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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Author Interview : Sujata Massey, author of 'The City of Palaces'

Sujata Massey is an incredibly wonderful author. She is frank and passionate. In this interview, she tells us a little more about where and how the book came about. She also gives us her views on how a writer can be published. She was incredibly patient with the questions.  If you want to catch my review, you can do it here. If you want to buy the book you can do it here.

And you read her interview below. So, read on…

Calcutta has always fascinated readers. How did ‘The City of Palaces’ come about?

I love being in so many different parts of India, but Calcutta is my father’s family’s ancestral home. It was the most comfortable place for me to set an historical novel. I’ve been visiting since Calcutta since I was 9 years old so am sentimental about various neighborhoods and institutions, ranging from Boronogar and Chowringhee to the old Ramakrishna Mission, Flury’s, and the Oxford Bookshop.

‘City of Palaces’ was the city’s old nickname because of its architectural splendours and wealth. In my imagination, City of Palaces presents an image of forgotten grandeur and international stature. I spent four years writing the novel, consulting with relatives and Indian historians to create a romantic yet realistic story set from 1930-47.

What is the kind of research that has gone into this book? There must have been quite a bit of it, did you use the topics in the books as separate stories and bring them together?  How did you do it? 

When I had the brainstorm for the book, I was lucky to live ten minutes from the foremost collection of books and other records of pre-independence India in the U.S. The Ames Library of South Asia at the University of Minnesota was founded by a collector who was a lot like my character Mr. Lewes. I buried myself for more than a year in that library, reading old Gazetteers, gigantic collections of information about weather, economics and population that were compiled the British resident in charge of each province. I also consumed memoirs, novels, travel guides and other old records about life in colonial India. I also researched at the National Library of India’s Reading Room in Calcutta’s Esplanade area. 

This little-known enclave has old Indian newspapers that fill one in on controversies and other issues of daily life in the 30s and 40s. My third research spot was the British Library in London, where the India Office papers are housed. I read documents written by members of a secret spy unit within Calcutta’s ICS to Bengal’s governors that added to the story’s espionage subplot. Because I read so much that I longed to share with the novels’s readers, the epigraphs at the beginnings of the chapters are real quotations from named sources. 

The novel was written straight from beginning to end, but when I came across a very
nice quotation or definition that resonated with what I was writing, I made note of it. A bibliography at book’s end can steer readers to finding the quoted books.

Any challenges you had to face while writing this particular book?

The obvious hurdle was not being able to spend as much time in Calcutta as I’d have liked. Ideally, I would have gone to Calcutta for a very long stay, like a year. However, my children are still in school, and my husband works fulltime in the United States, so it was only possible for me to spend a few weeks walking through the scenes I’d written.

My aims during this lightening fast research trip were to enrich the settings with sensory and visual details and to interview older Indians who had experienced pre-Independence Calcutta. Fortunately, I met these goals and came away with new ideas to fit into the book. 

How would you relate the life of Kamala’s to the lives today? Any similarities?
Kamala, the novel’s protagonist, starts off as a ten-year-old orphan who must make her way alone in British Raj India. Utmost on her mind is survival. She knows that she has no voice about what’s happening to her because she is a low-caste peasant who does not even know her surname. 
However, as she labors as a servant in a school for wealthy girls, she learns to read and write English and dreams of reinventing herself. Thus her adventures begin.
Her story isn’t really one of the past. There still are many homeless children for whom the choices are dreadful: either entering a workplace or household as a servant or the sex trade. However, now have more institutions that can rescue and educate vulnerable youth, and caring people in society looking out for kids who need help.
A very positive similarity from 1930s India that’s continued to the present is the great number of women interested in political work. This was especially dramatic during the World War II years, when hundreds of young women from India and Southeast Asia joined the Indian National Army. These ladies became members of parliament and political party leaders after independence, a trend that continues today.
How much of the story is based on facts and how much is fiction? 

The political events, war milestones and the Bengal famine are grounded in reality. I worked my story around quite a bit to fit the timeline …which put Kamala working in Mr. Lewes’ home for eight years! The Chhattri Sangha women’s political group really existed within the Calcutta college scene during these years. 

However, I fictionalized the “Strength Brigade” men’s group led by Pankaj Bandopadhyay, because there were so many pro-independence political groups that emerged in Bengal during this time. Pankaj’s surname is a bit of a joke, because Bandopadhyay is the original incarnation of Banerjee, my own family name—and many of our Banerjees were Calcutta lawyers. The best-known one in our family is Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee, the first president of the Congress Party.

This is probably historical fiction at its best. How do you come up with the concepts and develop them?

Thank you so much for the kind compliment, because historical fiction is my favorite genre and has very critical readers! I only dared to attempt a historical novel after having ten previous novels published. I’ve enjoyed a number of Indian historical novels written about much earlier times; people have said to me that modern Indian history doesn’t get as much attention because there are thousands of prior years of civilization. From my earliest visits to India, I’ve stayed in old British hotels and guesthouses and clubs. 

As time moved on, these institutions and whole residential areas that I fondly remembered in central Calcutta were knocked down for modernization. One way I can preserve the old city that I love is by writing about these places. 

Of course, such research into the past has led me to other intriguing women and political events of early 20th century…and more ideas than I could possibly put in print. Honestly, any writer who’s stumped for ideas should consider a historical era in a particular location that is emotionally appealing. Then ask: how would an ordinary family lived through a famous big event during this time? There’s your book! 

What is the main difference you see while writing historical fiction when compared to contemporary fiction?

Behavior and spoken language were so different in the past that it’s important to put away modern sensibilities. Some members of my writers’ critique group were frustrated that Kamala did not behave in a feisty or openly passionate manner in 1930s India, and also that Mr. Lewes kept his emotions so circumspect. Well, it was 1930s, and Indians in service wanted to keep their jobs, and every Englishman had endured a lifetime of training in repressive behaviors. 

In a modern novel, on the other hand, characters can act more impetuously and not be cast out of society. The character can react the way the reader reacts while reading.

Now for my point about language. A historical fiction author needs to become fluent in the particular kind of language spoken during the story’s time period. Sometimes it’s instinctive, sometimes not. Since childhood I’ve devoured colonial literature: Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbitt, Rumor Godden. Their voices became part of my brain, so it was easy to write voices of the English and Indians educated in this system.

I also built my historical English vocabultary with the help of Indians who attended English medicum schools and absorbed traditional British English from their teachers. By hook or by crook, I found ways to pick up some of this charming language!

What is the most fulfilling part of writing a book?

For me, the best part is when I’m at work, and the writing just flows. Not every day is like this. A great day might mean writing 6000 words and feeling like I can’t wait to continue the next day.

The second great moment is when the manuscript is complete!

What book is coming from you, next? When do you see it released?

My next book is The Kizuna Coast, a modern mystery in my Rei Shimura series that should go on sale around October 2014. It’s quite different from City of Palaces, although it also features a terrific heroine, in this case a 30-year-old Japanese-American woman called Rei who searches for some missing friends during the 2011 tsunami in Japan.  

The Kizuna Coast  will be available in English as an e-book and trade paperback at all the international portals for Amazon and iBooks. I’m bringing it out under my own imprint, Ikat Press, in the English language, but I anticipate that it will also be published overseas in some different languages

Since the latter book is in an editing phase, I’ve now got time to work on another historical novel set in 1920s India, again with a realistic political background and a strong young woman character. Given my writing pace and the length of the publishing process, I predict it will come out in 2016.

Who was it that told you that you could become the author, you are today?

My parents really wanted me to become a poet after I started casually writing poems and stories around age six. But I was very embarrassed by their praise (a warning for any parents who are reading this blog!) and decided I’d better hide my writing and certainly not plan on it as a career. 

When I entered university, I first majored in international relations, despite the fact that all my best grades were in creative writing, history and literature. But as I continued studying, the college writing courses I took were easy and pleasurable, and I landed a newspaper internship that promised a fun, secure career after graduation. So I switched my major at Johns Hopkins to Writing Seminars. In the end, I gave myself permission to write!

Any advice to writers that would like to be published today? How tough is it to be published in India?

I think a lot of people have a vision for a story but fear they don’t have the skills to write it. Nobody has all the skills right off the bat. One way of attacking the problem of not knowing how to start a novel is to believe the story already exists and you just have to uncover it so the world can enjoy it too. And then it’s a lot of work—I’d say give at least an hour a day, five days a week, to the writing project, rather than working only when the time feels right.

I don’t have an accurate gauge of how hard or easy it is to be published in India. For
this book, it was a quicker process to sell the book in India over the United States, probably because the book is set in India. The book was published several months earlier in the U.S. by Simon&Schuster as The Sleeping Dictionary. Penguin-Random House India decided to change the title and also re-edit the novel, which meant a bit more writing for me; but I loved working with my editor, and I believe the resulting Indian edition is the very best the story could be. One espeically fun thing about City of Palaces is that it’s got British spellings and grammar throughout, which is exactly what the book needs for an old-world feeling.

Who are your favourite authors and why?

I was hoping for this question! Two late, great Indian women novelists should enthrall anyone who enjoys my books. They are Qurratulain Hyder and Santha Rama Rau. I’m also a fan of Saadat Hasan Manto, who was such a great chronicler of the film and underworld and experience of Partition. Before turning to short stories he was a top screenwriter in 30s and 40s India. At the old Bombay Talkies studio, he crossed paths with my great-great uncle, the Bengali writer Saradindu

Which books are you currently reading?

My teenage daughter and I love to read aloud novels before going to bed. Right now we’re enjoying The Wrong Girl by Hank Phillippi Ryan, a thriller set in Boston, Massachusetts. Another time for “reading” is in the car. During the school year, I often drive three hours a day, and audiobooks are the only thing that makes those drives worth it. My most recent audiobook was Hare With the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, a fascinating biography of generations of an art-collecting Jewish family living in Europe. 

I’m not quite finished with How to Live Like a Maharaja, a nonfiction lifestyle book about royal Indian decorating, fashion and food. It’s written by Amrita Gandhi, an anthropologist who is well known as an NDTV program anchor. Since reading the book, I’ve found recordings of  Royal Reservation on YouTube and am in in stitches at the glorious excesses of India’s nobility.

What else do you like to do on a daily basis?
Writers can get lost in their work and forget how much they need to stretch and walk. I either try for an exercise session at the gym or neighborhood walk and give an hour or so to moving about my kitchen. I cook healthy Asian and Meditteranean recipes I find in food magazines and cookbooks and the internet, but it’s also fun to cook from imagination. 

A few days ago I concocted a pesto from pistachios, fresh spring peas, garlic scapes, goat cheese, and just a touch of olive oil. It was delicious combined it with hot farfalle pasta and also spread it on toast. I share my home recipes on Asia File, my monthly e-newsletter.

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