Saiswaroopa Iyer is a Venture Capital Professional turned Author. She completed her MBA from IIT Kharagpur. Her interests include Indian epics, history and philosophy, literature, Classical music and poetry. She is trained in Carnatic and devotional music and won a state level gold medal from Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams in Annamacharya Kriti rendition. Let us know more about her writing.
What inspired you to start writing?
Writing is a channel to realize what is hidden behind the web of thoughts in our mind. My writing is often inspired by these flood or thoughts, ideas or stories. It is immensely self-satisfying and also helps us in developing a balanced and objective outlook while retaining our passion and drive.
What did you like to read when you were a girl?
Thanks to my mother, I was introduced to a diverse reading world in my primary school itself that included Amar Chitra Katha, Enid Blyton, a variety of Science Q&A books, CBT’s books about Indian history, science and not to forget the Young World supplement of The Hindu. Towards high school, the Mahabharata started to catch my attention and I could just not have enough of it, be it C Rajaji, Kamala Subramanian or the various related books from Telugu literature.
What is the greatest challenge in writing a book?
Giving up the narrative control is the most difficult thing to do for an author. Staying true to characters is the key. In doing so, one might even risk toppling the initially planned plot. But forcing a character into a pre-planned plot gives the story a very contrived and even dishonest feel. At times it is very painful when the characters start speaking something totally opposite to what the author had planned. As a process we might need to write, rewrite and rewrite. I had to trash early drafts totalling to 250,000 words before I could finalize the final draft. We can’t afford to lose patience in this process.
In a nut shell, we need to convince ourselves to watch the story unfold in our minds rather than direct it and then proceed to write
How much research do you do before writing the book?
It is tricky to quantify the research process. In my view, research is something that strengthens a plot but the story itself needs to have its independent identity. So, writing and researching is an ongoing and continuous job. I did read from various sources about the Tantric Shakti worship, about the temple of Kamakhya, the legends and philosophies behind it. I have given a list of my references too.
A good part of my research even did not figure in my story but gave me the confidence to stand by my plot. Let me share a secret, an ambiguity between two different interpretations of the same legend is a boon for the story teller. I look for such ambiguous niches in the legends to weave my stories.
What motivated you to write the book “Abhaya”?
Let me confess my love for Lord Krishna, Meerabai being an early inspiration during my teens. As I grew up, Bhakti failed to impress me and I felt myself drawn towards Jnana and Karma. There were characters contemporary to Krishna like Rukmini from our epics. She starts out as a fiery character, full of defiance. But the focus after her wedding shifts to the Mahabharata and she is eclipsed. I dreamt of someone who dreams of unconditional love, believes in adventure and refuses to fade away into the larger epic to tell her own tale. Abhaya was a result of these fantasies. She is a character who loves Krishna while firmly carving her own destiny.
The episode of Narakasura vadha provided me an excellent opportunity to reconcile and intertwine the fantasy with the legend. And you’d have to read the book to know more J
Can you tell us more about your latest book “Abhaya”?
Narakasura Vadha is the episode that most of us celebrate during our festival of lights, Deepavali. We celebrate light over darkness or good over evil. Now what defines good and what defines evil and the shades of grey behind them is a topic of eternal study and contemplation.
The book traces the journeys of two women, Abhaya and Dhatri. Each of them facing different challenges that shapes their worldview and defines their larger cause. In the process, we are introduced to the two sided realities of their respective worlds. Religion for instance is mostly conceived for spiritual elevation of an individual, but we see it being bent over and subverted to serve narrow causes. Social constructs are another example for what are supposed to streamline the life of a civilization. But when they become rigid, people get suffocated. When these two clash with each other, we cannot decide which side to choose. These two women Dhatri and Abhaya make the choice even more difficult.
Here is where Krishna makes a difference. Quoting Osho and even Adi Shankara (Govindashtakam), Krishna is someone who embraces every duality and yet manages to stay beyond the duality. We see how he inspires Abhaya to keep up the hope and choose sides, while not literally choosing a side. Sounds paradoxical, but then that is Krishna.
How did you come up with the idea of writing mythological fiction genre book?
I prefer to use specific terms like Puranic fiction or Vedic fiction based on where we find the root story. Though mythological fiction seems the global word for it. May be it is time for us who write for Indian audience to start using specifics so that it also increases a reader’s enthusiasm to go back and read the root texts.
Let me also say that writing Puranic fiction was an age old literary tradition in India. The word for it is Prabandha. A Prabandha used to expand a small puranic episode into a full blown textual work and in the process create new characters and perspectives, enunciate some contemporary commentary and expand on what the author thought was the take away from the episode. So what we call as ‘mythological fiction’ is a recent phenomenon only in English language.
Sorry for that digression, but to answer your question, I honestly don’t think I am capable of writing any other genre! J. (Well, hopefully, I can write in other genres too in future) But I feel that the story that gives an author sleepless nights decides the genre and the author is quite helpless.
Who are your favourite authors?
Quite a lot of them are there. KM Munshi and Kalki Krishnamurthy top the list. Both of them I think are pioneers in story weaving, dramatizing and constructing bubbly three dimensional characters. I would definitely mention SL Bhyrappa for his unique blending of tough characters who ask unapologetic questions. When it comes to weaving a historical fiction, balancing creative liberties with historical incidents, I learnt a lot from Venkatesh Ramakrishnan’s story crafting. Let us just say I would love every author who prefers to give his or her characters the freedom to carve their own story than stick to a pre conceived plot.
How much time do you dedicate to writing on a daily basis?
It is difficult to adhere to this discipline and I am still to make this into a habit. But I target an output of 1000-2000 words a day irrespective of the time required. Sometimes, the writing is so uninspiring and tasteless that it frustrates me and starts the scary phase of writers block. But adhering to this target more or less, helps us to not give up during tough times.
What words of wisdom would you like to give to aspiring writers?
Firstly, try and get rid of that word aspiring. Then all you are is a writer. It is important to express thoughts and stories in writing. Listen to feedback and take your calls independently on improvement. Fight the fatigue and keep rewriting until the reader in you is happy enough to read and enjoy it. I would also advise you to build a mixed network of audience. Some to give you unabashed and true feedback, some to give you enough praise to keep going and some to constructively tell you ways to improve. A mixture of beta readers keeps one motivated. At least I owe a lot to mine.
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