Changing genres is a huge decision. Your first book, Dangle, is a thriller. However, the next two books are historical fiction. I’m sure the success of ‘Padmavati’ must have reassured you about your decision. Can you elaborate on how and why you shifted genres?
Archana, to assume that I have changed genres simply because my first book was a thriller and the next two are historical fiction is an incorrect presumption. Let me elucidate. As a reader, my two favourite genres have been thrillers and historical fiction. So, a natural choice for my debut book would have been either of these. I chose to write the thriller, Dangle but I always knew that the genre of historical fiction was waiting in the wings for its chance to come onstage. I have long been an admirer of historical novel writers such as William Dalrymple, Phillipa Gregory and Indu Sundaresan. Therefore, when I decided to take up writing Padmavati, I challenged myself to write a book that readers would enjoy as much I enjoyed reading these writers. I was delighted with the wonderful reception accorded to Padmavati by the readers. Next, to raise the bar a little I picked a world history figure. Who could be taller than Genghis Khan? Researching him was tough but when I got into it, I was fascinated by how much I did NOT know about him. And the more I read about him, the more I became his admirer. Eventually, I had this uncanny feeling that the great Khan was calling out to me. How could I resist responding to such a strong intuition? Thus, The Legend of Genghis Khan happened.
In fact, when I took my book proposal for Genghis Khan to my publisher, Readomania, I received a counter offer; a three-book historical fiction series. Why not? I thought.
Dangle is a fascinating and gripping thriller. Would you be writing more thrillers in future?
Thank you for finding Dangle gripping and fascinating. I am certainly going to write thrillers in the near future. Several stories are fermenting in my mind and in fact, one is all plotted out. Basically, I don’t believe in restricting myself to specific genres. I will try my hand at all genres of fiction and even non-fiction. I am planning to dabble in children’s fiction too.
You have been working in the publishing industry for decades. You have developed and published about 400 books. Please share with us your publishing journey.
I joined Oxford University Press, India in 2001 as Editorial Manager for their educational titles and then moved in 2007 to Encyclopedia Britannica, South Asia as their Publishing Director till 2014. My publishing career has given me a grandstand view of the publishing process beginning with the commissioning of authors to development of subject courses for complete series of books to the production process and finally to marketing and sales. I have travelled all over India and even abroad conducting editorial workshops to teachers as a means of marketing educational books produced by my companies. So, I understand the business of publishing pretty well. This experience has helped me immensely when I began to author books, not just fiction but also educational books. It has certainly helped me understand the demands of the market my books are going into and the great value of great content vetted by good editing combined with strong marketing for high sales.
You hold a Masters Degree in English Literature. There are many debates surrounding MA and MFA degrees and how much ‘value’ they add to a writer’s work. What do you think? Has your specialisation influenced your writing style in any way?
Certainly, it has. First and foremost, being a student of English Literature has exposed me to a variety of writing styles and taught me to analyse them. I am able to distinguish between the style of an Elizabethan sonnet and Renaissance poetry. I agree that these technicalities don’t necessarily impinge on creative writing, but it is easy to understand the basics of creating fictional narratives if one is aware of this technical nitty-gritty. How can one develop one’s own style or voice if you cannot identify them in somebody else’s writing? Today, literary writing is a term bandied about freely but do writers, readers and publishers really understand what is literary writing? How many have read novels by Dickens or Virginia Woolf or James Joyce?
Besides, my background in English Literature has made me, and I am sure editors of my books will agree, a more proficient user and editor of the English language.
Your short stories have appeared in many anthologies and you also won the first prize in the Times of India’s nation-wide WriteIndia Contest. How would you contrast writing a novel with writing a short story?
As far as the elements of creating fictional narratives are concerned, there is no difference in the scaffolding of a novel and a short story. I believe both genres have their positive and negative sides. Encapsulating a back story, creating ambience, exposing character through dialogue and building up the conflict is more difficult in a short story because of the brevity of its length. You have fewer words to use. The length of a novel helps an author in these aspects. On the other hand, one takes less time to complete a short story and present it to the reader. Gratification comes almost instantly in this case while a novel takes that much more time to go out to the readers, for them to read and get back to you.
Who is your writing mentor? How did this person influence you?
My writing mentors have been my favourite authors starting from my childhood reading adventures. If you want me to name them, they are Enid Blyton and many of her peers, Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardener, Arthur Hailey, Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Phillipa Gregory, Indu Sundaresan, Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chitra Divakaruni, Ken Follet, PG Wodehouse, Rabindranath Tagore and so many more.
Having said this, my parents have been the greatest influence in my becoming a writer. Ever since I was a little girl, they believed I had the makings of a writer in me. They have always encouraged me to fulfil this aspiration.
Describe your writing routine.
I write every day. May not always be the current book. It could be a feature, a short story, a blog or a chapter in my book. Usually, I give myself deadlines. When I am writing the first draft of any book, a stage that takes the longest to complete, I try to finish one chapter in two days.
I like to write at my desk in my study, though I keep a notebook and pen on the bedside table for sudden afterthoughts (which are frequent). Usually, on a typical day, I begin writing around 10 am and continue until lunch. After an hour’s rest, I resume writing till about 8 pm. After dinner, I may write for a couple of hours or longer depending on my urgency to put down the story churning in my mind.
The beauty of language or the nitty-gritty of a plot – what would you choose?
Difficult choice. How can a plot stand out without expressive language? If you are referring to choosing poetic language over a plot moving forward, that will depend on the juncture of the tale. If I am reading the beginning of the tale, poetic language works because it draws me into the story. But if I am at a crucial point in the plot, then I would prefer to skip all the poetry to know what happens next.
What is the worst thing that you were asked as a writer?
To dumb down the suspense and reveal all, eventually leaving nothing for the reader to conjecture
What is the worst thing you have faced as an editor?
Manuscripts where authors literally translate from their regional languages into English and believe that they have written in the English language
If you could name only one favourite author and one favourite book, what would that be?
Difficult because there are so many. Maybe Chitra Divakaruni’s Palace of Illusion.
What is a genre that you can never see yourself write?
A PG Wodehouse style humorous book.
What is one thing that you would like to change in the literary/publishing community?
The Indian branches of the International Publishing Industry giants should publish more talented debut authors. Also they need to ensure editorial quality.
Name one lesser-known writer whom you would hugely recommend.
Aruna Chakravarti, Chitrita Banerji, Sarita Mandanna
Sutapa Basu is the best-selling author of Padmavati, The Queen Tells Her Own Story (2017, pub Readomania), a historical fiction. She has authored a psychological thriller, Dangle (2016, pub Readomania) and her second historical fiction, The Legend of Genghis Khan will be released on 20th September this year. A poet, author, publishing consultant, she is the 2016 First Prize winner of the Times of India’s Write India Campaign for Amish Tripathi.
She has had a professional career of over thirty years teaching, publishing and training trainers. As Editorial Manager at Oxford University Press, Publishing Director at Encyclopedia Britannica, South Asia and an Army wife she has travelled widely in India and abroad. She has designed and supervised production of more than 400 books, digital and online educational products.
Her short stories have appeared in anthologies, Crossed & Knotted, Defiant Dreams, When They Spoke and Write India Stories. Her poems have appeared in Kaafiyana and The Dawn Beyond Waste. Her published articles, stories and poems can be read on TOI Blog, Café Dissensus, New York, Muse India, Readomania and other print and e-magazines. She has also authored several educational textbooks and a lot of children’s fiction. Find her works on her website www.storyfuntastika.com & www.readomania.com.