This interview with Uma
Girish was first published in June 2006.
Where were you born and raised?
In Madras (now called Chennai), Southern India. I spent my early childhood years in Bangalore, Ernakulam, Palghat and Madras (all in Southern India).
What was it that first got you into writing and when did you start writing?
I used to write the usual 'How I spent my Summer Vacation' pieces, either as a school essay, or an assignment Dad set us kids when we returned from one. The best piece would be given a prize, and mine won almost every time. My siblings thought this was so unfair -- I was the eldest and had a bigger 'word bank.' But my discovery as a writer happened when I stayed with family friends for 2 months. Dad moved away on a transfer and I still had to finish a school term and do my exam before I could join the family. The family moved without me. I then started writing letters regularly to them. The Uncle I stayed with asked me how I managed to fill 23 and 24 pages and I told him I was never short of material and found the process very enjoyable. He said: "You must have a passion for words or you couldn't write so much" and got me to write a humor piece for his company's in-house journal. That was my first published piece and it gave me a special high, one I wanted more of. I was about sixteen at the time. I then started to write short opinion pieces -- "For or Against Love Marriage' -- stuff like that, which got published in the local paper when I was about eighteen. When I finished college I knew I wanted a job that involved a connection with words and so I joined an ad agency. All I knew was that I'd write jingles, commercials, TV scripts, slogans for billboards and so on. My twelve-year stint in Advertising was everything and more I imagined it would be.
Which writers have influenced you the most?
Oh, definitely Enid Blyton when I was young. I loved Richmal Crompton's "William" series too. As I grew into adulthood I continued to discover new writers. My current favorites include Anne Tyler, Anita Shreve, Elizabeth Berg, Bernice Rubens, Jennifer Johnston, Andrea Levy, Joanne Harris, Alexander McCall Smith, and Sue Monk Kidd.
Where do you stand on the nature v. nurture debate? Were you born a writer, or were there factors in your environment
that enabled you to become a writer?
I believe you're born with a predisposition to write or sing or paint or sculpt, or whatever. The rest is 'nurture.' But if the basic seeds aren't there, you can't be taught. Even my earliest writing was born of a compulsion. I felt the need to write and I derived enjoyment from the process. The books I read spurred me to try something new each time and the pats I received for my writing were further encouragement. Yes, it helps when someone tells you, "Hey, you seem to be good at this." But if the raw material was missing, no one would've said
There are a lot of courses teaching creative writing nowadays, but do you think that good writing can be taught?
One hundred per cent. You progress as a writer and this progress takes many forms. You become a 'careful' reader -- you train yourself to study characters and scenes and plots and settings as you read, to see how successful authors do it. So there is a self-taught aspect to it. And then there are the creative writing courses. Living in India I have only been able to do distance learning courses -- we don't have writing courses here -- and I have learned something new from each one of them. That said, your voice and style are your own and you discover that yourself. The more you write, the more conscious you become of it. But I do believe good writing can be taught. It teaches you to be more aware of how something is done. The craft of it, if you like.
Have you entered writing competitions? If so, have you won any prizes?
Yes. I won second prize in a Spring Romance short story competition organised by Sulekha. I also placed third in a short story contest for children's fiction. My personal essay on Mommy Tales won me Honorable Mention. Recently I was one among 3 finalists in a short story contest organised by Oxford Bookstore, Penguin Books and Reader's Digest. Of the 5000 entries received by them, three of us qualified. We each have to submit 3 more stories (we submitted 2 for the first round) by June 30, 2006 and the winner and first and second runners-up will be announced on August 21. For more, visit www.oxfordbookstore.com
Do you have any short stories or poems published online? (If so, please provide the URLs):
What kind of things do you write?
I love writing non-fiction, fiction, personal essays and letters. I am intrigued by relationships and what makes people tick and I often explore that in my writing. Health&Fitness, Parenting, Culture, The Craft of Writing, Relationships and Self-Help : these are my favorite non-fiction topics.
What, for you, is the best piece of prose that you have ever written?
I'd like to think it is yet to come! Having said that, there are a couple of pieces that I'm really proud of. One is the essay that won me Honorable Mention on Mommy Tales (www.mommytales.com) about what reading did for my daughter. The second is a short story that was published by Voices Across Boundaries, a Canadian publication -- it dealt with the issue of farmers who commit suicides to escape the debt net. The story is set in a drought-ridden village where the chief obsession is the arrival of the water tanker, and I believe I told that story well.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on my 3 short stories that are due at the end of this month. There are 2 more I am developing for the overseas market.
What is your writing day like?
I arrive at my desk by 9.30 am and start by checking email. I work right through until lunchtime -- researching non-fiction articles, writing a short story or a personal essay, or doing rewrites. I take a longish lunch break because I'm not at my best during the afternoon (I read then) and then get back to my computer around 5 pm for another session, usually a couple of hours if I have a lot on my plate. I never work post dinner. It winds me up.
Where would you like to be in 10 years time?
Fame and fortune, a Booker winner, an Orange Prize winner! On a more serious note, I'd like to be a successful novelist. I know there are stories I need to tell in novel form. It just seems like such a daunting challenge, a short story is so much more easier to accomplish.
What’s the most exciting thing about writing for you?
That I can pick any topic under the sun and research it, learn about it. I find that kind of variety very stimulating. In writing fiction it is the opportunity to step into another's shoes and see the world through his/her eyes, inhabit a set of experiences that you normally never will. It is arranging words on a page and feeling that glow of satisfaction when the rhythm and cadence are just right.
What’s the most frustrating thing about writing for you?
There are too many -- that supply always overrides demand so we writers end up bargaining; that everyone thinks it is something they can do, so sometimes you feel devalued as a writer. Also, that I often have to work out of a corner of my bedroom with all the interruptions -- the phone, the courier service, the mail man -- of daily life. I also wish fiction writing paid better.
What’s the best piece of feedback that you’ve had from your audience?
When someone wrote in and said: I felt like the heroine in your story.
Do you write for a particular audience, or is your first priority to satisfy your own creativity?
I write for myself, first. I have to be happy with my writing before I can even think of an audience. The audience steps in only when I'm editing so at that stage I stop and check if there is something they will miss or not be clear about ...