Interviewed by Nikita Biswal
“How does Anindita Ghose know so much?” Akhil Sharma asks, sounding somewhat puzzled by the brilliance of Ghose’s writing, “Her sentences are like X-rays: nothing is hidden or can be hidden.” In 2021, Anindita Ghose published her debut novel, The Illuminated, a poignant, incisive portrait of what it means to be a woman on one’s own terms in a rapidly changing country. The novel follows a mother and daughter as they navigate their relationships with each other and with themselves following the death of the patriarch. Ghose began her career as a journalist at The Times of India. She later joined the editorial staff at Mint and then Vogue India, where she covered stories on arts, books, and culture and living, before going on to edit the Saturday lifestyle magazine, Mint Lounge. Soon after the novel was announced, Ghose left Mint Lounge to continue writing fiction.
When we first spoke, she was moving into her new home on Madh Island, a fishing village a short ferry-ride from Mumbai’s coastline. Growing up, Ghose knew Madh Island as a popular picnic destination, but over the last few years, artists of all stripes — writers, filmmakers, musicians, bakers — have turned to it for the low rents and the relatively inexpensive lifestyle that come with the glorious views of the Arabian Sea. Ghose shared how the transition had already changed the simplest things – reading, recreation, sleep. At the time, Ghose was thinking about her second novel. She hoped by the time it is done, the potted plant on her desk would have climbed the ceiling. It was thrilling to watch an idea in its early stages, the minutiae of the craft detailed with the same generosity of spirit and mind with which Ghose shared her reading and talked about other parts of her life — moving houses, organizing her birthday, traveling, and learning to swim — what Brian Dillon describes as “the state of not writing, otherwise known as life.” “What writers do when they are not writing is everything,” she tells me. We spoke at length about the practical decisions a writer must make every day and how these financial, health and lifestyle choices make the bohemian fantasy of a writer’s life a sensitive economy.
This interview took place over a period of two months where our conversations lasted for hours at a time. Despite the interception of Zoom, they felt a lot like talking in person over a cup of tea. On one occasion, the light washing in through the translucent curtains receded until the room was lit only by the computer on her writing table, an old school desk that holds a number of mementos: presents from family and friends that have special meaning and collectibles that stimulate her. Her study in the apartment is called ‘Words Room’ and furnished thematically, complete with curtains printed with titles of banned books. As I revisited our conversation over the summer, I found it captured the vigor with which Ghose approaches writing, marked, even at its most self-assured, by a delectable curiosity.
This transcript is an abridged version of the original interview.
Do you find that there is often a clear point of beginning for you when you are starting a project?
It would be a hard question for me to answer since I have just written one novel and I’m working on my second. I might be able to answer this accurately after writing five. What I can say is that writing the first book was quite a laborious process because I had full-time jobs, as an editor of a Saturday paper and as the features editor of Vogue India before that, which were both ten to twelve hours a day almost six days a week. So I was only writing late nights, weekends, holidays, and it took me five years to write and one year of edits. I haven’t studied creative writing formally, and with a first book you never even know if you are going to finish. If you come from a certain kind of circle, every third person you know is writing a book, so it almost seems facetious. It seems unreal. Even you don’t know if it’s real. Now I know I can write a book, so the starting point has been very different. I am keen to not do the things that I did for the first book. I don’t want to spend five years writing this. I want to spend time marinating and researching, which I have been doing, but I want to write the first draft in a flow so that there is a singularity to it, because it’s primarily this one character. That’s my starting point for this, but I don’t know if it’ll be different for the third one.
Is it finishing the book that makes it real then?
Definitely. Since I wrote the book I have been asked for a lot of writing advice, and I feel that you really only start writing your book once you finish the first draft. Once you have something in front of you…a beginning and an end, then you can actually go back and write your book. Till then, it’s a kind of auto-writing. You don’t know where you are going. I heard Janice [Pariat] speak at the Mountain Echoes Literature Festival in 2015 in Bhutan, and that was probably where I even thought of going ahead and writing a novel.
As a journalist, I was being commissioned a lot of nonfiction books by publishers who were reaching out to me with proposals, but I was dragging my feet on them. I thought that I should feel privileged that I am thirty and people are asking me to write these books, but it didn’t seem exciting because that was my day job — journalism — so it felt like now on the weekend I am going to be doing long-form journalism. Janice said something really interesting at that festival about the process of writing where sometimes you know your end destination and you just need to figure your way, and sometimes you don’t know where you’re going, and you can only see what the headlights reveal. That gave me the confidence to just take the leap.
Stories for me begin with an emotion or a visual. Things like plot and narrative structure can come in later, but it needs to start with a strong emotional charge. When you write a first book you don’t know what kind of validation you need. You don’t know if you’ve written a good book. But after some time, even when people are saying good things about the book, I’ve realised that as a writer you cannot rely on the opinion of thirty people or twenty reviewers or your social media followers to let yourself believe that you’ve done something that you are proud of. You do need a couple of people that you trust, and for me, my husband and my agent and the editor who took it on, they were these people. So that’s when it begins to feel real: maybe when your first couple of readers read it, and you see something change in their expression, and you know that the book has moved them. The minute your book has moved or touched even one other person, it’s real.
There’s the line by E. L. Doctorow about how writing is like driving a car in the fog, so you can only see as far as the headlights go.
In the process of writing, some bits of advice really stay with you, and this has been one of those things. I’ve actually always seen great value in reading those long interviews with writers. I love hearing writers speak at festivals. I love writers writing essays. Zadie Smith, Franzen’s rules for novelists — I know Franzen is much derided but I am a big fan — Akhil Sharma. It’s a big service. I have learnt so much from writers talking about writing. One bit of personal advice that Akhil Sharma had given me: At the time I had met him, I was just at the very starting phases of fiction. I told him I think I want to be a novelist, but people keep trying to offer me these nonfiction books, and who am I to turn them down? Shouldn’t I be grateful? Shouldn’t I just go ahead? And he asked me, What do you want to do? I said I wanted to write stories. I’ve always wanted to write stories. I even got into journalism because it was adjacent to writing fiction but a way to have a career and make money, which really writing fiction wasn’t, and still isn’t, in India. But I said I don’t have the courage to call myself a writer. How do I start? And what he had said really helped me even though it sounds really basic. When you are at the starting stages, you put so much pressure on yourself to have a perfect first fifty pages — there’s all this stuff we hear about the amazing first line — but if you are a perfectionist, which I am, you have to relinquish some control if you want to write fiction, in that drafting stage, because if you are stuck at this level of perfection you are just never going to move forward. There is a need for writing and editing, but you have to wear different hats and become different people. Akhil said to me, when you are writing your first draft, write it conversationally, as if you are speaking to someone with limited intelligence, or a child or a stranger. Tell the story. Because when you write that way, you will understand if there is something to say, and then you can go back with all your erudition and writerliness and sharp editing skills and chisel it. But if you start the page with a chisel, you are not going to go anywhere. That has been the single most useful advice I have received. It really worked for me to have days and days of auto-writing pages that you don’t want anyone to see, but that really gets you into a flow.
Are you writing full-time now?
Yes, against all good advice, I have kind of re-organised my life to be a full-time fiction writer. And it seems an absurd thing to do, but I wanted to do it. It’s absurd because I studied to be a journalist, I went to Columbia’s J-School, I took a loan, which took me ten years to pay back, and I had pretty good jobs. I worked really hard to edit what is one of the best Saturday newspapers in the country. I worked for all of that for fifteen years. But at some point, I realised that if I do want to write fiction, I wouldn’t really be honouring myself or my time if I continued to do that alongside a job that not just takes up ten to twelve hours of your day but half your heart and all of your soul, because journalism in India, like everywhere in the world now, is very stressful as an industry. I didn’t have the courage to quit my job till the first book was announced. But when HarperCollins signed me on and said it’s going to be our big book of 2021, I quit. I do want to freelance if it’s really interesting, but I have reorganised my life to be a full-time writer. My husband and I have moved away from the centre of the city to a fishing village called Madh Island – really beautiful, really quiet. I might realise it’s a terrible decision and I might go back, but I felt like I needed to give myself that chance now. I don’t want to have to tell you years later, for instance, that my second book also took six years to write because I had full-time jobs. I need to see how I can do this. It’s a big decision though, because writing fiction is very isolating. There isn’t really a community of writers in India, not in Bombay. So I have quit a really good, secure job with a monthly salary that most people would really like, and a good professional track to pursue this because it seemed like the right thing to do. And it was what was making me happy.
What have you found most challenging about it so far?
I read this lovely essay by Katherine Chetkovich, who is also Jonathan Franzen’s partner. She wrote a book called Envy — it’s beautiful — about being the partner of a successful novelist. She wrote about how the thing that women writers struggle with the most is permission. This idea of earning time and giving yourself the permission to call yourself a writer go hand-in-hand. The way I see it is, I worked bloody hard for fifteen years to earn this privilege to call myself a full-time writer. Everyone in my family has a job. There are no artists in my family, although being Bengali everyone is artistically inclined. So I needed a job. I don’t come from the kind of family where at twenty-two, I could have told my parents “Ha, I am done with my masters, I am going to be a full-time writer now!” It doesn’t mean anything. Being a fiction writer in India is not a valid career. There aren’t grants. There aren’t journals that you can contribute to to have a substantial income. There aren’t scholarships. It really isn’t, so you really need to earn your keep. I worked for all those years to give myself this privilege. It became important for me to be a full-time writer, travel to book festivals, and go for residencies without thinking that I won’t get more than two-weeks’ leave. And then COVID happened, so I was pretty much a full-time writer holed up at home. It wasn’t fun. But when I quit my job, the first six months I was still doing edits on the book. And then I actually realised that releasing a book and the promotions around it are very time-consuming. That’s a full time job – replying to interview questionnaires going upto 2000 words, speaking to book clubs. I have no idea how people do that with daily deliverables. I was really busy with that for a while, and when that started waning, I went through a pretty dark time because I suddenly realised, I’ve quit my job, and this book is out – what next? I wrote a lot of deeply pained emails to writers I know. I wrote a mail to Akhil Sharma, to Shanta Gokhale. I wrote a mail to Jonathan Franzen; a cold mail saying I am a fan, and he said something very interesting. He said that being a full-time writer is hard, but what differentiates someone who sticks to this path and someone who doesn’t, is just the person saying that this is what I want to do. This is what I choose to do. And you seem to be saying that this is what you’ve chosen. That’s step one.
So I am going to give this a year or two and see how that goes. Because I do like doing a lot of things at once. I like people. I like working with a team, and this process can be pretty isolating as I said. But again, the grass is always greener on the other side. If you are busy and you feel you need to earn to write, you’re always going to feel that you’re not giving yourself enough time. And when you have all the time in the world and you don’t need to work anymore, you feel you’re not getting that creative nutrition from the outside world. Sometimes the best writing might happen when you’re busy because your brain and your body are in such a state of hyper-stimulation. But it’s never a win-win. It’s a lose-lose. I am still in the process of figuring it out.
Despite the lose-lose, what are you most enjoying about this time?
More than the time to write, what I really appreciate is the increased time to read. And the idea that now I am reading for work – I am reading for my writing.
I’ve found that when you are in the active phase of writing, your mind is very fertile. You have to be very careful about what you read, because everything you read inspires you in some way. It really can take you in new directions. This pure, unadulterated time to read, which I have now, is the great value. I cannot understand people who want to be writers or call themselves writers who do not read. It’s just where everything starts! And it doesn’t need to be fiction. It doesn’t need to be fiction in the same genre. It can be history of art, psychology, philosophy. I love reading theory while writing fiction, and those office hours that you keep, are so important.
The way I would like to do it going forward is as I did in the only residency I’ve been to – the single most transformative month for me in the five-year journey was this one month I was at Hawthornden in rural Scotland. I didn’t have to do anything else. You don’t even have to answer the door. So the way I structured my day there is: You wake up, read a bit in bed (I was re-reading Handmaid’s Tale at the time). Then you have breakfast, and shower sometime between breakfast and noon and read the rest of the time. Those morning hours I found were very good for reading difficult material, so, close reading of psychology, spirituality, philosophy, history of art, history, feminist theory. I was reading Simone de Beauvoir for my book. Then I liked taking a walk or doing yoga or doing something physical, then you have lunch, and that post-lunch period is a two-hour black hole. You can’t do anything serious but light reading or email – the functional stuff that one needs to do to remain a human in the world. I like the late afternoon time right after that for proper writing, when the world is quiet. And in the evening, you can take a break. Late night again becomes a great time to write. I have a lot of friends who woke up at 4:00 am to write their first books. I am not a morning person, so I worked 12:00 to 2:00 in the night. Most of The Illuminated was written in these nighttime hours. I don’t know if it affected all the lunar metaphors in the book.
So you can still make time for writing, but you can’t make time for reading — good, real reading — when you’re doing other things. You can read a novel on a commute, but where do you have three hours in a day to read Sudhir Kakar’s Indian Psyche? You don’t!
Do you differentiate between the types of reading that you do? Is there a reading for work and a reading for pleasure anymore?
Kind of. Because I am spending so much time at home, I now have books for different rooms. So my bedroom book would be a different book. That’s a novel. There is no deadline to that reading. But Vauhini Vara’s book, which is also fiction, I am reading that on a deadline for work. I need to take notes for it once in a while, so I read that in my study. I will not read that book on a car ride because I want to read it properly. In my living room or on the dining table, if I am reading in the morning, I will read nonfiction. There’s always more than one book at any time. They engage different parts of my brain and different parts of the intellectual landscape. Another book that I am reading right now is this book called The Gift by Lewis Hyde. It’s recommended reading for anyone who wants to be an artist of any kind. It’s about looking at your writing as part of a gift economy rather than a commercial transaction. And it might help a lot of young writers who wonder, Why am I doing this? That is also a study room read for me because I want to accord it scholarly respect.
But sometimes I really envy those teenage years. Some of the best, most intense reading I did was between thirteen to nineteen. Because I was born in 1983, I didn’t have WhatsApp when I was sixteen. I have such strong memories of finishing a book in the middle of the night or just reading an entire weekend. I don’t think any of us read that way anymore. There are just far too many distractions.
I do find that as a writer, you read fiction differently too. You are now aware of so many different things that are happening in a book that you’ve lost the ability to just read as a reader. I am noticing first lines and transitions and shifts in perspective and change in voice. I have filmmaker friends who have told me that they watch a movie that they like twice. They watch it the first time as a viewer, apparently without getting technical, and then they see it the second time as a professional. But that’s harder to do with a book. I have this bizarre habit where I take a lot of notes while reading, even books that I am not reading for work. So reading is quite an intense experience for me.
Do you think of it as an act of labour now?
Labour might be too harsh a word for say, my bedtime reading, but sometimes reading is labour. There are just so many books to read that if I am not enjoying a book, I will abandon it. I don’t feel conflicted about that anymore. I don’t think it should be a labour. I don’t think you should struggle to read. Unless you have to review the book or read it for work. But if I am reading for myself and it’s not working for me, if it begins to feel like labour, I really have no reason to read it. Even though I did say that I don’t feel there’s a very strong, real living community in Bombay, we are all working to create one. For that sense of community, it’s very important to read your peers. Because India, specifically, is a very ageist and sexist society. Everyone has to revere this old male writer, but you don’t take a young woman seriously. That’s changing with a lot of debut novelists on the scene. Either they’ve reached out or I’ve reached out, but we read each other’s work. That kind of peer community is very important. Sometimes, if you’re busy, that might border on labour, because you’re reading because of a sense of duty, but I would prefer to call it duty than labour. We owe it to the writers around us, and especially the women around us.
One thing I want to point out while we’re talking about reading, is we can’t discount what TV has done to our reading habits. Sheila Heti wrote about this idea of television becoming the new novel. The way Mohsin Hamid put it was really good too. Since television has taken over this role of storytelling, it has freed fiction writers to do very experimental things with the novel. The way Sheila explained it in historical terms was how the birth of photography lead to great changes in painting. When photography happened, painting no longer needed to be still lives and nudes. Painting could go in all sorts of new directions because the role of painting was no longer to be vérité, to show you what’s what. So because television is now fulfilling the need for stories in our lives, this whole genre of what we call literary fiction doesn’t need to be about stories anymore. It can be about mood, about flavour, about interiority. That’s what’s changed for writers. It’s changed our definition of a book. And as writers writing today, one is constantly forced to think in screenwriting terms. With my book too, at least once every month, someone will say, so what’s happening to the film? Have you written a screenplay? Have you written a treatment note? And I don’t know how to write a treatment note! I just barely learned how to write this book. But writers are constantly asked this now. So with the next book, for instance, I can’t help but also think cinematically.
How does the sense of the profession as a privilege affect the work?
It’s this pressure that you’ve moved homes and you’ve made your partner move homes. You’ve changed your financial planning. You’ve quit your job. You’ve done all of this and now you have to write. You think it’s like pushing a button. The problem with that is that it’s not like pushing a button. I am the kind of person who can only do one thing at a time. I did write the book while working, but that killed me. I could not be the kind of person who could work halfheartedly at a job and write satisfactorily. It took a huge toll on my health as well. If I could do things differently, or if I had to advise someone, I would say have a way of earning money that you enjoy, that gives you money to live and social interaction, and makes you feel good as a person and structures your day. The reason I say that is I feel that these fifteen years that I didn’t write — I did write for five years out of those — if I had less demanding jobs and I was actively writing all those fifteen years, I wonder if my craft would be at a different level now. In this model now, there’s too much pressure. However, this is how things panned out, so I don’t regret it. I took things as they came along, but if I had to give advice to somebody, I would say that consider that writing is what you do for pleasure and satisfaction. You cannot make it your source of income or sustenance for daily life. Have a job, but have a job that doesn’t take up all of you, maybe one that just takes up 40%. I had jobs that took up 95% of me, so it was hard. So it is privilege, but it’s also an immense pressure because now I’ve done it and I’ve changed so many things to allow myself this that on some days I think, What do you have to show for it? I have nothing to show for it. I am still telling you about stuff I am reading. It sounds absurd.
Did you feel that a change in setting and space was necessary to a re-organisation of your life?
It was not so much about the change in space. I felt I needed to change the way my days were structured and my expenses were structured and my life was structured, so a change in setting became an answer to that, in order to finance this full-time writer life. It would not be feasible to pay Bandra rents, the neighbourhood I previously lived in, that’s just the straight answer. It wasn’t impossible, but I would have to do other things. I decided that I don’t want to do anything else. I want to try this out and give my full self to being a writer, whatever that means.
I feel like my whole life, not just service providers, but my closest friend, my favourite comfort bowl, the bookstore that I go to the most, everything is still in Bandra. So the decision to move was quite a big one. It was partly motivated to serve my solitude, but also if I need to transition to this life of a full-time writer, it was not possible to live in Bandra. Bandra is a very bustling and noisy suburb. There was so much construction noise. There were too many distractions. The rent was insanely expensive.
If you’re a creative person, you want to live in a certain kind of place. You want light, you want a view, you want greenery. You won’t get all of that in Bandra anymore or even in other parts of Bombay. I can see the sea from my living room and bedroom now. I have balconies, which is a very rare thing in Bombay. One huge distraction is there’s this bird; in Bengali, it’s called shalik, and common mynah in English. I don’t know if it’s a Bengali superstition, but my grandma always said, if you see one shalik, it’s bad luck. The bad thing about having a desk by the window where there are a lot of birds is that I spot one shalik and then I wait for the other shalik. I have wasted considerable amounts of time looking out of my window, waiting for this other bird to come into view. So if I am on a deadline, I pull the curtains because it’s a serious problem. I am conditioned to wait for this other bird! But jokes aside, it’s really a change of pace. It’s also the kind of people who live here. No one really has an office job. Very few people have a daily commute, so there’s no difference between weekday and weekend. It’s people who are working from home or working on assignment. This is a very new environment for me. And I am unlearning a lot of the fifteen years of freezing office air conditioning and cortisol gushing through my body for ten hours a day, and trying to learn new rhythms and sounds.
Beyond the sights and sounds that the place lends, would you say there is such a thing as island time? Has your sense of time itself changed in some way?
It was almost instantaneous. When we were moving here, a friend had said that you are going to see yourself waking up and sleeping earlier. And I’ve always been a late-night person. I wrote my book 12:00 to 2:00 at night because I was still dealing with communication from colleagues or we would close the edition at 9:30 or 10:00, so the work was on through the day. The only unfiltered time I had was late night, so I’ve always been a late-night person. But I was really surprised. Here, almost from the first week, my very circadian rhythm has changed. I fall asleep by 11:30, and if I don’t, I feel sick. I wake up with the light bouncing off the sea at 7:00. We decided not to put very thick curtains in the bedroom so that we actually wake up with the light. So that has changed. I have this long, pretty productive afternoon, post-lunch to evening time. At this point, because my husband and I are both working from home, we decided to institute a 5:30 p.m. fika to have tea and talk because sometimes there are entire days when you have not spoken at all because you have woken up and started reading or had a quick meal and are both writing. I didn’t have these things before. My day is directed by natural phenomenon.
And are you still writing at night?
No, because I’m falling asleep at 11:00 p.m! But afternoons, because morning is reading. Afternoons, when I am done with urgent communication and emails, have become a good and quiet time to write. There was this writer DBC Pierre, at JLF, who said something really interesting. He said he likes to write at night because — he is properly nocturnal, as in he sleeps all day and writes at night, and he’s also some kind of convicted criminal, so he looks like the kind of person who’ll be up all night — the world is sleeping and there’s a different energy and I can tap into people’s dreams. That’s a very lovely way of putting it. But I’ve always thought about why I like to write between twelve and two at night, apart from the fact that I don’t have emails then. Why do I like to write in this post-lunch three to five period? It’s a time when other people are slowing down. I think it’s because there is some element of secrecy to writing. There is this idea, even as a child or as a teenager, when you write a diary that it’s solely yours. Unlike the act of singing or dancing, which is about performance, about being seen, writing is something that gives us enjoyment in solitude, with no one watching. The idea is you are writing when the world is quiet, so this late night or late afternoon time is very exciting to me. And it’s fertile also because there’s an end time to it. It seems like this stretch of time that’s running out and you have two hours to write. Having to see what you can do in this limited period of time is quite exciting to me.
Over the five years that it took you to write The Illuminated, did the writing process change?
I don’t have a chronological understanding of it, but as the book was shaping up, say three years in, I had a sense of who the characters were and the ending, so I enjoyed doing more of the descriptive writing. You’re not thinking big plot. You can go into micro textures, because the foundation is laid. In the early years, you’re still figuring, if I introduce this now, how is it going to reflect later? It is like yoga or exercise, where with daily practice it gets easier to sit in the asana, or be in one character’s head for one moment and explore it, because the other variables are set. Whereas early on you’re really worried about other things. There’s a lot of mathematics to novel writing, especially if you’re writing a novel with lots of characters. You do have to orchestrate when they meet, when they talk, when a conversation happens. Maybe it comes easier to some people and doesn’t bog them down. But I know writers, for instance, especially very prolific mystery or thriller writers, who say that they always write the first line of the next chapter the night before going to sleep, so that when they wake up the next day, they have their work set. Or those who make extensive notes so they have the full structure and plot before they start writing. For a person who’s written one or even two books, there is no method. It’s only madness. But I definitely felt that it got more pleasurable as I went ahead.
Also, at some point, once you have a broad idea of your characters — socio-politically, geographically where they are, what they look like — then they are actively participating. They are telling you things. You are not having to put words in their mouth, as you were in the first year. By the third or fourth year, you know exactly what this character would say and how this person would behave. They are real people. They are not sitting beside you physically, but they are in the ether. You are kind of a medium. All the building blocks are in place. But that is the penultimate pleasurable phase. When you’re nearing the end and you feel like you’ve tied it up, that’s a very anxious phase, at least for me, because then you’re second-guessing everything. What do I go back and do? What have I done? Why did I even write this book? I should have written that book. The second-guessing is probably there throughout. I don’t know any fiction writer, no matter how cool, collected, confident they might appear, who isn’t constantly second-guessing what they’ve done. It’s because it’s pure creation. For nonfiction, you can say this is what my access was, or this is what my subject allowed me, or I interviewed hundred people. There are other variables. But for fiction there is no variable – it’s just you. What is your excuse for not writing the best book that you thought you could? Which is why it is good to take your time in the early phase — as I really have now — and be slow now because sometimes when ideas, character, plot are set, it’s doubly hard, it’s impossible to go back and change those crucial things. It’s like changing your parents.
When there isn’t a deadline, what tells you that you have to stop?
With The Illuminated, we already had a rough date. But within that period, I still had endless time. I don’t know if it’s just frustration or irritation. Maybe as writers we all know when we can improve something. But there comes a point when you realise that you’re doing more harm – you’re overcooking it. When all these MFA programmes were mushrooming, we saw very experimental, very interesting writing. For a while it was as if every new author being published in the US was an MFA grad. And then critics for sure, but even readers, started recognising overcooked text. When you’re sitting with an idea or a book that you’ve workshopped the hell out of, taken feedback from million people, and worked on it for three or four years, sometimes the labour shows.
There’s a lovely line in Philip Roth’s Ghost Writer. The book is about this young twenty-something male writer who goes to the home of this legendary writer, E. I. Lonoff, and he asks him, What do you do? And he says, “What do I do? I just sit all day and turn sentences”. And that’s not very far off from what a writer does. You sit down and turn sentences because drafting the idea, the actual writing, is a quick process. The bulk of the time you are literally turning sentences, moving one word here; moving the sentence here and there. At some point when you see you’re beginning to repeat yourself or when you’re not doing much more… it’s probably like makeup, you can’t apply makeup beyond a point. So this is the line – he says, “That’s my life, I write a sentence and then I turn it around, then I look at it. And I turn it around again. Then I have lunch, then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around.” This is the life of a writer. “And if I knock off from this routine for as long as a day I am frantic with boredom.” You get used to that routine.
This speaks so directly to the question this column began with: What does a writer do?
This brings me to a woman who asked a question to our panel at the Jaipur Literature Festival. She said, “I just want to know, I’ve been hearing writers saying they spent five-six years writing a book. Does it really take five years to write 80,000 words?” Some people laughed, but onstage it hit us very seriously, because that’s when you realise that’s what people think. Writing those 80,000 words, is not writing 80,000 words. You could have written, not written. I know I wrote only the first chapter for the first two years. I tried to palm it off as a short story. I sent it to a bunch of places. And everyone wrote back saying this is great, but it’s not a short story. And they don’t usually even respond, so that was encouraging. I didn’t know I could write a novel, so I thought I am done, but it was clearly not a short story. It was not finished. It did not have the vocabulary of a short story. When I say five years, you are a human, there are things that happen in your life, there could be two months when you don’t touch the book at all, but you’ve lived with that book. After four years into it when I was really stuck at one point and everyone close to me knew, I was like, I’ve spent four years on this, what’s happening? Why am I still only one-third in?
At that point, I was talking to William Dalrymple, and he said you need to go to a residency. So I went to Hawthornden on a three-week notice. And it’s not an exaggeration, but I wrote another one-third of my book in that one month. I found my title. So no, you’re not spending every waking minute of the day writing, but that’s what I only realised at Hawthornden. I thought, I’ve got this leave from work, so I must write for twelve hours a day. The first three days there I tried that, but that is not the way to write. At Hawthornden, I learned how to be a writer. I eventually realised that even if I spent two hours writing, but what happened before and after those two hours were wonderful and I was feeling good: I had sweat it out or had a good bath, had a good meal, all of that, then those two hours were some of the best writing that I have done in five years. It isn’t about sitting at your desk for eleven or twelve hours. It’s about getting your mind to the right place, doing the right reading, having the right conversations, watching the right art, watching the right movies, all of that. You get to a place where you’re absolutely just bursting to write.
The only real classroom training in writing I’ve had was at Columbia where I’d applied for a workshop called ‘'Writing Style’ 'by this legendary writer, Judith Crist. She was a film critic for New York Magazine. She’d run the Woody Allen film festival. She was 85 at the time I took the workshop so the classes would happen in her house. There were just nine people in the class, in her living room. The one thing that I remember very clearly from that workshop is she said only sit down to write when you are bursting to write, when you really know what you want to say. And that was from her experience in the pre-laptop-delete era, when she was a cub reviewer. She was twenty-three. She didn’t have her own typewriter, she had to wait for all the big guys to finish, so in that waiting period — and she would get the typewriter only for half an hour — she said, “I just spent my whole subway ride back and while waiting, repeating to myself what I wanted to say and really forming it, so that the minute I got to the typewriter I was bursting.” As writers, you have to do so much else for that precious time that you get on your laptop. So what writers do when they are not writing is everything. Where you live, the birdsong you hear in the morning, the sea view – it’s everything.
Part of the reason I chose to move to this place where I do wake up looking at the sea, and I do see parrots from my window was I didn’t have that. I lived in the centre of the city in a really bustling place, but I heard traffic noise and bikes speeding at night and saw construction rubble everywhere. When you are in an office, it doesn’t matter. But when you are at home all day, when you are a writer, if that’s what I am hearing, that’s what’s going to come on the page. Your environment really informs your speed. The conditions that you create for yourself, whether that’s your desk, or your daily routine, or who you live with, or the food you eat, or the audio you hear, all of that is really important. Whatever you do in that period, whether it’s swimming or reading, all of it is in service of the book you’re going to write. It’s part of that exercise. All of that is in response to the essential question that you’re at: What do writers do? Maybe the minute you think that you’re writing a book, you’re writing a book from then.
In your everyday life, to what extent is it possible to design your time in this way?
Well, some things are extraneous, but you know how musicians, people who play the cello especially, which needs you to sit up in a specific posture, need to exercise, because it’s very physically demanding work. Apparently, chess players burn a huge number of calories playing a game of professional chess. Writing is an act of labour. You are using your brain, and to keep your mind fit for this concentrated exercise, it’s extremely important to live an otherwise healthy and normal life, because if you are going to throw out your back or you are going to get spondylosis or poor eyesight, you’re simply not going to be able to devote yourself to the work. It’s the concept behind the yoga asanas—they’re meant to be done to prepare your body for the real work, meditation. So yes, you need to walk or swim or dance or exercise or do yoga. If you are going to sit for hours at your desk and have the blood pool in your legs, it’s a necessity. You need a disciplined life. When I interviewed Jhumpa Lahiri, she told me she was a gym-nut, because you are spending so much time sitting on your desk, you need blood circulation. Some are more extreme – I heard Dan Brown speak once in Bombay, and he has this quirk where he hangs himself upside down for five minutes every few hours for a rush of blood to the head. When you feel alive and energetic, you can write better. All this stuff about schizophrenic or depressed and dysfunctional writers is over-glamorised. You need to be a healthy, functioning human being to write, even if you want to write really dark, dystopian, anti-social stuff. So while everything in the day is not in your control, you do need to have certain hours. And the most important thing for structuring your day is that you have time to yourself. If you spend twelve hours with other people, when there’s this banter or conversation, or you’re caregiving, and you sleep for eight hours, and then you have four hours to write – that’s not ideal. A very important part of writing is having some blank time. Exercise often just becomes a way of giving your mind that blank time where you’re not overthinking.
Does this blank time ever turn into too much?
I haven’t found the balance yet. This is all a work in progress scenario, and it might change. Last year, I had quit my job, and even though I was intermittently busy with interviews and events for the book, which is quite demanding, I did have a lot of free time. And if you don’t know what you’re going to do with it, it’s hard. So much of being a writer is presenting yourself in a platter to self-doubt and introspection. You’re making yourself vulnerable. You’re exposing yourself to the world. Reading a writer’s first book is probably the closest you can get to reading someone’s teenage diary. You’re really just laying yourself out there – it’s like an actor doing a nude scene. I hope that that anxiety reduces, but I can’t help but feel that some part of it is always there. It’s not so common in journalism because you rely on other people’s words or you are in the space of analysis. In a journalistic essay, you are speaking your mind. But when you are writing fiction or poetry, you are speaking from your heart and soul. You are revealing your deepest prejudices, so you have so much to worry about. And no matter how hard you worked on a book, its reception or the juries that it goes to is not in your control. So if you don’t have fixed things to do or deliverables, that empty time can sometimes just become more time for you to worry. If you’re not a worrier, publishing a first book is definitely going to make you a worrier. I always thought I was a happy, confident person, but writing a book and presenting it to the world, it’s an immense responsibility. You are constantly second-guessing. You have imposter syndrome. Sometimes people read meaning in your book that you never thought of. You also need to really be in control of what you’re feeling and thinking in order to slip into your characters. That is why every practicing psychoanalyst has an analyst so that they don’t contaminate their patients’ readings with their own biases. I feel that way for writers too. There are some writers who always write biographically. But if you’re a writer who wants to write about other characters, you can’t be in your own head all the time. You need to do everything possible to step outside your head.
One would think that the anxiety would be similar for all other kinds of creators, but it’s because writing doesn’t have any other physical component to it. Writing — so much of it is sitting in one place and thinking — you tend to go inside your head. This character in my book has this fear that she’s walked into a room and her skull is transparent, and everyone can see inside her brain. And that is how I feel.
At some point, do you have to force yourself to physically sit down to write?
Before I had my first book out, my life was just one never-ending bubble of guilt. Any free time I had — apart from the job, absolute basic familial responsibilities or partner duties, like organising your partner’s birthday or going to your parents’ anniversary, basic social necessities and hygiene — I felt guilty every hour that I was not working on the book.
Having a job is not just about time. It influences who you are and how you are feeling. I had a job that required me to be constantly alert and active. At that point, if I had any free time, I felt guilty if I was not spending that time writing. I felt any free time I have, I must come to my desk. And that was defeatist. You need to just do nothing once in a while. So it had been very challenging. It’s only from personal experience, or after having written the first book, that I have a little bit of a lenient approach. When this first book was out, it took up so much of me that I gave myself some space before I jumped into the second book. But I do feel much more confident about going into the second one because one, I know I can finish a book. Two, I know I will have a publisher. So you get into it with less uncertainty.
But my number one learning is that the things you do when you’re not writing are very important: where you are, who you live with, what you eat. You can’t get drunk every night. You are never going to write then. I don’t drink anymore. I have stopped having coffee. I don’t have any external stimulants. I used to smoke a long time ago, now I don’t. I stopped all of that when I was writing because in the bare minimum free time I had, I didn’t have time to be hungover. I didn’t have time to suffer the post-caffeine slump. So now writing is my stimulant.
How do you manage your free time? Can you distinguish it from your writing life?
It is important to also give writing that respect of an endeavour. The idea of my desk or my writing room is really important to me. This is my working space, and there has to be a distinction between outside this room and inside this room. In a pinch, of course, I can write anywhere, and I do. But when you are working full-time from home, it’s important to give your work that kind of respect, of being work. If you treat it casually, and suddenly, I’m writing on the dinner table with the TV on, that would be very hard. As a part-time writer, the writing was something I did for myself, for joy. I would try to do it any empty time I got. But now writing is the place I live in; it’s not a holiday home. So it’s important for me to have a door that I can lock and have a key to. It cannot be everywhere. It’s’ because your brain needs to switch. It’s also so much about energy. This is the room that I do yoga in as well, so it’s my quiet room, and I feel that the room is energised by it. I was not a religious person before, but having this infinite time to think last year, has made me spiritual. I even have a little bit of a shrine right next to my desk. So this is my temple of work.
Do you draw from the symbolism of the objects around you when writing?
It’s two ways. Sometimes you draw from them and sometimes you project meaning onto them. I remember something very interesting Jhumpa Lahiri told me when I was speaking to her. I was meeting her in Calcutta and she has very strong memories of summers in Calcutta. As an immigrant kid, she felt she belonged neither here nor there. She was wearing these very old gold bangles, the kind our grandmothers wear. And I asked her about them. I asked, “Are you interested in clothes and fashion?” I was doing the interview for Vogue so it was an opportune question. She said, I like clothes, but as I grow older, I’ve attached great meaning to jewellery. She said that clothes are ephemeral — you discard them at the end of the day — but jewellery, gold and diamond, that you can wear all the time, have their own meaning but they also acquire meaning over time. So she had four gold bangles on her wrists and she told me a story for each of them. One was a wedding bangle, one was a bangle that her grandmother gave her at a specific time, one was a bangle that her mother gave her, one was something she bought. So a relationship with objects works both ways. They have an inherent meaning. They stand for something in time. But over the years, I have also projected meaning onto them. A beautiful or a stimulating place filled with evocative art and objects is important to me, and I know it’s not important to everyone.
Has your understanding of productivity changed in this time?
Yes. It all comes down to rhythm. From the start of my career, I’ve been at weekly magazines, except at Vogue, but it was always about following a weekly deadline. That was my pace. I am used to working pretty quickly on things. As journalists, we are trained to think fast. You cannot take four weeks on something, because the paper goes to print on Thursday. And I realised with the novel that there are certain things that form so slowly that everything doesn’t need to be immediate. You don’t need to plot everything. You can just write pages and see where it’s going. So I’m beginning to get more comfortable with this idea and reading and hearing other writers is tremendously reassuring.
Writing fiction is so much about relinquishing control. And you need to control so many other things, like your day and your time, in order to create this bubble of two hours where you can relinquish control, where you can let yourself be. It’s like mastering the butterfly stroke and your freestyle stroke in order to float. And that’s a good analogy for me since I couldn’t swim until recently. So much about journalism or editing is about control. For me, when I moved to fiction, I was just learning how to let go and adapt. And when you let go and just write, even if you think it’s not going anywhere — one day you might come to your desk and write an interior monologue for one of your characters that might never be in the book — and then something of the book might appear. I realized that so much of making this transition to fiction, or to this new, unstructured day, is about really relinquishing control, which is all very new to me. And it’s fascinating. Once you do, once you’re not actively making things happen, you really see the rewards.
I used to think that writing was about pretty sentences. And when I was working on the novel, I realised that so little of it is about the sentence. I felt novel writing was so mathematical. It was like playing chess. It was so much about strategy and plotting. If you are writing a traditional novel, you have to think about how this character is going to meet this other character somewhere in the other half of the book. There are actual problems that you need to solve. Sometimes I would go for a walk and actively think how, at what point, do I introduce this element so that I can return to it at a later point in the book? There are these real questions. But I realised with fiction also, sometimes when you’re absolutely not thinking, and you’re waiting for that second shalik to bloody arrive, is when you have a beautiful idea. So many artists have spoken about being respectful of the muse and the muse will arrive. This whole process is about creating conditions and situations that are conducive for the muse to arrive. And the muse is inside you in some buried part, lying dormant or hibernating, because the time is not right. The muse is not external.
I also think one way to be happy as a writer in the post-publishing stage is to relinquish control. And it’s hard to accept that because you put yourself in those pages naked and transparent. It’s very hard, especially for people like me, who’ve been trained to plan and manipulate every hour of every day.
What was your working life as an editor like?
At Mint, I would usually get there an hour before everyone else to take the time to really chart out the day. I felt in my job as an editor, at any point in my working day, I would read an amazing story somewhere and be like, “Damn, why didn’t we do it?” So actually you start working even before you’ve reached the office – as soon as you’re in your car or you’re looking online, on Twitter, and you’re seeing stories. At any given hour, there was something that I was unhappy or frustrated about. Why is this not good enough? Why don’t we have a better photo? It was incredibly stressful, this constant level of dissatisfaction. The industry functions that way. It doesn’t want you to be complacent. Even if you’ve done a great special issue, somebody will congratulate you but say last year’s special was better.
Writing is a solo job, but no matter how good you are at identifying writers and commissioning stories, magazine production is a collaborative job. You are reliant on other careful eyes. It is a team job. And if you are someone who works at a different speed from other people, or thinks that they can do everyone’s job better than them — which unfortunately I often thought I could — it’s very frustrating. For me, personally, it’s a lesson in contrasts. Even though people think it’s related — you are just in the business of writing — it’s worlds apart. I worked in a team; I was answerable to people. I am only answerable to myself now, even if I have a routine. I have to write the book that I am happy with. I am the boss and the judge here. And whereas that was about being in control and being consistent, this is about relinquishing control and taking leaps.
Having come from journalism to fiction, do you still think of yourself as a ‘debut writer’?
I do. I totally do, because they’re so different. Journalism, specifically, so much of it is about opinion-forming, making conclusions, empiricism, and judgement. In the best journalism, we try to avoid judgement, but so much of it is about rationality, hard facts, and perspective. In journalism, you have to have a vantage from which you’re telling the story. You have to take a side. For me, that’s not true for fiction. As a journalist coming to fiction, I thought it was also about suspending judgement. It was about erasing yourself and inhabiting your characters fully. The way that Nabokov writes Lolita – you read it because it’s beautiful writing, but you’re not constantly thinking, “Is he supporting a child molester?” The best fiction is one that suspends judgement.
The impulses of journalism and fiction writing are actually at odds. And maybe that’s why it took me so long to write the book. And maybe that’s why the books I will write will always have that element of not being journalistic. They will have some element of the fantastical or make-believe or speculation – something that I could not do in journalism. And that’s what makes it magical for me.
Journalism also has a lot of limitations today. There are things that we can say and we cannot. I am sure part of that frustration has played into book one and will in the future. Fiction is perhaps a better way to get closer to the truth in today’s day and age of silencing and censorship. We talk about cancel culture, which is now too broad a term, but I call it a ‘this or that’ culture. In journalism, you have to have an opinion. In fiction, I can just narrate to readers the experience of a character, and it can sit in this grey zone between this and that. And that can help reduce the sense of judgement in the world today. It can help build more empathy. It can make us think of things as circular rather than as things with edges. So if you think through geometry, journalism is a square, and fiction is a circle. Advertising is probably a triangle. For me, as a person who was squared and judgmental, needed things done a certain way — I am a perfectionist — swimming, yoga, fiction writing is personal growth, and I am happy I’ve realised that, because there’s so much more freedom in floating.
Anindita Ghose is the author of The Illuminated, published by HarperCollins in 2021 in India. It is forthcoming with Head of Zeus (Bloomsbury) in 2023 in the UK.