[Interview] Bunny Suraiya

Bunny Suraiya has worked in the advertising industry, first as a copyeditor and then as creative director.

She has also worked as a freelance writer and has contributed material to magazines that include Illustrated Weekly, JS, Time Out and Khaleej Times.

In this interview, Bunny Suraiya talks about her debut novel, Calcutta Exile (Harper Collins Publishers India, 2011):

When did you start writing?

My first short story was published way back in 1973, by eminent author, Khushwant Singh, when he was the editor of the Illustrated Weekly. After that, I wrote another short story for the iconic Indian youth magazine, JS. Shortly after that, I got into the profession of advertising as a copywriter, ending up finally as Creative Director with JWT and before that Ogilvy & Mather – and the long hours, crazy deadlines and relentless pressure drove all thoughts of writing anything not connected with advertising out of my head.

When I quit full-time advertising and went into freelance mode in the late 90s, I started writing again. Book reviews, travel features, opinion pieces, Delhi happenings for Time Out, London, and a fortnightly column for the weekend magazine of the Khaleej Times published out of Dubai.

I never actually decided I wanted to be a published writer; I just wanted to write this story about a city in which I grew up and which was home to so many communities – Armenians, Jews, Goans (while they were still Portuguese), British, Chinese – and most of all the Anglo-Indians – before it grew so severely alien to them that they felt they had no option but to leave it. As I did. There are so many Calcutta Exiles all over the world today – in Britain, Canada, Australia, America – and of course in the many cities of India where they have settled and frequently meet to reminisce about what was once the greatest city in Asia, the acknowledged second city of the Empire after London.

I woke up one morning in March 2010, and with no fixed plan in my mind, sat down at my laptop and wrote the first sentence: Ayah’s name was Sohag Khatun, but she was never addressed as anything but Ayah by the Ryan family with whom she had worked for nineteen years, first as a nanny to the children, then as a highly-valued cook and general factotum.

After that, the story just spooled out of my mind as if it was writing itself. I wrote every day for two hours – from 11 am to 1 pm – and put down about 1,200 words every session.

What was terribly exciting about writing Calcutta Exile was that the characters just took over the story, and often I would get up from a writing session and go back and read what was on the page and find myself completely surprised by the direction the story had taken thanks to the actions of the characters!

It’s obvious to me now that the story was in my mind at a subconscious level for years, and was just waiting to spring out. The book took me four months to write.

Who is your target audience?

My target audience is everyone. Everyone who enjoys a good story, everyone who has ever felt a sense of rootlessness and alienation from the place they live in, everyone who is unsure of their identity.

In this increasingly globalised and rapidly changing world, where people are either uprooted from their home regions or even where they have remained where they always were only to find that their homes have changed so much as to make them feel isolated, everyone is an exile. Exile is a state of mind more than a physical or geographic displacement; this insight is what motivated me to write this story of Calcutta Exile.

How did you chose a publisher for the book?

I was offered a contract before I’d even written the first word by a publisher who had given my husband, Jug Suraiya, a contract and an advance for his book. But I wanted to go with a different publisher as I didn’t want anyone – least of all myself – to feel that I was being done a favour because my husband is a senior journalist and well-known writer in India. So, when Harper Collins said they liked my novel, I was thrilled and decided to go with them.

The key advantage of going with Harper Collins is that they are owned by one of India’s largest media groups and their weekly newsmagazine, India Today, is very well-read and respected. I felt that there was a very good chance of my novel getting reviewed in India Today (of course, whether reviews turn out to be positive or negative depend on the reviewer), which was a plus. As it turned out, I got a wonderful review in the magazine, which contributed to awareness of the novel.

The disadvantage of going with Harper Collins is that they are very large, and bring out a new book every single day, which means that after the Delhi launch of each of these books, there are no further marketing efforts put in by them for any of their books – it’s on with the next! Luckily, because of my network of friends, all of whom have loved my novel, I was able to organise a series of well-attended launches in Goa, Bangalore and Calcutta, as well as readings at book clubs and other social groups. If you can’t do this, it’s probably better to go with a smaller, more accessible publisher who will work harder on promoting your book instead of leaving it to sink or swim.

Which aspects of the work you put into the book did you find most difficult?

When I first sat down to write, Calcutta Exile, I found the starting very difficult. I had much of the plot in my head, but each time I tried to start, I found the first words far too tame, not engaging enough for a novel.

My advertising background has taught me that if the headline doesn’t grab you, chances are you won’t go on to read the rest of the copy. Similarly with a novel; if the opening words have no oomph, your story is at a disadvantage, particularly with in-store book buyers, who often read the beginning before deciding whether or not to buy a book. Think of great opening lines: Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charms as the Tarleton twins were. And: Mother died yesterday, or maybe today, I can’t be sure. And: Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Each of these openings arouses the reader’s interest, hooks them into the next sentence, and the next, and the next…

Striving for a similar effect, the sentence with which I opened my first chapter establishes rather a lot: It introduces Ayah, one of the key characters in the novel, gives the name of the family who will be introduced in the next sentences, tells the reader about her domestic skills, and offers a time-frame which gives the reader some idea about Ayah’s likely age and the length of her relationship with her employers.

It worked.

I know this because most of the feedback I’ve received from people who’ve read the novel, included the words, “I just couldn’t put it down; I read it virtually in one go.”

I loved every minute of writing Calcutta Exile because I fell in love with the characters – all of them. I enjoyed their daily company so much, that on the day I wrote the last words, I cried. I felt such a sense of loss, I was completely bereft. My characters had become more real to me than most of the people whom I meet on a regular basis.

What sets the book apart from other things you've written?

The kind of feedback I’ve received from reviewers in all the major media – print and television – as well as from readers whom I know as well as total strangers who’ve managed to get my email address or my phone number and contacted me just to tell me how much they’ve enjoyed reading it. I believe this is because of its authentic tone and feel.

As a writer, who or what influenced you most?

I lived in Calcutta for most of my life and the many of the characters in the novel are based on real people I knew, with parts of the story being autobiographical. The schools, streets, restaurants, shops and clubs actually existed and many still do. The story is set in the late 50s and early 60s – with flashbacks going back to the 30s and 40s – and is an interface between the India of the Raj and the new India against the richly textured backdrop of Calcutta in its glorious heyday.

I think the major influences for me in writing Calcutta Exile have been Jane Austen and Alexander McCall Smith. Both of them tell stories about everyday, ordinary people and the way they lead they lives and yet they make their characters so very interesting that the reader is dying to know more about them.

From the reader feedback I’ve received, I think my most significant achievement has been to create characters who are real, and a story that has the ability to move its readers to tears.  I think I have succeeded in that everyone who has read Calcutta Exile inevitably asks: What happens after this? When are you going to write a sequel?

Do you write every day?

I write every day.

I’m a late riser, waking up at 8 am, after which I read the papers with a cup of herbal tea and then (usually) work out for an hour, doing pilates and yoga.

I sit down at my desk at 11 am and start writing. I type very fast, using all my fingers, and have connected a conventional external keyboard to my laptop because I find it easier to use. I go at about 60 words a minute and do not stop until it’s 1 pm and thoughts of lunch drive me to the dining table!

I make no corrections until after I’m done, when I go back and read over what I’ve written and check on typos, etc.

I never write after lunch, because that’s the time reserved for doing the crossword ( I do the cryptic crossword from The Times, London, which is reproduced every day in a local paper I buy only for this reason), followed by reading, a walk when it gets cooler in the evening, and then dinner with a glass of wine and the music on.

What will your next book be about?

I’m not sure. It’s early days yet. But with so many readers of Calcutta Exile asking for a sequel, I just might oblige them – although I fear that most sequels never quite manage to live up to their precursors.

I am currently engaged in the very challenging and stimulating work of converting Calcutta Exile, into a play script for a theatre group that plans to stage it as a play. I have to work closely with the director because he understands stagecraft while I do not, and so the play will not take the linear format of the book; scenes will be sequenced depending on the requirements of stage management. My task is to ensure the story is told in direct speech issuing from the character’s mouths and it’s fascinating, because the novel has quite a bit of interiorisation, which has to now be turned into speech that is plausible and convincing from each of the characters by remaining in accordance with their personalities.

Photo credit: Priyanjali Ghose, MiD Day, December 5, 2011

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