Vrinda is a childhood friend from my primary school in Chennai, then Madras. I remember her as an all-rounder at school, proficient in both scholastic and non-scholastic activities and the one who topped the class each term. She had a wonderful, vivacious personality. Having re-connected with Vrinda a few years back, via facebook, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that her friendly and fun personality had survived growing up. I was also delighted to read some of her award-winning published short stories. One of her poignant stories of life in the 80s is “The everlasting car, a memoir of Bangalore.”
So, I decided to interview her on her creative writing journey for Perspectives Quilt.
- How would you describe yourself, Vrinda?
Someone who enjoys solitude, is ever-curious and finds worlds, both real and imagined, equally fascinating and immersive.
- Tell us about your creative writing journey and when it began.
I first began writing when I was about nine years old. I would spend school vacations filling notebooks with mysteries and ghost stories and poems, and then transcribe them in neat handwriting into a final copy. My plots were suspiciously similar to the books I used to read, and my characters, for some reason, had a great propensity for “jumping out of their skins” or having their “eyes pop out of their sockets in surprise.” As for poetry, my first priority was to make the lines rhyme; meaning came a distant second. Yet, when I read some of what I wrote in those days, I’m touched by how unselfconscious the writing is, how unrestrained by such stodgy concepts as form and realism. All I can say of those stories is, even though my characters were making complete fools of themselves, they were having fun doing it.
In later years, academics followed by career pushed writing to the back burner and then completely off the stove. It was after the birth of my first child that I returned to writing and almost immediately rediscovered the pleasure I used to take in it. I haven’t stopped writing since.
- Which writer (s) has inspired you the most and why?
That would unequivocally have to be Alice Munro.
Books have been constant companions to me all my life. They have helped me through all my major life transitions. Whether it was travelling to college and hostel for the first time, taking up my first job, or pregnancy and becoming a mother, I’ve always had a thick book by my side – the one constant I could return to and find solace in when everything else was in a state of flux.
I discovered Alice Munro during one such period of transition. I first came across one of her stories in an anthology (The O.Henry Prize Stories anthology) and was struck by her style of writing, the precision with which she captured the actions, thoughts and emotions of her characters. I was always seeking her books out in bookshops, her stories on the internet, and the more I read, the more I was hooked. Even though she was writing about a completely different time and place, her characters, the locales and neighbourhoods of her stories seemed oh-so-familiar. This was at a time when we had moved to a new city, Hyderabad, where I knew no one, and also a period when I was largely housebound because I had a preschooler to look after. If I felt absolutely none of the loneliness or isolation that would have been normal in those circumstances, the credit goes to Munro. As long as her books sat on my bookshelf, it felt like I always had friends at home.
It has been said of Munro that she turns everyday lives into works of art. That is perfectly true. Over the years, I have read and re-read her stories time and again, and in every reading taken new pleasure in them.
- Writers have different approaches to their writing in relation to the writing process, writing schedule, etc. What is your approach to writing?
I write in the mornings from around 10:30 a.m. to 1p.m. which is when I have the luxury of solitude. I’m afraid I’m not very disciplined about writing every day, though.
When I have an idea that excites me, I let it marinate in my mind for a while and let the words, the sentences, the paragraphs form and collect around it, let the characters emerge from the shadows, and then I start writing.
I usually write the first draft longhand with pen and paper and then type out the second draft in MS Word. When I’m forced to rewrite every word, I find that I make the kinds of structural changes and additions and deletions that wouldn’t have occurred to me if I were simply editing the previous draft, and the second draft comes out much better for the extra effort (It helps that I write mainly short fiction, following this process is much more laborious when it comes to novels) .
- Which of your works is the most closest in heart to you and why?
When I’m done with a story and it’s published, I rarely enjoy revisiting it. Because then, I end up second-guessing my choices in the story and thinking how much better I could have made it. So, the story closest to my heart is usually the one I’m currently working on.
If pressed, though, I would choose The Everlasting Car, my first creative nonfiction piece, because it brought back many old and cherished memories in the writing.
- As an IT professional and a mother, how do you keep the spark of writing alive?
Since the birth of my first child, I have been on an extended career break, so I have not had to juggle career and motherhood. I do enjoy technology and software development though, and keep my hand in with Coursera courses and by developing apps, etc., independently.
With regard to writing, I would say that motherhood, in fact, helped me rediscover the joy of writing. There is nothing like being around small children, thinking of ways to keep them occupied, and rediscovering the world through their eyes to ignite the creative spark. Yes, it was difficult to find time to write during the initial years, especially with my second child. Joining online writing groups kept me motivated during that time – writing short pieces based on the weekly prompts was do-able and the immediate peer feedback, a morale-booster.
But it is essentially reading that keeps the spark of my writing alive. There has been no period in my adult life, no matter how busy, when I’ve not found time to read. I enjoy all genres of fiction. In non-fiction, I enjoy science and travel writing, and the occasional memoir or biography. The internet is another rich source of reading material and I especially enjoy works of long-form journalism and creative nonfiction. My reading informs and enriches my writing and keeps my mind engaged with new and diverse thoughts and ideas.
- What do you do when you come across a writer’s block?
I don’t worry too much about it. In my mind, whenever you put the first word down on an empty sheet of paper, you are essentially making a leap in faith, trusting in yourself, and in the process of writing itself, that your feet will ultimately land on solid ground.
If I’m stuck somewhere, I put it aside for the time-being, maybe write a short story on a different topic instead. Something that usually works for me is going to the library and getting a couple of interesting books, the thicker the better. There’s nothing like immersing oneself in a really good book to get the creative juices flowing again.
I find that walking helps, too. My regular evening walk (usually 45 minutes long) is very effective in clearing my mind of all clutter. And it is usually during this walk that the clogged up sentences of whichever story I’m working on unravel themselves and begin to flow once again.
- Tell us what you are currently working on or plan to work on.
I have several short stories, published and unpublished, that I’d like to bring out in a collection.
I’m also working on my first novel, untitled as of now, that revolves around the discovery of iron ore and the effects of this discovery on a Bronze age society, and a present-day one, whose parallel storylines will ultimately merge.
- What are some of the things you enjoy doing that makes you happy?
Reading, writing, spending time with my children, travel, meeting up with old friends.
- Wrapping up this interview, do share a quote or verse that inspires you.
An old favourite from school days: “Nothing is beyond those who reach beyond themselves.”
For more info about Vrinda Baliga’s published stories, do check out her Facebook page.