Vineetha Mokkil: Words light up her horizon

vineetha_mokkilVineetha Mokkil is a fiction writer based in New Delhi, India. Her short stories have been published in Santa Fe Writers Project Journal and Why We Don’t Talk, an anthology of contemporary Indian short fiction (Rupa and Co, New Delhi, August 2010) and in the Asia Writes Project. Poems translated by her have appeared in Indian Love Poems (Knopf/Everyman’s Library, 2005). A Happy Place (HarperCollins India, 2014) is her first collection of short stories (read the Kitaab review of this book here).

Here is an interview with the author:

A Happy Place and Other Stories is your debut collection of short stories. How did you conceive of this collection? Did you have a theme in mind?

These stories were written at different points of time and not specifically with a collection in mind. I would send out a story at a time to literary journals and magazines once I finished work on them. Some got published. Every time I got an acceptance letter, it felt like a small victory. It made me work harder on my writing. It made me consider the possibility of a collection. I am grateful to all the good souls out there who devote their time to bringing out small publications which value quality writing and edgy themes. They do it for the love of literature, not to rake in revenue. I owe a great deal to them as a writer.

The stories in “A Happy Place” are not interlinked in the strict sense of the term. But the backdrop of all of them (except for one which is set in Kashmir) is Delhi. The city is as much a character as the people whose lives the stories trace. The larger theme that binds all the stories together is the complexity of urban life and our search for an ideal “happy” place.

When did you first start writing stories? How many years did it take you to see your work in print?

I’ve always been fond of writing stories (as well as making them up!). I enjoyed participating in writing competitions at school and in my university years. I started writing stories quite early. May be this had something to do with my reading habit. I used to devour books as a child. Novels, short stories, newspapers, magazines — anything I could lay my hands on, I’d read. I didn’t care if a book was written for children or adults. The chances of a voracious reader dreaming of becoming a writer are pretty high, aren’t they?

My first published story titled “Nirvana” appeared in The Sunday Observer (no longer in print). I had just graduated from college at the time. The editor in charge of the paper’s books page read the story and liked it enough to publish it.

A Happy PlaceWe often hear how difficult it is to find publishers for a short story collection. Was it difficult for you to find a publisher?

The short story does get a lot of flak. Somehow, this myth has been created that short fiction is a second class citizen. The novel is a noble pursuit. Short stories, little distractions. Marketing folk are wary of short story collections. Publishers fear that they will stay on the shelves. But after a round of initial disappointments, I managed to find a literary agent in India who was confident that the collection would get accepted. My publisher (Harper Collins India) has been very positive about the book’s prospects. I am lucky to have found a publisher who believes in the power of short fiction.

What kind of stories are you drawn to?

I like stories that surprise me. Stories that challenge accepted definitions of love and hate and joy and sorrow. Stories that make me sit up think and question the way the world works.

You also write poems. Between stories and poems, what attracts you more, and why?

I write poetry very rarely. But I read a lot of it. I love the freedom that poets enjoy with language. The best poets are the best musicians. They make your heart sing.

Stories are my forte though. I have greater control over that medium. Long story, short story, novel or novella — all of them are a pleasure to work on.

What books have had the greatest impact on you?

To name a few – The English Patient, Bel Canto, Canary Row, Moth Smoke, Maps for Lost Lovers, White Teeth, In Other Rooms Other Wonders, A Tale of Two Cities, Surfacing, The Hours, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Orphan Master’s Son, The God of Small Things. I could go on and on…

Books you have loved reading this year?

I’m very impressed with Donna Tart’s The Secret History and The Goldfinch is next on my list. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century focuses on inequality in the Europe and the US, but it makes perfect sense in our context as well. I’m no economist, but I picked up this book because it dissects the “monstrous” capitalist machine with  precision. Two other unforgettable pieces that I came across — Zadie Smith’s moving essay on climate change, and Arundhati Roy’s brilliant introduction to Dr Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste”. Anybody who gives a damn about the world should put these two essays on their reading list. Also read a novel called Karachi, You’re Killing Me by Saba Imtiaz recently. It’s a funny and sharp bit of storytelling. Very enjoyable.

Your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer that you will never forget?

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is the holy grail of fiction as far as I am concerned. One my favorite lines from the book: “All I ever wanted was a world without maps”.

What is your advice to writers struggling to get a break?

Never let anyone convince you that writing is a hopeless pursuit. There will be naysayers and rejection letters. There will be dark days and horrible self-doubt, but words will always be there to light up your horizon.

What do you plan to write next?

I am working on a novel right now. The story is set in two time frames — one strand in Tibet in the 1950s and the other in modern Delhi and Gurgaon. The novel takes a close look at a rapidly globalizing India and at how the forces of history change the course of individual lives in startling, unexpected ways. I also have a few short story ideas brewing in my head. Must find the time to shape them into fully formed stories.

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