Says well-known author Jaishree Misra in conversation with Varsha Verma of AABP. Jaishree Misra rose to fame with her first book Ancient Promises, which was published and sold worldwide by Penguin UK and became a major bestseller in India. Another book Secrets and Lies became a bestseller in Britain. Since then, there has been no turning back.
She has an MA in English Literature from Kerala University and two post-graduate diplomas from the University of London, the first in Special Education and the second in Broadcast Journalism. She was awarded a part-scholarship by the Charles Wallace for India Trust in order to complete her course in Special Education. Here, Jaishree shares her love for reading and writing.
Varsha: I think all of your novels have women as the main characters. How would you describe it – is it intentionally or has it happened naturally?
Jaishree: I’m sure my natural inclination would be to write stories from a woman’s point-of-view but, in my third book Afterwards, I made a deliberate decision to use a male protagonist and I use his voice in first person too. I must admit this was considerably more effort and I was careful to use two male friends as readers to make sure I wasn’t making any silly bloomers. At one stage, I was worried that my hero was too nice (womanly, even!) to be realistic but, all said and done, the book seemed to work as I often have men writing to me to say that they enjoyed it and identified with the main character.
Varsha: Are your characters inspired by real life – why/why not?
Jaishree: Even when writing fiction, real life does almost remain a key ingredient. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one must lift characters and stories directly from life but, if fiction isn’t informed at all times by reality, it will come across as hollow and unconvincing. A fiction writer obviously cannot forever rely on directly experienced incidents and emotions but they become very good at pecking away at the fabric of the life they see around them for all sorts of raw material.
Varsha: What has been the response for your novels so far? Are most of your readers female?
Jaishree: I’ve become aware of a reasonably strong and loyal readership here in India. Less so abroad but my recent Secrets trilogy changed that as the UK publishers are aggressively commercial and the book was sold in supermarkets and airport bookshops at very competitive rates – apparently a much more efficient way to reach new readers than through traditional bookshops which some people (especially new readers) can find daunting. Besides, the three Secrets books were also brought out as e-books so I benefitted from that readership too.
Varsha: When did you "know" you wanted to write professionally?
Jaishree: As a child, without a doubt. For one, I showed early signs of having a rather vivid imagination (telling all kinds of tall tales to my unamused parents). Then I discovered quite early on the magic of stringing words together to form meaningful sentences. Finally, my great-uncle, Thakazhy Sivasankaran Pillai, won the Jnanpith award and, when he came to Delhi to receive it, I saw the adulation he got and was convinced that being a writer was the best job in the world.
Varsha: In your opinion, what is the hardest part of writing a book? Why?
Jaishree: The hardest part is writing the first draft or what I can ‘producing the wordage’. This is the period when one must sit down for long periods of time, bashing away at a keyboard even though the story and characters are still relatively unformed. It’s all too easy to suffer immense self-doubt at this time and give up altogether. It’s also all too easy, once the first draft is done, to rejoice in it being finished and send it off to publishers and agents far too prematurely. This is, generally speaking, not a clever thing to do as there isn’t a single manuscript that does not benefit from being re-crafted and re-drafted a few times over.
Varsha: What writing/publishing advice do you give to aspiring writers of any age?
Jaishree: Persist, be patient, have faith. This is a slow-moving business, it can take years to get published, let alone become successful. Also, don’t embark on a writing career expecting to become famous or make lots of money. The joy has to come from writing itself. Everything else is simply a bonus.
Varsha: What are you reading right now? Are there any authors (living or dead) that you would name as influences?
Jaishree: My desk is inevitably piled high with an eclectic collection (of mostly fiction) as I just grab whatever I can lay my hands on and enjoy sampling all sorts of genres. Now that I know a lot of writers personally, I also make the effort to read as many of their works as possible as it would be simply rude not to!
My biggest influence (in terms of personal early advice) was my grandmother’s brother, Thakazhy Sivasankaran Pillai. In terms of writing, inspiration came from the first crop of Indian writers who were acclaimed abroad (RK Narayan, Rushdie, Naipaul, Seth, Roy) because they made me aware of the universal appeal of good writing. They were great confidence-givers to those of us who only had vague dreams of becoming writers at that point and would never have even dreamt of a foreign readership.
Varsha: What was the book that most influenced your life – and why?
Jaishree: To Kill a Mockingbird, which I read first as a pre-teen. I was totally awed by the manner in which three kids who seemed just like me were spending their childhood in ways very similar to mine even though they lived in some far-off place called ‘Alabama’! While the theme of racial prejudice and the storyline about rape probably went largely over my head, I was aware that I was being exposed to an important subject and was feeling very moved in the process too. That to me remains the benchmark of good writing as it was entertaining, informative and genuinely touching. Perhaps, subconsciously, it was the influence of this book that led me to choose a bildungsroman, kind of theme for my own first novel, Ancient Promises.
Varsha: We live in a time when young people have numerous choices for entertainment. What would you like to say to people who may be hesitant about reading a book for fun?
Jaishree: More and more I see youngsters turning to movies and TV to provide fun and now – scarily – digital entertainment too (I really do hate seeing children playing those mindless video games which help them develop athletic thumbs but turn their brains to mush and rob them completely of important qualities like empathy). All I know is that I’m very grateful to have developed the reading habit early on in life. This means that, wherever I find myself and whatever my circumstances, I will never be lonely or bored as long as I have a book with me.
Varsha: What else do you want your readers to know? Consider here your likes and dislikes, your interests and hobbies, your favorite ways to unwind — whatever comes to mind.
Jaishree: I occasionally remind my husband that he’s lucky to have such a low maintenance wife as my best pleasures really are reading and writing. Having said that, I often use the excuse of ‘research’ to travel and see interesting places. The best way I unwind is usually at home, with family and friends.
I’m also involved in getting a long-term residential care project going for mentally challenged adults. This is coming up in Dera Mandi on the outskirts of Delhi and, this month, our first seven residents move in. A time of immense challenges but great satisfaction too.
Varsha: What next can the readers expect from you?
Jaishree: At the moment I’m editing an anthology on motherhood for Zubaan, the feminist publishers. They’re a great team to work with and I’m getting to boss around 25 of India’s best writers so it can’t be bad! Besides, this is no fluffy, sweet book as may be anticipated. Some exceedingly powerful pieces have started coming in dealing with many unusual aspects of motherhood which include surrogacy, trans-gender adoption and loss. We’re hoping to bring it out by Mother’s Day 2013, so do look out for it.
My own new book is on a back burner at the moment but it is going to be a part-historical, part-contemporary true story that focuses on an issue known as ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. I’ve completed that first draft ‘wordage’ stage and the manuscript now awaits a good clean-up and polish which I will only do when I have a clear mind and lots of time.
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