What shapes a writer’s material? How do they get to the gut of their stories? What roles do they choose to play and why? How do they explore the literary cosmos and pick from the wide-open sea of possibilities? In this series of in-depth and insightful conversations, we get up close and personal with acclaimed and influential authors about their books, and the unique human craft of writing.

In the first of this series, Sucharita Dutta-Asane, author of Cast Out and Other Stories, tells Archana Pai Kulkarni how she writes her solid stories.

What triggers your story ideas: a character, a setting, plot or dialogue?

From a falling leaf to a frozen heart and everything in between… The trigger for a story is often trapped in the subconscious mind and comes up at the most unexpected moments – in the dead of night, while driving, at work, while reading or walking, cleaning the wardrobe, even in the midst of an argument with someone – a thought that has to be transcribed urgently for fear that it might vaporise. Sometimes it is a random, lazy sentence, a fleeting image or even a word that might leave only seminal traces in the story that evolves. At others, it could be the memory of a person, a situation; a setting that I find intriguing or full of possibilities, the stories almost leaping at me…

What is it about the marginalised, the underdogs, the outcasts and that which lies locked inside the underbelly of human existence that makes you want to write about it?

While it is true that I don’t consciously or deliberately seek these stories, it is also true that each one of us is sensitive to, passionate about certain ideas, issues, situations, people. My imagination is particularly sensitive to people we meet but do not notice, emotions we drive to the fringes of our thinking selves, issues that are left undiscussed, corners of our lives not dusted, strung with the cobwebs of memory and forgetfulness…  I respond more urgently to such people and conditions. What lies between the lines interests me much more than what is obvious. I often find myself watching body language, listening to the undertones of conversation almost involuntarily and I carry away much more from this observation than from actually participating in the interaction.

I often find myself watching body language, listening to the undertones of conversation almost involuntarily and I carry away much more from this observation than from actually participating in the interaction.

Your story, Cast Out, is a reflection of the times we live in, the cacophony about a menstruating woman and her alleged defiling of a temple has a religious-socio-political frame of reference. Your powerful, unsparing story, Rear View, too alludes to the increasingly insular lives we live and the bestial attacks on women. How important is it to you to write about issues that concern and outrage the reader almost every day? Do you think our conditions demand that the writer takes a stand on these?

Mahasweta Devi used to say that writers should have a social conscience, that they have a duty towards society. It’s no longer a choice one has, especially in these times of intense ferment and ideological ambivalence. “Cast Out” doesn’t tell a singular woman’s story. It is everywoman’s experience. How can one not write about it? The right to land has been a contentious issue for as long as one can remember; the uprooting of tribals, villagers, migrant labourers; the shaming of women… all of these form a part of collective and continuing social experience and memory. But are we talking about it? Has all conversation and ideology been hijacked by the single story of growth and development? When our responses take the form of fictional narratives we are merely re-presenting another’s lived experience, holding out possibilities that the writer’s imagination can conjure, pushing the boundaries of conversation.

Your stories are sombre and dark with an underlying sense of disquiet. The atmosphere is in places eerie and unsettling; not something you can place your finger on but stopping short of inciting terror. Is this slight holding back deliberate? If so, where do you intend to lead the reader with this kind of storytelling?

The stories in this collection are deeply internal, almost excoriating of the self. I’ve often noticed that we tend to find the explanation for problems outside of the self. Perhaps if we turn the gaze inwards once in a while – and that applies to individuals, social groups, nations – we’d find the solutions that seem to evade us. But this is not easy; it takes us to dark corners of the mind and heart, of our individual and collective lives. That darkness seeps into the stories and the real and the unreal meld in a way. How much of the dark shades or the unreal should be allowed into the story is a matter of playing in the sandbox. In the story ‘Fireflies,’ Shanta Kaku, the elderly woman who talks about the house and its history, was originally a more uni-dimensional sort of character, but that made the ethical element of the story heavier than required. Giving her character the kind of uncertainty, a here-yet-not-here kind of semi-palpability, pared down the overtly moralistic tone of the story and brought in uncertainty, leaving enough gaps for the reader to give it meaning.

You introduce the preternatural in your stories as if it is as natural an inhabitant of the dark, as the moon. There are suggestions, sightings and even interactions that some of your characters have with other-worldly beings. In Dhaara, the queen’s ghost hovers all through the narrative; ‘Fireflies’ ends on a mysterious note; and in Eyes, questions abound about the presence in the forest. Do you believe in ghosts? Where does this interest in the bizarre originate from?

Sometimes the preternatural tells us what normal, everyday reality does not. It nudges us towards a different perspective. The queen’s ghost in “Dhaara” presents a divergent stance on violence and power without letting the narrative turn judgemental. At the same time, it plays on our natural curiosity about ghosts and the supernatural. Tell me, who doesn’t like to listen to ghost stories? “Eyes” grew out of a story I’d heard long back about the ghosts of tigers. To me, the story was bizarre. To the person who told me this story, it was real, a common belief in the village where she lived. The presence of tiger eyes throughout the story plays on this disconnect between city-bred sensibilities and the reality of places we easily romanticise but do not perhaps understand.

Sometimes the preternatural tells us what normal, everyday reality does not. It nudges us towards a different perspective.

You use diverse literary tools like changing voices, writing in a deft, disjointed manner, leaving a lot unsaid, and making your stories have an open-ended closure, if I may use the term. How did you develop this enigmatic and engaging style of writing? What were the influences, if any?

One reads so many writers but develops a style of one’s own; the influences are present but perhaps only at a subconscious level. The disjointed style is what comes naturally to me; I find it easier to leave gaps than to spell out too much. I prefer to think this also rises from the way one thinks and speaks, the way one uses language in daily interactions – we do not always complete our sentences or conversation, often leaving meaning to the listener to decipher… But also, when one writes, it is the way the story speaks for itself, narrates itself, the brevity or expansiveness that it requires at different moments.

One reads so many writers but develops a style of one’s own; the influences are present but perhaps only at a subconscious level.

For example, in ‘A Train Story’, Antara sees her lover with her friend Ayesha. We don’t know what happens between this moment and the moment when he wakes her up the next morning; we don’t know whether Ayesha and Tushar were really engaging in something intimate, we don’t see Antara taking any decision on seeing them together. What we do see at the end is Antara walking away. A large part of the narrative works its way into the reader’s mind through this gap, and each reader is free to interpret it in her own way. The story assumes multiple possibilities in these ellipses.

How did you do your research, especially for the rural settings, which come alive, and make their presence felt as much as your characters?

Much of what I know of rural Bengal comes from the stories I have heard from my father and grandmother. For certain stories, I do basic research. For ‘Eyes’, I read up about different kinds of boats, but for ‘Fireflies’, I depended on my familiarity with rural Maharashtra where my in-laws live and also found out about the terms used for structures like godowns or whether a child in such a setting would use the word djinn or rakshas. I remember asking my Maharashtrian friends on Facebook about this.

Reading, listening to my father talk about his childhood in a village in undivided Bengal, movies, pictures, imagination…  there’s so much that goes into creating our sensitivities and sensibilities and thus the images we create and carry in our minds.

Who are three of your favourite short story writers, living or dead? Has a specific short story made such an impression on you that you have never forgotten it?

There are so many, but for instant recall, I love these writers and in no specific order: Ambai, Alice Munro, Kate Chopin, Tagore, Chekov, Mahasweta Devi, Anita Desai, Manto, Aamer Hussein, Naiyer Masud, Ismat Chughtai, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Romesh Gunesekara…

Mahasweta Devi’s “Draupadi”, Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour” and Naiyer Masud’s “Sheesha Ghat” and “The Mynah from Peacock Garden” have stayed with me ever since I first read them years ago.

Tell us about your writing routine; what’s a typical writing day for you?

There’s no saying. Some days I don’t write at all; sometimes this could extend to weeks and months. Then there are days when I write with vengeance, as if to make up for the time lost. I can write anywhere and at any time, on a train, plane, at a café, at the work table or waiting to pick up my daughter from school… I guess that is how it is for many of us who write.

I can write anywhere and at any time, on a train, plane, at a café, at the work table or waiting to pick up my daughter from school…

Do you feel that there are specific challenges in marketing and promoting short fiction? What are they?

I think that’s a question for publishers and marketing departments. As for promoting short fiction, online and print literary journals like Out of Print, Cafe Dissensus, Kitaab, Muse India, Mithila Review, The Bangalore Review, Indian Quarterly, The Little Magazine, etc., have engaged with and encouraged the form, helping new and emerging writers find readers. I think that’s a blessing. It definitely has been one for my debut collection. Also, short story contests have done their bit to promote the genre and its writers. However, while it is difficult for magazines and contests to sustain over the years, the short story continues to thrive in the pages of these magazines and journals.

There are fewer collections being published by the major publishing houses unless one is already a name to reckon with and would draw immediate attention. Independent publishers have stepped in and are trying to fill this obvious gap. Dhauli Books, for example, the publisher of my book, is a small, independent press from Odisha without the resources to aggressively market books but with the courage to publish short story collections and poetry. At a time when one hears that fewer people are reading short stories or that short fiction doesn’t sell, these presses and literary journals have kept the fire burning.

The first piece of fiction in your book, Half a Story, leaves the reader wanting to know more, and sets the tone for those that follow. There are threads in your other stories too where there is scope to pick one and weave it into a longer narrative. Do you see yourself writing a novel? Tell us more.

I’m so glad that you asked this question. I think stories exist in continuum, not in a vacuum. They do not end. I cannot say that Tara’s story ends at the end of “Cast Out” or that, like you mention, Ratri’s story in “Half a Story.” Or for that matter, in “Shame”, the mother’s story might just about begin where her daughter’s ends. Every story we write contains within it the potential for a longer narrative that the reader is free to imagine and the writer free to explore. Many of the stories in my book have back stories that could be developed. One of these forms a parallel narrative in my novel-in-progress.

Every story we write contains within it the potential for a longer narrative that the reader is free to imagine and the writer free to explore.

If you could pass on a single piece of advice to aspiring authors reading this interview, what would it be? 

I would break that up into parts. Write all the shitty drafts you need to before you write that final draft then let it stew. Edit. Step out of your skin and into the reader’s shoes. Edit again. It also helps to read the story aloud or record it. The audio often reveals things that escape the eyes.

Sucharita Dutta-Asane is an award-winning writer and independent books editor based in Pune. Her debut collection, ‘Cast Out and Other Stories’ was published by Dhauli Books in May 2018. In 2013, Sucharita received the inaugural Dastaan Award from the Pakistan based Papercuts Magazine for her short story ‘Rear View’. In 2008, she received the Oxford Bookstores debuting writers’ (second) award for ‘Jungle Stories.’ 

Picture Credit: Sucharita Dutta-Asane

Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople.TV. 

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