She was born in England to parents from India and Germany and grew up mostly in St. Paul, Minnesota. Sujata holds a BA in Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University and started her working life as a features reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun. After leaving the newspaper, she moved to Japan, where she studied Japanese, taught English and began writing her first novel.
In an interview Sujata gives some very sage writing advise for aspiring writers, "Do not worry about getting published until you have completely written and revised your book, shown it to five friends that you trust, and taken their comments into consideration for your rewrite. I rewrote my first book more than 50 times before I showed it to an agent. There is something to be said for not proceeding until you are as polished as you can be."
She has been very busy with her book tour for her latest book that has been hailed as, "an ambitious story of suspense, love and identity."Yet she was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for Suprose.
You were a journalist before you became a fiction writer. Why?
How different is fiction writing as opposed to a non-fiction narrative?
How different is fiction writing as opposed to a non-fiction narrative?
I was a little more excited about journalism than fiction during my college years. I thought writing fiction was something that I'd be better able to afford when I was older--and in those days I thought "50" was the magic age for being capable of writing a novel. After I graduated with a BA from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, it seemed the obvious way to earn a living writing was newspaper journalism. I was extraordinarily lucky to be hired as a features reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun, a daily city newspaper that was delivered t in the afternoon, during the times that big cities still had enough readers and advertisers to support morning and evening papers. I thrived on the camaraderie of working at a paper and learning from older reporter. I also benefited from learning how to meet deadlines each day. Reporting also grounded me in feeling I had to use accurate details in whatever I would come to write in the future. The only hardest part of transitioning from reporting city news to creating fiction was the matter of emotion. As a newspaper writer, I was never supposed to insert myself or my opinion or feelings into the writing. Our word to live by was 'objective.' Fiction, on the other hand, is supposed to make readers feel things. Characters are supposed to offer you a window into their hearts. This is why I've primarily written in the first-person voice. This reminds me that it's OK to sway the reader with a character's feelings.
Did you receive formal training to become a writer, in journalism or fiction?
I earned an undergraduate degree in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. At another university, the major probably would be called "creative writing." But Hopkins had a specific scheme for their program, wherein professional published writers teach very small classes--typically 5 to 15 students--around one table, with group critique the major method of instruction. For some this might have been traumatic, but I let the competitive kids' comments roll of my back. I was intrigued by the professors and guest lecturers, who during my day, included the crime novelist Martha Grimes, and the literary authors Stephen Dixon, John Barth, and Francine Prose. The same workshop format was used to teach journalism (classes from several Washington Post writers) and poetry and science writing. I don't believe that this pleasant experience improved to the point of professionalism in writing. I think the reporting internship I did at the Baltimore Evening Sun, while in the program, helped me. One of the advantages of the Writing Seminars made me comfortable in critique groups and also asking established writers for guidance.
Do you believe that it is important to be trained as a fiction writer in order to write fiction? Why?
It's my opinion that in general, Masters Degrees programs in fiction don't give any advantage. Yes, you have a block of months or years to write, and some guidance from a writer-teacher who might actually pat you on the back and forward your work to an agent. That would be the very best case scenario--because if there are 30 gifted writers in a program, how many will the writer-teacher decide whom to help? And how many of his students over the years did his agent accept....and actually find a publisher to publish the manuscript? I think your chances are just as good if you go ahead and have a job which gives you some experience to write about. Take two to three hours a day or night at home to do the writing--every day. Network through professional writing organizations, conventions and contests. My guess is you might reach your goal faster than the person in the master's program--especially if you are writing commercial fiction.
Why did you choose the mystery genre? What about it appeals to you?
I started out writing mystery when I had been a few years out of university, where I'd done a lot of serous literary reading. I found mysteries exciting and fun, such a great break from the assigned reading of the school years. Also, mystery novels had fantastic plots...and most of the literary novels being praised in the late 80s and early 90s were not storyteller's books. I may not be the most profound writer in the world, but I'm a passionate storyteller. I'm not a very complex plotter--I think the people who can do this were good at geometry, and I was abysmal. Another challenge in mystery writing is that it's very hard for me to write violence, especially male violence against women, or anything happening to children. I hate guns. and I made a conscious decision my sleuth Rei Shimura, who figures in my Japanese mystery novels, would never use one. These boundaries I've created have kept me on what's called the "cozy" side of the mystery spectrum, but it turns out there are plenty of people who like their mysteries served with a cup of tea with lemon.
Why did you decide to write Historical Fiction?
When I was a child, I wished I lived in the past. I read hundreds of historical novels set in the US and abroad, from Frances Hodgson Burnett to Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was always hunting for antique dolls and vintage clothing--really an oddball in my school! I was on hiatus from historical fiction from about the time I was 12 to 42--but when I began reading it again, I found it very satisfying. I became specifically fascinated with the Asian historical novels of Lisa See and Amy Tan. I wanted to write the same kind of sweeping books about women and their families...but set in India, against the background of colonialism. But I'm interested in writing historicals in other places, too. There is no shortage of ideas for a writer if she turns to a historical setting. If only I could write three books a year!
Was the switch to historical fiction an easy one? What were some challenges?
The best part about writing a historical is you can fully concentrate on setting and events that may already have happened, so you don't even have to make them up. You don't need to craft a puzzle about someone's death and worry about clever evidence and crime-solving procedure. But for me, the toughest thing about writing a historical--especially one set in India during the fight for Independence, World War II, famine and Partition--is there were so many deaths. It's impossible to write a historical without having some very sad sections. I had to create a character who's not real--but real enough--to play a role in the historical events. If she's a woman, she's got to be strong--but operating within boundaries of the time. People may have had sex out of wedlock then, but all within the framework of values of that society.
I was reading a historical account of Bengal which mentioned this old nickname, employed by the European would-be colonists for the women who taught them languages, manners, and lived with them. it's an erotic, mysterious and literary term. It also works well because the heroine's favorite book is the Oxford English Dictionary.
The role of women in Indian Independence is not one that is talked about very much. Why did you chose to address this?
So many high school and college age women were active in the freedom movement, playing roles varying from fundraiser to political protestor to mover-of-weapons and assassin. Many Indian women, endured jail alongside their male counterparts. I think that this shared hard work during the freedom period made it easier for women to reach such heights in Indian government early after independence. Many South Asians know how bravely India's women worked for freedom: that Gandhiji's wife Kasturba died in prison and that many young women enlisted as soldiers for Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army. These stories aren't well-known outside of South Asia, though. It worked very well from a storyteller's viewpoint to give my heroine Pom (now calling herself Kamala) a way to find herself within the freedom fighting movement.
Tell me about Pom your fascinating protagonist. How did she come to be?
I had been casting about trying to write a novel about Indian-Americans for years, but everything felt flat and cliched. I thought about what really counted, and one thing was my love of Calcutta, my father's hometown. I didn't grow up in Calcutta, but I traveled there in childhood and young adulthood. To my sorrow, it seemed that the old buildings and streets I admired were transforming into sterile modernity as the years passed. In an effort to preserve what I loved, I set the novel toward the end of the British period. I decided to bring in a character to who was something of an outsider. Pom is Bengali, but she's from deep countryside and grew up without servants, books, and the other things that most of the Calcuttans she meet have. As she grows up and moves from working at a girls' boarding school to finally the city, she learns a lot about the British and how they work. But she's not part of the bhadralok: the Bengali intellectual bourgeoise. She doesn't live under the thumb of her parents.. She can be a single working woman, living in an Indian Civil Service officer's house. Pom can get away with the almost the same kinds of capers as a modern heroine.
What did you find most challenging about writing this book?
Writing about village life was initially quite stumping for someone whose time in India was mostly urban. I traveled out to the Midnapore district and stayed with distant relatives. The gawking reactions I got, from local residents made me wonder how many years it had been since someone from outside Bengal had passed through! Another challenging section was writing about prostitution during the Raj years, because I wanted to avoid creating anything exploitative...and I freeze when things get too graphic. Hopefully I hit an OK medium. I'm not going to say happy medium, because I was not feeling happy during this section of the story.
How and where did the research happen?
Through surprising circumstances, I moved from my East Coast base to Minnesota for six years. This meant I was living close to my parents. My father was born in 1936 and has many memories of wartime Bengal. He was my consultant during the whole process of writing this book. I researched by talking with him and asking him to translate Bengali books for me on occasion. I studied Hindi at the University of Minnesota and took advantage of rare old books in their magnificent Ames Library of South Asia. I also traveled to Calcutta, walking through old neighborhoods and reading old newspapers at the National Library of India's archive in the Esplanade. To get a look at the British police/intelligence reports on Bengal during this time, I went to London and researched at the British Library, which holds the old India Office archive. The best part about going to the British Library was reading recently declassified papers from a secret spy unit that operated within the Indian Civil Service from the 20s through 40s, with a lot of energy spent on its archenemy, Subhas Chandra Bose.
Is it fair to say that ethnic writers face some challenges when writing for a mainstream American audience? What are they?
My novelist friend AX Ahmad jokes that if a South Asian author writes a book, there must be a sari border on the cover. Our books may literally be branded in this way--but at least we aren't isolated in our own section of the bookstore, like African-American authors often are. The biggest challenge, if you have an Indian name, may be that agents and editors expect you are only qualified to write about that ancestral place. No matter whether you were born outside of India, or have spent years away. This stereotyping made me crazy when I was young and is probably what drove me to write a ten-book series set in Japan before looking toward India.
What are some of your favorite books?
I greatly admire the writing of Khaled Hosseini, who explores the recent history of Afghanistan through families who've shifted from one world to another. You will cry but always feel better for reading one of these books. As I mentioned earlier, Lisa See and Amy Tan both write brilliantly about Chinese women, teaching me so much with each novel. South Asian writers I especially enjoy are Asra Nomani (nonfiction) Amitav Ghosh, Sadat Hassan Manto and Santha Rama Rao. Rao is virtually unknown but she was a successful internationally known Indian author in the 1950s. Her novels skip you straight into the lives of educated women of that era. Keeper of the House is a crazy cross between Germaine Greer's famous book The Feminine Mystique, and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.
What books do you have on your bedside that you want to get to soon?
Really? There's quite a lot. Rumer Godden's 1953 novel about an English family in Kashmir, Kingfishers Catch Fire, as well as her earlier novel The River, set in 1940s Bengal. Susana MacNeal's historical thriller, Mr. Churchill's Secretary is another read-in-progress. As far as the nonfiction: Insightful Parenting by Dr. Steve Kahn and The Seven Secrets of Prolific Writers by Hillary Rettig, an e-book designed to help writers produce. I picked up a few good tips there! Also on my e-reader is Jhumpa Lahiri's latest novel, The Lowlands. My desi bookclub -- five fun women from the diaspora now living in Baltimore -- chose it as our current read. I'm hosting the meeting next month and trying to figure out the perfect menu to go with this tale.