Writer and lawyer Brannavan Gnanalingam answers our latest 5 Quick Questions. Brannavan will be teaching a workshop on character among other things at the upcoming Kāpiti Writers’ Retreat.
1. You’ve got 5 novels under your belt now. Would you like to be able to chuck in the day job and exclusively write or is the mix what fuels your creativity?
I like the mix between the paid work and the writing. While it would obviously be great to have more time to write, I think I benefit from having a routine, not having to worry about where my next paycheck comes from, having a job that doesn’t suck up all of my creativity, and a sense of knowing that I have a limited amount of time means I put that time to better use. One advantage of being a lawyer too is that I encounter new people and new narratives all of the time, and I’m forced to consider different viewpoints on a daily basis. It’s great training for writing novels.
2. From reading your work anyone can see that you care deeply about the state of the world and the inequity that exists between different individuals and groups in society. What made you choose fiction as your primary means of engaging with these issues, rather than non-fiction, journalism or legal work?
2. I’m not sure why I ended up in fiction. My first love was film, and I harboured grand ambitions of becoming a filmmaker (I studied and taught film at Victoria University). I realised in my early twenties though that I loved writing more than the making of film, and I shifted that way. I also did my masters in cultural studies essentially (via film and media studies) and I think fiction was helpful in working through these ideas of representation and discourse theory that I was fascinated in. I did think about journalism too – and I did a lot of reviewing and feature writing on music and film – but I was probably too impatient I think. That said, I think my writing is definitely influenced by journalism, social realism, and satire, so it’s probably all interrelated. As for why I focus on these sorts of stories, I don’t think I could write any other way. Writers are more than welcome to write about anything they want, but for me, I don’t think I’d be satisfied if I wasn’t writing about the world around me. It’s also hard not to be political when you have constantly felt the consequences of other peoples’ political actions.
3. Can you tell us about two or three books or authors that have had a significant impact on your work?
There are too many to mention, and in particular, the sheer number of amazing NZ writers who have been hugely inspirational in terms of their storytelling and shifting of narratives particularly from a POC perspective (for starters, Tina Makereti, Greg Kan, Chris Tse, Courtney Sina Meredith, Patricia Grace, Rajorshi Chakraborti, Anahera Gildea, Victor Rodger, Tayi Tibble, essa may ranapiri amongst many more). Balzac’s The Human Comedy has been a big influence (though I’ve only read 1/2 of it). He has such great characterisation and control of narrative, and I love how the interrelated nature of the various novels / novellas creates a particularly vivid account of early 19th Century France. And there are a couple of films that have been a huge influence: Jean Eustache’s La Maman et la Putain showed me when I was 19 that you can make interesting fiction from everyday stories and Kira Muratova’s Melody for a Street Organ essentially became a template for how I write, with its sudden tonal shifts and use of anger to sustain narratives.
4. What do you think makes a great character in a novel?
It does depend on the purpose they’re serving in the narrative, but overall, they need to feel real. Humans are wonderfully contradictory and behaviourally unstable – those are the characters that I try to write. I think people respond to complexity in characterisation too. Another thing I’m also very conscious of is making sure that I don’t forget that characters (and everybody else) live within discursive frameworks that shape and effect how that person moves about in society. Getting an understanding of those frameworks also helps with adding that complexity and making that character more real.
5. Can you tell us a little about what participants should expect from your workshop?
My workshop is connected to the above. It won’t be giving a carte blanche to then go off and write how you feel (that requires a lot of subsequent work by the writer themselves!), but I’ll be working through some strategies for how a writer can prepare and research issues of representation, discourse, power and social relations. I’ll be working through some theoretical frameworks and seeing how this applies to our own writing. I definitely will be focusing on making the sessions interaction and collaborative, and hopefully fun!