29 December, 2016

#SpecialFeature :: #Interview with Saiswaroopa Iyer, #Author of Abhaya

*** Special Feature - December 2016 ***

Quick Recap:
1st December - Introducing Saiswaroopa Iyer
8th December - Guest Post: Craft of Female Characters in period fiction
15th December - Excerpt from Abhaya by Saiswaroopa Iyer
22nd December - Excerpt from Abhaya by Saiswaroopa Iyer

About the Author:

An IITian and investment professional turned author, Saiswaroopa's interests include Indian history, literature and Philosophy. Also trained in Carnatic Music, she has won a gold medal from Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams in rendering Annamacharya Kritis. Currently based in London, she is working on her next novel based on a Rig Vedic Legend. 

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An Interview with the Author:

When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer/ a storyteller?
I don’t remember a particular moment as such where I decided to be one. But I grew up listening to a variety of stories and being the eldest in my generation in my family, I was the obvious storyteller to my younger cousins. My attempts to add creative bits into Puranic stories started quite early in life. Once I gave up my corporate job to pursue my luck as a freelancer, writing as a habit came in handy in many ways and I returned to storytelling too.  

What inspires you to write?
As a storyteller, I think we need to make inspiration happen. The root inspiration comes to me from characters. At times where I face a block, I try to imagine a typical day for each of my characters and try to see them work their way to their goals, talk to each other and face their demons, all of this irrespective of whether the particular part makes it to the final draft or not. I would like to imagine that this effort makes them reward me in turn with the necessary inspiration. 

What kind of research goes into your book?
For Abhaya, the storyline is based on a Puranic incident of Narakasura Vadha mentioned in Bhagavatam, Hari Vamsham, Vishnu Puran and in Shakta texts (Kalika Purana). But the world I based it on was drawn heavily from the Mahabharata. Referring to the versions by KM Ganguli and Dr. Bibek Debroy (translation of BORI’s critical edition) helped me clarify the socio political side of the story. I also whetted my assumptions and creative deviations with a couple of enthusiasts and scholars. But all this is limited to (for the lack of better word), factual side of the storyline. 

But the crux of the story in my opinion is the motivation, philosophy and principles of the characters who make the story. For this, I listen to Katha Pravachans of some Telugu Scholars (Sri Samavedam Shanmukha Sharma and Dr. Garikipati Narasimha Rao for instance). In these talks, they critique and enunciate the nuances on Indic storytelling and the insights, independent of the topic are invaluable in my story crafting.

I also observe the contemporary writers in my genre and listen to their reader base to stay aware of the reader expectations. 

What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, I am wrapping up the draft of my second novel temporarily titled The First Queen. It is a story set in pre historic India or Vedic India, about a Queen whose is mentioned in the Rig Veda. This was a completely new experience for me going back from the sophisticated social structure of Mahabharata times to maybe a couple of millennia earlier where social structures were nascent, religion was much more explorative with contemplation and Tapasya taking the precedence over rituals as we know them today. Even the institution of wedlock was a new concept to this world. I enjoyed the experience of world creation at the dawn of ancient Indian civilization as well as character creation in those conditions. I hope the readers enjoy too. 

How did you come up with the idea for your current story? 
Thanks to Abhaya! While writing Abhaya, I was stuck at a scene where a six year old Abhaya was being fed by her father who also tells her a story. My challenge was to find a story suitable for a warrior father to inspire his daughter (who he expects to be a warrior too) with a female protagonist. In the pre Mahabharata era, we had an example of Kaikeyi, but that did not appeal to me. There was this story of Goddess Durga but I wanted a very human story and this made me delve into Vedas. Rig Veda rewarded me with the legend of Vishpala who served as the right inspiration. That moment, I felt it was an under explored legend and deserved a novel on its own! 

6. Please share three interesting facts about the characters in your book.
- Variety. I feel variety in characters is what shows the world of the story to the readers. Especially with female characters (even male), it is a turn off to see monochromatic angry women or men who become alter egos to the author and parrot what the author wants them to. Introducing variety helps me construct the story arcs better. In Abhaya, even if I set the protagonist aside, there was Kadambari who started out as a rebelling woman who leaves an abusive husband and evolves as someone with equanimity and insight. Dhatri was a wronged woman who is elevated to the position of a Goddess but, (I am not giving away spoilers now!) discovers that she was but a pawn in someone else’s hands. Shyeni is a woman from a non-patriarchal society who experiences interesting shifts in her beliefs once she finds love.
- Relationships. My characters celebrate their relationships. (Loving, defying, rebelling, making up, compromising, all is a part and parcel of relationships). This was pointed to me by a reviewer. In Abhaya, four different kinds of brother-sister relationships and four different kinds of romantic relationships are portrayed. Each added its own flavor and dynamics to the story. 
- Un-labelled. This is something I discovered while writing The First Queen. It is difficult to package a character as progressive or regressive or as conservative or revolutionary. (They can be both!) Avoiding this dichotomy threw up interesting results where I found genuinely progressive characters who held civilizational values and traditions very close to their hearts. I found another character whose views on women were not very liberal but takes a revolutionary plunge for wronged outcasts. Without this vibrance and internal conflicts, they would have come across as one dimensional

If you could pick any famous author to review your book who would you pick and why?
I had the good fortune of getting reviews, inputs and suggestions by some really good authors including Amish Tripathi, Prof Vamsee Juluri and Sangeeta Bahadur. Inputs from published authors like Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, Krishna Udayasankar and Nilanjan Chaudhury helped me a lot in the early phases of the draft. I still cherish a dream that Sri S L Bhyrappa and Dr. Garikipati Narasimha Rao read Abhaya and The First Queen. 

Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so what helps you to get over it?
Ohh I guess I have faced the worst of Writers blocks. In my experience, the blocks are overcome when the writers are fine with ‘imperfect writing’. Often, the expectation of writing perfect pieces and the disappointment at not being able to write so results in very bad writer’s blocks. The key is to not lose out on the writing discipline. In all honesty, I am trying to make a discipline of writing regularly. Good writing, as my mentor Otis Haschemeyer says, is a product of rigorous editing and to do that in the first place, we need to write even if we do a bad job. 

What part of the writing process do you enjoy the most?
Day-dreaming :D No story emerges without dreaming.

What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone that wants to get into writing?
My thoughts on writing regularly, introducing variety among and within the characters, day dreaming, all have been suggestions from very good authors to me. Putting all we learn from others into practice itself is a process. My addition would be to believe in our own selves and at least not become barriers in our own way.
About the Book:

A tale set in the times of Mahabharata. An assertive and idealistic Princess Abhaya meets the enigmatic Krishna Vaasudeva. A bereaved Dhatri, hounded by her own family is saved by Lord Bhauma. When subverted religion becomes a tool in the hands of power thirsty and strikes Bharatavarsha, the land of Aryas, Abhaya finds herself face to face with the impending doom. 

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