Lavanya Sankaran, an Interview

I have a special pleasure and pride in doing this interview.  

Years ago, I was being considered for ghost-writing a series of children’s books for a client from the U.S. I didn’t expect to be selected because I was a newbie and unpublished. But when the selections came, I was the client’s top choice and the reason for it was my sample story. ‘The style quite reminded me of Lavanya Sankaran.’ 

This was in early 2006, and I hadn’t heard of Lavanya back then. But my project co-ordinator Shiv Nair told me, ‘actually that’s quite a compliment, you know, her writing is fabulous’, and went on to tell me about Lavanya and The Red Carpet. Online book sellers were not so popular at that time in my world, and I started looking out for The Red Carpet at every book shop I visited. I finally got hold of it, and fell in love with the writing, and realized what a compliment it was to be compared to her. It was also about the time that I started taking my fiction seriously, but that’s another story. 

I later came across Lavanya again at the Sangam House Residency, she is one of the sponsors there, and then again on Facebook, and kept a look out for her next book. And now here is ‘The Hope Factory’ and Lavanya again. This is the complete unabridged interview she very kindly gave me and an edited version of this appears in the Hindu Literary Review of June. 

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SB: With apologies since the first two are clichéd questions, but inevitable when introducing an author: You are an investment banker by profession, what really was your first step to serious writing? How did Red Carpet happen? Have you published in journals before the debut book? Do detail on this.  
LS:       Let me clarify. I am a writer by profession. Investment banking was just something I did for a couple of years after college. I have been writing since I was a child – and no matter what else I did with my time, writing was part of the journey and, ultimately, the destination. I was very lucky that my first book, The Red Carpet, a collection of stories set in Bangalore, did so well. It won critical acclaim around the world and spent two years on the Indian best-seller lists. I had two lucky breaks early in my writing career. I got signed by a top agent in New York, Lane Zachary of Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, and the title story, The Red Carpet, was published in The Atlantic Monthly magazine – fabulous,  considering that they published 12 stories a year, selected from over fifteen thousand submissions.  
SB: This is a question for those waiting in the wings with a book. How did publishing happen with you? Was the first book or the second one easier to publish /  write?
 
 LS:       The Hope Factory is part of a two-book deal (including The Red Carpet, 2005) that was brokered by Lane Zachary of Zachary, Shuster Harmsworth in New York. The auction lasted over three days and involved nine publishers and was written up in Publisher’s Weekly and other trade magazines. As though that wasn’t excitement enough, the middle of the auction was interrupted by the famous New York City blackout of 2003. Lane, her assistant, and I walked back to my hotel on the Upper West Side and spent the night sitting on the side walk with a bunch of other Upper Westsiders, drinking warm whisky and eating wood-fired pizza from the only food joint that could function without electricity. It was an unusual, convivial, and yet oddly New York moment, right down to the relentless phone calls Lane’s assistant received from his girlfriend, wondering why he couldn’t walk the 12 miles to their Brooklyn home.  
SB: Red Carpet, was hailed as a homage to the new Silicon Valley Bangalore and a comment on modern Indian society. The famous auction of the book was also talked about and raised a lot of hype and hope. Could you look back and talk about what experiences the after-book experiences took you through? Do you think it was received better abroad or in India? How did the feedback affect you?
 
LS:       The Red Carpet was the first literary fiction book to explore the landscape of contemporary urban India. Because it was a path-breaker, it raised expectations and imitators. It was startling and exciting while it happened, but none of that was very helpful to me in the long term; I had to push the success of the first book out of my mind in order to write the second.  
SB: Your second book is also set in Bangalore. And you have endeavoured a comparison of old and new social orders and a exploration of cultural nuances in contemporary times. How does a book take shape with you? Is it a seed of an idea, an incident, or an intention of writing about a favourite place? How do you go about the research if any and how much of it do you use? 
 
LS:       The Hope Factory is the story about modern India – so chaotic, captivating, bewildering, heartbreaking – that had to be told. The crux of Anand’s story – a good, capable man, fighting to keep his head above water – clarified for me late one night after, of all things, a television program. I was watching a National Geographic special on American pioneers and what it took for them to survive and succeed in such a hostile environment – and that’s when it clicked. I realized I was seeing something similar all about me: for years, I had been watching Indian business people struggling to build world class businesses in an environment that didn’t support them in any of the crucial ways. When a government is corrupt and inefficient and does not deliver on its basic promises, it leaves its citizens in a fearsome, dangerous and lonely world – and those who succeed, like those rugged pioneers, are the exceptional individuals, hardy, uncompromising, uncomplaining. Kamala’s story, the awkward, wonderful, fiercely protective relationship between a single mother and her 12 year old son, had a different genesis. It was born in a single moment one rain-filled evening. I had just fired a maid in my house for repeated absenteeism. She pleaded for another chance; I told her I simply couldn’t; she was a sweet woman but I needed someone reliable. It was an awful, uncomfortable conversation, both of us repeating our statements until there was nothing left to say. When she turned to leave, I saw her son waiting for her at the open door; he had heard every word. He, this young boy of twelve, looked at me as if he hated me. He picked up her bag and, his arm protectively about her shoulders, walked his sorrowing mother across the street into the rain. I have never seen him again, but he has stayed with me, and I knew his voice the minute I wrote it.  
SB: Your second book happens after an interval from your debut. Do you have a need to distance yourself from the first born to nurture the second?
 
LS:       In this case, I did. I was shifting from short stories to a novel, and I had to master the new form. I also didn’t want to write another The Red Carpet, so The Hope Factory took a little while to gestate. The Hope Factory crosses so many landscapes: social, political, industrial, familial, a changing world full of growing pains. I wanted to capture all the nuances very carefully and also structure this complex, multi-layered story very tightly. The writing of it took me six long years and I am so grateful that my editors Susan Kamil of Random House (New York) and Charlotte Mendelson of Headline (UK) kept the faith.  
SB: Do you read your peer writers? What books from the contemporary scene interests you? What is your reading list like?
 
LS:       I read voraciously, of writers past and present, every single day. I was a reader before I was a writer. Of contemporary books, I really enjoyed Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, David Mitchell’s A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad.  
SB: How do you think the current thrust on publicity and PR in an author’s schedule affects her writing? Do literary fests aid or hinder the word building process?
 
LS:       Alas, it seems that publicity and PR are an inevitable part of getting published these days. I used to whine about it, until I read a quote (I can’t remember who by) that said: it is a rare opportunity for a writer to actually get published, and it is even more so for published writers to field interview requests – so if one is in that enviable position, one dare not complain. Point taken. So nowadays, I have learnt to get through the process as quickly and painlessly as possible before getting back to the peace of my writing! Literary festivals can be great fun because you get to meet other writers and friends, which is lovely, because writing can be a lonely and misunderstood vocation. But too much of it, publicity, literary festivals, etc, can take away from writing – so the key is to maintain a balance.  
SB: How much do you connect to your readers while writing? Does feedback affect your writing process?
 
LS:       I need absolute solitude when I write. Not just physical solitude, but the freedom that mental solitude brings. I keep even the ghost of a reader at bay during this time. When the first draft is done, then I am ready to critique and edit my writing. I am passionate about this, visiting and revisiting my sentences and my scenes endlessly. When this process is done to a certain level, that’s when I may sometimes take the feedback of an actual reader, a friend whose literary judgement and honesty I can trust. That can be very helpful, especially when they weigh in with criticism rather than praise.  
SB: What next? Is there a genre that you would like to attempt away from what you have written so far? Or a favourite story which will be written sometime?
 
LS:       I have already started work on my next book, a novel – and am also working on a couple of short stories. I experiment with various forms of writing. I write a great deal of poetry, and someday would like to try my hand at a play.              

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