The Lounge Chair Interview: 10 Questions with Jaishree Misra

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by Monideepa Sahu

JM 2015Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I generally only write when I have a story pressing away inside me, driving me a little crazy. Sometimes I write when I’m puzzled or troubled by something. It’s an excellent way of working one’s way through a prickly issue, and very therapeutic!

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

I discovered the story of Margaret Wheeler years ago, when I was researching my Rani Lakshmibai book. It fascinated me to think that an 18-year-old English girl, the daughter of General Wheeler, should marry the Indian soldier who kidnapped her during the riverside Kanpur massacre of 1857, subsequently seeming quite contented to live the life of a Muslim wife and mother. My original plan had been to write another straightforward work of historical fiction in order to work out what might have happened to Margaret. But, as I started to describe her kidnap and incarceration, the Nirbhaya rape hit the headlines. Watching scenes of public outrage on TV, it seemed suddenly a bit ludicrous to be dwelling so intently on a case that took place 150 years ago when women continue to be kidnapped from our streets, gang-raped and killed. The parallel story of Tara, the Delhi schoolgirl, emerged from that depressing reminder and I ended up entwining the two stories (one tragic and the other more hopeful) in a binary, half-historical-half-contemporary narrative.            

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Dawn light suits me far better than burning the midnight oil. In the years when I was juggling a full-time job alongside my writing, my eyes would snap open at crack of dawn sometimes, an entire chapter ready to be written buzzing at the back of my head! It’s quite amazing, the amount of brain activity that goes on when we think we’re getting a good night’s sleep. Apart from that, like most women writers, I tend to grab at odds and ends of time that appear in the interstices of my normal life as I play the roles of mother, daughter, wife, friend. The luxury of being considered full-time ‘career’ writers continues to reside primarily with male colleagues while women will forever carry on ‘writing between two whistles of a pressure cooker’.

Who are your favorite authors?

I adore Vikram Seth, for his brilliance and his almost cheeky versatility. He can seem to turn his hand to any writing project – literary fiction, epic poem, family saga, biography, children’s writing, libretto – you name it, he’s probably done it and done it well.

I also love the writing of David Nicholls (‘One Day’, ‘Us’) because of his facile style and easy ability to be meaningful in the most unchallenging way.

For non-fiction, I’d go straight to Bill Bryson, witty and informational and a genius with simplicity.

For commercial fiction, Marian Keyes.

Litfic, Anita Brookner, Kate Atkinson.

What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.

Curiously, that would be my first book, ‘Ancient Promises’ which, in some ways, was also the quickest and easiest to write as it sprang so directly from my own experiences and therefore required no research. Every writer’s first book is usually the easiest as there are no expectations of readers, publishers, agents which means the writing is at its purest or most honest. Nevertheless, the business of using one’s life as literary material is an emotional minefield. I raced through the actual writing of the book but, once I had a publisher and came face-to-face with the reality of having a very personal story out there in public view, I panicked almost to the point of withdrawing it from publication. Philip Roth, who has drawn heavily on his own marriage as material for his novels, describes memoir as ‘the most manipulative form of literary forms’ in ‘The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography’. That moral dilemma has always plagued me, especially as the ‘Ancient Promises’ went on to become a best-seller and is now on the BA Literature syllabus of Kerala University.

What’s your idea of bliss?

A quiet morning to read and write, content in the knowledge that my loved ones are busy and happy in their own preferred occupations. This goes particularly for my daughter who has special needs, requires constant entertainment and absolutely hates seeing me glued to my laptop.

What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?

Nothing makes me that angry. Of course I’m not saintly and plenty of things annoy or upset me (hypocrisy, deceit, unkindness, prejudice towards disability …). But to sweep a whole shelf of china to the floor? That’s wasted emotion, stupidly destructive and way too violent for someone as peace-loving as me.

What book/s would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?

That whole bunch of new books still waiting to be read on my bedside table and some old favourites that daily life doesn’t allow the luxury for re-reading (eg. Austen, Bronte, Woolf, Seth).

Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?

People, of course. Things? I honestly can’t think of any possession I’d risk life and limb for. Having said that, I’m a pragmatist so, if I had five minutes, I might try to get the bag containing important documents out with me mostly to save the time I’d later need to spend in various government offices replacing them!

Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.

Take joy in simple things – a warm bath in a cold climate (conversely, a cold shower in a hot one!), a nourishing and tasty meal, a meaningful conversation, a shared joke, a good book, a brisk walk, fresh air, evening sunshine …



Jaishree Misra has written eight novels, published by Penguin and Harper Collins, and also edited an anthology of writings on motherhood, published by Zubaan and Save the Children India. She has an MA in English Literature from Kerala University and two post-graduate diplomas from the University of London, in Special Education and Broadcast Journalism. She worked most recently as a Film Examiner at the British Board of Film Classification in London and presently lives by the sea in Kerala.

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Author: Zafar Anjum

I am a writer based in Singapore.

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