Of thieving magpies and novelists: Four first-time authors on the challenges of writing
A great debut could make a career in any creative field. While writers will tell you that the writing process never becomes easy, the first book is always a major accomplishment.
Four authors — Diksha Basu (The Windfall), Prayaag Akbar (Leila), Sandip Roy (Don’t Let Him Know) and Lucy Hughes-Hallett (Peculiar Ground), who have all recently published their first works of fiction, discussed the challenges of writing, finding their voices and writing spaces at a session On First Novels moderated by poet Tishani Doshi.
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Talking about the genesis of her social satire, The Windfall, Diksha Basu said she had initially started the book, about a middle-class Delhi family that suddenly comes into wealth, as a collection of short stories.
“I was sick of reading books about women in their 20s and 30s. So I started writing from the perspective of a middle-aged man and found my voice,” she said. She later decided to convert it into a novel. But her breakthrough moment, said Basu, was when she realised she should write what she wanted to write and not — as commonly advised — write from what she knew.
Journalist Sandip Roy, who is a qualified software engineer, said he began writing while studying in the USA, because writing was fun. He too worked on a series of short stories that later became Don’t Let Him Know.
First novels are also said to be the most autobiographical. Prayaag Akbar and Sandip Roy agreed that there were some elements and lived experiences that inadvertently made their way into a writer’s work, but that not all of it was autobiographical. “Novelists are like magpies, said Roy “We steal, and the nearest brightest objects are our families.”
British biographer Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s experience was similar. While working on Peculiar Ground, she realised she could not write from the perspective of a certain character because she had based him on her late father and felt it impertinent to try to get inside his head. But, she said, a fiction writer is all of the characters she creates. “One has an odd relationship with one’s characters,” she said. “They are all figments of my imagination. They are all me.”
Often it is also hard for writers to find their writing space and defend it from the demands of routine and the outside world. “At some level, people think you do nothing,” said Roy. “Neighbours wonder why you don’t go to office and are at home all day.”
But writing demands persistence. Basu, who had a baby four weeks ahead of the release of her book, said writers had to make time. “The excuses not to write always existed even before marriage and a baby. It is all up to me,” she said.
The ordeal, however, does not end with the first novel, which, if it is successful, creates the expectations of another. Hughes-Hallett cautioned against writing just for the sake of it.
“I don’t embark on a book unless I have something to say. You don’t have to keep writing novels because you’re a writer,” she said. “What writers do is difficult and solitary,” she said adding that it was good for writers to have a day job and be connected to the outside world.
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