Interview with Amita Basu, Cognitive Science PhD Candidate and Writer

Amita Basu is a cognitive science PhD candidate. Her fiction has appeared/is forthcoming in Silver Pen Fabula Argentea, Flash Fiction Magazine, Gasher, Fearsome Critters, Kelp, Potato Soup Journal, Star 82 Review, Dove Tales, St. Katherine Review, Novel Noctule, Entropy, Proem, The Bookends Review, Muse India, Scarlet Leaf Review, and The Right-Eyed Deer. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Curious Reader, Deccan Herald, Qrius, Countercurrents, and ParentEdge.

She’s working on a collection of short stories about women’s lives in India, and a medical/legal mystery novel about art. She lives in Bangalore, India.

Amita’s published writing is at amitabasu.com. She also hosts a blog where early-career artists and scientists discuss art, science, work, and life: https://artistsandscientists.wordpress.com/

 

1.When did you start writing and why?

I began writing as a toddler. I’d write and draw on the walls in pencil and crayon. To save the walls, my parents bought me notebooks. Early in primary school, I began buying small softbound notebooks, filling them with short stories, and illustrating each story and the white-bound cover. Those were generic stories about haunted houses, lost pencils, and picnics at the beach.

As for why I began writing – I began before I knew what I was doing. Before I was aware of myself in the world, I was a writer. As an infant spent time (literally) drooling over books, and I wanted to make books. I learned to read by drooling over Herge’s Tintin graphic novels, about the intrepid boy detective whom Spielberg & Jackson have now immortalised in what I hope is the first of several films.

Besides my immediate family, I met my relatives rarely, and my parents were busy. So books were the only way I could quench my ravenous appetite for stories.

My parents read to me from children’s books. Fairy tales and talking animals. Then, in primary school, my parents took me every winter to the massive outdoors Calcutta Book Fair. I must’ve picked up whichever books I saw first, which happened to be abridged versions of the classics. I read Dickens, Dumas, and Greek myth. Soon afterwards I moved on to reading the classics in the original – classics meaning everything from Homer and Hesiod to Conan Doyle. I skipped over reading children’s books. I read a few Enid Blytons afterwards, when I was stranded away from home with nothing else at hand.

 

2.What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?

I get up early and write in the morning. I’m creative and energetic in the morning. I write at a stretch for several hours, fuelled by coffee. When I’m writing I don’t like noise or interruptions. I drink a lot of coffee.

I used to take sips of vodka as I wrote, to calm my nerves. When you’re slightly drunk you feel calm and focussed enough to do on writing, since alcohol narrows your scope of attention and makes you forget that you’re tired – but you don’t necessarily produce good writing. Plus, the effect is brief. So I quit drinking, began practising a few minutes of transcendental meditation before beginning a session, and learned to be more mindful while writing.

Earlier I also used to listen to music to energise myself and forget that I was tired. But that was, I realised later, an enormous distraction.

So now I write on just coffee. And I try to keep reminding myself what exactly I’m writing and why. What is the function of this scene in the larger story? What does this conversation need to show? Is this the best/shortest way to show it? Unless I keep asking myself these questions, I find that I can type out hundreds of words, but they’re not good words – they’ll need lots of editing afterwards.

 

3.What do you like writing about?

I write realist and magic realist literary fiction. Most of my work is contemporary. I have tried, and will someday revisit, historical fiction and high fantasy. I’m not drawn to genre work, though I like the idea of trying them in order to develop new skills. The novel I’m working on is a mystery. The mystery frames explorations of art, loss, grief, guilt, and ambition, and is a vehicle for a study of character and of obsession. But the plot is a mystery. I am enjoying the challenges of setting up and partially resolving a nested series of questions.

 

4. Where do you get your information or ideas?

Sometimes the trigger is spontaneous e.g. I see something while walking down the road, and I feel something that I’ve come to realise is the germ of a story. Sometimes the deadline for a magazine I want to submit to is approaching. I decide on a word limit, look through my document full of half-developed ideas, and choose one that I can write in the given word limit.

I’m particular about getting details right, so I look those up meticulously.

 

5. If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Write flash stories and short stories. Write hundreds of them. Outline first. I used to think I was an outliner, i.e. a plotter, but that’s only been partly true, for part of my life. I spent years writing stories that didn’t really go anywhere. Plot and story are things I’m still just beginning to grapple with.

I would tell myself to master the short form before even thinking of attempting a novel. And I would tell myself to forget about perfection. I’d tell myself that finishing ten competent short stories is better than endlessly rewriting and restructuring Chapter One of an epic novel.

 

6. What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I prefer not to spend too much time doing research before beginning a book. I can fall down a rabbit-hole, where I feel I could easily spend all my life researching this one topic before I’d feel confident I had anything new to say about it, even in fiction. So these days I start writing as soon as possible after I have an outline for the first chapter. I do research as I go.

 

7. How many hours a day do you write?

Currently about six. I can manage eight on occasion. More than that, and I’m useless the next day. It still puzzles me how draining writing is. I used to be a recreational runner, and running 24km one day didn’t exhaust me the next day as writing eight hours does. Sitting or standing at a desk and writing – why is that so draining? Maybe it was all the vodka I drank to fuel those eight hours.

 

8.What do you like writing most (fiction, nonfiction, poetry etc.) and why?

I don’t write poetry. Fiction is my primary focus. I enjoy making up stories, exploring characters, and testing hypotheses about how the world works. I enjoy doing that in fiction.

I’ve also begun writing nonfiction. I write reviews of books on my blog; occasionally I send them to magazines. I read mostly fiction. Some popular science. I’m enjoying reviewing books. Knowing I have to review a book makes me a more alert reader. I am enjoying books even more now that I review them.

As I want to write fulltime someday, I’ll be exploring nonfiction more thoroughly in the months to come. Working out what topics I can write about, and for what magazines.

 

9.How do you deal with bad comments?

I’ve not really had any bad comments. At worst, someone says they find my stories slow-moving, or that they don’t understand a story. When I first hear this, I feel angry and insulted. I take it personally. Writing is the most personal thing to me.

Earlier, I would, after calming down, change the story after every round of feedback I received – from friends and family. That, I’ve realised, is counterproductive. Often, you’ll get contradictory feedback on a story. Someone wants a character to be more strongly marked; someone else wants them toned down. Someone thinks a piece can be tightened; someone else wants the same flash piece to be rewritten as a short story. You need to decide the broad goals for each story, and evaluate any feedback within that context.

After these “bad” comments, I’ve learned to give myself time to calm down and assess the feedback. Is this comment something other people have told me too? If so, I may need to act on it. Is this person part of my target audience? If not, then why am I even asking them for feedback? No matter how well you write, some people will never like your kind of writing. You can’t please everyone. So decide your target audience, write for them, and stop driving yourself mad trying to please everyone.

 

10.What is your favorite book ever and why?

George Eliot’s Adam Bede. It’s a book of transcendent beauty and sensitivity. The characters are as fresh in my mind as when I first read the book 21 years ago. Hetty Sorrel is still my ideal of feminine beauty, and Adam Bede of a man good-hearted but judging others harshly. The tragedy in the book is described with so much feeling that it’s almost orgasmic. Dinah Morris shines her light through the book like an overcast autumn day: shining on everything gently and evenly. Well-fed Mr. Irwine, sharp-tongued Mrs. Bede, well-meaning but weak-willed Arthur Donnithorne, sturdy Mrs. Poyser – every minor character is etched with startling clarity and with love.

I love Adam Bede so much I’m afraid of wearing it out by rereading it too often. I’ve reread it only once so far.

My other favourite novels and plays include: The Iliad; Phaedrus and Symposium; Aeschylus’s Orestes trilogy; Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy; Aristophanes’s Frogs, Clouds, and Lysistrata; Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Plautus’s The Rope; Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Hamlet; Bartholomew Fair; School for Wives and Tartuffe; Hedda Gabler and Ghosts; Gone with the Wind; Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and all of Sherlock Holmes; all of Marquez and Jhumpa Lahiri; some Michael Crichton.

 

11.What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I like reading, exercising, strolling around the neighbourhood, playing with dogs, spending time with family, and napping. I also love running and listening to music, but don’t get time to do that anymore.

 

12. Do you have any suggestions to help anyone become a better writer? If so, what are they?

Read. Read every day. Read good writing. Read the classics. Read current writing. Read in your genre.

Reread your own work. Reread a story when you finish it. Then come back after a week and reread it again. Wait a month and repeat. Only when you’ve reread a story with fresh eyes can you see flaws in it that you just can’t when you’re still in love with it. Do you marry someone you’ve known for one week? No. Just so, you can’t judge a story you’ve just written. Your head is still teeming with what you think you’ve written

Reread and edit your story. Until you’re sick of it. Only when you’ve done that can you start thinking about sending the story out to a reader or two, and then to magazines.

For every story from microstory to epic novel, you should be able to summarise it in one sentence. Take time to get this sentence clear in your head. Keep coming back to it with every scene and chapter. Your story can be complex and sprawling – but every word, scene, and character must serve the scheme you’ve crystallised in this one sentence.

Establish a network of fellow writers and readers. Don’t expect your current friends and family to read endless drafts of endless stories. Find other writers. Learn with them and grow with them. Find readers who enjoy your work, and who at the same time offer honest and kind critique.

Writing is a lifelong endeavour. When you start, you’ll be shit. Then you’ll start to get competent. Then you’ll get good. Some day you might become great. It will take decades.

For the vast majority of writers, writing does not really pay. Unless you have to write – don’t. There are much better ways to make money. There are far healthier ways to spend your life. The biggest reward of writing is the process of writing itself. If you don’t enjoy that – then don’t write.

And if you can’t help writing? Then welcome aboard. It’s going to be hard and rewarding. Humbling and transformative. Enjoy it.

 

You may read some beautiful essays on Amita’s website. I am sure you will enjoy them:

https://amitabasu.com/

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