The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Shweta Taneja
by Monideepa Sahu
Why does one breathe? I don’t think I have a choice here. Writing, as I embrace it through years, has become an essential for me. I write to get over my fears, to express them and sometimes to face them. I write to feed the monster in me, to feel happy or sad, to express my emotions and the emotions that my characters are going through.
Or maybe I just write because I don’t know what else to do really. I can’t sing or play or manage people or things, so I write to fill my heart with music, to lay to rest nightmares that hound me day and night, or to fight with my demons. I mean what would you do if you quit something as basic as breathing? It’s the only magic I know. It’s the only life I would like to lead.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
I’m currently working on a series on Anantya Tantrist, a tantric detective who solves the most grizzly black magic crimes in Delhi, the capital city of India. It’s the first of urban fantasies that Indian writing in English has seen and I’m so glad it’s received a good response from my readers as well as the media and the industry in general. I’ve signed a three-book contract with Harper Collins on this series and the second and third books will release in 2016 and 2017 respectively.
With the series, I’m building up this whole parallel underworld in Delhi, a world where monsters, supernatural creatures, ghosts and other things from the Indian mythology lurk, interact and go about their business. For me this series (or in general speculative fiction that I plan to write in future) is not only an escape into another world or a monster/rakshasa fantasy, it’s a reflection of your own world.
Spec fiction gives you a space, to break the world as you see it into small pieces, put them into a kaleidoscope and reimagine, rebuild another world, another society. The world is fiction, created with lies and stories but it mirrors our own world perfectly. In this series, there is a lot of power play, intolerance, prejudice and hatred between supernatural creatures and tantric communities. I interplay with them, many a times reflecting on my own people and what’s happening in the country right now and trying to understand the suspicions that lurk in my community.
Then there’s gender. Anantya’s character is a complete opposite to the idea of an ideal Indian woman. She smokes beedi, hangs with all kinds of ‘shady’ characters, has a job where you’re involved with murderers and magicians and she’s chosen this life after throwing away a protectionist princess life.
I do hope that her life, adventures and the world she deals with makes a small little change in my readers. If reading my fiction makes someone question their own real world, just a single question, a new lens to look at their life, my work is done.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
More than a writer, I think of myself as a storyteller. The story itself, the one where the characters interact, do things or fail to act, is of primary importance in my writing. Everything else is second place. I believe the critics would call it ‘plot-driven’. While writing, I am breathless, moving from scene to scene, sometimes skipping description to rush from one action to another. Long haul descriptions, atmosphere, lingering on things, bores me. I design each scene to have an up and down, a constant rollercoaster ride, so that by the end of it, you have a slight dizzy feeling in your gut. That’s the kind of thrillers I enjoy creating.
However, I’m too new to the journey of fiction to know that this is where I’m going to be all my creative life, but this is where I’m now. The next I’m planning (a feminist science fiction based in the Indian continent’s cultural milieu) is perhaps going to be different from this aesthetic, but who knows the future?
Who are your favorite authors?
Currently, I’m madly and passionately pursuing a subgenre of science fiction called feminist science fiction. I’m reading Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and others I find in the genre. My ever favourites are: Neil Gaiman for his comics; Stephen King for horror; Sherlock Holmes, Steig Larsson, Krishan Pratap Singh for thrillers of different kinds; Terry Pratchett, Samit Basu, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K Dick for science fiction and fantasy and William Darlymple and Devdutt Pattnaik for mythology/history. But I still continue to discover and get thrilled with new authors everyday.
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
There is a scene in the book, part of the climax, where Dhuma, Anantya Tantrist’s teacher, is helping her out in an intense tantrik ritual, to bring in a really strong spirit into the world. Anantya’s never done that ritual before and doesn’t know its power. It needs for her to sit with a corpse. It was a very, very powerful scene and for Anantya a very tiring one too because she has to sacrifice thirteen goats for that ritual. I wrote that scene in one go, fascinated and fearful, riveted and at the same time disgusted. The scene took me on a journey, so much so that my fingers were clanking on the keyboard on their own and I became a spectator to the words, the story that was coming out on the screen. It was almost mystical but left me completely drained by the end of the day. I wont call it the most challenging, but it was the most powerful, thrilling experience I’ve had.
What’s your idea of bliss?
A hot cup of tea in cloudy, rainy weather, while I’m fast typing away a new scene on my MacAir. Or walking through an agricultural college campus near my house, picking up random leaves and fallen flowers or trying and locating little owls by their hoots.
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Maybe it’s the middleclass in me but I usually don’t smash things, preferring to give them away to people who might be able to use them instead. There are many things that pump blood to my brain. I hate people throwing garbage on the streets or being mean just because someone is lower in social strata. I get absolutely mad with injustice in people treating other people or animals. So you see, I’m mad most of the day.
What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
It would be nice to take a single Kindle if there’s electricity to charge it. If we assume no electricity, I would take Terry Pratchett’s, most of them and lots of empty notebooks to keep writing in. Yes, that should breeze me through three months.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
My husband if he’s around. Or my notebooks in which I scribble all my new ideas. If they burn down, my whole collection of ideas through the years will go up in smoke. Everything else is replaceable I think.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
Chase experiences rather than collect things. Too many of us become collectors of houses, cars, stuff in the houses and spend our lives taking care of it. Instead, live simply, so you can collect experiences and memories, trying everything new and keep experimenting through your life.
Shweta Taneja is an Indian author, graphic novelist and journalist. She has written six books and two hundred articles in a career spanning fourteen years. She’s currently a Charles Wallace India Fellow (Chichester University, UK, 2016) and was shortlisted for Best Writer Award in ComicCon India for The Skull Rosary (HolyCow, 2013).
Her books include the bestselling series Anantya Tantrist mysteries (HarperCollins, 2014), Ghost Hunters of Kurseong (Hachette, 2013), and Krishna Defender of Dharma (Campfire, 2012). The latter is included in the CBSE Must-read list for schools and has been reprinted many times.
When she’s not creating stories, she writes articles and columns for Mint, Huffington Post, Scroll.in, and Discover India. You can connect with her online at @shwetawrites or at www.shwetawrites.com