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Friday 29 May 2009

An Interview with Leela Soma, author of Twice Born

By Suzan Abrams

This is an older blog. For a kinder arrangement of this interview, please go to my new Wordpress site.

Captions include Leela Soma and scenes from the window in her writing-room.


Last year, Indo-Scot Glasgow academic turned writer, poet and performer, Leela Soma, published Twice Born with independent press, YouWriteOn.com in London. The title is said to be Glasgow’s first literary work of fiction spelling out a South Indian emigrant’s journey to Scotland.

Soma whose stories and poetry appear to have taken off like the wind, described her earlier academic life as a wonderful career, one that was sometimes “deeply rewarding and at others, difficult and strenuous.” In contrast writing has proved luxurious and fantastic, she says. In Soma’s own words, “...the passion for getting a sentence right is deeply satisfying just as meeting up with an old student.”

Twice Born took at at least 2 1/2 years to complete. More details of Leela Soma’s accomplishments may be found on her website and her blog.
On June 4th the novelist launches Twice Born at Borders, Glasgow.
More details of the event may be found over here.
Do click here to read my review of Twice Born.

Here are some personal insights on Madras-born Soma’s everyday writing life.


A Day In The Life

Leela Soma’s favourite colour may be blue and memorable scenes will stay of a moonlit night on Madras beach or of holding her infant daughter for the first time. Nothing beats the latter, she insists.

But in everyday life, Soma prefers an early rise and it is the sunshine she considers her best spiritual uplift. In her own words, she loves getting up to a “bright day” as it “fills her soul with joy”.

Leela Soma describes herself as a friendly and chatty person, intent on social activities. “I need people,” she enthuses. “I hate being on my own except when I need space to think or write. Ocassionally I get moody and annoying but snap out of it soon enough. I love chocolate and snacking on them ruins any work out at the gym.”

In retrospect, her dawn energy stays motivated by a quiet reflection. Often, she steadies her glance at a remembered sister’s present: a photograph of her parents which she considers beautiful. Each morning, Soma wills their love and dedication to set her up for the day.

This to be soon followed by a “good cup of tea”, tuning into Radio 4 and checking her emails.

Mid-morning will find her at the local gym – the first class starts at 9.30am – for a series of low-impact exercises or a swim. Then in her own words, “a lovely coffee with really good friends at the gym at least four times a week.”

The afternoon will see her with the Times crossword and this followed by two to four hours of writing or reviewing her stories.

Soma may write up to four hours each weekday but none at all on the weekends; which she marks as a sacred interlude. She confesses to a room with a view. A window overlooks a woodland scene. The room is quiet, and made up of her computer, accompanying paraphernalia, a library and a puja - hindu prayer table - at one end. Her ritual would be to sketch ideas on paper first as “small notes to herself”. This to be followed by writing straight onto the computer.

There’s no denying that after cooking the evening meal, Soma would like to put her feet up with the “good odd, tv programme” or otherwise Coronation Street but as she views the full literary scene in Glasgow with excitement; is often off to “various book/creative writing events.” She also wishes the theatre was more affordable.

Later, she will wind down with a pile of books at her bedside table including some old favourites. At the moment the writer is bent on reading David Eggers. 'What is the What' -in USA revolves around a story of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

“I can read it in small doses as the scenes depicted of Southern Sudan, the suffering of the young children and the ongoing Darfur catastrophe is relentlessly heart wrenching. Unless we read it we can never understand and have empathy for such dreadful wars in the world,” she observes thoughtfully.

Alexander McCall Smith stays a favourite author and Soma consider’s , Barrack Obama's ' Dreams from My Father to be a "superb read”. *More details of her favourite book collection may be found in the questions and answers session below.

"In the UK apart from the literary giants like Rushdie, and Booker prize winners like Arundathi Roy, Hanif Kureshi and Adiga there are few that reflect the life of an ordinary English or Scottish immigrant."

Today, May 29th has to be a near perfect day for Leela Soma. As she answers these questions in her study, the sun is shining and Glasgow seems at its best.

She soaks in the long summer day as “golden, glowing” and with an atmosphere that makes one “feel blessed to be alive.” She would already have had a wonderful lunch with friends, her daughter would have just returned home from America and her husband has finished cutting the grass. The lovely turned-out garden will command Soma to feel at peace with all the world.

On Writing.

How do you consider living the writer’s life in Glasgow?

“I do have a very good novel buddies group and a writing partner and I value both their input. We try to meet up regularly and offer a comprehensive critique of each other's work. I also belong to a Writers' Group who have wonderful speakers from the writing world. I don’t have a favourite café as such but meet with fellow writers at various cafes in Glasgow.” - LS

Are you still writing your second novel?

"Yes, definitely. It has been on hold for the vacation but will get back to it in earnest after the launch." (Soma recently traveled to Canada and the United States of America.)

How do you presently work at your second novel?

"It has an outline and I work away at it, but sometimes the characters take it to a different path or a twist that makes it more interesting."

Where do you derive your ideas for plots from?

"I have a list of a few ideas that I feel strongly I must write about, as a short story or a novel depending on how it pans out. The second book is a strong reaction to a photograph in a newspaper.You'll understand once the book is completed."

Having presented Scotland's first Indian emigrant story in print, what does that say for you personally?

"For years while I worked fulltime I always felt that there was nothing in mainstream literature in Scotland about an Indian immigrant experience. There is an enormous literary output in USA and Canada with authors like Jhumpa Lahiri whose work I admire.

"In the UK apart from the literary giants like Rushdie, and Booker prize winners like Arundathi Roy, Hanif Kureshi and Adiga there are few that reflect the life of an ordinary English or Scottish immigrant. I also want the next generation to be enthused and get into the mainstream and make our stories as valid as James Kelman in Glasgow or Alan Bennett in England. It is definitely an exciting time and hope many more writers contribute to the Scottish literary scene."

How do you view the worldwide web in general in its place to help the new author progress in today's fast-paced competitive world?

"I wish I was internet savy. I consider myself still a technophobe. I am still learning. The world wide web is a superb opportunity and it must be used by emerging authors for learning about new writing, for research and of course for marketing."

On introspection, how would you sum up an industrious but independent publicity for your book and stories?

"Unless you have been fortunate enough to get a big two-book deal from a big publisher, who provide all the publicity, all others have to be involved in their own marketing. There is so much to learn too about the book trade.I have friends who have been published by small presses and all of them have said that the only way to promote your work is to showcase the work as much as possible."

Do you have any author you'd like to aspire to?

"I have no great illusions that I would be good enough to reach such heights but Arundathi Roy's prose in the 'God of Small Things' rose out of the page and assaulted all one's senses and Salman Rushdie's 'Midnight Children' when you could almost smell the pickle factory.I would love to be able to reach that standard."

What were a few things that gave you a real buzz at the London Book Fair recently besides which you've already mentioned on your blog?

"Market focus India was wonderful at the LBF. The fact that in such times of a crisis with the credit crunch plus with all the visual media alluring the young involving elelctronic games and dvd's for example, the fact that books are still so important to the reading public is encouraging.

"The espresso machine printing books and the ebooks are the future even though I am sure that they will never replace books as we know them. I still remember fondly the book lined study of my dad and grandfather and the smell of old and new books and the joy of holding them, reading them and being transported to another world. That still holds true and LBF was a testimony to that."

*Like the fictitious character Sita in Twice Born, do you own a collection of well-thumbed and sentimental classics in your home?"

"I have an eclectic collection and also read voraciously from my local library.There are some classics like Shakespeare, all of Anita Desai's R.K. Narayan, some Rushdie and Scottish authors from Burns to Alaistair Gray and a lot of new writers from all over the world.

"I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novels that were called Half of the Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus. But the book I treasure most is the Bhagavad Gita, my dad 's copy and I read it a lot, dip into it very often. I am also reading Thirukurral again as I am doing a review for Penguin India Classics."

What happens with your short stories that you plan to turn into a collection?

"I do have eight short stories, ready and waiting to be published. The stories deal with life in Glasgow. Any publisher interested should call me now!"

Where do you see yourself heading as a writer in the near future?

"I hope to get my short stories published. Then complete my first draft of the second novel. I also write poetry for pleasure and if it is enjoyed by others, would like to raise money for charity from my poems as I did with my first collection From Madras to Milngavie. I write because I want to and enjoy the process of getting my thoughts on paper that is an accomplishment enough for me."

Do you have a tip for aspiring authors?

"Read, read , write ,write as Natalie Goldberg and others say. Write every day even for ten minutes, even if your words are never going to be used. Enjoy what you are doing. Write with passion.Network and have a writing partner or group who can help evaluate your work. Do other things that you enjoy too.

How do you feel about your upcoming Borders launch?

"If you had asked me a year ago if this was possible I would have have been surprised. I am looking forward to the launch, both with excitement and a bit of trepidation as any new writer would be."

What was your most remarkable moment while writing Twice Born?

"Perhaps when Aunty BB, the novel's notorious gossip and a total figment of my imagination, started taking over the plot line. I realised I could invent a whole new series around her. Maybe I should; recalling the horrors that she inflicted on the community in her inimitable way."

Did you expect the positive reactions so far garnered from Twice Born?

"I am thrilled with the wonderful feedback from all who have read the book. Many have asked if I am doing a sequel. It has really made me want to do better with my next book.