Her short story Sepia Tones won the Katha Award in 1995. She has published four novels hence, that’s in sixteen years, and many of them have been nominated for honours or have won awards. novel, The Monkey Man was on the short list of the prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2012. Another of her novels, ‘A Girl and a River’ was short listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2007 and later in the year it won the Vodafone Crossword Award. It was also shortlisted for the Golden Quill Award, run from Bangalore. She was at IOWA in 2011 to participate in their International Writing Program. This is my conversation with Usha.K.R, writer par excellence.
This interview was published in print in 2011 in the MediaVoiceMag. I would put this one quote from her the best words I have heard from a writer in the recent times.
I think writers improve with age. They ‘find’ themselves, their voices become stronger, they take their readers more into confidence and find the assurance to become more experimental. But publishing today seems to be impatient with that, driven by the next new find: Usha K R
About Sepia Tones…
Usha: ‘Sepia Tones’ was the first of my work to win a prize – the Katha Award in 1995, and was anthologized in their prize winning stories collection. In the late 80s and 90s I had stories published in magazines like Femina, Savvy, Debonair, New Quest – at that time there was still space for fiction in the general magazines. I remember reading Shashi Deshpande first in Femina – they even used to serialize her short stories. Now that space has shrunk. It was a tremendous boost to my confidence – I thought, if ‘people in the know’ can pick my story out of so many others, then it must be good – my writing, the style and the subject must be meaningful, and also enjoyable.
Your debut novel? How did the publishing happen way back then?
Usha: I had submitted ‘Sojourn’ to a publisher by then and the Katha prize, I thought, would strengthen my claims to be published. ‘Sojourn’ was published in 1998, though I had submitted the manuscript at least three years before that. Things appeared to be more casual and informal then – there was no talk of agents, no buzz about publishers, but the process of selection was rigorous. The Madras-based East West Books used to run a book review magazine, Indian Review of Books for which I occasionally reviewed books. They also had a fiction imprint, Manas, being managed by the same set of editors. I thought we would be a good fit, so I submitted my manuscript to them and they accepted it.
The next novel, Was it easier?
Usha: My second novel, ‘The Chosen’ was published in 2003, by Penguin India. By the time I had completed this, Manas had closed down. I had met V K Karthika, who was then a commissioning editor at Penguin, at a book launch in Bangalore and when I mentioned that I had a manuscript she asked me to send it to her – it was again casual, in the middle of a conversation. I sent the ms to her and she responded enthusiastically, and that was it.
My experience with the editing aspect of publishing has been very good so far; it is the post publication, publicity and marketing that I find quite frustrating for I cannot understand how it works – I think no one really does.
Awards and Nominations
Usha: My third novel, ‘A Girl and a River’ was short listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 2007 and later in the year it won the Vodafone Crossword Award. It was also shortlisted for the Golden Quill Award, run from Bangalore. Winning an award or being shortlisted, apart from the immediate heady feeling, validates your writing, makes you more confident of your work. Once a book goes out into the world, in most cases it gets lost. Very few books sell in large numbers, you cannot be sure that your book will get reviewed, so you don’t know how the book is being received and you end up wondering whether it is being read at all. So if your book wins an award or is shortlisted you know that it matters and has made an impact.
Your process of writing?
Usha: It’s difficult to put my finger on it. At best I can say that I have some nebulous ideas and when I find an objective correlative for them in the form of events and characters, the whole thing comes to life – but I cannot really say which follows the other. Looking back on the process, I can say that the ‘voice’ of each novel emerges along with the ideas – ‘Sojourn’ and ‘Monkey-man’ were ironic and a little distanced, while ‘The Chosen’ and ‘A Girl…’ were high pitched novels.
Your favourite and the toughest you found to write among your novels?
Usha: Asking a writer to pick between her novels is like asking a mother to choose between her children! At the time of writing, each novel has mattered tremendously and later, each has its fond associations. The hardest one would be the newest, since you are always upping the ante, wanting to do something new and perhaps more difficult, and you don’t know whether you can do it successfully.
Your reading habits?
Usha: I like the classical novelists – Jane Austen, Dickens, Henry James; I recently enjoyed reading the ‘mother’ of all digressionary novelists – Proust. Latest reads – very dissimilarly, a translation of Tagore’s ‘Gora’ and am currently reading the rambling ‘Open City’ written this year by a Nigerian writer.
Your take on the current literary scene with the mushrooming of writing talents?
Usha: I think it’s a very good thing. The fact that writing (in English) is branching out into genres – pulp with its assortment of chicklit and young-men’s-lit, crime, graphic novels – shows that it is becoming vibrant and there is an interested community of readers and writers.
Usha: I have mixed feelings about them. While on the one hand it (and all events geared to publicity) promotes reader-writer interaction and lively, spontaneous discussions on literary matters, it robs the writer of her anonymity which is so important for a writer of fiction – for many writers the business of promotion becomes an end in itself and leads to anxiety about the writing ‘career’. Also, too much discussion on the process of writing may misrepresent the elusive process that it essentially is, or expose how banal it sometimes gets.
An award you would like to win some day?
Usha: Every award there is to be won, no less! But seriously, that can only be a writer’s fantasy – what I’d like is to write my best book every time and be happy with it. An award is a bonus!
About the IOWA experience?
Usha: I was recently at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, a three-month residency, a truly wonderful experience. There were 37 writers from 32 countries from different backgrounds, with different concerns and writing in different styles. We were located in Iowa city, a city designated as an international city of literature, and we discussed our writing in university classrooms, in public panels, read in book shops, had our works performed by theatre groups, and we travelled. We also could choose to just stay put in our rooms and write!
A new novel?
Usha: I’m still struggling with my thoughts – it’s too premature to say anything about it.