Creating Character: An Interview with Ananya Sarkar

asAnanya Sarkar is a short-story writer, book reviewer, and poet from Kolkata. She teaches at the 2019 Kolkata Writers’ Retreat.

Her work has been published in such magazines as The Times of India, Woman’s Era, New Woman, 4indianwoman, Children’s World, KidsWorldFun, Muse India, Induswomanwriting, Conversations Across Borders, Indian Ruminations, Earthen Lamp Journal, Spark and The Madras Mag.

Ananya won the first prize in both the Story Writing Contest by the American Library, Kolkata, as thrt of the Fiction Festival 2008 and the Induswomanwriting Poetry Contest, 2012. She was also a prize winner in the LoudReview Review Writing Competition, 2012 and Writers’ HQ Story Competition, 2016.

Reading books, watching sitcoms and going for long walks are her favourite hobbies.

Jordan Hartt: Who would you say are your literary influences? 

Ananya Sarkar: I like Charles Dickens, the Brontë Sisters, Mark Twain, and D. H. Lawrence. R.K. Narayan is a veteran Indian writer whom I like too. Among contemporary authors, Chitra Divakaruni, Mohsin Hamid, Jhumpa Lahiri, Khaled Housseini, and Amitav Ghosh are my favourites. I’m also fond of Haruki Murakami.

All of them and many more have influenced me in multiple ways. Be it the focus on the marginalized sections of society by Dickens or the use of descriptive detail by Ghosh or the poignant narration by Divakaruni, I’m inspired by all of them. I find it fascinating how they breathe life into the pages of their books. Some of the characters such as Mariam in Housseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” and Gogol in Lahiri’s “The Namesake” will always be close to my heart.

JH: I can totally see that: these characters are richly and fully imagined, and alive on the page, like the characters in your own work. Will you talk about your own writing process? How does a piece move from inspiration to finished work?

AS: Well, when I get inspired by something or stumble upon an idea that can be developed into writing, I let it gestate in my mind for days, weeks and sometimes even months on end. In the meantime, I think of ways of improvising it and fleshing it out properly. This mostly happens in the case of short stories and articles. That way, when I actually sit down to write, the thought process is more organized. This helps me to write the piece more easily. With poems, however, this is often not the case. When a particular mood strikes me and I feel like penning a poem, I write it as soon as I can. Otherwise, I may not find the right words. The poetic mood is fleeting for me, you see!

Once I’m done with writing a piece, I edit and review it. Then, after a few days, I return to it and again review it, making major and minor changes where necessary. This kind of a review from time to time lends a fresh perspective each time I look at the piece closely. I review my work like this around four to five times, with a few days or even weeks in between them. With every review, I can judge the piece more objectively and weigh how appealing the plot is or how convincing the characters are and so on. It lends better critical analysis to my piece. After this process is done, I send it out to magazines and journals for publication.

Unlike many writers who like to have their piece read by a close friend or another writer to get a different point of view, I prefer to keep it to myself. It is only after the writing is published that I am open to giving it to someone for their opinion.

JH: I’m the same way: I never show any writing to anyone until it’s done. I’ll often read work-in-progress to an audience, though, to sort of gauge their reaction–where are they laughing, where are they crying, where is my writing so flat that I’m skipping sentences. For yourself, how do you know when you’re finished with a particular piece? 

AS: Wow! Reading your work out to audiences is a great way to go about. For me, I know I’m finished with a piece when I’m convinced that the story is believable, that is, such a thing could be possible in real life. That is because I mostly write stories based on everyday life. Also, the central character needs to resonate deeply with me.

JH: You’ve won both story contests and poetry contests, and seem to move easily in both genres of writing. How do you know when you’re writing a poem; how do you know when you’re writing a story?

AS: When I want to present a thought or idea with brevity, I choose a poem. It helps put forth my point vividly with a bang. Stories, on the other hand, are the ideal medium when I want to delve into the intricacies of the idea and unfold before the reader my viewpoint gradually. They help the reader understand with greater depth as to why things exist the way they do. I resort to the short story whenever I feel that something needs to be explained in more detail. Both these forms, though, are great ways to engage the reader without taking too much of their time.

JH: Ian McEwan has that great line about how most novels don’t earn their length. Will you talk a little more about your focus on brevity? What do the short forms allow writers to do in a way that a novella, or a novel, don’t? 

AS: I think shorter forms put across the writer’s idea in a crisp, precise manner, including only the bare essentials. Without the luxury of unnecessary detail, it keeps the attention focused. They are great for the modern person of today’s times who is busy and mostly on the go. For example, one can read a short story while commuting to work in the local train (or returning home) or while waiting at a doctor’s chamber. They often don’t require any time investment outside of the routine, which is not quite the case with novellas and novels. So, when writers opt for shorter forms they are able to reach a larger spectrum of readers.

JH: In your poem “The Wait,” you move between the natural world (“the dew-soaked ground”) and the interior journey of a human, using metaphors of the earth to draw out a person’s interior life. What role does the natural world play in your work?

AS: I use imagery from nature to often draw parallels or contrasts to the lives of the characters and their situations. It is no secret that the natural backdrop or scenes from nature often make a statement on a story or poem. As a writer, I try to make the best use of this to make my work impactful.

JH: This interplay between the natural world and the interior (and exterior) lives of the characters…is this something you plan going into a story, or is it something that you discover while you’re writing? I’m thinking here of a poem like “Path-breaker,” where you write, “The words that come/being spit forth/Plunk like pebbles in the stream–/Creating ripples.” I love that juxtaposition of speech with small stones, but also the ripple effect that both have. Or in “Thirsty Fish,” how the narrator finds connection with a school of goldfish. How much do you plan ahead, versus how much does the writing reveal to you as you write? 

AS: That’s an interesting question. Well, if the natural world is integral to the work, as it is in “Thirsty Fish,” I know in advance that I’ll be using and playing with it. However, for other pieces, such as “Path-breaker,” natural images are often used spontaneously. I use them to convey the meaning more vividly.

JH: Sparrows, pigeons, skylarks: you’re very aware in your work about the specific sounds or details that your characters experience. When you spend time walking, are you consciously looking for images, or do they come to you when you sit down to write?

AS: Though I love going for long walks as they give me the time and space to observe and ponder, I do not consciously look for images. However, if I do happen to spot something unusual, it gets stuck in my mind. And sometimes, it is eventually used in a story. I guess all natural images which fascinate me are stored in a closet in my brain. And when I sit down to write, these images tumble out, making themselves useful where necessary.

JH: Your story “When the Crows Sang” moves seamlessly from the interior consciousness of the main character, Padma, to her exterior world, and back again. How do you create character? What kinds of characters appeal to you?

AS: Character creation requires mindful thinking. You want to make your character realistic with flaws, strengths, passions, and dreams. They need to be round so that they bear a verisimilitude to life. That being said, the central character of the story needs to stand out through some remarkable trait or action. You want to make them memorable. In “When the Crows Sang”, Padma keeps her dignity while in “Freedom in the Wings” the unnamed child narrator vividly unfurls his imagination. The young and beautiful Cinderella in “The New Cinderella Story” chooses true love over a life of wealth and opulence. In some way or the other, I’ve tried to make the characters such that the reader roots for them without finding them out-and-out virtuous.

Regarding the kind of characters that appeal to me, I’d say strong, resilient characters who try to keep their chin up amidst their struggle. Their traits and behavior need to be relatable though. I also love characters that stand apart because of their idiosyncrasies. It makes the reading so much more interesting!