Anita Nair on her new book Eating Wasps, finding her characters, and writing different genres
Anita Nair talks about writing different genres, finding voices of her characters, the expectations of her readers and what's next on her table.
Anita Nair, the author of bestselling novels Mistress, Ladies Coupe, among others, has released her latest, a fiction revolving around a mysterious suicide and the consequences of desire, titled Eating Wasps. In an interview with Firstpost, the author of Inspector Gowda series talks about writing different genres, finding voices of her characters, the expectations of her readers and what's next on her table.
In between writing dark crime fiction — the Inspector Gowda series — how does a writer tune him/herself to an exploration of characters with a more temperate core? What do you have to be careful you don’t do?
I do have to be mindful that I do not allow how I write noir to seep into my literary fiction. Fortunately, there is a distinct difference between how I tackle both and this lets me carve out a very clear style. With noir, while there is a darkness, I am still looking outwards and so are my characters. Their inner lives are balanced by their interactions with the world. With literary fiction, even if it is the everyday, I am locating my novels in both my characters and I look within. And that influences the course of their actions.
Did you feel it was a risk, writing so many women into the same book – the need for nuance if you like? How difficult is it to find different shades of grey within the same novel? What do you look at for inspiration in such a case and what do you try to avoid?
The book needed these 10 women to make it what it is. It is an intuitive understanding of my art, or you can call it a writer-ly insight that told me that with only as many stories would I be able to layer their experiences to make the book what it is. Since these characters become real-life people to me, it isn’t difficult at all to nuance each one of them. Moreover, each one of them in their demographics and psychographics is so different from each other that they evolve as distinct characters. When characters share similar backgrounds that is when it becomes an exciting challenge to work in shades of grey. My greatest inspiration is my observation of people and behaviour. What I studiously try to avoid is repeating myself and falling into the lazy route of building on stereotypes or accepted tropes.
Which of all the genres is most difficult and what are its biggest challenges? Does writing for children for example, necessarily mean it is any easier?
In terms of the research involved, noir is the more difficult one as I need to ensure that every detail isn’t a supposition and is factually accurate. And that could involve hitting no-information or bureaucratic walls. However, it is my literary fiction that is more difficult to write as there is a need to plumb one’s own soul and memories, to confront one’s own darkness and monsters before all of it melds into a narrative that is high on the craft quotient too. Writing for children isn’t easy. There is a need to think it through carefully especially in terms of the voice used. But there is an inherent joy in it which bubbles forth into the writing.
You’ve authored the voice of women, men, little girls and so on. What fraction of these characters are motivated by your own experiences? Do you go out to find some of these characters in the flesh? Can you tell us about some characters from Eating Wasps, and how they came to you?
Just as any author, I use my personal experiences, observations, and understanding of human behaviour to create a character. Once I have an idea for a character, I slip into their skin. So it allows me to be a little girl or an elderly woman or a young man with equal ease. I won’t say it happens effortlessly. There is a great deal of work involved in subjugating and burying who I am as a person before I can become the character and responding to situations as the character would and not as I as Anita would.
But the emotional toll it exacts is crippling. Sometimes characters appear fully formed like Najma in Eating Wasps. Sometimes they present themselves as with Sreelakshmi. I wanted an invisible narrator. And yet, I also wanted the narrator to be the protagonist. And that’s when I remembered the story of this writer Rajalakshmi from Kerala who killed herself in 1965. To this day no one knows why she did it. I took a cue from that and turned my protagonist and narrator into a writer and a ghost who is condemned to live even after she is dead. The story of Liliana is based on a news item I read about a girl in Italy who was slut-shamed on social media with a sex video and who killed herself. The inspiration for Maya and Naveen came from an elderly lady and her 40-year-old autistic son whom I met on a flight.
You leave many endings in the novel open, which only amounts to the faith you’d put in your reader. In your years writing books, do you think the reader has matured? What is a writer of fiction in India, now facing, differently from say a couple of decades ago, when you were only a reader?
I have great faith in my readers. Let me clarify that. Over the years my readers know that I am never going to give them an easy breezy book; that reading me necessitates them getting involved to some extent. So with the endings too, this is something that they are going to have to figure out themselves based on who they are and what they think. Reader X may fashion an ending which would be diametrically opposite to what Reader Y may do. So in that sense, I ask them to look within when they read me.
I do think a certain kind of readers have matured in India. The readers who thought Indians couldn’t write sound literary fiction are diminishing. However, there are also readers in India who cannot be bothered to engage with a book or make an effort. And this number seems to be on a steady rise. For which I would only blame our education system that a) takes the joy out of literature and turns it into tedium and b) doesn’t build a strong reading capability in English especially for children who emerge from small towns and rural areas.
You are a disciplined writer, but are you as disciplined with everything else in life? Do all your plans come through on time? Do you procrastinate, like maybe a get-together or chores etc?
I am a disciplined person because within my head what reigns is utter chaos and so I can’t function unless I have aligned my day into neat little boxes. If there were no external influences altering the course of time, my plans would always work out. However, life being what it is, most often my plans don’t pan out the way I would like them to. I very seldom procrastinate about chores but I definitely keep putting off meeting people or doing social things or dealing with paperwork.
What is next on your table? You started writing parts of this book years ago, you’ve said. How do you handle multiple ideas at the same time? Are you writing in different registers every day? Do you prioritise projects based on deadlines or do you finish what comes to you first, like a rush?
I have the next Inspector Gowda in my head demanding to be written. I am also working on a children’s book which I had to stop mid-way. So I will resume that soon.
I usually have a couple of books gathering momentum in my mind. I make notes as I go along to keep alive the idea and fuel it. And then comes a point when I cannot hold it in anymore and I have to write it. So it isn’t deadlines as much as the compulsive need to write that story down that dictates what I work on.
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