Umi Sinha taught creative writing at the University of Sussex for ten years and now teaches on the MA in Creative Writing at Brighton University. She has a BA in English and American Literature and an MA (with distinction) in Creative Writing. Her short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies and her short story “India Syndrome” was shortlisted for the WriteIdea 2014 Prize.
What inspired you to start writing?
I grew up on a remote naval base at Lonavala in the Western Ghats where there was almost nothing to do, so I entertained myself by randomly selecting books from my mother’s huge library. She was a writer, and my brother is also a writer (Indra Sinha, author of, among others, “Animal’s People” which was shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize) so you could say it’s in the blood. I started writing stories at the age of six.
What did you like to read when you were a girl?
My favourites were the Brontes, especially Charlotte, but I also read Walter Scott and Dickens as well as the childhood classics like Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island and lots of fairy tales and myths from round the world, including the Ramayana and stories from the Mahabharat. All of those fed my imagination.
What is the greatest challenge in writing a book?
For me, self-discipline. I have always been bad at routine, so forcing myself to write regularly is a huge challenge. But once the story grips me I become obsessed and forget everything else. So I am not easy to live with when in the grip of a book.
How much research do you do before writing the book?
For “Belonging” I did much more than I needed to. I find history fascinating and initially tried to incorporate everything I learnt, forgetting that not everyone shares my fascination. Then I had to cut most of it out. But being immersed in the world so thoroughly did enable me to create a sense of depth, of events happening in the background that create the feel of a whole living world, not just a thin veneer.
What motivated you to write the book “Belonging”?
I am aware in my own life and from observing my parents how hard it can be to liberate oneself from family patterns, and to make the choices that allow us to become fully autonomous and free human beings. And we see in the news every day how people just going about their daily lives, trying to make a living and care for their families, are impacted by catastrophic events that are beyond their control. These are themes that interest me.
Can you tell us more about your latest book “Belonging”?
“Belonging” is set in India and Britain between 1855 and 1919 and explores the stories of three members of one family – Cecily Partridge, who sails out to India in 1855 to marry an English Major in the East India Company army and gets caught up in the Indian Mutiny, as the British called it, or the War of Independence as it’s known in India. Her son Henry grows up affected by, but unaware of, his parents’ past. His daughter, Lila, is sent back to Britain at twelve to live with her great-aunt who, like many Victorians, believed silence was the best way of dealing with past tragedies. It is Lila, who comes of age just as the First World War is beginning, who has to try to piece together the puzzle that will allow her to understand and free herself from her family past.
How did you come up with the idea of writing a historical genre book?
My own parents lived through the Second World War, my mother, who was English, went through the Blitz, and my father, who was one of the first Indian officers in the Royal Indian Navy, served on the Arctic convoys. I didn’t want to use their experiences directly, but I have drawn on both their cultures to create a fictional family living in earlier “interesting times”. I also live near Brighton on the south coast of England, where, during the First World War, Indian soldiers from the Western Front were treated at the Brighton Pavilion, a royal palace converted into a hospital for the purpose. This too plays a part in the novel.
Who are your favourite authors?
I still admire the Brontes, who were remarkable women, as was George Eliot. I also love Tolstoy and Dostovesky – there is such passion in Russian writing and they deal with such huge moral issues. Jean Rhys is one of my favourites as are Donna Tartt, Ann Patchett, Jennifer Johnston, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje, Amitav Ghosh, R.K. Narayan, David Mitchell… I could go on and on.
How much time do you dedicate for writing on a daily basis?
As I said before, I am not someone who can stick to a daily routine. I write in bursts – sometimes I don’t write for months, but I am always thinking about it and playing with ideas in my head, and then when I’m ready I will write for six to eight hours a day for weeks until I’m exhausted and have to have another ‘fallow’ period.
What words of wisdom would you like to give to aspiring writers?
Be yourself. Use your own natural voice and write what you are inspired to write. Don’t try to write like someone else, sound sophisticated, or worry about what the market wants. Work in the way that suits you. Remember writing is a journey, and you only fail when you give up.
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