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I seek to make the familiar extraordinary: Damyanti Biswas

Life&More September 29, 2019
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Saurabh Tankha

She has been a designer, a manager, an editor, and now, she is an author. Damyanti Biswas, who recently introduced her debut novel, a crime fiction, You Beneath Your Skin (Simon &Schuster; Rs 399), credits her husband for holding her hand on each step of the writing journey, and that he’s the reason she is an author. “You cannot be a married full-time author without a lot of support from your spouse,” says Biswas.

Using a framework of a crime thriller, Biswas, a volunteer for Project WHY and Stop Acid Attacks, has woven in a sordid world of poverty, misogyny, and political corruption in You Beneath Your Skin. The narrative of her novel has been shaped by her years of interaction with women and children in these two organisations and is based in the National Capital.

In an email interaction, Biswas, who has stayed in Delhi for almost a decade, first as a student and then a professional before moving to Singapore 15 years ago, says she seeks to make the familiar extraordinary in her fiction.

You had been writing short stories before attempting this crime fiction. When did you take a call on penning a novel?
I started writing this novel in 2012. I approached it the way I wrote short stories, writing off the cuff and hoping the story would lead me somewhere. Over many drafts, I taught myself the craft of novel writing, which, in many ways, is very different from writing short stories.

Was this the first time you were attempting the crime genre and what made you choose it in the first place?
I’d written crime stories before, but mostly set in Malaysia and Singapore. These have been anthologised by different publishers.  Like with most of my writing, I didn’t choose the crime genre. It chose me.

Where do your ideas germinate from?
In my fiction, I seek to make the familiar extraordinary. Or render the unusual in a familiar way. I do not write from ideas — my stories usually start from images, voices, characters. I then need to figure out who or what they are, and the story emerges from there.

How different are you from other authors?
In some ways all authors are similar — we all suffer from our neuroses, our impostor syndromes. It is our journeys in life and writing that make us unique. No two writers see the world exactly the same — so the only way I’m different is the way my life has shaped my worldview.

What if your creative work doesn’t get good reviews (honest confession)?
After a story is written, it does not belong to the writer. Writing begins the process, but it is completed in the mind of the reader. Once I’ve published a story, I’m more or less done with it. Since I am, and always will be, more of a reader than a writer, I respect a reader’s views.  If a review is not positive, I make a note of it, and move on. With time, I can gain perspective: if the review has a point that I can use to make my writing better, I’ll take that into account. If not, I’ll put it down to subjective opinion, and keep writing.

In your opinion, what is that one thing which is the most important part of a book?
This is not my opinion, but that of Claire Keegan, an author and teacher I immensely admire: the middle is the most important part of a book, its navel. It is the point that holds up narrative tension. If you have a sagging middle, you’ll end up with a weak ending.

Is writing energising or exhausting?
Both. In equal measure. Each day is different.

The word “creative” to you is…
It is the making of something out of nothing. Or the ability to see the familiar as strange, and the strange as familiar.

Do you believe in a writer’s block?
Yes. A writer’s block can be a good thing because it tells you there’s some knot that you haven’t figured out, and that your subconscious needs time to marinate an aspect you have no clue about. It could be a bad thing when it stems from a great loss, when your system shuts down due to physical or mental duress. With years of experience, you figure out how to deal with it—write through it to undo a knot, or be kind to your writing self and give it a much needed respite– an opportunity to regenerate.

What do you do when you are not writing?
I read. I bake, spend time with family and friends. A part of me is always writing though — observing, making mental notes, daydreaming.

Any book that inspired you to take up writing?
I wouldn’t call it inspiration, but there was a definite impetus — The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman first got me into freelance writing.

What does it take to be a good storyteller?
An understanding of the beats of storytelling. We’re wired to the structure of stories. Before humans invented writing, storytelling was the way information was passed on from generation to generation. So we expect a beginning, a middle and an end, and for all three to form a cohesive whole. A good storyteller knows these principles.

Do you write at home or travel to a destination for writing?
I’ve done both, at various times. On occasion, when the entire story is alive in my imagination and I have all the research, I retreat into solitude in order to write.

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