s too much temptation to explain every feeling the characters are having, and I like leaving things open to interpretation. I’d only ever use it if it was to serve a real purpose — for example, in Gone Girl, which I loved, it’s really important that the reader doesn’t trust what they’re being told, and first person narration is a great way to do that, because ever word is written with an agenda. Or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which is one of the greatest detective novels ever written, because of its use of it. When it’s not used to that kind of effect, it always makes me feel like I’m being pushed too hard to care about the protagonist.

Do you view one character and his/her story as the central strand of the plot?

I guess Jake is for me, because he serves as a contrast. Because he thinks he has nothing left to lose, and is the one who actually stands to lose the most.

How did your background in theater come into play when writing the book? Did you conceive of the story as a play and then decide it was better suited to a novel, or was the novel form always the plan? Are there any plans to adapt Of Things Gone Astray for stage or screen? I could see it working beautifully in both forms.

This was always a novel. I write scripts too, but I find that some stories just naturally fit into a certain medium, and when I try to write them outside it, they don’t work. I think having a background in theatre makes me more inclined to think about characters — I’m used to analysing character motivations. There aren’t any plans for an adaptation but I would love to see how someone would do that.

How long did you work on the book? What was your writing process? (Was it a structured, daily task as part of a workaday life, or did you write it in an intense period of activity, or something else entirely?)

It took around a year and a half in total, I think, and I had to work it around a rather chaotic working life, part of which was working at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, sometimes until 3 in the morning.

How much of the novel was outlined or otherwise planned, and how much came about as you wrote it? Did you have all the characters’ eventual connections plotted out before you began writing or did they grow toward each other organically?

I had ideas of structure, many of which changed as I wrote. I always knew they would cross paths. Some of them took a few tries to get right.

I was especially intrigued by the story of Cassie refusing to leave the Arrivals terminal and eventually putting down roots there. Can you explain the genesis of Cassie’s story?

I was actually waiting for a friend at the airport — I was early, because I panic about that sort of thing. It’s a pretty prosaic genesis really!

I also liked the use of two types of narrative you utilized for young Jake’s story. The flashbacks to the earthquake in New Zealand are in present tense, which provides immediacy, and in a narrowly focused third-person, which makes his experiences all the more sympathetic. And in his sections the text itself is right-justified, so it is physically off-kilter on the page. Can you talk about these interesting authorial decisions?

They were both there right from the beginning — actually in the very beginning Cassie was present tense as well. But I always knew I had to have some way of distinguishing the memories from life, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon an effective way early on.

Of Things Gone Astray is both haunting (from the characters’ palpable sense of loss and confusion) and hopeful (as they find their sense of direction, encounter others who provide a new perspective/coping strategy, and move through the grieving process). That seems like the book’s greatest accomplishment. How did you manage to strike that delicate balance? I could easily see the story itself going astray.

That is such a lovely thing to hear and, to be honest, I don’t have an answer. In the end you just have to trust your instincts — and the instincts of your editor — and hope that it strikes the right chord in the reader. I have quite a low tolerance for mawkishness and sentimentality, so I guess that probably helps me balance out the loss with things that are a bit more light-hearted.

As a New Zealander living in London, do you get homesick? Or are there so many fellow Kiwis there that it eliminates much of one’s desire to get on a plane and fly halfway around the world to get home? What do you miss about New Zealand?

I get frustrated that I can’t see people whenever I want. When someone I love does something exciting and I can’t just go over and celebrate with them. I don’t see a huge amount of Kiwis in London really — just a couple of friends who’ve also moved over — but I kind of like that. Because what’s the point of moving so far just to be surrounded by people from home? I do miss being near the sea, and I miss living somewhere where it’s not stressful to just leave your house. London takes a lot of energy — I think I’m more relaxed in New Zealand. So I miss that.

Diana Wagman: Saved by a curandero to write again (or, maybe clowns are kind of creepy)

Diana Wagman  Life #6

The Mexican faith healer, or curandero, had his shop in a rundown Los Angeles strip mall between a nail salon and a Baskin-Robbins.  The hand-lettered sign in the window read “Limpia.”

“Cleansing,” my friend translated.

I don’t speak Spanish and I’m usually a skeptic, but I was desperate.  I definitely needed cleansing.  Or something.  Incense wafted through the open door.  Inside the store was crowded with statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Jesus, the devil, and Day of the Dead skeletons.  There were crystals and rosaries and candles and crucifixes and a tapestry of the Last Supper, plus a few taxidermy animals.  A bobcat.  A dusty owl.  The black crow with the yellow eyes on the counter was the most disturbing.  It must have been freshly stuffed because it still smelled dead.

What was I doing there?  I had three published novels.  My first sold without an agent; my second won an award.  My third book got good reviews—if lousy sales.  So what was wrong with me?  Why did I feel hopeless?

Writing had always been my joy and my solace.  Even as a kid, when I was upset or sad I made up a story, put words on paper and wrote the happy ending I wanted.  Now I felt done.  Stalled.  Stuck.  Every sentence I tried was awkward, wrong, stilted. I was second guessing, third and fourth guessing myself.

I’d spent three years writing a 468-page new novel about a birthday party clown.  I was happy with it.  I thought it was funny.  Charming, even.  I’d been to Las Vegas to the Clown Convention.  I had interviewed clowns and done a “ride along” to a birthday party.  I love clowns.  I thought everybody did.  There was romance—with a magician—and intrigue with a jealous clown.  I was sure it was a blockbuster.  But when I sent the draft to my agent it took her three months to get back to me.  When I finally called her, she said she hated it so much she didn’t even finish it.

“Clowns?” she said.  “Nobody likes clowns.  You need a breakthrough book.”  And then, like a knife in my heart, she asked, “Why do you have to be so weird?”

Yes, I’d written a book about a woman who covers herself in a blue bag to talk to a man about beauty; another about sisters and spontaneous human combustion; the last about a cop who collects suicide notes.  To me, clowns seemed downright commercial.

To make a not very long story even shorter, she dumped me.  She said this book was not going to help my career.  In fact, she was sure I’d never get it published.

I hung up the phone, cried, and put the book in a bottom drawer.  A few days later, I tried starting something new and that’s when I froze—completely.  I couldn’t get her voice out of my head telling me I was weird.  And that I needed a bestseller or my career was over.  I couldn’t make my hands move on the keys.  And the writing that had been such a comfort to me now made me feel as if I was wearing a suit made of industrial grade sandpaper—on the inside.

Three months later—three months of not writing—here I was, standing next to that stuffed crow, waiting to see the curandero.  He came out from a backroom through a beaded curtain.  He was young, handsome, more Ricky Ricardo than Dumbledore, with white straight teeth.  He wore a gray silk shirt unbuttoned to his chest, nice slacks, expensive shoes.  The witch doctor business was obviously working out for him.

He led me to a card table equipped with Tarot cards, some candles, a few bunches of herbs. He had me shuffle the cards, pick nine, lay them out in a specific order.  He told me I have two children and that they are good kids.  He was right.  He probably took one look at my jeans and sneakers and knew I was a mom; my Volvo wagon was parked right out front.

He said a few interesting things about my past, my fractured childhood, my unhappy mother.  Okay, that was good.  I was impressed.  But it wasn’t what I was there for.  At the same time, I didn’t want to ask my friend to translate my desperation.  I was embarrassed that I had so much—healthy kids and a strong marriage, a working husband—and wanted something as trivial as a career writing stories.  Who was I to ask for more?

I didn’t have to.  The curandero handed me a rock of pink quartz to hold.  He lit a candle and burned some sage and waved the smoke in my direction.  He said I was troubled at work.  Yes, I nodded.  “Si,” practically my only Spanish word. “Si, si, si.” He shook his head.  He turned to my friend and they spoke for a moment in Spanish.  My friend shrugged.

“Don’t worry,” he said to me.  “He’s got this.”

The doctor took my other hand.  His was warm and smooth.  “One thing,” he said in heavily accented English.  “You do one thing.”

“Okay,” I replied.

“No more fear.”

I waited.  I didn’t understand.  My friend translated the rest. “He says you have to give up the fear.  It’s the only thing wrong with your work.  Not talent.  Not ideas.  Fear is the only thing holding you back.”

The curandero gave me the pink quartz to keep on my desk.  He told me to write my name on a candle and light it on my birthday and let it go until it burned itself out.  He also said I should never turn on the electric light in the bathroom, but shower and use the toilet in the dark.  I never really understood that last one, but I did it—still do it most of the time.  Because what he said changed my life.

Give up the fear.

I knew he was right.  I had to get rid of my ex-agent’s voice and the worry that I would never find another agent, that I would never write, much less sell another book, and the biggest terror of all—that I would never be the writer I wanted to be.

I had to give up the fear.

In the movie version of my life, I would’ve gone home, taken out the old clown book and found an agent who loved it.  I would’ve sold it for a lot and it would have been a huge success, my masterpiece.  My ex-agent would have called and apologized.  And of course in that version, I would never be afraid again.

But that’s not what happened.  I did write another book, but it wasn’t exactly the clown book and it took four more years.  First I re-read the clown book from start to finish.  I decided the only part I really liked—without any reservations—was the last 30 pages.

So I did the bravest thing I’ve ever done writing—I threw away 438 pages and began a new book with the part I liked best.  It wasn’t easy to write, but I kept moving forward.  I still had those anxious, dreadful voices in my head, but most days I was able to push them away and keep writing—even if I thought it was lousy.  Occasionally I had to hold on to that pink quartz rock.  I wrote, “give up the fear” on a post-it note and stuck it to the wall next to my computer.  Some days I had to look at it a lot.

Eventually I had a new draft I liked.  It took a while, but I finally found a great and understanding new agent.  I did a rewrite for her—more time passed—she sold the book, The Care & Feeding of Exotic Pets, to a small press and I was happier than I’d ever been about my work.  And damn if it didn’t get better reviews than any of my earlier novels.

Yes, it’s also a weird book.  A divorced single mother, ex-wife of a game show host, is kidnapped by a young man with a 7-foot iguana.  I’m happy to say there is one clown who makes a brief appearance.  My little homage.

Now Life #6, my fifth novel, is about to come out. It’s about a woman lost at sea both literally and figuratively, a marriage on the rocks, a hurricane of yearning and desire.  Is this my “breakthrough” book?  The bestseller that will save my career?  I still worry about that.  In the middle of the night my doubts all come rolling back.  But the tattered post-it note has become a talisman.  I have finally learned to give up the fear—or at least ignore it.  Most of the time.

Diana Wagman is the author of five novels and numerous short stories, essays and reviews. Her last novel, The Care & Feeding of Exotic Pets (2012), was a Barnes & Noble Discover New Authors selection. Her second novel, Spontaneous, won the 2001 USA PEN West Award for Fiction. She wrote the original screenplay for Delivering Milo, directed by Nick Castle and starring Bridget Fonda and Albert Finney. Her new novel, Life #6, from Ig Publishing, will be available on May 15.