Interview: Sukanya Venkatraghavan and Kiran Manral
by Sonali Misra
Sukanya Venkatraghavan is the author of Dark Things and the editor of Magical Women, a feminist fantasy anthology published by Hachette India. She started her writing career as a film journalist with Filmfare and then went on to become Entertainment Editor at Marie Claire India. Sukanya has also been part of the creative team, including scripting and research, for shows such as Look Who’s Talking With Niranjan (ZEE Café), Design HQ Season 2 (Fox Life) and Koffee With Karan (Season 6). You can find her on Twitter at @suku06 and Instagram at @zooku.
A TEDx speaker, columnist, mentor with Vital Voices Global Mentoring Walk 2017 and festival curator, Kiran Manral published her first book, The Reluctant Detective, in 2011. Since then, she has published nine books across genres to date. Her books include romance and chicklit with Once Upon A Crush, All Aboard and Saving Maya; horror with The Face at the Window, psychological thriller with Missing, Presumed Dead and nonfiction with Karmic Kids, A Boy’s Guide to Growing Up, True Love Stories and 13 Steps to Bloody Good Parenting. Her short stories have been published on Juggernaut, in magazines like Verve and Cosmopolitan, and have been part of anthologies like Chicken Soup for the Soul (Westland), Have a Safe Journey (Amaryllis, 2017), Boo (Penguin, 2017), The Best Asian Speculative Fiction (Kitaab, 2018) and Magical Women (Hachette, 2019). She was shortlisted for the Femina Women Awards 2017 for Literary Contribution. The Indian Council of UN Relations (ICUNR) supported by the Ministry for Women and Child Development, Government of India, awarded her the International Women’s Day Award 2018 for excellence in the field of writing. Her novella, Saving Maya, was longlisted for the Saboteur Awards 2018, UK, supported by the Arts Council England. Her novels, The Face at the Window and Missing, Presumed Dead were both longlisted for JioMAMI Word to Screen. You can find her on Twitter at @KiranManral.
Sonali Misra (SM): Firstly, I must applaud you both, along with the other contributors of the Magical Women anthology, for producing such a gorgeous book promoting women’s writing in a genre that has been overshadowed by male writers in mainstream Indian publishing. Could you tell us a bit about the birthing of this idea?
Sukanya Venkatraghavan (SV): Aaah, the birthing of this idea came from two sources. A: Procrastination. I am supposed to be working on my second book and Magical Women is a result of my subconscious procrastination. B: I have secretly always wanted to put together an anthology, and I kept coming across some gorgeous fantasy anthologies like Toil and Trouble and A Thousand Beginnings and Endings and I was inspired. Honestly, I felt like this is the feminist, fun, fantasy anthology that the world didn’t know it needed.
Kiran Manral (KM): Well, I came in when Sukanya messaged to say she was doing an anthology of feminist fantasy and whether I’d like to contribute a story, and of course I would. How could I not be part of this fabulous concept?
SM: Sukanya, you’re of course a successful fantasy author, but I believe this is your first editorial project. What was the experience like for you? And how did you go about selecting the range of authors to be included in the anthology, some of whom (like Kiran and Krishna Udayasankar) have published several books and others are debut authors?
SV: Putting together this anthology has truly been one of the most joyous learning experiences of my life. I couldn’t have asked for a more open, committed, open-to-feedback and multiple drafts coven. These are all writers who have day jobs, multiple jobs, books in the making and full lives other than the one story they were writing for the anthology. For me, it was my whole world for a bit, but for them it was just a part. And yet I never felt, even for a second, that they didn’t take me seriously or were not up to the work that was required to make the stories what they are today. The other crucial point is that not all are ‘fantasy’ authors, strictly speaking, but the way they absorbed the brief and came up with the stories is remarkable. I have learned so much from all these writers.
As for the second part of your question, I wrote to a whole bunch of authors. So many. Senior, very senior, contemporaries, new, very new. Some agreed. Many declined. Some agreed and then pulled out [shrugs]. I am just lucky that the thirteen who are ultimately in the book are the most amazing coven of literary witches I could have ever dreamt of having on this roster. So many of them are widely published, like Krishna, Kiran, Shweta Taneja, Samhita Arni, Trisha Das – and all it really took was one email and they were on. It was an amazing feeling to see the ‘yeses’ pouring in, and I return to that memory often when I am feeling low and out.
SM: You’ve written books in different genres, Kiran – romance, horror, thriller and even a couple nonfiction ones. How do you find shifting between genres? And do you feel any external pressure from the publishers, critics or readers to label yourself as a certain kind of author?
KM: There has been feedback, tacit as well as open, that it would be easier to ‘market’ me if I had stuck to one genre. But this has primarily been from some publishers; readers have been quite happy to read what I have to offer if it was in a genre that appealed to them. I understand the concerns publishers have, and it does seem to make me ‘risky’ in the sense that readers don’t know what to expect, given I’ve shifted through multiple genres. But having said that, I have a terribly low-boredom threshold and must keep changing what I do. Someday, I hope, when I’m looked back on as a writer, they will say this was my strength – that I wrote across multiple genres and wrote them well.
There has been feedback [from publishers] that it would be easier to ‘market’ me if I had stuck to one genre … readers have been quite happy to read what I have to offer if it was in a genre that appealed to them.
SM: Speaking of genre, what are your opinions on genre writing and how the literary elite look down upon it?
SV: I wish for a world where we don’t stick books into boxes labelled ‘genre’ and ‘literary’. Writing is writing. Storytelling is universal. We are made of atoms, stardust and stories. I don’t believe in labelling people or art.
KM: To be honest, I think there is just good writing and bad writing. And that is all that writing should be divided into. All these categorisations and literary snobbishness, which definitely does exist, are ridiculous.
SM: Sukanya, you chose a rakshasi (a demoness) as your protagonist in your short story ‘The Rakshasi’s Rose Garden’, who is often associated with trickery, rage and evil. You do include these elements, but turn them on their head and further comment on discrimination (within our society and in the representation in Hindu mythologies) and violence against women. The issues you address would probably be considered taboo in polite society. What was the inspiration behind your story?
SV: Pure, unchanneled rage. Also, writer’s block. You know, writer’s block is a very useful thing. Let it simmer long enough and it will unlock a door within you that you never knew existed. In my case, it led to all the rage I had bottled up about the state of the world we live in, how women are treated, and how children are unsafe, even in their own homes. As for polite society, those guys can go for a very long walk. The world is waking up now, and we are going to talk about everything. And write about it, too.
The world is waking up now, and we are going to talk about everything. And write about it, too.
SM: In ‘Stone Cold’, which blends science-fiction and fantasy elements to paint a bleak post-apocalyptic future of the human race, desire – especially a woman’s desire – is literally being suppressed by The Man. Did this play a role in your insertion of a lesbian sex scene? Do you feel there’s a difference between the way male authors write about women’s bodies and the way female authors do?
KM: I can only speak for myself and how I relate the female experience. I do know that a woman thinks of herself as more than just her body, for her arousal is not primarily visual or tactile; it is a plethora of factors coming together. I also want to, in my writing, talk about desire across the binary. As a female author, I hope I write about the female body without the lenses that perhaps patriarchy slaps on women. I specifically wrote about female desire because of how it is constantly policed and shouted down at and shamed. We invalidate female desire, and yet male desire is not only eulogised, but its extreme forms – stalking, rape, etc. – are normalised. Through fiction we must normalise female desire; women have as strong sexual appetites as men do – perhaps even stronger – and it is high time we stopped erasing this.
I specifically wrote about female desire because of how it is constantly policed and shouted down at and shamed … Through fiction we must normalise female desire.
SM: Who are your favourite authors? Are there any books you love from the perspective of a writer, which makes you wish you had written them instead?
SV: I write fantasy fiction because I read Neil Gaiman. He remains my absolute favourite. I am also obsessed with Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie. I have reread Maurier’s Rebecca every year since I was 13. I am a big rereader. I reread The God of Small Things every monsoon and that makes me an Arundhati Roy fan. Anuja Chauhan is a huge favourite, too, as is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I wish I had written Those Pricey Thakur Girls by Chauhan and Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.
KM: Oh, so many – where do I begin? Every P. G. Wodehouse book, Norwegian Wood by Murakami, Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Anuradha Roy’s The Folded Earth. These are my comfort books. I return to them over and over again for catharsis when I feel the soul needs some purging.
SM: Do you have any favourite writing techniques (regarding style or plot) – something you find yourself returning to often or one you enjoy working on the most?
SV: I came across this thing on Twitter recently, about writers being plotters or pantsers. Honestly, I think I am an adventurer. I follow a breadcrumb trail of ideas and let them take me to the plot and characters. Sometimes a character will haunt me until I go, ‘ALRIGHT FINE, I’LL WRITE ABOUT YOU.’ One thing I do try and implement is – I try and work out the ending first. It is subject to changes of course, but once I know my ending (sort of) I can work backwards and figure out my shit.
KM: I think the twist at the end and no definite closure, in both The Face at the Window and Missing, Presumed Dead. I don’t want to give away all the answers, neatly wrapped up in a box and handed to the reader. I want the what happened and why did this happen and what could have happened to haunt the reader long after they close the book and put it down.
SM: What kind of relationships do you have with your editors? (I cheekily ask this, knowing Sukanya was your editor for this book, Kiran!)
KM: I’ve had some truly wonderful editors. Deepthi Talwar who edited my first book, The Reluctant Detective, has been absolutely a dream for a debut author to work with. Vaishali Mathur, who commissioned me to write All Aboard, is another wonderful, wonderful editor who handholds you and nurtures your soul while you work on your manuscript. My editor at Amaryllis, Rashmi Menon, who has published The Face at the Window and Missing, Presumed Dead, has truly played the role of a champion, believing fiercely in these books and my writing, and she’s been incredible with her support and encouragement. Sukanya, for Magical Women, I owe a great deal for seeing the potential in me to write fantasy. I had never written fantasy before and I loved writing it. Rajat Chaudhari, who edited Kitaab’s The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018, has been another wonderfully positive and meticulous editor.
SV: I always say this to people who ask me for writing or publishing advice – listen to your editor. They want the best for your book. It only works in the book’s best interest that you two get along and do your best for the story. I have had two amazing editors so far: Prerna Vohra, who worked on Dark Things – she really allowed me the space to tell the story – and Poulomi Chatterjee, who edited Magical Women – she has the keenest eye for detail and she will not let a small thing go. It can be annoying [grins], but it’s also ultimately marvellous.
Listen to your editor. They want the best for your book. It only works in the book’s best interest that you two get along and do your best for the story.
SM: What tips do you use for getting through writer’s block?
KM: Just write through it. Edit later.
SV: Whine to a friend, watch bloody shows on Netflix, skulk around the house looking and feeling stabby … yeah. I have no tips. Writer’s block is inevitable, but in the end if you understand that it is just abject fear – fear that you will turn into a lousy book that everyone will hate, or worse, that no one will read – then it’s a matter of talking yourself out of that fear. Kiran’s advice is better. Listen to her.
Just write through [writer’s block]. Edit later.
SM: Looking back, what advice would you offer your past selves, who were just beginning their writing journeys?
SV: Don’t be so harsh on yourself. You are going to get better.
KM: Write what you want to write. Not what they think you should be writing. And take your time, there’s no rush.
SM: Thank you so much for answering my long list of questions, and I wish you two the best for Magical Women!