(Notable People is about the lives, works and creative practices of successful people from all walks of life)
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning writer, poet and activist. Her books are renowned for vivid imagery (think Palace of Illusions, for starters). You could almost touch, feel, smell and savour the flavour of her descriptive narrative. Apparently, she used to paint before she became a writer. She is a “visual person”. She likes to visualise, “especially smell” while imagining scenes.
Born in Kolkata, Chitra came to the United States for her graduate studies. She now teaches Creative Writing. “It keeps me studying the art of writing,” she says. Two of her books, The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart, have been made into movies by Gurinder Chadha and Paul Berges (an English film) and Suhasini Mani Ratnam (a Tamil TV serial) respectively. A short story, The Word Love, from her collection Arranged Marriage, was made into a bilingual short film in Bengali and English, titled Ammar Ma. Chitra is a self-confessed “obsessive reviser”. Ask her about the thought process behind her novel writing, and she will tell you, “I have to feel the novel more than think it.”
Her latest novel is Before We Visit The Goddess. You can catch Chitra at the Litfest today (Feb 11) at Jayamahal Palace. The festival is curated by Jayapriya Vasudevan, founder of Jacaranda Literary Agency and one of the pioneers in the field.
What is your latest book, ‘Before we visit the Goddess’ about?
It is a three generational tale, a novel in stories, about the complex adventures of three generations of women. The book follows the women as they move from India to America and face various challenges in their attempts to find success and happiness. It also focuses on the theme of heritage –what we carry forward from our parents and hand to our children, and how this can be both positive & negative.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No, until I immigrated to America I had no thoughts of becoming a writer. Immigration forced me into writing, to make sense of my experience. After my first story, The Bats got published in the prestigious Zyzzyva magazine; I thought “I can do this!” (until then, I had only received rejections!)
What was your first piece of writing?
It was a poem I wrote after the death of my grandfather. I wrote the poem in a day, but the revisions took weeks. I am an obsessive reviser!
What did you feel when you finished your first book (‘Arranged Marriage’ – a collection of short stories)?
I clearly remember thinking, now even if I die; it’s OK, I’ve left something behind.
What did you do with your first advance?
I can’t remember exactly–our son was a baby, so I think I bought diapers and baby food!
…Anita Desai for her nuanced characters, Amitav Ghosh for his deep understanding of historical forces, Sandra Cisneros for her lyricism, Margaret Atwood for her powerful feminist vision.
Tell us about your writing routine; what’s a typical writing day for you?
The days I don’t teach at the Univ. Of Houston, I write for 3-4 hours in the morning. On good days, when I’m feeling inspired, I write at night, too.
What inspires you to write?
When I get a new idea or when I understand something about a character’s psychology.
What is the one book that made you cry?
Common traps for an aspiring writer?
Worrying about the audience, or about being popular.
What advice would you give to an aspiring novelist?
Read widely, write regularly, revise obsessively.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Don’t be in such a hurry to publish. Think and revise more carefully.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I remember writing a letter to the editor of the Statesman in Kolkata complaining because the electric company had unfairly double charged us. The electric company had refused to listen to us earlier, but after my letter was published, they sent us a refund!
How many half-finished books do you have?
None. If a book doesn’t work after a while, I get rid of it.
What kind of research do you do and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Different books require different kinds of research. For Palace of Illusions, I researched several versions of the Mahabharat. For One Amazing Thing, I researched earthquakes. For Oleander Girl I researched the Godhra Riot and Kolkata nightclubs. Research can take 1-2 years.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Figuring out their motivations.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about writing?
I loved reading John Gardner’s description of the fictive dream. Helped me understand the process.
What was your hardest scene to write?
Draupadi’s disrobing in Palace of Illusions.
What is the most challenging part of your artistic process?
Writing a climax
How long on an average does it take you to write a book?
Three to four years, depending on the research.
Writer’s block – myth or truth?
Truth. I’ve suffered through it many times!
(And whenever she was mired in writer’s block, she would rub Juno’s belly. Her “bald-elbowed, stubby-tailed goddess” of her household. Chitra met Juno at the Houston SPCA animal shelter, and Juno used to keep vigil by Chitra’s desk until her death a few months ago.)