INTERVIEWED BY NIKITA BISWAL
Photo courtesy: Janice Pariat
JANICE Pariat had spent over six years thinking about the novel she finished writing in March this year. The novel, which traces four concentric narratives across time, gently probes how we see the world. Perhaps it is in trying to address the question that Pariat has acquired her enviable awareness. It is the rare occasion of catching a writer in a moment of utter clarity. Though Pariat speaks of protecting a “core”, an enigmatic, mysterious energy that lies at the heart of writing, she is generous in sharing what she sees with her listener. She speaks in sprawling analogies that draw the world as a symbol of interconnections, within which she moves wittingly. On the writer’s table are a collection of talismans — an ammonite fossil, dried flowers, a wooden dragonfly — and space for her cat, kitty.
Pariat was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Young Writer Award and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction in 2013 for her debut collection of short stories, Boats on Land. The lush, richly told collection achieves a singular imagination in its portrayal of interlocking histories, mythologies and landscapes from India’s northeast. Already, Pariat was being heralded as one of the literary forces of the decade, a writer with a captivating and entirely distinct voice. The success of her first book was followed by two novels, Seahorse and the widely loved, The Nine-Chambered Heart. In another part of her life, Pariat teaches Creative Writing and History of Art at Ashoka University, a practice that gives structure to her weeks. Her forthcoming book, Everything the Light Touches was partly written during the course of the pandemic.
We started this conversation as a devastating second wave of coronavirus was just beginning to subside in India. Elsewhere in the world, in Palestine, images of grief and death resounded our own. In both instances, we had been made more aware of our positions in the face of anarchy. These contexts inevitably informed our discussion. Here, we talk about what it means to live and write in times of crisis, the work of structure, and the value in finding a balance that can support us. We spoke from two ends of a computer screen and as the sunlight grew on a mirror framed behind Pariat, I found myself thinking how we were caught in a moment of light, and how the light, too, was caught between us.
This transcript is an abridged version of the original interview.
NB: For you, what does it mean to write, or to not write, at a time like this?
JP: This time around, during the second wave of pandemic, it has been solely about survival. It feels like the noose has tightened in some way; the circle has drawn much closer. Even being cocooned in our homes, with a roof over our heads and food on our plates, it has been only about survival. Beyond that, everything else has seemed — I don’t want to say pointless, that sounds very nihilistic — certainly not as important as getting through the day somewhat intact and mentally fortified. Last time around, we were baking banana bread and treating the whole situation, alarming as it might have been, as a time to recuperate, rethink and reassess. For me, it was also a very productive time. I was in the middle of finishing a manuscript, and in some ways, the conversations that were happening around the ecological reasons behind pandemics fed into the writing because my book was asking, serendipitously, the same questions. What, for example, is our relationship with our planet? It felt as though the conversations outside really echoed and resonated with what I was doing at the writing desk. But these recent experiences have been starkly different for me. This year has been about trying to stay safe and sane, which, to be honest, has proven to be more difficult than the former.
NB: How did you find ways to cope?
JP: I think for the longest time, I was solely on some sort of auto-pilot mode, where you eat, cook, stare at screens, and sleep, if you can. It was really just about getting through the day using the barest minimum amount of mental energy. I couldn’t read or watch anything apart from the most mindless stuff on Netflix, and this flatlined existence became my way of coping. It was the polar opposite of how I usually live my days, but it became the only way to get through them. I have just about managed to claw out of that mode recently. Simply because the news around us, in our most immediate vicinity, has lightened. The wail of ambulances through the day and night has ceased. That sense of anxiety in the air has dissipated a little. But that’s the only reason why I have managed to get on with some reading, and begin thinking about edits and work.
NB: Do you feel a sense of compulsion to respond to your circumstances in your writing?
JP: There are certain writers who do that very consciously. They are “current affairs writers”, who write fiction to deeply reflect what’s happening in the world or their community at a certain time. I don’t think I am one of those writers. As a writer, you’re always responding to something but for me, it’s a compass that can be sometimes geared to the external, and sometimes geared to the internal. It really depends, and it’s not always a conscious decision. But perhaps, having said this, it is not as clearly divided as I have made it sound. Your internal world is always a reflection of what’s happening outside you, and vice versa. They can’t be so cleanly and clinically divided. Still, there are some books that are more attuned to plumbing an internal, emotional depth, while there are books that may begin somewhere along the same lines, but tend to then have a wider horizon.
NB: Looking from the other end, do you think fiction today needs to be more timely?
JP: I am very wary of expectations and rules like these. I think it can be a slippery slope towards censorship, though that is a strong word, but certainly towards too strictly guiding what our stories should be. People write for far deeper, more mysterious reasons than for their fiction to be more or less timely. I think of Virginia Woolf who said that there is a core to a writer that even the writer ought not to look at and examine too closely because there is a sense of mystery at the heart of writing, an ambiguity and inexplicability, that an artist needs to protect. I would like to honour that. The process of writing stems from that and what it becomes after takes a life of its own. So much of our lives are policed by what we should and shouldn’t do; the space of creation should be unweighed by these expectations. Even when you are writing, the art is not created in a vacuum. We live at such multilayered crossroads of traditions and cultures. That feeds into the writing and makes it relevant to begin with – relevant enough for me at least.
NB: Fiction is often designed to offer the reader a universe to escape to. At a time like this, what does it take to divorce oneself from an immediate reality and inhabit an imagined one?
JP: I don’t know if it’s as simple as that. The escape that we seek isn’t always entirely possible, and that is not a bad thing. For me, those lines dissolve in some ways. There’s no past and present, there’s no then and now. It’s all happening here. In my writing, the past is still so entangled with the present that it’s really impossible to draw a line through them. There’s always a sense of continuity. In Boats On Land, the stories were assembled within the collection chronologically. It was done intentionally to observe a sociological continuity of a land, a people and a place. Everything the Light Touches is entirely written in the present tense, despite being set in four different centuries, because I wanted the past to inhabit the immediacy of the present. There are no easy, clear divisions or borders between here and now, here and there, the outside world and the inside world, the world that I inhabit now and the world that I am writing about.
NB: Writing across four centuries, that sounds staggering!
JP: It’s ridiculous, I have to admit. But why keep it simple? [laughs]
NB: This is tricky – when you plan, do the continuities come first or do you draw them out from the entanglements?
JP: A bit of both. I think about the book for a long time before I actually write it. It has to be in my head like a witch’s cauldron bubbling and brewing. To begin with, it has to be an idea that is not a bathtub idea. I have this notion that certain ideas are bathtub ideas. Sometimes, when you’re in the bath, you get an idea and you are convinced, for that moment, that it is absolutely brilliant. But really it should drain away with the water and not always be pursued. Then there are other ideas that stay in your head, at times, for years. That’s how books begin for me. They begin entirely in my head, so the continuities already begin there. But you never quite know how they will turn out. Actually, you never quite know how anything will turn out until you get down to writing! Of course, some of what’s in your head might easily translate, but others take surprising new turns. Some things die a cold death before they even make it out onto the page. There are always things that you discover about your story, your characters and your book as you’re writing. That, for me, is the most magical and also the most frustrating part of writing, because on some days you just cannot seem to fix anything on the page. On other days, there’s a resonance that magically arises, and you are stunned and surprised by it yourself. It doesn’t happen over one draft, not for me at least. It happens over many drafts. I draft and redraft over and over and over again. It’s like — two analogies come to mind — peeling an onion, where you are trying to get to the heart of something, and painting an oil painting, where you are building up layer upon layer. It takes a bit of both at the same time, a bit of dissecting and a bit of building.
NB: What does this help achieve?
JP: A bunch of things. It’s at this point that you are really orchestrating the resonances and continuities in your book, and the way they feed into the central theme. I know that books on your bookshelf look pretty and benign and innocent, but they are not. They are products of intentionality. Of course, the trick — the difficult thing — is to enforce that intention without losing the spontaneity in the writing. It mustn’t look like you tried too hard, but it must be incredibly deliberated and well thought-out. The drafting process is a juggling, balancing act of trying to retain the energy that spills behind the words, the magical way that things come together on the page, while deliberately tweaking here and there, making your characters say certain things or placing them in certain situations. It’s also about making sure that all of the bits of information within your story are placed in the most efficient way possible. I realise this sounds rather unglamorous, and perhaps, even unpoetic, but redrafting is so much about checking and rechecking structure.
NB: How is it different when you are working with a longer form? Do you redraft as you go or do you redraft the whole?
JP: The structure of the book that I am currently working on is slightly different from a more conventional novel. It has a nestled structure, like a Russian doll, where you have one narrative nestled within the other. For this particular book, it’s been a strange chronology of writing. I started with the narrative at its very heart, which, incidentally, is set furthest back in time. I worked my way outwards into the next narrative. Come to think of it, I have no idea how I wrote this book. It has been such madness! In some strange, odd way, it did mean that I was working with something like a jigsaw-puzzle where I had to fit multiple narratives into one another, first working backwards and then, forwards. Otherwise, when I am working on a novel, I work through it over and over and over again, always, beginning to end. It also does mean that at some point I cannot bear to look at my own words any longer because I find it so boring! You do get to that stage. At some point you just want to hurl it out the window and never look at it again, because you’re on draft number six and it gets so tedious! I feel like my words are killing me! Yet every writer has a resilient streak that pushes them to get through it. And you do, you plod on and you get to the end. That way short stories are much swifter, but a novel takes time. My most recent one is about a lakh and thirty thousand words and…I have just kept it away for a few months. I cannot look at it anymore.
NB: That must have taken tremendous structuring. What was that like?
JP: I am slightly obsessed with structure, as you might have already guessed. You can always tell when a book has been rigorously worked on. If someone has spent a lot of time thinking about and working on their book, it will always show in the structure. You can’t ever try and veil it over with something because it is so fundamental. It’s the bone of the bone of the story. It’s very hard to hide under the carpet or distract with great language or description. Structure will always out. Always. Any story can be a good story depending on how it’s told. You can have the simplest, most familiar story, but if it’s told in a refreshing and unusual way, it can be new again. There is no such thing as perfect structure, but there is a more or less effective way of structuring a story. We often don’t think about it. We have a story in our head, but how do we tell that story? That is the fundamental question when it comes to writing.
NB: What inspires the beginning and end of a story?
JP: They say that stories have no beginnings and no ends. You decide where to pluck that beginning thread and where to cut it off. The story has continued before, and continues even after you’ve chosen to end it. In relation to The Nine-Chambered Heart, it is very deliberately placed like a biography, so it is quite linear in its telling. Actually, the first chapter in the book, ‘The Saint’, which follows the protagonist when she is a child in school, was the chapter I wrote last. It came out of a random conversation with a friend who asked me where I start in the main character’s life. He said “Why not in school? I’d love to know how she was as a child!”. It had never struck me to do that! In a way then, that is the chapter that anchors her in your imagination and sets the stage for the rest of the book. We often say that writers lead a solitary life, locked away in their ivory towers, but, for me, writing is so far from that. Yes, sometimes it’s just the page and you. But it’s also all the conversations you’ve had with people around you, with whom you love to talk about books, writing and stories. It’s always collaborative; we are never quite the solitary genius figure they try and cast.
NB: You said before that the lockdown didn’t bring any drastic changes to your writing life. What is your writing routine ordinarily like?
JP: Only when I am working on a manuscript am I really disciplined and obsessive about writing. I might be the worst companion to have around because I only think and talk about the book. I am lost in the world I am trying to create, and that reflects in my working routine as well. It’s a nine to seven working day, very unglamorous. People sometimes have this fanciful, romantic idea of a writer doing these poetic things, like taking long walks — and you do when you can — gazing out of windows, and drinking lots of tea or coffee, but it actually takes blood, sweat and tears. You are at your desk after breakfast, all the way through lunch, and after lunch all the way through tea. You take a bit of a break, but not really, because you are still thinking about your book. I try, because one must try and have some sort of a life, to stop by the evening. But if I am stuck on something, then I’ll just work. I’ll keep working past dinnertime, late at night, and then by ten, I am exhausted and I will stop because I have no energy left. It’s a slightly manic and possibly unhealthy routine, so I don’t urge anyone else to follow it. On the other hand, when I am not working on a manuscript and I don’t have a book to edit, redraft or plan, then I am very erratic and undisciplined at writing. I can work on a short story and then go for days without thinking about writing something. I am not one of those writers who have a particular word count they need to fulfil every day. It works for some writers, but it places a pressure on my writing that I can happily do without.
Having said this, it is also very important for me to do other creative things. I try to lead a creative life as much as possible, so that not all my creative energy is focused on writing all the time. It’s really important to sow different seeds. I use that analogy very particularly because I am thinking of permaculture, which is a gardening-agricultural philosophy of growing different kinds of plants that all complement each other. Your garden needs tending in different ways under different seasons, and flowers bloom at different times of the year. I would like to think of my creative life as that kind of space. I try to do many different creative things, whether that’s reading, listening to music, watching a film, going to see art — in the days when we could actually go to art galleries — travel, have conversations, knit, make soap, bake or cook. I like having creative energy that is wide-ranging because when all your effort goes into one thing, you might come across a “writer’s block”. For me, if I don’t feel like writing today, I will go and do some knitting or gardening or make soap.
Photo courtesy: Janice Pariat
NB: How did you arrive at this balance?
JP: I grew up in a slightly different India, where it was difficult to imagine yourself as a writer, or any other kind of artist. You had to be exceedingly privileged, or exceedingly crazy, as my parents probably would have deemed them, to pursue something entirely creative. It was a time when it was very important to find a safe, lucrative career like engineering or medicine or law. Things have shifted, thankfully, but not enough, sadly. Post liberalisation, there has been an opening of the world, for good or for bad, but that means things changed. I ended up growing into a liberalised world where there were spaces that allowed you to fleetingly imagine that you could write. I always imagined working around books. I had always been writing, the most terrible stories mostly, but for as long as I can remember, I have been writing. It was still not easy to imagine that this is something I could actually do. It wasn’t until after university and a string of publishing jobs, when I was a junior editorial assistant, that I came across manuscripts and I started thinking to myself, “God, these are so bad! I can do better than this!”. So, the moral of the story is bad writing can also inspire you. It’s the funniest thing!
I quit my job in Delhi, went back to home to Shillong, and started writing the stories that eventually made it into Boats on Land. Because those stories were about home, Shillong and Sohra, and other places in Assam, I feel like I couldn’t have written them anywhere else. Maybe I had to go home in order for those stories to come to me. That’s when writing started on a more serious note. But it was never linear. People often have this idea that life works in straight lines – you go to school, graduate school, get a job. But there is a lot of circling around. For the longest time, I tried to freelance as a writer. I realised, after a couple of years of trying, that it was really straining the relationship I had with my craft. The question I was asking my work was, will this make me money? And that’s not the question to be asking when you want to write. I realised this was not working. You’ve got to strive to find some sort of balance. I learnt it was really important to find something else as a job that took away the pressure that I placed on my writing. Unless you are really, really privileged, then of course, your circumstances are different, but for most us paying the bills is a daily concern. I was exceedingly fortunate to start teaching and it was something I discovered I really loved doing. It’s a combination that worked for me.
NB: Besides the pressures we put on our own craft, do you think this partly has to do with the infrastructure currently available to writers in India? What do you think needs to change there?
JP: What we need is support for the arts. We have none! We might have some small amount, but it’s not enough. It’s too little. Even during the course of the pandemic, Germany was the only country in the world that offered its artists a stipend. That’s unheard of in most countries and definitely in India. There is no infrastructure to support an artist’s life, or very little, if at all. State support is laughable at most. What’s truly indicative of a country’s wealth and compassion is how they treat their artists. At the moment, most of them are being thrown into jail here so that answers the question for us. I think Germany recognised that at times of crisis, we turn to our artists and to art for comfort, strength, hope, and just plain entertainment. If you are not going to support these creators, then we are left with nothing at all. I don’t see that changing anytime soon though sadly, unless we all move to Germany.
NB: In your own writing, do you feel a need to capture a sense of hope in times like these?
JP: Absolutely. All of us are clambering for something that can keep us afloat. I have to admit that hope came from the most surprising and unexpected quarters for me. When lockdown was imposed last year, I was already isolating. I was alone when all of this was unfolding. So, I did turn to my writing. My study is at the back of the house, which is where I write, and when I would take a break, I would step out to the front of the house where we have a very small garden. In normal times, Suresh ji, a retired IIT technician with very green thumbs, would come to water the garden and trim the plants. He would know exactly what to do. He is one of those marvellous, ear-to-the-ground people who know exactly when it would rain. But because we were all under lockdown, I had to take over the garden – there was no choice. I spent my time watering the plants, stepping out for breaks with a cup of tea in my hand, and sitting there, just watching life unfold around me in a way that I had never quite paid attention to before. The most exciting thing, for example, was when there was a new leaf on my monstera plant! Every day I would watch it unfurl and make its way into the world. It was thrilling! Also, there was not much to do at the time. There was something about that kind of connection with life and movement, even at a time when we were meant to be utterly still. It meant an expansion of my world suddenly. From then on, I paid so much attention to the light. As the seasons changed, as the months wore on, the light fell differently, and the arrangement of the plants had to change to echo that. There was a larger rhythm that you could tap into that connected you to something bigger, something beyond the little bubble that you lived in.
NB: Is this what inspired the title of your upcoming book, Everything the Light Touches?
JP: Yes, and also no. I can’t write a book without a title. It has to come to me first, which to a lot of writers might seem slightly odd, because they work the other way round. But I have to have the title in place first. This title is deeply connected to a botanical theme that runs throughout the book. It’s about looking at botany philosophically. The idea that runs through it is that the way you see a plant reflects the way you see the world. My experiences in the garden meant the title stuck, and felt right.
NB: Could you introduce the book for us?
JP: It’s a book with many travellers. There are four travel narratives set in mostly different centuries, 1732, 1786, 1911 and the contemporary now. They don’t necessarily directly intertwine, but their themes, I hope, resonate throughout. There is Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist and taxonomist who makes an expedition through Lapland, at the very far north of Europe in 1732. There is Goethe, who most of us know as a literary figure, but here we see him as a botanist. The third character is Evelyn, an Edwardian woman botanist who has read a lot of Goethe’s botanical writing and is inspired by them to travel to the far northeast of India looking for a particular plant. And then there’s the contemporary narrative with Shai, who is a young Indian indigenous woman from the northeast. She lives in Delhi but travels back to her home, and then to several smaller indigenous communities in the Khasi hills, rediscovering a way of being in the world that, to her, was lost. The tussle at the heart of the book is a conflict between a deeply mechanistic view of the world, and one that is more holistic and unified. It’s a tussle between the wish to categorise and the wish to liberate, the wish to fix and the wish to see the world as constantly moving, changing, and alive.
NB: When working with such a large cast of characters, do you find it challenging to not only create multiple consciousnesses, but also switch between them as you are writing?
JP: The really important question to ask yourself when you are writing — there are many important questions, but this is one of them — is why a character is there. Why does a certain character make an appearance? How do they serve the story? Most importantly, their dynamics with the main character have to add to the story in an enriching way. There are many reasons why we place characters within our stories: to act as foils for our main character, offer conflict, change our minds about things, challenge ideas, deepen our sense of loss. As a writer, you are trying to find out exactly why they are there. The cast of characters in this book was actually much larger, but after a few edits, I realised that I didn’t need some. I had to tackle these questions while writing because this novel is more plot-driven than my previous books.
NB: We were talking about your writing routine before. Did any of it change during the lockdown?
JP: It became a lot more intense, because there were no friends to meet, sadly. No social events to attend, no book launches, no tempting long, boozy brunches. No weekend explorations of parks or ruins, or other things that we do in this city. All my energy and focus was on the book. It became really, really intense in a way it hadn’t before. I tend to have a slightly obsessive writing routine, but it was even more pronounced last year. This year, on the contrary, has brought zero, zilch production.
NB: Your writing is markedly in and of the world, foregrounded within vast views of nature. Did a changed relationship with the outer world affect the quality of the writing?
JP: It worked both ways. My attention to the world changed my writing, and my writing changed my attention to the world. They feed into each other so intricately that both are transformed. For this book, I needed details of the natural world in a way that befitted the characters. I had to, at the most fundamental level, make it believable. As a writer, that’s what you’re striving to do. You’re trying to make your characters real and as believable as possible. That spurred me towards reading up about plants and watching botanical videos. But it’s not enough when you’re removed from ordinary experiences that happen when you are actually outdoors. What made a big difference was heading to Shillong at the end of last year. We are very lucky to live in a part of Shillong that is slightly outside town. Right behind our house is a large pine forest. It changed one of the narratives completely, because I was in a space that allowed me to think differently about my way of being in the world. And once that shift happens, it translates into your writing. I tried to honour this lucky coincidence and make the most of it by absorbing everything that I could while on walks through the forest. Each place experiences time differently, and being in a small town with not much to do and not many places to go to or people to see, the slowing down of time fed into my writing. There was a certain temporal quality the characters needed that I hadn’t been able to capture before this. We also travelled to Sohra, which is just outside Shillong, previously called Cherrapunji, close to the wettest place on earth. There’s a little village there, called Saitsohpen, where my dad used to spend his childhood vacations. His grandparents were from there. It’s a place that features in the book as well. I was walking around with my father and he started telling me stories from his childhood that related to the landscape. He said that’s where we used to eat our lunch, that’s the rock we would jump on to, that’s where a little stream ran that we called the Soldier’s Stream, and that was where when the earthquake happened that sheer cliff was formed. Suddenly, the landscape came alive because of these stories. That too fed into my writing. The characters in my book needed to be in these places intimately. How else do you portray that if not by showing the stories of the land through them?
I also realised that once you start observing the world closely, attentively, it opens up for you in a way that you couldn’t possibly imagine before. I learned to look slowly and in detail. For the first few weeks, for example, I saw a lot of ferns growing on the forest slopes. I remember just glancing past and thinking “oh, lovely!” before walking on. But when I learned to slow down, I realised there were at least ten different types of ferns. If you looked closer, you could see these beautiful leaf constructions. They were composite leaves, where little leaves make up a bigger leaf. It was incredible because I hadn’t imagined that there could be so much diversity there. If you looked even closer, behind them was star moss, which was growing on the slopes like a blanket of green. They look like little stars, so it was like a galaxy, a whole sky of green. If you begin to pay attention, it’s incredible how you begin to read the world around you. We talk of reading in terms of texts a lot of the time, but to be able to read the natural world is an incredible awakening. It’s an abundance that just keeps on giving.
NB: You said earlier that you mull over an idea for a long time before you write. How much do you need to know before you begin?
JP: That is so tough. There is always one more book to read, one more essay to find, one more journal that you haven’t looked at. It never ends. At some point, you just have to stop yourself. At least that’s the way that it was for me. The seed of the idea for this book grew in my head in 2014, which was ages ago! I started doing research when I finished my last book in 2016. Then I carried on, kept reading 2017 through 2018. Until finally, a friend said, “Enough!”. I was very nervous, because it was the first time I was attempting to write a book like this one. I am not a science student by any stretch of the imagination. I was reacquainting myself with a whole new vocabulary. I even sat with one of those middle school botany books. It progressed, thankfully, to other things. It took me to London to the Kew Gardens Reading Room, and the Linnean Society library. Eventually, I had some idea of which direction to craft the story in. While you are researching, you try not to lose sight of how it will all feed into the story. And even as you start writing, you discover you need to read up more about something or the other. So, the research continues alongside. And then comes the most difficult part of writing historical fiction – you will need a tiny drop of all the research you’ve done. As a complete novice at historical fiction, I tried to cram in as much research as I could into the story. But then I found that the draft was so bogged down by the research material that the story was lost. So, I began to take away. In the end, I was left with a tiny sliver of the work that I actually did. But I learned that even though you might be using ten per cent of the research you’ve done, it still shows in the way you write. The reader has an inkling that they can trust you because you know what you’re talking about. You’re not entirely making things up, which you do as well. There is a very tricky tightrope that you have to balance.
NB: How do you decide what liberties you can take as a novelist when writing history?
JP: I was really nervous to make anything up because I was doing this for the first time. For the older narratives, I was working with primary source materials like letters, diaries, journals and memoirs. I felt quite safe writing those characters because I was taking from their own words. The fictionalising felt aligned, as though it was coming from their reality itself. The narrative that I struggled with was the third one, set in 1911. I was making up this character, dreaming her up without relying on immediate primary sources, and it completely paralysed me at certain points. I had so many questions about whether she would have done something that she does in the story in real life, and it stalled the writing process for a while. Until I met a friend, Samit Basu, who is a master plotter. He told me something really useful – if you believe whatever happens in your narrative, your readers will believe it too. If you mistrust your narrative that will always show, and your readers will mistrust it as well. That really lightened the load for me. It was very tricky initially. But then slowly, you gain the confidence to say that this is my story, I am making this up.
NB: Within the writing community, there are camps with strong opinions on whether creative writing is something that can be taught. What is your take? Is there a science to writing that can be accessed in the classroom?
JP: One of the first things my students and I discuss in our class is how this is not going to make them a writer. There are many things that go into making somebody a writer. Reading, loving and listening to stories, discipline, time, privilege, amongst a host of other things. Along the way there will be individual experiences that go into your journey. For some of us that may or may not include a creative writing course. That’s it really. It’s not the big thing that it’s become in the US and the UK and I really hope it doesn’t turn into that here, because it’s only one of the experiences that could shape you as a writer. It is not necessarily the only one and definitely not mandatory. We create a space within the classroom to talk and think about writing, because when we discuss writing, our own or someone else’s, we learn something about writing. The workshops in our classes are very strictly non-silenced. There is a tradition of creative writing workshops in the US and the UK where the writer has no right to speak until the end of the workshop, once everyone has given their feedback. That is highly discouraged in our workshops because I want these to be conversational. I want them to ask questions to the writer. Rather than it being prescriptive, it is an enquiry. At least for me, that’s the only way that writing can be approached – as an interrogation that makes you think through your own work. Doing that helps clarify things that you couldn’t have worked out before. I don’t think there is any easy way writing be taught. I think it can be talked through, discussed and looked at very closely. It’s great fun too, sitting there talking about writing. It’s the dream, no?
I have learnt so much about the process of writing from these conversations, because you are constantly becoming a writer. There is no destination point, so you never quite arrive at being a writer. I am so glad that it never ends, and that with every book you write, you learn new things because each story has its own challenges and demands. You are constantly forced to reassess things. What would be terribly boring for me was if I kept writing the same book, or if I kept writing different books in the same way, where my process was not challenged or changed.
Everything the Light Touches is out with HarperCollins in October 2022.