Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

Turning Indian Grandma's Stories into Fine Fiction

Q&A: Padma Viswanathan: Flowing into an authentic novel of old India.

You might think it would be a snap to conjure a fine novel out of the elements that were handed to Padma Viswanathan, on a platter as it were, by her Indian grandmother. Padma's grandmother's grandmother was married as a child and widowed at 18 and, due to rigid caste rules, had to spend the rest of her life in extreme deprivation. Still, writing well is rarely that simple, and Padma spent a decade on The Toss of a Lemon (Harcourt, September 2008). In our interview, she told me how entering flow helped make her novel more compelling.


Q: When you're writing, Padma, do you get so fully engaged that you enter a flow state, when you feel as though time stops?

PV: I never would have described it in terms of time stopping, perhaps because I've always written on a schedule, previously because I had to earn by other means, and now because of my responsibilities to my kids. So I'm all too aware of time passing, especially when writing is going well! I would characterize my "flow state" differently: I've said before that, when I write (and the nods I get when I talk about this with other writers suggests this is true for most), I draw on everything I've ever seen, read, heard, thought and experienced. A "flow state" in writing is the time when I become fully open to all my memories and when my unconscious starts to make connections between those memories and my present subject, through the medium of the writing.

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Q: That makes sense. I've read that surgeons, for example, have to be fully aware of the clock at all times, yet get totally immersed in an operation in a way that could be called flow. Can you get yourself to that fully open, unselfconscious, immersed place quickly, or on purpose?

PV: Because I write on a schedule, I am conscious of needing techniques for getting to that place. I'm not always successful, but I am disciplined, and find that, if I follow the parameters I set for myself, I usually get there. I make myself sit down at my desk by a certain time, and stay there; I try to minimize distractions, particularly administrative ones; I have often set page goals. For me, it's about reserving time to write and also about refusing to doubt that what I'm doing is worthwhile. It was sometimes hard for me to maintain confidence, over the ten years it took to complete my first novel, that I would eventually produce a book that I could be proud of and that many people would want to read. I would never know, though, unless I sat down, day after day, to figure out what I had say and how to say it in as original, surprising and accurate a way as possible.

Q: Is the process easier for you during first draft or revision?

PV: It is perhaps a little easier to get into revising, because it's not so terrifying. If I'm revising a draft, it's because I know it's worthwhile, whereas the process of writing a first draft is a leap into the dark. Having said that, revising is rarely exhilarating in the way that creating a first draft is.

Q: When you're writing a long book—616 pages—and then you need to read it over and over to revise it, how did you deal with the feeling that you couldn't read it one more time?

PV: I would often feel exhausted by the prospect in advance, but then find, once I started reading, that the story and its ongoing possibilities would suck me in. I took that as a good sign! I also had one or two people read it for me before each major revision: a friend read the earliest draft, my mother the next, my husband the one after that, along with a professor at grad school, who read it twice! Then another friend and my editor read the penultimate and ultimate drafts. I found that the manuscript would take on a new life when someone else read it. First, it was an affirmation that the book, in fact, existed, since it seemed, sometimes, in my writerly isolation, that it was just another figment of my imagination! (I know that sounds a bit crazy, but I hope it also makes a kind of sense.) Also, having the perspective and comments of a trusted reader would help me to see the book newly: it would cease to seem inevitable, but rather, once more, become mutable. My readers showed me the places where the story was unclear, or too distant from the reader, or not specific enough, or where there were interesting questions left unanswered, and I would get excited all over again about making it better.

THE REALITY OF FICTION

Q: Many of the characters in The Toss of a Lemon come from real life stories you were told, but did you make some up from scratch?

PV: Many of the characters in the book were seeded with just one or two details: I had a distant relative who was a minister for a party that opposed a withdrawal of the British from India, for example, and I had spent time in his house, including his old library, filled with worm-eaten, long-abandoned books. I knew nothing else about him, though, and so made up everything else about his character. His wife, I suppose, was entirely made up, as was Bharati, a devadasi, or type of courtesan. There was a devadasi who was at school with my grandmother, but they were not friends. Still, her very tangential appearance in my grandmother's life grew into a seminal character in my story. But really, those characters, even if they don't have real-life historical counterparts, ended up incorporating characteristics of other people I have known.

This sort of character-building owes, I think, to the "flow state" I described above: I would start writing these characters into stories and realize that they were speaking or behaving in ways I recognized, and their characters developed from there. The servant, Muchami, was perhaps one of the most fun to write: all I knew about his "real-life" counterpart (my great-great-grandmother really did have a servant named Muchami and this character is an homage to him and to other such men who have been employed by our family) was that he was very loyal and that he was childless. I knew that he would have to be trusted to work very closely with a young widow with whom he would be forbidden to have any romantic contact. "Aha!" I thought. "He's gay!" This was a complete invention, but it seemed a plausible one, and it gave me a great opportunity to explore the life of a closeted homosexual man in rural India 100 years ago.

Q: Was that kind of invention more fun or harder?

PV: Although most of the characters bore some connection to real life, there were many stories, incidents and details that I felt I invented out of thin air. It's tough to say which is more fun and which harder: I'm tempted to say pure invention (to the degree that that exists, cf. "flow state" above) is more fun, but then puzzling out and deciphering traits of character based on a few slim clues is also very rewarding. It was also fascinating to me, given how my novel evolved, when I learned that, in a number of cases where I thought I was inventing, I hit on historical truths. Some of these were incidental, as when my grandmother, on reading the manuscript, asked how I could have known about a conversation between her husband and her, in which he asked her why her grandmother raised her and not her own parents. Apparently, the conversation I wrote for Janaki, the character loosely based on my grandma, and her husband was virtually identical. "That's what I told him, and that's when I cried," said my grandmother.

Other "invented" truths were fundamental to the story: I had worried that some readers might question the plausibility of the relationship between Sivakami, a strictly observant Brahmin widow, and Muchami, her non-Brahmin servant. I have drawn them as close friends and confidants, despite the enormous gulf of gender and caste that separates them. When my grandmother read the manuscript, she told me that when the "real" Muchami died, my great-great-grandmother took a ritual bath for him, something a Brahmin does only for a close relative, never for a "mere" servant. I don't want to sound mystical about this, since I think it is ultimately about hard thinking, but my grandmother's comments affirmed for me that even when we think we are inventing, a "flow state," as I experience it, is a kind of communion with truths we might not even realize we know.

Q: Did you use any of those techniques that are sometimes suggested where you write up whole backgrounds for characters in order to get to know them better?

PV: I did do background writing of the sort you describe, particularly for characters that remained stubbornly obscure to me, but I didn't do that in advance of starting on the book. Rather, I tend to let characters emerge on the page, as I said, through thought and action, and then try to interpret their characters from what I have written. It's at that point that I might step away and write a history for them, and then use some of that information to deepen and inform both the character development and the progress of the story.

Q: Did you write the beginning of the book first? Or much later? How much rearranging of parts did you end up doing?

PV: I did write the beginning of the book first, but that's about the only part I wrote in sequence! The first chapter of the book was the first piece of writing I did for the book where I could tell that I had found the voice of the narrator and a tone that would be appropriate and sustainable. Once I did that, though, I proceeded by randomly dipping into my transcripts for anecdotes and incidents that intrigued me sufficiently that I wanted to write them into chapters. When I had a bunch of pieces, I started thinking about a logical sequence for them. Then the links started to emerge. The more I wrote, the more I cut and shaped. I knew that, eventually, I wanted a story that would have a strong narrative thrust, but I didn't write to an outline. Rather, I wrote what interested me and then edited and rewrote it to find the through-line.

 


The Toss of a Lemon was named to Indiebound's Indie Next List (formerly BookSense Picks) for October. To hear Padma Viswanathan speaking about her work, watch her on YouTube.

In future posts, I'll return to some of the issues Padma has mentioned, including the role of discipline in creativity and the potentially mystical-seeming aspects of flow.

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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