Matthew Turbeville: Hi Shobha, I am so excited to finally get to talk with you. I’ve loved your work since you released your first collection, and I loved your novel, Girls Burn Brighterjust as much if not more. I read that you moved to America when you were young. Can you talk about this and your journey to becoming the renowned and celebrated author you are today? Did you always intend on being a writer since you were young or is your immense talent for writing something you discovered later? When it came to being published, what was the most challenging hurdle as a non-white straight male?
Shobha Rao: Do you trust the writers who say they’ve always known they wanted to write? The ones who wrote their first story at the age of three, let’s say? Or four? I’m not sure I do. Maybe I’m just envious. I wrote my first story in my late-twenties. I always read, or course. Voraciously, as if my life depended on it. Which, in some ways, it did. But how is it born? The desire to write? Maybe it’s not even born, maybe it’s cultivated, like a field inside of you. Whatever it is took me fifteen years. From the moment I put pen to paper to my first publication: fifteen years. It’s those many years of writing, patience, cultivation, craft, and reckless faith that made me a writer, not the publication.
As for my most challenging hurdle, I suspect it is the same as every other person’s: my own demons. The voices that say: No. You can’t. You won’t. You’re not good enough. You never will be.
And who put those words inside of me? Cue the men.
MT: You released An Unrestored Womanto success and much critical acclaim. Can you talk about the process of writing a short story as opposed to writing a novel? What was it like, writing each of the stories in An Unrestored Woman, organizing stories, making the book a collection and not just a jumbled mess of great stories?
SR: I always say (and I’m sure I read this somewhere) that writing a short story is like running through a burning house and noting down everything you see. Whereas working on a novel is like entering a house on fire, sitting down in the middle of it, and writing about how it’s burning. That analogy is not an exaggeration.
With An Unrestored Woman, the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan formed the central focus of the collection. I wanted to explore how conflict – whether individual, regional, or global – affects the lives of women. What does a woman choose to fight for, die for, relinquish, refuse? What are her battlefields?
MT: One of your stories was picked as a Best American Story for the 2015 volume, edited by T.C. Boyle. That has to be something to be proud of, in addition to having published a story collection and a novel, both to great critical acclaim. Do you have a favorite story of your own, or one that means most to you? There’s been a lot of backlash against implying that a writer might find him or herself in any of their fiction, but is there any story you feel is more personal than the others?
SR: Perhaps the backlash is related to the fact that every piece of fiction has the author in it. How can it not? The act of writing is an exercise of the ego, and it is all self-portraiture. For me, the joy of fiction is that I get to hide in plain sight. All my darkest and most secret places are laid bare. Which one is more personal? That is unanswerable. They are all a part of me, fromme. It’s like asking which of my fingers is most personal to me, most dear. I happen to adore them all.
MT: How do stories generally come to you, if they originate in the same way at all? When do you decide “this is a great idea for a story” and how long is it before you decide that this story will stick, and that it will stand on its own and be something profound and hopefully true? How many stories have you seen all the way through as compared to stories you might have mapped out or begun only to dispose of later, if at all? Do you think the process of writing and scrapping this writing is a sort of teaching experience?
SR: I think the dustbin of our disposed stories is the best teacher. If my two published books sit humbly (or not so humbly) on a small corner of a shelf, my failed stories could populate a library. As they should. The stories that don’t work, the ones we throw out, teach us to value the words over vanity.
With regards to the origin of my stories, I wish I knew! They come from a sound or a scent; sometimes they rise from a sudden longing or memory. At other times, a searing image or an awful sorrow. Regardless, as storytellers, we must believe in this basic thing: we are the sea. It is all inside of us. Whether it will “stick,” knowing how to make it stick, that’s where the disposed stories come in: did you learn from them? Did you allow them to teach you? Did you study them as you would a lover’s face?
MT: As far as great story writers go, both today and in years and decades and even centuries past, who are your favorite story writers, and do you have favorite stories and story collections? What advice do you give to people who are trying to write great stories like yours, or simply don’t understand how a short story does work? What is the best advice you can give to an aspiring writer who wants to write stories as well as you, but in their own way and in their own voice?
SR: I love the novels and stories of Jean Rhys and Elfriede Jelinek and Flannery O’Connor and Roberto Bolaño and Nawal El Saadawi and…the list goes on and on, but the key is to read widely. And well. Never forget that you are a writer. So if you are sitting in a café, listen to how people talk. The cadence of their sentences, the music of their dialogue. And then mimic it in your stories. If you pass the same building on your work, imagine the lives inside. One day, imagine it is an insane asylum. On another, make it a home for orphaned children. On the next day, make it a brothel. Write the story of one life being lived inside. Write it in your head. That, too, is writing. Keep your imagination and your curiosity always engaged with the world. That, too, is writing. And if you feel like you know a character, or that you know yourself, go deeper. That, too, is writing.
MT: Speaking of finding your voice, a lot of authors take a long time—years, if not decades—to truly find their voice, trust their voice, and believe the voice they write in belongs to them. How long did it take you to find your voice?
SR: The easy answer is that it took fifteen years. The more complex answer is that we never findthe voice. It is an elusive, aggravating imp. Sometimes, in the middle of writing a sentence or a passage, you look up and realize you have no idea what day it is; you’ve forgotten what country you’re in. You’ve even forgotten there is such a thing as a country. That’s how wedded you are to the work. Is that the voice? Or is it the moments when you look up and think, I’m close, but maybe I can get closer. They are both your voice. Your effort. They both belong to you.
MT: I know the easy option out of this next question is “They’re both challenging in their own ways,” but I really am curious from your point of view—what has been more difficult for you, writing a story or story collection, or writing a whole novel? Even if you do go with “They’re both challenging in their own ways,” would you mind talking about how the process of writing Girls Burn Brighterand what challenges you faced with this novel? Did you ever feel like just giving up on the work, like so many writers have felt with great novels?
SR: I suppose if I never felt like giving up, then I wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t challenging myself. I wasn’t going into the dangerous places, the necessary ones. These places are always fraught with uncertainty. But why does ‘giving up’ get such bad press? Doesn’t it take just as much courage to walk away as it does to stay? And doesn’t each abandonment (which also gets bad press) lead us closer to our next project? We learn from everything – the work we finish and the work we don’t. Each has its own nobility.
As for writing Girls Burn Brighter, I wrote it over the course of two months in the most isolated place I could find – the Badlands of South Dakota. I needed the silence. The emptiness. I needed to very clearly feel Poornima’s and Savitha’s fears. Is that how every book should be written? No. It is how one book got written. An Unrestored Womanwas written over the course of two years. With lots of stories that were thrown out or edited over the course of months.
So really, there is no one right way to write a story. Just as there is no one right way to live a life.
MT: When you begin writing, whether in a story or in a novel, what comes to you first—the story you want to tell or the character the story belongs to? Do they both come at once, sort of as a package deal? What is the most important element of developing a piece of fiction to you, and what is the most challenging?
SR: It’s all a bit of a hodgepodge. A great stew in which everything simmers. I wish I knew what came first – then I’d know where to look! I suppose the most important element, for me, is the plot (and thereby it is the most challenging). How do things happen in a story? What are the causal connections? Do they make sense? Do they have to make sense? These are always questions I struggle with; I am in awe of how the events of a story unfold. Aren’t you?
MT: When you began writing Girls Burn Brighter, did you know where it was going to take you? Is there anything you wrote that generally surprised you? And, of course, be as spoiler-free as you wish.
SR: I definitely knew where the novel was going to take me – I don’t start writing until I know the end of a story, though the beginning and the middle are always a total mystery. Even so, I was surprised by the friendship between Poornima and Savitha. Although I had set out to write the story of two friends, I had no idea of the depth of that friendship. I had no idea they would come to rely upon each other so beautifully, so utterly. They shared even their strength, even the last few droplets of their strength, across continents, across time, across ravages. I was astonished. I might’ve created them, but they taught me what it means to be a friend.
MT: When you read through your novel, do you ever pick favorite characters or scenes, and do you ever judge your characters? If you know the great writer Megan Abbott, she’s always warned me never to judge my characters. I’m wondering what your philosophy is on creating characters that are alive and breathing on the page, and how you view them and how you treat them as a god of sorts.
SR: Well, I see characters in the same way I see certain family members: I don’t always like them, but I do always love them. As for creating living, breathing characters on the page, I try to pinpoint the thing that haunts my characters. What is it that keeps them up at night; that invades their dreams? Because what haunts us is what makes us human.
And gods? No. No one is a god. We – myself, my characters – we are all fate’s playthings. But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it? We can play, just as much as fate can play.
MT: Shobha, I am so thankful that you agreed to participate in an interview with me and address some basic writing issues as well as some very serious issues about how writing and art are affected by and changing the world around us. Your stories and your novel are both works that need to be read again and again, if for no other reason than the pure artistry and talent exhibited in your work. To everyone reading, Shobha’s An Unrestored Woman(her astonishing collection of stories) and Girls Burn Brighter(her brilliant novel) are available in bookstores and to order online now, as well as in audio form and ebook.
SR: Thank you!