Susmita Bhattacharya – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome Susmita Bhattacharya to the blog. Susmita is the author The Normal State of Mind which was published by Parthian Books on 1 March 2015.

Susmita kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about The Normal State of Mind.  

The Normal State of Mind is my first novel. It is set in India and follows the lives of two women, two friends. Dipali loses her husband in a bomb blast and is resigned to living her life as a widow, caring for her elderly mother. Moushumi is a lesbian, struggling to come to terms with her sexuality. The novel explores Indian society seen from the perspectives of these two young women, their journey in to finding themselves, finding strength to accept who they are and how they’d like to live their lives. The blurb tells it more eloquently than I do:

It’s the end of a millennium. India has made tremendous progress in science and technology, but in these times of economic boom can a friendship between two women give them the power to defy society, and law, to reach for their dreams?

Dipali, a young bride, is determined to make her marriage a success story. But her plans are cut short when her husband is killed by a bomb blast in Mumbai and she struggles to find her place in life. In Calcutta, as Moushumi’s parents discuss potential husbands, the school teacher prefers to escape to her high-flying lover. But how long can she keep her forbidden affair secret beyond the safe walls of glamorous art crowd parties? In the midst of communal riots, India too has to make her own decisions about which traditions she must keep, and which she ought to let go. At the end of it all, who can decide what is the normal state of mind?

2. What inspired the book?

This book started off as a dissertation for my Masters in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. I wanted to set the story in India, as I had recently moved to the UK and was not yet confident about setting stories in this place. I also wanted to set the story in the early 1990s, a turbulent time for India, with a lot of communal violence and terrorist attacks happening around then. I had experienced it first had, and wanted to use this experience in my book. But I also wanted to explore something I had not come across in India. Though I had gay friends, I had never come across a lesbian in Mumbai, my hometown. I was fascinated that this was in spite of spending 26 years of my life in Mumbai. Did they not exist? Or did they not live openly as some of their male counterparts did? I decided to research this aspect of the Indian society and write about it.

3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?   

I am not a plan, plan writer at all. I write and see where the words take me. But of course, with a novel, I did have to plan my plot, the journey my characters were to take through the course of the novel. But writing this novel was not a linear process. I have had several false starts with other novels before this one. They always started with Chapter One. That is scary to look at on a blank page: Chapter One. 

One of the best advices I got on my MA course, was that one does not have to start from Chapter One. I suddenly had the permission, the possibility to dive straight into the climax of the story and start from there. It was more of writing in bits and pieces, and then fitting them in like a jigsaw puzzle. The interesting thing is, that climax scene that I started writing with, did not make it to the final book. But it was a great way to begin!

The entire process took me about 10 years. From writing the dissertation (and I was pregnant at the time) to having two children, several house moves, job changes, moving cities, sending the manuscript to agents, and then more agents, being rejected, being diagnosed with cancer and then the treatment (phew!) I finally got there! In March 2015, Parthian published The Normal State of Mind.

4. As well as writing a full length novel you also write short stories. What is it about short stories that appeals to you? How does your writing differ when writing a full length novel?

I love the short story form. They are short, so I don’t have to spend much time reading them. But even then, they are powerful to linger with me, making me think about them. There are so many ways to write short stories, I love being experimental, and reading short stories that are diverse and out of my comfort zone. I don’t think I can sit down and read a full-length science fiction book, or fantasy. But I will definitely read one in the short story form. 

When writing short stories, I first have a germ of an idea. I play with this in my head, and work it out, usually doing mundane household chores helps me with this, and only then sit down and write it. Sometimes, the end comes to me first. Then I work backwards to find a suitable way to begin the story. I listen to the radio a lot, and Radio 4 programmes like The Listening Project, From Our Own Correspondent, Saturday Live’s Thank You are all great for story prompts and ideas. Since my cancer diagnosis in 2014, I’ve found it difficult to write short stories. For a while there was a blank wall where there was once creative thinking. I have a story, that I worked out to completion in my head during chemotherapy, but I still haven’t finished writing it on paper. I have made a start, two years on, and hopefully I will finish writing it because I love that story. I have written other stories recently, but I find the process has changed. It takes much longer to write stories physically, and I find writing non-fiction has become a recent trend in my writing process.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?  

I have two young girls, aged 10 and 5, so am busy with them. When not rushing about doing school runs and trying to bring them up as feminist girls who don’t do pink (not sure if I am succeeding there), I also lecture at Winchester University. I don’t have much time to relax, but when I do, I sneak in time for myself. I am actually better at doing that now, since recovering; I am kinder to myself and value the ‘me time’ without any guilt.

I listen to the radio a lot and love the Desert Island Disc podcasts. I love to watch a good Hindi or Bengali film, I love to cook dishes I love (not every day task of cooking that none of my kids will like!). I read. I love to spend time in bookshops. I love my trips back to India, visiting my old haunts in Mumbai is truly relaxing. Sometimes, a nap in the afternoon no longer feels guilty, but really restful. But this is a luxury I don’t have very often.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be? 

Oh, that’s a hard question. There are so many to choose from, but if I have to, I would choose Good Wives, sequel to Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott. It was one of the first books I’d read in my teens that had a great impact on me, and I’ve re-read it several times and have never tired of it. Am I allowed to read all 4 books as a set? You know, box sets are the trend now!

7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?  

I’ve never been asked the story of my life through songs (by now you must have guessed I really, really love Desert Island Discs!) And the answer … well, one day if you have the time, I will tell it to you, complete with the songs I embarrass my girls by singing to them!

About the book:

9781909844629_web_large

It’s the end of a millennium. India has made tremendous progress in science and technology, but in these times of economic boom can a friendship between two women give them the power to defy society, and law, to reach for their dreams?

Dipali, a young bride, is determined to make her marriage a success story. But her plans are cut short when her husband is killed by a bomb blast in Mumbai and she struggles to find her place in life. In Calcutta, as Moushumi’s parents discuss potential husbands, the school teacher prefers to escape to her high-flying lover. But how long can she keep her forbidden affair secret beyond the safe walls of glamorous art crowd parties? In the midst of communal riots, India too has to make her own decisions about which traditions she must keep, and which she ought to let go. At the end of it all, who can decide what is the normal state of mind?

 

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One Comment Add yours

  1. I liked everything about this s, from the title through the blurb to the interview and it goes on my tbr list. I think the author has definitely earned her afternoon nap!

    Like

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