Writing matters: In conversation with Indira Chandrasekhar
Indira Chandrasekhar is a scientist, a fiction writer and the founder and principal editor of the short fiction magazine Out of Print. She also curates an annual short story contest along with DNA, called the DNA-OoP Short Story Prize. Indira has a Ph.D in Biophysics. She worked in scientific institutions in India, the US and Switzerland, before turning into a full time writer and editor. She co-edited the short story anthology, Pangea in 2012, Thames River Press, along with British author and Editor Rebecca Lloyd. Indira’s stories have appeared in Eclectica, Nether, Cosmonauts Avenue, Far Enough East, The Little Magazine, Guftugu and others.
Polymorphism, her first story collection, presents nineteen tightly wrapped and elegantly told stories in genres ranging from science fiction to slip stream to literary, often blurring the boundaries. The visual cues and the lingering effect created by her stories are at times disconcerting, even disturbing, and always memorable. As the blurb on the back cover says, ‘…Textured by the author’s scientific research on biological molecules and deeply informed by family stories, the collection explores humanity’s driving obsessions of life, fertility and relationships with tender, surreal expression.’
In an email interview Indira Chandrasekhar shares her writing journey and her views on the short story form with Shikhandin for Kitaab.
Shikhandin: First the obvious question, when did it all start, the writing, i.e.?
Indira: Writing fiction – as an adult – is significantly linked to place, to relocation and to realignment. I was working as a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich when I returned to India to live in Mumbai, a city I did not really know. It was as if settling into, rediscovering, restoring my identity in the context of the place that was home, and yet wasn’t, unleashed a need to find creative expression outside the more fundamental cultural framework of science. I started drawing again, and writing. The writing took precedence – as if the story asserted itself and wanted to find an outlet.
Shikhandin: You have a Ph.D in Biophysics, and you write stories. Is it like straddling two boats? Share your unique experience with us.
Indira: Thank you for that question. In some ways, yes, it could be seen as if I straddle two ways of interpreting the world. The one, structured, logical and fact-based. The other surreal, fantastical and fictional. And yet, ultimately, I see both ways as related to making sense of existence, be it through the interactions of minute molecular entities that influence how the biological, the mamallian, the human system functions, or through the complex relationships between individuals that impact the way we think about ourselves, live our lives and construct our societies.
Shikhandin: Tell us about your magazine Out of Print. Why this name in particular? How did this journey begin?
Indira: Out of Print emerged as a consequence of trying to place my own writing in literary magazines and journals. At the time, this is around 2010, there were few literary journals in India and South Asia available to writers of short fiction. Some wonderful people supported the idea and we managed to get started. We decided to create an online journal and yet truly pay tribute to the – I am struggling for the phrase: classical, traditional, standard, 20th Century – perhaps a better way of putting it is, the ever-evolving literary traditions we have used to understand and constantly tell stories. In other words, because we were emerging from the familiar print form, I called the magazine Out of Print.
Shikhandin: Out of Print is the only journal entirely devoted to short stories, in India. Why only short stories and not a mix of all literary forms? What excites you about short stories?
Indira: The short story really is just an incredible literary form. Embodies the core of the story, the honing of craft, the rigour of conciseness, the integrity of language – it can have such elegance and such emotional impact. It deserved a clean, uncluttered space, I thought. Then, there was the practical reason –I found I was good at reading, evaluating and editing and refining the short prose form. That is why, ultimately, Out of Print is solely devoted to the short story.
Shikhandin: ‘The Insert’ is a powerful story set in an alternative reality. What inspired you to write it?
Indira: Our cities seem to have become just big work sites – demolitions, constructions, diggings, and the constant, sometimes cruel displacement of populations. One has the impression, often, that the process is mired in corruption and inefficiency and that it bears little regard for the lives of the people who inhabit the city and call it home. I feel this has a significant effect on the psychology of one’s interaction with one’s geography and one’s society and can lead to strange alienation. This is what prompted the piece.
Sometimes my writing is triggered by a very specific visual. In this case, oddly, it was an imagined one – an image of the dark vacuum created by the machines in the story before they fill it with an insert popped into my mind, and the story found its way.
Shikhandin: ‘The Embryotic’ is another powerful story veering between slip stream and sci-fi, and manages to pack in some strong emotional quotient as well, what inspired this one as well?
Indira: The complex yet fundamental drive to reproduce is something that interests me. I think my engagement with the idea is particularly textured by having worked with biological molecules whose entire structure and form is driven by the need to replicate.
This story began when I actually saw a boil on the back of a woman’s hand – rather revolting really. It’s one of the stories that took me longest to write. The main protagonist, who is buffeted by her own drives, and the expectations of family and society, is someone I had been thinking about and her voice quickly asserted itself. But the arc of the narrative needed a long gestation time to develop.
Shikhandin: What mistakes do you think new writers make when writing short stories?
Indira: With Out of Print, I do tend to read a number of writers who are just venturing into the world of short fiction. They are all brave, I have to say, and I am always honoured to receive work from emerging writers. One of the intentions of the journal is indeed to provide a platform for new writers.
Of course, there are some common mistakes one comes across – even from more experienced writers. One is writing that dissipates the focus. This can manifest in a short story having too many characters and/or threads. Too much going on! Then there is the tendency to explain too much. This goes against the ‘show vs. tell’ mantra; there is no need to say what the character feels when the action or the dialogue has just demonstrated that. There is a third major mistake I can think of, and it’s a stylistic one, so it is harder to pinpoint, and that is an authorial weakness to get enchanted by the language, the beauty of the words they are putting down. That kind of conceit comes through, somehow, and can be off-putting to the reader.
Of course, for every prescription, there are stories that refute it, so I would say to a writer, get it all down first, and then think about cleaning up and following suggestions when you edit. In fact, if I were to give advice, it would be to make sure to edit one’s own work with a brutal eye.
Shikhandin: You have been curating the DNA-Out of Print short story contest for some years now. Can you share the story behind it? How did the idea come about, etc.?
Indira: It came about in a most serendipitous way. I believe I talked to Zafar Anjum about this too when the competition was first launched. I was invited to dinner by the writer Sanjay Bahadur and C P Surendran, who was then chief editor of DNA, was also a guest. It was one of those amazing moments where a wonderful conversation was had, an idea was proposed, and we were able to make it happen soon thereafter.
It is pretty empowering and exciting to open up a literary niche to a wider writer group and to a wider readership. The results for 2017 will be announced in a couple of weeks, in fact. It is amazing to think we have been going since 2014 with the themes: Choice, Dissent, Erosion and Watching. The first was because the national elections had just taken place and the people’s choice had just asserted itself. The themes form a little subversive thread as far as I am concerned, and I love that the thread is completely dissolved and the meaning takes its own shape through the stories that are submitted.
Your wonderful works have been part of the winning library of works a few times, Shikhandin. Thank you for them.
Shikhandin: Take us through a day in your writing life. How much of coffee do you need? J
Indira: Ha! ha! about the coffee. Dare I say?!! Coincidentally, I was just taking a sip, and offered a refill by a friend as I responded to this.
My writing day is interwoven with my day as an editor. One thing I have found from my days in science is the need for discipline and consistency when I work. So although my natural instinct is to meander organically, in order to actually ensure that I nurture that creative output, I need to have a routine. And the only time, I have found, when one has any control over one’s routine – uninterrupted by domestic, administrative and bureaucratic trivia – is early in the morning or late at night. Despite myself, when I am writing, I am a morning person.
Shikhandin: Can we look forward to the next book? When? J Will it be another short story collection? Or a novel this time?
Indira: I doubt the next work will be a novel. I do love the form as a reader but not as a writer. But yes, I am hoping there will be more of my work that gets published. Some longer, some shorter.
Out of Print: http://outofprintmagazine.co.in
DNA-OUTofPRINT short fiction: http://outofprintmagazine.blogspot.com/2017/10/the-2017-dna-out-of-print-short-fiction.html
Shikhandin is an Indian writer whose latest book, Immoderate Men, is from Speaking Tiger (http://speakingtigerbooks.com/books/immoderate-men/). A children’s book is forthcoming from Duckbill.