In an exclusive interview with Real Life Heroes – by Manvi, Pune based novelist, screenplay writer, and principal author of a web series coming this May at MX Player, Sujata S. Sabnis talks on life’s purpose, biggest challenges, and her characters.
Walk us through your childhood…
From the very beginning, I was a dreamer with a thirst for information, and a happy kid raised in a joint family based out of Delhi. I loved spending my evenings playing delightful games and to me, summers meant khus ke parde, matka water and sleeping in the veranda under a starry sky. Parents of our generation didn’t believe in putting the child through one hobby class after another. As long as we got decent marks at school, they simply fed us well and left us alone. So, there was plenty of time and space to just dream and not necessarily DO.
When did you realize that words mean more to you than just ‘alphabets put together’
Very early in my childhood, I realised that words brought me joy like no other. They meant spinning a whole world of my own in my mind. Sometimes, they would enchant me, sometimes they would overwhelm me with their power. I would read just about anything that I get my hands on, and compulsively hunt for books, spend hours reading them, and then, somewhere deep the magic would take me from mundane to profound.
Your recent book, Blood on the Sands (Amaryllis Publishing) is an interesting blend of India’s history, culture and traditions, gender bias, and crime making it a compact and intense thriller – how easy or difficult was it for you to conceptualize this book?
I wasn’t in the best of spirits one day and my daughter, Siya, came to me. Seeing me a bit upset, she offered me hugs and kisses, and a lovely head massage. When she left, I thought what a blessing it is to have a daughter. That one grateful thought led to a chain of rapid thoughts at the end of which I lit up, absolutely stunned by the concept I had just conceived. From that point, it took me a few minutes to outline the basic story. But I wish to confess that transforming that idea into a novel was a different journey altogether. The one which was both difficult and exciting.
How do you go about finding your characters’ voices?
Once I conceive a story idea, I don’t immediately start writing it. I just let it hover in my mind and let it become a part of me. I continue to imagine that world and its characters and wait for them to start communicating with me. Its only after I understand their inner-self, feelings, motivations, and the subtle layers, is when I start writing my novel. By that time, I am so much into my characters that I just let that come out in my writing naturally.
Do you ever get overwhelmed by your own writing?
Sometimes while re-reading my own creations and compositions, I wonder – is it really me who could have written something this good? Ha ha! But yes, there are times I get terribly affected by my own writing. For instance, when I was penning the climax of my first novel ‘Silent whispers,’ a murder mystery, it was late at night and I was literally shivering with fear at the images conceived by my words! In my earlier novel, ‘Songs of Stone’, a historical love story, I cried buckets. In case of ‘Blood on the Sands’, I could not write the climax for a long time because writing it would mean losing a character I loved.
So, what does it really take to be a writer? What elements influence your writing process?
A deep love for words, of course! Then, good imagination, passion about something or someone, a basic knack for creative writing, a hankering for solitude, the ability to weave a world in your own mind, an instinct to understand it’s different layers. And finally, patience and discipline.
As for the elements which influence my writing process – I don’t need fancy spots to write. I just need some peace and quiet, and my writing tools. I also go with a set routine and a set quota that I decide to write every day.
How receptive do you think the world is to women writers today? Would you like to talk about your biggest challenges?
Does your gender really make a difference when it comes to publishing? Well, I haven’t experienced that at all. Maybe I am naïve but I think it’s only your work that matters.
My biggest challenge as a writer is that it’s difficult for me to think in terms of genres, I can think only in terms of stories. Which is why out of my four novels, one is a murder mystery, one a political thriller, one is a passionate love story set in Mughal times and the latest is a murder mystery which revolves around a social issue I feel deeply about. Though all this variety does make for a lot of fun when it comes to writing, I think it’s easier to make your mark when you stick to a particular genre.
Are you critical of your work? Is there any other writer that you deeply admire? Why?
I am the biggest critic of my work! In fact, the only reason I think I have become better as a writer is that I have consciously tried to figure out what my writings lacked and made an attempt to improve it.
Some of the writers that I love are – Hillary Mantel (Wolf Hall is love), Indu Sunderesan (she makes history come alive), R. K Narayan (for his characters, his world!!), J.K. Rowling (for her gobswashsmacking imagination!) and Haruki Murakami (for his magical realism).
Sujata, what is your ultimate purpose in life?
Look, life is essentially a form of spiritual golf – you don’t compete with others, you compete with yourself. The aim is to grow stronger, reduce your handicap, sharpen your swing. And become a better version of what you are when you started the game of life.