Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Blog Tour - Susmita Bhattacharya Interview

Today I’d like to welcome to my blog, Susmita Bhattacharya whose debut short story collection, Table Manners has just been published by Dahlia Books. 

Susmita, the themes that immediately stood out in your collection were those of homesickness, longing and alienation. Were you aware of these themes when you were writing?
Thank you for having me, Jo. I started writing these stories from as far back as 2006. I had moved to the UK in the autumn of 2004 – my husband had received a scholarship to do his PhD at Cardiff university. When I first arrived, it was dark, it was cold and I didn’t know anyone in Cardiff. I enrolled in an evening creative writing course at the university, just to meet people and have something constructive to do. The pieces I wrote here were mostly filled with nostalgia and homesickness. I missed Mumbai and I wrote about my city to overcome that loss. So a few of the stories come directly from that time – Dusk Over Atlantic Wharf – which is directly a product of my missing home. I started teaching English in a language school for migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees. There I encountered another form of displacement. Sometimes, leaving home was a good thing. A safer option. Then there were the PhD students – my husband’s friends. They were all international students and they had different stories. Different life goals. Different histories. I found all of this very interesting – we all lived in the same city yet we all had different backgrounds and different futures. We all had different definitions of ‘home’. So this idea of home became a natural theme for my stories, this was what I was observing and feeling at the time. Then I progressed to other themes. I began exploring alienation in my own country. Growing up in a Christian family in India, I was in a minority group, and was often subjected to discrimination. So alienation doesn’t just come from being a different colour, or in a different country. I found that these divisions and discriminations are very much present and just as hurtful in one’s own country. Homesickness also presents itself when one has lost one’s good health to illness. Grieving for what has been lost. Longing for those days when one’s health was not a matter of concern. There are many ways to look at homesickness, loneliness and alienation, and I hoped to capture these in my stories.

The stories in Table Manners exude a warmth and immediately arouse the senses. Was this a conscious thing?
No, it wasn’t conscious at all. I suppose the subject matter naturally alluded to these elements. The themes in this collection look at relationships – with other people, places and with oneself. This exploration of family life, love and hope lend themselves naturally to the warmth and richness in the senses, I feel. 

You’ve obviously been writing short stories for a long time now. Is there still an aspect to the short story form that you find difficult?
I love writing short stories and love the challenge to express something through layers of showing in very limited word count. What I find difficult sometimes is to write dialogue that fits into the social fabric that I’m writing about. I find myself in a strange place – I didn’t grow up in this country, so I don’t have that history behind me to write about even Asian subjects in this country. And I’ve been away from India for so long, I feel worried I may not be able to give the Indian protagonist an authentic voice and may resort to nostalgia. Sometimes I lack confidence in myself – questioning if I have an authentic voice. But I do work through several drafts of my more complex stories. I keep going back to them, reading them out loud to check I’m getting the nuances right. Hopefully, it works out in the end.

Your first novel, The Normal State of Mind was published in 2015. How did the experience of writing it compare to writing short stories?
I started writing The Normal State of Mind in 2006 as part of my Masters in Creative Writing dissertation. I had no idea what I was doing, or where the story would lead to. I was pregnant and in the period of writing the novel and getting it published, I had two babies, moved several times between three cities in the UK, got diagnosed with cancer and then the treatment and all the rest of it. So really, I’m not sure how I even managed to complete the book and get it published! The short stories were my constant companions as I always managed to pen something down in between writing my novel. The difference in both these processes I think was in the linearity of the writing. For the novel, it was more of a jigsaw puzzle. I wrote scenes from various parts of the timeline, and then put them together at the very end. I wrote the first chapter last. With a short story, I always begin at the beginning, and sometimes I don’t know where it will end.

One thing that came across in Table Manners is your love of food. You must be a great cook! Do you consider yourself a ‘foodie’? What is your favourite meal?
Ah yes! Food is definitely important in my life. I’m not really a foodie, nor a great cook. I do like to experiment with cooking new recipes etc and try new cuisines. I love photographing food and watching cooking shows! When I was sailing with my husband, I had the opportunity to visit many countries and try out different cuisines. It didn’t help that I had turned vegetarian for that period and so only tasted veggie dishes – that doesn’t really say much about tasting food in places like Brazil and Argentina where the main and sometimes the only food was meat! I love food cooked by my mother, and mum-in-law. They are the best cooks! And I can’t wait to visit them because they like to stuff me with all my favourites. I miss the authentic Indian home-cooked food, and so I think I like to replicate them in my writing. My favourite meal – okay, that would be plain rice, my mother-in-law’s steamed prawns (particular ones from the rivers of Kolkata, nothing can touch those in taste) in a mustard sauce. Mashed potatoes, the Bengali style. Fried fish, or a daal cooked with fish head – that is a delicacy and it’s too good to be true! Puris and potatoes. Fried fish roe, fried aubergine. My mum’s stuffed roast chicken. Rice pudding. The list goes on! 

What sort of books do you normally read for pleasure and who are your favourite authors?
My favourite author has got to be Alexander McCall Smith because I just love the No.1 Ladies Detective series. I also admire his versatility in writing about so many different characters in different sbettings. I can lose myself in his stories, so yes definitely one for reading for pleasure. I also love Shashi Tharoor and Manju Kapur. Another favourite of mine is Shashi Deshpande. Chitra Banerjee, Divakaruni, Jhumpa Lahiri. I absolutely adore John Irving. The first book I read of his- Hotel New Hampshire – I had borrowed from a photographer I was working with just after my graduation (in Mumbai). The book was signed by John Irving himself, and it turned out he was actually my boss’s friend. They had met in Mumbai when Irving was writing, Son of the Circus. It was the first time I actually held a book signed by the author, and it made the author a living, breathing human being to me. I’ll never forget that. I also love Alice Munro and the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore.

Have you ever written for or considered writing fiction for the women’s magazines? If not, why not?
I have written and submitted to women’s magazines, but I was never successful in getting any acceptances. Then I wondered if my name was a deterrent as back then I hadn’t really seen any names from diverse backgrounds nor stories about people of colour. I even considered writing under an anglicized name but then decided against it. I concluded my stories did not match the requirements of the women’s magazines and I couldn’t write about the white middle-class experience because I wasn’t one. So I just stopped and did not try again. I’ve stopped reading them as well as they did not reflect people from my background. Have they opened up for a more diverse market? Let me know!

Do you write Flash Fiction?
Yes, I do! And I love writing flash fiction. It has a completely different process, and what I love even more is this burgeoning of this genre, especially through the huge support it gets through Twitter. Writing can be a very lonely experience, but I’ve found the flash fiction writing community incredibly inclusive and fun to hang out with (online! I’ve met only a few offline).

What’s next? Another novel or another short story collection?
I’m working on another novel. Still working on it! And no, I’m not doing NanoWriMo this year even though that was what started off this current novel two years ago. Everything’s changed though in the storyline, and I can’t wait to get properly started!

Thank you, Jo, for all your interesting questions. It’s been a real pleasure to answer them, but now I’m really craving for those amazing dishes I’ve had to think about and I can’t eat them until I visit India in December! 

You're welcome, Susmita! Thank you for answering my questions so comprehensively. Some fascinating answers.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Jonathan Pinnock Interview

It has been a while since I've had a guest on my blog, so I'm delighted to welcome Jonathan Pinnock. I first came across Jonathan when his short short collection, Dot Dash was published by Salt. It's a stunning collection, so I was intrigued when I discovered he had written a new novel, The Truth About Archie and Pye.

Hi, Jonathan! Welcome to my blog. It’s been a while since we were both on the reading team for the Bath Short Story Award. How did you find the whole judging experience and would you be on the reading team again?
As it happens, I was on the team again this year! I find it absolutely fascinating being a first-stage reader for a big open competition like that, because you can get literally anything coming at you. The range of quality is quite remarkable, and it can be really exciting when something really brilliant leaps out at you, as it did two years ago when I spotted the story that eventually went on to win. Even the really terrible stories are instructive, because they force you to analyse exactly why they are so terrible.
Are you an avid reader? How much time do you spend reading compared to writing?
Ooh yes. I can’t say for sure what the ratio is, but it’s close to parity. Never trust any writer who doesn’t read.
Who are your favourite writers and do you read more short fiction than novels?
I’m not entirely sure I have any favourite writers as such, in the sense of wanting to grab anything new of theirs as soon as it comes out - although Alison Moore comes close to that category and Jon Ronson does in the non-fiction world. The best book I’ve read this year by a country mile is Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, which surprised me because I’d previously only read his short fiction, and I didn’t quite engage with that for some reason. Maybe I should try again. Generally speaking I read a mixture of novels, non-fiction and short stories, so there’s no hard and fast rule. I go high-brow, low-brow and everywhere in between.
What inspires you to write? Do you keep lots of notebooks?
I don’t do notebooks. For short stories, I generally start from a prompt or an idea that appears from somewhere and see where it goes. I don’t plan.
Was there anything in particular that inspired you to write this particular book?
Very long story, which will probably be covered in an entire post elsewhere in this blog tour! The short version is: a prompt inspired an entry to a web forum short story competition. That ultimately got read at Liars’ League and published in my collection Dot Dash. Then I was frantically scrabbling around for something to write on my MA course, and I remembered this and based an entire novel on it.
What is your take on self-publishing?
I imagine it’s a hell of a lot of work, and very, very lonely. However, one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year was self-published (on Bitcoin and blockchain and all that nonsense), so I am not against the idea at all. But what I love about working with my current publishers, Farrago, is that they take care of the professional stuff such as editing, proof-reading, cover design and promotion via NetGalley etc. – stuff that I’d be tempted to skimp on if I were paying for it myself.
Have you got an agent and if not, have you tried to get one?
No, and oh, God, yes. Unfortunately, no-one is interested in taking on clients who write humorous thrillers at the moment. Or it could just be me.
What advice would you give new writers?
It’s that line from Galaxy Quest: Never give up, never surrender!
Do you still enter short story or flash fiction competitions? Do you think they are worthwhile?
I’m on a sabbatical from that sort of thing right now. But I will probably come back some time in the future. They have been massively worthwhile in the past, however, for many reasons. Probably the most important one is that success in competitions gave me the confidence to keep going (see the Galaxy Quest quote above).

Is this your first novel?
No, it’s my second (the first one was Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens).
What’s next? Have you got something in the pipeline?
The deal I have with Farrago is for two books, so I’m currently hard at work finishing the sequel, which will be out next year.


Something doesn't add up about Archie and Pye ...
After a disastrous day at work, disillusioned junior PR executive Tom Winscombe finds himself sharing a train carriage and a dodgy Merlot with George Burgess, biographer of the Vavasor twins, mathematicians Archimedes and Pythagoras, who both died in curious circumstances a decade ago.
Burgess himself will die tonight in an equally odd manner, leaving Tom with a locked case and a lot of unanswered questions.
Join Tom and a cast of disreputable and downright dangerous characters in this witty thriller set in a murky world of murder, mystery and complex equations, involving internet conspiracy theorists, hedge fund managers, the Belarusian mafia and a cat called µ.

Monday, 13 August 2018

'You have to be lonely to be a writer.' - Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien is famously quoted as saying, 'You have to be lonely to be a writer.' There's a marvellous Guardian interview with her when her autobiography, Country Girl came out in 2012. You can see it here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/video/2012/dec/07/edna-obrien-autobiography-country-girl-interview-video

There are many definitions of loneliness, of course. As Edna says, 'you can be lonely in the middle of a party'. Her mother described her as 'a lonely child and hard to reach'. I guess my loneliness stemmed from not only being an only child, but from never feeling as if I fitted in. I still get that sense of not really belonging to this day. As Edna O'Brien says, 'our disposition as children remains with us all our lives' and 'my interior life is where I live life'. This is so very true for me. The beauty of writing is exploring this interior life and trying to interpret it through 'the shimmer of language and fiction'.  However, 'you couldn't go through the purgatory of writing, if you weren't a lonely person,' she says. And yes, writing can be purgatory.

Recently I've been wrestling with what kind of writer I really am and I'm coming to acknowledge the fact that I haven't been true to myself, particularly where my novel is concerned. The wonderful Joanna Campbell once advised me to 'forget the word count, forget writing to the market, just immerse yourself in the words'. I had the quote pinned above my computer for quite a few years until it fell off down the back of the desk, which is why I probably haven't got the words quite right here. You get the gist, though.

Norman Mailer once told Edna O'Brien that 'You're far too interior'. That may be so, but so was Virginia Woolf. Is this really a criticism? I interpret it as meaning these outstanding and gifted female writers actually write from the heart, which is exactly where we should all be writing from. Isn't the reader searching for emotional truth in whatever he or she reads?

Talking of reading, I haven't been true to myself here either of late. I've been reading popular fiction, mainly psychological crime thrillers, because this is the novel I've written and with which I've been trying to lure an agent, all the time knowing deep-down that something isn't right. I've written it with an eye on the market and it shows. I could name one or two female writers whose psychological crime novels I've recently read and have wondered why they've drifted so far from their outstanding debut novels and short fiction.

I'm going to mine the depths of my inner lonely child, hoping she isn't too hard to reach. Maybe then I'll produce a piece of writing, long or short, of which I can be truly proud.

And guess which author I'll be reading next?

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Remember, Remember, The Fifth Of November

In a nostalgic moment earlier, I remembered our family bonfire parties in Clifton Campville back in the 1960s and early 1970s. We'd take it in turns to host the party with our neighbours opposite, The Cuffes. We both had a fair bit of land on which to erect a big bonfire and the neighbours in our street would all club together to buy the fireworks. Our mums used to put on a fine spread, including lots of potatoes wrapped in foil to cook on the bonfire, served with lashings of butter.

Tonight, for the very first time, we will have fireworks in the garden. On a whim, my husband, Nige, announced this morning that he was off to buy some. I put it down to the strong anti-biotics he's taking.

I had baked potato for tea, albeit done in the electric oven and served sans beurre and with Branston Pickle, salad and ham, not a whiff of foil in sight.

And finally, here's a Flash Fiction I wrote a few years ago in remembrance of those lovely family bonfire parties.....


Jumpin’ Jacks lie like coiled worms on the rickety camping table underneath the kitchen window.
          Mum is wrapping jacket potatoes in tin foil ready to put on the dying embers of the bonfire, and Dad is lighting the Catherine Wheel. The Standard Firework box is almost empty. There’s just the Mount Vesuvius, a cone-shaped firework Dad always saves till last; a Spitfire and a Flying Saucer.
          I hope Toby arrives in time for the Jumpin’ Jacks. I love the way they chase us round the lawn.
          “Come and grate some cheese for the potatoes, Diane!” Mum shouts.
          It’s only when I’m through the back door that I hear a whistle from the garage. Toby must be hiding. He’s four years older than me and teases me all the time. Last week he set up his army play-tent in the kitchen and said he’d give me a tenner if I showed him my privates. I hid the brown note in a pink Tupperware box in our pantry. Mrs Crowther still hasn’t asked for it back.
          I grate the cheese, then skulk off to find Toby. He’s sitting on an oil drum holding a lit sparkler. It’s dangerous and thrilling at the same time. Just the two of us in the garage with the fireworks.
          “Which one shall we light first?” he asks with a grin.
          I point with a trembling finger, then run.
          We never did see the Jumpin’ Jacks. When Mount Vesuvius erupted, Toby turned to ash.