An interview with author Jaishree Misra

by Nandini Muralidharan

Jaishree MisraIndian writing in English has won a lot of critical acclaim in the literary world, and Indian authors have really made it big with some fantastic masterpieces. Jaishree Misra, is one Indian author, who took the literary world by storm with her debut novel “Ancient Promises”. Misra was born in a Malayali family, in New Delhi and has spent her childhood in New Delhi, Bangalore and a part of it in England. She has worked in the fields of Special Education, Social Services, as a journalist for BBC, and also in the British Board of film classification in London. Misra’s first novel Ancient Promises really made its mark in the world of literature. Her subsequent works “Accidents like love and marriage” and “Afterwards” too had the themes of love and loss, which her first novel had highlighted. But these are different and enjoyable in their own right.

Jaishree Misra signed a three book deal with Avon, the commercial fiction imprint of Harper Collins in the UK. The first of these was “Secrets and Lies”, released in June 2009.  “Secrets and Lies” is a poignant tale of friendship, murky pasts, insecurities and love.  The next in line is “Secrets and Sins”, which is all set for release in July 2010.

In an interview with Bookshopblog.com, Misra tells us about her passion for writing, the predominant themes in her novels, her endeavours in setting up a unit for young people with special needs and shares some tips with budding writers.

1. The themes that runs across ‘Ancient Promises’, ‘Accidents like Love and Marriage’ and ‘Afterwards’ are love, heartbreak and marriage in an Indian setting. Any specific reason for focus on these? Would these have been written even if you spent your entire life in the UK?

[Jaishree Misra] With the possible exception of ‘Rani’, my writing does seem to traverse the broad territories you mention and, to a large extent, even ‘Rani’ is not entirely free of these! I do think, however, that most novels encompass, broadly, themes like ‘love’ and ‘loss’. If you write about life, these are stories that are hard to escape. I doubt that would have changed much, had I never lived in India. Such themes are universal.

Rani by Misra2. Rani was a change from the previous three. It’s a beautifully written work about the Rani of Jhansi, and Mani the little girl who will always be at the heart of whatever the Rani does. Her evolution from Manikarnika to the Rani of Jhansi has been depicted with superb craftsmanship. How were you inspired to choose this powerful life to write about?

[JM] I was looking for a strong Indian female character from the British-Indian period and Rani Lakshmibai was the obvious choice. So obvious, in fact, that I relegated her to the bottom of the list and looked at a whole lot of others first (our history is rich with strong women, you’d be glad to know)! But something kept pulling me back to Lakshmibai and, the more I read, the more fascinated I grew. Especially on finding that she was a far more interesting character than the uni-dimensional martial figure my school books had told me of. I realized what a modern sensibility she was blessed with and was doubly fascinated by how hard she tried not to go to war until pushed to the wall. A pacifist and a diplomat made for a far more layered biography, in my view, than a fighter and warrior and thus I was hooked!

3. You have grown up in Delhi, Bangalore and have lived in the UK for a while, before moving back to Delhi again now. How has the diversity of cultures in these cities, mingled with the Keralite upbringing influenced your writing?

[JM] Again, all my books cover these physical territories. These places have certainly informed my writing but I’m not sure if they’ve influenced it. Yes, all these places enjoy greatly diverse cultures and I’m surely enriched by them I do think it’s quite possible to be a sensitive and empathetic novelist even without varied experiences. Too often the examples of Jane Austen and the Brontes are given to illustrate this but they do bear thinking about.

4. A very clichéd one – Have you always wanted to be a writer? J

[JM]Yes, pretty much. I realized early on that I was good at it and used to give myself plenty of practice, writing long letters to friends who never wrote back and dabbling in story-telling on quiet afternoons when I’d be dragged off to my grandparents’ rural home in Kerala. My great-uncle was an acclaimed writer (Thakazhy Sivasankaran Pillai) and, very early on, I was impressed by the kind of job that involved sitting on an easy chair and dictating passages to a typist!

5. Apart from these novels that you have penned, you dabbled with poetry too in “Little Book of Romance”. Any plans of continuing in that territory?

[JM] Quite definitely, no! The Little Book isn’t poetry at all – just little snippets, many of which belong to other people anyway. I don’t think I possess the brevity, craft and perfectionism that’s required of poets.

6. ‘Secrets and Lies’ is my second most favourite amongst your books after ‘Rani’. The friendship that cements the lives of Anita, Bubbles and Sam together , their shared dark past, and the heartbreaks that the different characters go through at different points of time, makes for a gripping narrative. Is there any real-life inspiration (your own school friends perhaps)?

[JM] Thank you, so glad you enjoyed it. The real life inspiration was merely a growing realization of how often women turn for support to female friends as they get older. But, since you ask, I have stayed in touch with a few of my own old school friends and we are still close. Luckily, there was no dark event such as Lily’s death to mar our idyllic schooldays but some aspects of girlie friendships depicted in the book certainly crept in from my own experiences.

7. Can you tell us more about ‘Secrets and Sins’ and when we can expect to get hold of it?

[JM] It’s a thumping love story, although I personally would not use clichés like ‘star-crossed’ and ‘doomed’ that some enthusiastic subbie at my publishers may want to use on the jacket. I sometimes joke that it’s the untold story of Shah Rukh Khan and me because it’s about a Bollywood superstar and a novelist. Very sadly, not me!

8. You moved to India recently, and you have planned to setup a residential unit for young people with special needs. Can you tell us something about that?

[JM] I’ve tried and failed at this before (in 2000, specifically) but, never willing to give up too easily, I’m at it again. This time I got very lucky to be among a group of parents who have just been granted a large disused building on a lovely, large piece of land on the outskirts of Delhi. We’re waiting for the final sanction letter to come through before starting work on renovating the building. It’s all very exciting because there’s hardly anything like it in India at the moment – we’re looking at an integrated community that will provide life-long care and support for people with learning disabilities, the physically challenged and the elderly.

9. Is the habit of reading becoming more and more a lost art today as opposed to maybe a decade ago? Do you feel people don’t read enough these days?

[JM]Yes, unfortunately. Kids especially. With the advent of digital media, we may lose generations of future readers, although nifty gadgets like the iPad may prove to be saving graces.

10. Which is your favourite Jaishree Misra novel? J

[JM] I couldn’t answer that – just as a mother wouldn’t name a favourite child! All I will offer is that ‘Rani’ took the most effort and ‘Ancient Promises’ brings in the most praise.

11. What activities do you like to be involved in when you’re not writing?

[JM] Oh, all sorts. People expect writers to be shy reclusive creatures but I’m quite gregarious and love meeting new people. My favourite activity, after writing, reading and family has to be travelling. I’m happy to visit new places but also enjoy old favourites and can always cloak this as ‘research’!

12. Your advice to budding writers?

[JM]Persist, if you believe in what you’re doing. But it may be worth showing your efforts to a few people who will not only give you informed opinions but honest ones too. Never, ever contact an agent or publisher with a mere ‘idea’ (remember they’re busy people and you’ll only get short shrift). Try to hold on until you have most of a manuscript ready, written up, proofed and edited. Then submit the usual pack of three sample chapters, a synopsis and biog to a small list of agents whose names and client lists you’ll find on the internet. Don’t blitz a long list of them, it’s best to go to no more than two or three at a time and, if you get rejection letters, use the feedback to improve your work before sending it on to others. Then sit back and hope for the best. Good luck!

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Discussion

  1. prying1

    Excellent interview! Thanks Nandini. Good job. And thanks to you Jaishree for being so willing to share bits and pieces of your thoughts so openly. I especially liked the last answer to “budding writers”. Such good advice to your ‘competition’.

    I also hope and pray that the special needs home meets with immediate approval from the powers that be and there are no delays due to bureaucratic red tape. May all go well with your endeavors.

  2. Jan Smith

    A very informative interview, thank you. My daughter is a published author writing in the romantic/sci-fi genre and as there are not a lot of publishers/agents in Australia for that field, I know she is struggling and doing exactly what you prescribe.

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