Deepti Menon has always believed in the power of the pen. Having done her post graduation in English Literature and her B.Ed. in English, she had the option of teaching and writing, and did both with great enjoyment. An Army kid and later an Army wife, she loved the idea of travelling around India, meeting new people and acquiring new skills. She firmly believes that much of her personality was honed during those travels. Kirthi Jayakumar in conversation with Deepti Menon the author.
What got you into writing?
Oh, I started writing when I was ten, but not because I had lofty ideas of being a writer. One of my friends would write poems on the spot, and I remember my mom being very impressed by them. The green-eyed monster took hold of me, and I vowed that anything she did, I could do better. So there I was, writing puerile poems on every little bit of paper I could find. That is the point from where my writing journey began.
As an author, what do you see are your key challenges when it comes to writing and publishing in this day and age?
As an author, I feel that writing an actual book is easier than what comes after. The editing is not easy, of course, but finding the right publisher is the biggest nightmare of all. One needs to develop the hide of a rhinoceros in order to garner the reject notes that are thrown at one. Besides, once the publisher has snapped up one’s book, the next challenge hinges around making the book sell. I am lucky that Readomania chose to publish ‘Shadow in the Mirror’. I didn’t have to face any of the above hurdles, and I sailed through it all. Thank you, Dipankar Mukherjee, for being so supportive, and especially for not adding any grey to my burgundy head.
Short stories or novels?
Both, I think! Short stories are like the quick flashes of a lamp flame that flicker, enticing you to look at them. Novels are akin to the calm, unblinking light of a table lamp, which shines on until you switch it off. However, neither of them is particularly easy to write.
What are some of your writing rituals like? Do you have a particular goal when you start writing, or do you freewheel?
Well, I have a special sofa chair with a white foldable table, which is always messy enough to motivate me to write. A cup of green tea helps, though there have been times when I have forgotten to drink it in the frenzy of writing. Soft music could also add to the creative process, but most often it is a strident news anchor’s voice in the background in the evenings!
What inspires you?
Life inspires me most of all. It could be a dried leaf on the ground, a person jogging by, the snatch of a conversation, even the sunrays reflecting off a piece of glass. All I need is a reason to write, and I pick up a number of my stories from the newspaper. Many of my characters are modelled on normal conversations with friends and family members, and now, they tiptoe around me, just so that I don’t remember to put them into my writing
We see so many contrived portrayals that reaffirm stereotypes in their writing – be it the idea of “tall-dark-handsome” or “damsel-in-distress”, right down to the smut and what not. How have you dealt with these themes in your writing?
For me, inner beauty is all-important. A beautiful person need not be kind, but a kind person is always beautiful! So the “tall-dark–handsome” or the “fair and lovely” descriptions, frankly, do not work in my writing. In fact, I prefer a few flaws that make persons human. Absolute perfection can be quite staid, I feel. I saw this brilliant post of Facebook that said, “I am flawsome… a combination of flawed and awesome!” I love that.
Smut makes me red in the face! Believe me, it is difficult to go through life with a face that can never hide its emotions. When I am not comfortable with a certain kind of writing, I know that it will sound forced, even to the extent of being comical. So I keep well away from it, and leave it to the experts.
Let’s talk about Shadow in the Mirror! What an interesting title!
Once my story was written, I needed a title that would encapsulate its theme. I initially thought of ‘The Girl in the Mirror’, but there was already a book by that name. So it became ‘Shadow in the Mirror’, a title, in retrospect, that actually works better for the book. The blurb took some writing, and the credit should go to my editor, Vaijyanti Ghosh, who helped me out brilliantly in wording it.
Now that the blurb is out, would you like to talk about the themes that the book addresses?
The book travels from the late 1950s to the 1990s, as characters live their lives out over decades. It is set mostly in Kerala and Bangalore. There are references to real events which tie them to actual years, myriad autobiographical elements, and social issues, like the tragic stigma attached to widowhood, that erupt within the framework of the story.
Authors have been known to have gotten too tightly bound to their characters while writing – did this happen to you, too?
I do love my characters fiercely, and am rather possessive about them. Some of them are based on people I love, and that makes them dearer to me. I feel that I am closest to Vinny, who plays a journalist in the story, and I see much of myself in her. But that does not mean, in the least, that she is me, in any way.
How easy or how difficult is it to write a thriller?
Writing a thriller is like rolling a stone up a mountain. You have to keep the momentum going, for if you allow yourself to falter, you slide backwards, and have to start the whole process again. So I needed to read and reread sections to see if they would keep the interest going. My family read my manuscript in various phases – my mother, my sisters and my daughter – and gave me a lot of valuable suggestions along the way.
There’s a lot of pressure of conformity in this day and age – How have you kept your head above the waters with this?
I have always believed that there is something for everyone in the vast ocean that writing is. We all have a place in the order of things, and it is up to us to see where exactly we need to be. I read different genres of books, but I have my favourites, obviously. So I end up writing what I feel that I would enjoy reading as well, and hope that my readers will feel the same way about my writing. The Vampires and the IIT sagas are all very popular, and there would be nothing extraordinary that I would be able to add to them!
You’ve been a teacher and a writer. Between both worlds, the emphasis remains on encouraging reading. What do you think of the dwindling reading habits around the world? What do you think can help people return to the goodness of a book?
Some of my best years have been spent in teaching young people, and creating a rapport with them. In fact, I genuinely enjoy time spent with them, sparring and joking with them, and trying to create an interesting atmosphere in the classroom. Today, I can proudly say that many of my good friends are half my age and twice as smart as I am. In fact, I hardly find people older than me around!
There was a stage when the habit of reading had dwindled, but today with so many young writers coming up, there has been a spurt in wanting to read, write, discuss and review. The Kindle has brought in a new world of young, avid readers.
I feel that parents who read have children who read as well. When I was growing up, there were always books of various genres lying around, and I loved the different styles of Daphne du Maurier, Agatha Christie and Wodehouse. We had a wonderful collection of comics of all the major classics. That is where my love for these age-old stories grew into a lifetime passion.
Forcing children to read is like trying to push them into a swimming pool, when they don’t want to be in the water. Leave them alone, be a bit vigilant, and you’ll find that they meander towards the water on their own!
Written byKirthi Jayakumar
Kirthi Jayakumar is a lawyer, activist and writer based in Chennai. She has worked extensively with grassroots organizations and runs the Red Elephant Foundation, an initiative for women’s rights. She also runs a journal and consultancy that focuses on International Law,called A38.