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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Thursday, 21 February 2008

An Interview with Indu Sundaresan - a prominent author of elegant historical fiction

by Suzan Abrams in Dublin

Indu Sundaresan's website
Indu Sundaresan's biography
See here for more details on The Twentieth Wife
See here for more details on The Feast of Roses
See here for more details on The Splendor of Silence


Caption: (r) Indu Sundaresan. Photograph is author's own.

Classy and captivating! That's the cosiest way to sum up Indu Sundaresan's three popular historical novels at a close-up glance.

The engaging Sundaresan who today resides in Washington USA, and who was born and raised in India and brought up in several air force bases all over the country, would try her hand at stories after graduating from such an unlikely subject as Economics from the the University of Delaware when she arrived on American shores for further studies.

She had had her early influences in fiction from childhood when her grandfather and also her father a fighter pilot would persist in reciting thrilling folktales and with that familiar mysterious air which as a little girl she had come to expect; clearing the way for Sundaresan to supply an adequate but unforgettable end to an almost-finished story.

Such a delightful apprenticeship for the informal training of a skilled raconteur would stand Sundaresan in good stead in later years when the the writing craft finally beckoned. In the meantime, the filler years would be filled with wholesome girlish reads with Sundaresan's sisters as firm bookish companions.

Today, the historical novelist who has also worked with local contemporary theatre group, Encore Playhouse, has published 3 successful novels wound around the tapestry of India's flamboyant ancient courts. Consider for instance, the tragic romance surrounding the Taj Mahal.

Sundaresan also garnered the Washington State Book Award for her debut novel, The Twentieth Wife before she went on to write its sequel, The Feast of Roses. There is a fourth novel in the offing and an anthology of short stories to be published in the fall, called In the Convent of Little Flowers.

Indu Sundaresan's personal answers to my interview are beautifully self-contained and I am running them in their entirety.

Here is the interview exclusive to Palette:

When Nobel Prize Laureate, the novelist Doris Lessing remarked recently that literary festivals actually damaged the climate for new writers and did nothing to help their writing, since writers had their 'silent space' removed from them, could you please comment on how far you felt this was true? And if literary festivals may have benefited you as a writer in any way?

Sundaresan: I suspect that some noise filters into the writing space, but I wouldn't know differently, since promotion and publicity for published books which require authors to be present at literary festivals and readings and book tours have been de rigeur since my first novel, THE TWENTIETH WIFE, was published in 2002. I also make myself available for interaction with readers in some ways--I have a Web site and an email address on that site, and most, if not all of the feedback I receive from readers has been positive and encouraging. I don't think I would want this any other way.

Writing is a lonely, solitary occupation, and when I hear from readers it gives me a sense of who forms part of my audience, where they come from, what their lives are like, because readers most times tell me little stories about themselves, or what my work means to them, which I enjoy immensely. A case in point--a reader of the Hebrew translation of THE TWENTIETH WIFE wrote recently to say that he and his wife had enjoyed the novel and wanted to name their newborn daughter Ladli which means beloved, or one who is loved. Ladli is Mehrunnisa/Nur Jahan's daughter's name in the novel (and in actuality). He also later sent me a picture of his baby girl.

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In an interview question, you have mentioned that while in school, you did not pay too much attention to history lessons. When came the turning point for you personally with the subject of history ie. when it would become such an important part of your art? Do you still remember that moment when you embraced history and made it yours?

Sundaresan: I did not pay much attention to my history lessons in school, because, frankly, the textbooks were poorly written, and the teaching was unexciting. But I've always been interested in stories, and my father and grandfather were stellar storytellers. They dipped into history and Hindu mythology, or even just their memories, to tell my sisters and me stories. My father was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force, and so we travelled a lot in the country, and at each Air Force Base at which my father was stationed, we would head out to the local monuments and palaces for picnics and outings, and he would always have something to narrate to us about the history of the places, or he would make up stories about their past inhabitants.

So the interest was always there, percolating somewhere in the back of my mind. My first two novels (THE TWENTIETH WIFE is my third novel, actually) were also historical fiction, set in India in the 1500s--these will never see light; they are quite awful, but they taught me how to construct a novel. I'm not sure why I'm fascinated by Indian history, unless it is because it gives me a chance to create a whole new world around the characters and give the characters a voice after so many years.

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As a prominent novelist of historical fiction, which authors have motivated or continue to motivate you?

Sundaresan: I had a very middle-class Indian upbringing, and I think most people will recognize my favorite authors as theirs also--Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, the Bronte sisters. And of course, Christie and Wodehouse, staples in my library.

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What are your future aspirations for the writing of historical fiction? For example, with a meticulous detailed research that often gives historical writing its set structure, have you explored any other creative ways where you would continue to break boundaries for coming books? Would you experiment with new forms, for your writing in ways not tried before?

Sundaresan: THE TWENTIETH WIFE and THE FEAST OF ROSES were in some ways a straight chronology of events in the life of Empress Nur Jahan, with a fair bit of flashbacks and delving into other major characters' viewpoints. I did experiment with the actual writing in my third novel, THE SPLENDOR OF SILENCE, which is the story of an American soldier, Sam Hawthorne, who goes to the princely state of Rudrakot in May of 1942, to search for his missing brother Mike, and while there, he falls in love with Mila, the daughter of the local political agent.

The novel has three distinct parts--a prologue and an epilogue in 1962 when Mila and Sam's daughter, Olivia, begins to read a letter from an unknown narrator who promises to tell her the story of her parents' love for each other, and to fill the silences of her childhood and tells her that those silences were splendid indeed (hence the title). The second part, the main narrative of the novel, takes place during four days in May of 1942, and the third part is interspersed in this narrative, and takes place in April of 1942, just a month before, in Burma. The "Burma scenes" as I tend to call them, deal with Sam parachuting behind Japanese lines to escort out of Burma, and back to India, an American missionary who refused to leave when the Japanese first invaded Burma.

These latter two storylines, though a month apart from each other, are narrated parallel to each other, and I had to work hard to make the two storylines mesh by the end of the novel, and still make the epilogue relevant, when Olivia finishes the letter and puts it away and ponders on what she has just read.

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What are you presently reading?

Sundaresan: Something a little macabre, a non-fiction book on Victorian murderesses.

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In an interview, you have mentioned that while being imbued in a work of fiction for a long while, sometimes years, it often takes you time to settle back into reality once a book is finished. How long does it take you to wind down and what is your process for this?

Sundaresan: While I was working on my first two novels, I used to be surprised by little, inconsequential things every now and then, like a phone ringing (wrong time period for my novel) or a car passing by. Now the process is somewhat ongoing. I write and revise, I send the novel in to my editor, she sends it back with editorial revisions, I wait for the copyedits, and with each process of revision, at every stage, I pull myself out of the novel a little by little.

It's also easier when I already know what I'm going to be writing next. Sometimes, it's a short story, and my short stories are contemporary, sometimes it's a novel, and these have been historical. So I start reading, researching, or writing, depending on what I'm working on.

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Could you please describe a day in your writing life?

Sundaresan: I have very little discipline in my writing life. I know author friends who will write every day, no matter what happens around them, and I've tried this method for many years now, all of my writing life, with little success. I read for my writing, I research, and when I'm ready, I write to the exclusion of all else--this is the method that works for me.

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Would you feel comfortable with the idea of exploring the writing for different genres of fiction or even with the writing of poetry or children's books? if so, which would you like to try your hand at and why?

Sundaresan: The answer to that is yes. But when, and what genre, I don't know yet. I'll have to try my hand at it first, see if I'm comfortable, and see if I make sense, to myself and then perhaps to an audience somewhere.

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What is your current writing project? Could you please tell us a little more about that?

Sundaresan: I'm currently working on my fourth novel which takes me back to Mughal India, and picks up the storyline a few years after the end of THE FEAST OF ROSES.

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Of all the fictitious characters, you may have created, do you have any favourites and if so, why?

Sundaresan: This is difficult, I like all of them, even (or perhaps especially) the flawed ones. But I worked very hard on Raman, Mila's father in THE SPLENDOR OF SILENCE, and I like him very much. I like his sense, his sense of calm, his wisdom, and even his prejudices in some ways. He's a thoughtful man, and thinks about his life, and the lives of his children, and realizes that youth and a lack of experience account for most of the mistakes they make.

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While writing your books, which character lived in you for the longest time and how was this evident in your daily life?

Sundaresan: Mehrunnisa would have to be that character. I worked on THE TWENTIETH WIFE and THE FEAST OF ROSES for a good many years (six or seven) and a lot of the working on the novels took the shape of marketing the novels, sending out query letters to literary agents, waiting for feedback (or an offer of representation) and then revising the novels until they were close to the form they are now, in publication.

I remember that members of my critique groups used to call me Mehrunnisa, which was funny, since my name is actually shorter and more easily pronouncable. (I'm not very much like her, by the way--the novels are not autobiographical, merely biographical.)

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What would you do for pastimes in your time out away from writing?

Sundaresan: I work in my garden. I knit. I love to cook.

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When did you start to take writing seriously? Please tell us the 'whys' and 'hows'.

Sundaresan: December of 1993. I decided to write a novel sometime before then; we bought a computer, I wrote a novel. And then I wrote another one, and then I wrote THE TWENTIETH WIFE and THE FEAST OF ROSES. I took my first creative writing class after I had completed THE FEAST OF ROSES, and learned, in that class, and others that followed, how to revise my work, how to edit.

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When do you feel pure exhilaration as an author and also do you have main concerns as a writer? If so, what are these?

Sundaresan: My most difficult writing period comes before I actually begin writing a novel. I know what it's going to be, I've probably plotted it out on my head and some on paper, but to begin, to continue until I hit the point where the writing becomes smooth and flows seemingly without thought--that period is an agony. Each time I write a novel.

The exhilaration comes at the point when the writing is seamless, almost easy. Finishing a work is great also, but it's nothing compared to the actual writing.

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Do you have any readings or tours planned ahead? Or for the promotion of Splendour of Silence? Where can your fans expect to see you next?

Sundaresan: I will have a collection of short stories published this fall titled IN THE CONVENT OF LITTLE FLOWERS. There are nine stories in this collection, all set in contemporary India, and I've been writing these over the past few years.

My fourth novel, the one I'm working on now, will be published, if all goes on schedule, late next year.

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When you do write history, do you feel so completely engulfed by it, that you may have wished you were yourself living life back in those ancient courts? Have you experienced any kind of surreal feeling about this instance? In other words, have the writing of your own stories consumed you to such an extent?

Sundaresan: I like to imbue a visual sense to the stories I write, so yes, I'm immersed in them, the time periods, the customs or manners of speaking and engaging others, and even the language of the actual work. The language itself, whether formal and traditional, or more modern and succinct, gives voice to the story, and I think you'll find this to be true of the novels and the short stories. There is a difference in tone between the first two novels, set in 17th Century Mughal India, and the third, set in India in 1942, and the short stories of IN THE CONVENT OF LITTLE FLOWERS, which are much more spare in their telling, more dark, much more stark.


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When you write Indian history, have you felt America was simply too far away sometimes?

Sundaresan: The distance has actually turned out to be an advantage, in some senses. It gives me a perspective of looking in from the outside, of writing from memory of sounds and smells, also true, of course, since I'm writing of a historical time and place in the 21st Century.

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How did winning the Washington State Book Award for The Feast of Roses motivate you?

Sundaresan: I won the Washington State Book Award for my first novel, THE TWENTIETH WIFE, and felt it to be an immense honor that my debut novel would be so recognized. It's still a thrill and I'm grateful for the recognition.

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Your storytelling skills are attributed to that of your father where in staying at air force bases, he often told you many folk tales and would leave you with which to gauge the ending and test his audience reaction? Do you still recall the ways in which such an episode inspired you? Do you still remember a childhood tale from one of these occasions which practically delighted and moved you?

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Sundaresan: I heard many stories from my father, mostly at bedtimes, or sometimes on a lazy Sunday afternoon. My favorite ones were the ones he made up in his head, of two animals, Jumbo the elephant and Silver the horse. These were ongoing sagas of how the animals were born in the wild, how they lived in the forests, how one of them was captured and put to work in a circus or a farm...splendid, roaring tales to gladden a child's heart.

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Would you have any particular words or thoughts for ambitious new novelists to keep themselves grounded or confident in today's extremely competitive publishing climate?

Sundaresan: In one word, persist. I shopped THE TWENTIETH WIFE around for five years before I approached my agent, Sandra Dijkstra, and she agreed to represent me. She sent the novel out and we had an offer in less than a week.

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Could you describe your writing room and writing desk?

Sundaresan: My "office" has a nice desk and walls papered with maps of Mughal India and Southeast Asia. In the corridor leading to the bedrooms (because there's no more space on my office walls) are two cork boards on which are tacked dates, names and places from my research for my fourth novel. I write now (and am writing now) on a laptop in the living room, on a sofa, with my feet up on an ottoman, and a fire in the fireplace.


Picture of fireplace courtesy of AnimationLibrary

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