The Lounge Chair Interview: 15 questions with Janice Pariat
By Neha Mehrotra
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories, Seahorse, a novel and The Nine Chambered-Heart, a novella, published by HarperCollins India in November 2017 and HarperCollins UK in May 2018. In 2013, Janice won Sahitya Akademi’s Young Writer Award and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction; in 2015, she was shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize for her novel Seahorse.
Janice studied English Literature at St. Stephens College, Delhi and went on to study History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She currently lives in Delhi; among other things, writes a monthly literary column ‘Paperwallah’ for The Hindu and teaches creative writing at Ashoka University.
The Nine Chambered Heart is currently being translated for publication into six languages, including Italian, Spanish, French and German.
How do you identify as a writer?
By writing? I don’t see what else would suffice. Although I’d hasten to add that identifying as a writer implies something of a stasis–and I think, for me, it’s about “being” a writer or seeing that identity (as with all?) as something that’s perpetually in flux. One is always “becoming” a writer. It isn’t some pleasant destination you arrive at, at the top of a mythical hill. It’s also an identity to which people are keen to prefix with labels – “woman”, “Northeast”, “Indian” – while I would prefer to shrug them all off. Labels say very little about me, and tend to skew expectations of what I should write, the kind of stories I should be telling, where my books should be set.
What impels you to write, especially the kind of books you write?
I’m afraid I’m not very good at anything else – painting, pottery, playing a musical instrument. I feel kinship though with literature and books and writing. Reading impels me to write. As does remembrance, and memory. Bleakness. Joy. Frustration. Fun. Anger. Sadness. At the risk of sounding like one of those terrifically earnest people, writing is at the very centre of everything I do because it helps me make sense of the world, to record it, unravel it, and give it away. They say we write the books we want to read? Perhaps. I guess I write the books I do to explore aspects of myself, and other people and the world that most intrigue me.
Tell us about your most recent piece of writing apart from what you have published.
A terrible poem which must never see light of day. Hastily scribbled notes, which may make it into the next book. To be honest, I’ve been reading more than writing this summer.
What changes did you notice in yourself as a writer after you got published the first time?
A little more confidence? A little less. More fear. More boldness. Surer footing. A longer fall. Although I feel this way after every book.
What is your latest book about? What challenges did you face in writing it?
Here’s the blurb:
The Nine-Chambered Heart is the story of one woman as seen through the eyes of those she has loved or been loved by. In gemlike chapters, nine characters illuminate an unknowable woman. From the school art teacher who sees a spark of talent in her, to the man whose fleeting passion with her could change his life, to the female student whose friendship turns into love. This kaleidoscopic novella builds a life with colour, with light and dark, and in turn asks the reader: How does the world see you?
The usual challenges: structure, voice, procrastination, despair.
Do you think of writing as a spiritual, meditative exercise or is it more conscious, craft driven for you?
It depends? I might be writing in a journal, in which case it’s quite confessional, therapeutic. Though fiction could be the same, I suppose. Working on a book is hardly meditative for me. It’s more conscious, craft driven, yes, but also it’s frequently tearing-out-my-hair frustrating. Then there’s the despair – why am I doing this? Is it worth it? This book is shit. I’m useless. I’ll never write another book again.
How important are names of characters and titles of books/ stories for you?
Entirely important and sometimes entirely unnecessary. The Nine Chambered Heart, deliberately, has no place names or character names. Apart from the cats. All the cats have names. As they must. Titles need to be beautiful, catchy, etc., but more importantly, they must be just right.
What has been the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted?
Always the next book I’m writing.
What does success as a writer mean to you?
On some days, writing a paragraph and not entirely hating it. On other days, writing an entire book and not entirely hating it. And then hoping others won’t hate it either.
Which books do you like to read again and again, for pleasure or inspiration?
Chatwin’s Utz, Nabokov’s short stories, Woolf’s Orlando, Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, Lydia Davis’ short stories, anything by Neil Gaiman, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Mary Oliver’s poetry, Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet.
What is your writing regimen?
Erratic at best, when I’m not working on a manuscript. Once I begin writing, though, it’s a 9 to 5 job. Most unromantic, I know, but it’s the only way to get the book done.
Tell us about two books/ authors you loved and two you did not. (Feel free to add to the numbers.)
Most recently Leila Slimani and her devastatingly good Lullaby as well as Lena Andersson’s Acts of Infidelity. Couldn’t possibly not mention Deborah Levy’s incredibly moving Things I don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living. To everyone’s tremendous surprise, John Williams Stoner failed miserably for me, as did almost everything by Pamuk. And Henry James.
Do you usually have an idea of the end when you start writing or do you find out along the way, even get surprised perhaps by how the story ends?
To borrow from a Julian Barnes title, I have a sense of an ending. But I’m never quite entirely sure until I actually get there. Writing for me is like what Margaret Atwood said – driving in the dark and you only see a little ahead at a time.
What changes would you like to see in the publishing industry – either in your country or universally?
A concerted focus on translations, translations, and more translations and the willingness to accept that people can write beyond their ethnic and national borders. To stop expecting certain kinds of books from writers who happen to be “brown” or from an ex-colony. We must be free to follow stories where we will.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
Joyce’s Ulysses, which, come to think of it, might take me more than three months to read. HarperCollins India’s entire translation list. Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. Ferrante’s Napoli series. A big fat poetry anthology. Sujata Gidla’s Ants Among Elephants. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, everything from the Murty Classical Library of India.
Neha Mehrotra is a fourth year undergraduate student at Ashoka University majoring in English and journalism. She has previously interned with media outlets like Verve, Outlook, Tuck magazine, Indian Express and The Wire, and wants to now engage with literature.