AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Shweta Taneja
September 1, 2015
Hi Shweta and thank you for agreeing to this interview. Congratulations on your book, CULT OF CHAOS. Tell me a little about yourself and your background?
Thanks for having me on your lovely blog. I am a writer and journalist based in Bangalore. I’ve been writing articles, books, comics and blogs since twelve years now. My published novels include: Ghost Hunters of Kurseong and the latest one, Cult of Chaos, an Anantya Tantrist mystery. I’ve also written two graphic novels: Krishna: Defender of Dharma (part of CBSE’s must-read list for schools) and The Skull Rosary (nominated for Best Writer in Comic Con 2013). I continue to write articles for Mint, Discover India, Huffington Post, Swarajya Magazine, DailyO and Scroll. When I am not writing, I either go on long walks, runs, or sit and have a cup of tea with friends.
What was the genesis for CULT OF CHAOS?
Anantya emerged from my first attempt of a novel, a fantasy saga in which a young girl is abused and seeks vengeance from those who’ve wronged her. The story failed, perhaps because I spent a lot of time building the world and not the story itself. But Anantya remained, a remnant of a failed novel, an angry protagonist.
She was there as I explored the possibility of combining two genres I love the most—fantasy and detective in some way. I didn’t want the usual vampires and witches stuff, which is quite European in its origins. Instead, the fantasy I wanted to explore needed to come from the roots of our country, its belief systems and its core. Not from Indian mythology either as there’s so much of that around already. So I decided to jump into the folklores, the occult and oral histories seeped in our villages. After I’d taken that decision, writing on tantriks was an obvious choice. I am amazed at how everyone you talk to, in cities or villages, anywhere in the country have a tantrik story with them or know a person who has employed a tantrik for a problem. They’re not talked about in the mainstream but at the edges, in hushed conversations, one to one.
Then one day, I was sitting in a corner of my husband’s rather comfy office and reading a book when it all came together and I suddenly found out that Anantya is an occult detective. Once I knew that, the ideas came so fast that I couldn’t even find a paper and pen and instead scribbled it on the whiteboard in front of me, taking a photograph, rubbing it off and scribbling some more. Eleven scribbles later, I had the beginnings of Cult of Chaos.
I really like your writing style. It is interesting, appealing and adaptable to any reader. So according to you, which area should be more emphasised: the plot or the characters?
Thank you so much! I’m definitely plot driven. While writing, I am breathless, moving from scene to scene, sometimes skipping description to rush from one action scene to another. Long haul descriptions, atmosphere, lingering on things, bores me. I design each scene to have an up and down, a constant rollercoaster ride, so that by the end of it, you have a slight dizzy feeling in your gut. That’s the kind of thrillers I enjoy creating. The characters, any of them, are funny, weird but also there to push the story forward in some way.
What about the ‘supernatural’ genre? Is it your favourite?
I love the speculative genre overall, to read as well as to write in. I remain fascinated by how authors explore our own quirks, attitudes, ethics and moralities through the concept of ‘others’—be it alien, supernatural or paranormal. Through these alternative worlds, we try and look critically into our world. And that’s what fascinates me about fantasy and science fiction the most. That and of course I’m living lives of other creatures, monsters, things and aliens, which is just so much fun! What do they wear, who are they? What kind of language do monsters speak? Why do ghosts attack humans walking alone at night on the road? What makes these monsters and aliens and rakshasas and yakshas scary for us humans? How do they have sex? Do they burp? What kind of bodies and shapes do they have? What are their moral values, ethics, language and culture? These questions burn me every day about non-human creatures. I love to poke into their territories and worlds through speculative fiction.
When did you decide that you want to be a writer?
It was just another day. I was sitting in my office (I used to work in Femina then), procrastinating on writing an article (I assume you meant fiction writer, when you asked that question) and suddenly, just like that, I wanted to write fiction. I suspect it was inception by an alien or a fairy or an asura. Someone. I will find out in future. Maybe. Hopefully. I have to, don’t I?
What about the craft of writing? How do you approach your writing? Do you have a writing routine?
Let me get some tea first. Once I get an initial idea, it’s all hard work. I begin a story by fleshing out the plot and figuring which medium it’s meant for—graphic novel, novel, short story or game. Then I develop the plot on little chits of paper, spread across a table. This plot keeps on thickening till I am satisfied and want to begin the story. The writing of scenes itself is magical and creative but I stick to the plan of writing a particular section per week. If I miss a week, I write two sections in the following week. This disciplined approach has helped me to finish books and be more efficient before I get bored of them. The first half of my work day goes into writing and the second into answering emails, researching, relaxing. I take the weekend off only if I’ve finished my week’s work! All the time, I sip on lots of tea.
What do you prefer: Pen or Computer? And how do you stay organized (any methods, systems, tools you use)?
A blank notebook with a pen for jotting down raw ideas. Small chits of paper to develop the plot.
A whiteboard for jotting vague things. A laptop for writing and editing. I use Microsoft Word for writing my books.
What motivates you to write?
Stories that come to me. Characters that drop into my head. I love building up these stories, figuring out what is happening to these characters in their world. Everytime I finish a book, I think that’s it, now I’ll get a job, earn money and travel the world instead of the perennial struggling that is the profession of a writer. And then another character or story comes in my head and I am just too tempted to write them too!
How do you decide on the settings for your story? How do they come to you?
Each book is different and I remain fascinated by the process of it. I think what you have to do is push an idea once you get it. Read certain books, research on certain topics. It’s like groping in the dark, in a cave full of skeletons and rotting flesh. You have no idea what might touch your fingertips.
For example with Cult of Chaos, which is a tantrik detective mystery, I read up a lot of books on occult, tantrism and dark magic. I decided to set it in Delhi for the city has layers of history and modernity and both interact with each other in a fascinating way. But I didn’t know the characters as I was writing. They came from NatGeo’s television shows, bits from history books I was reading, movies I was seeing, real news I was reading. With Anantya, it was completely different. She came together in one go. I knew her voice. She’s such a distinct character that it’s hard not to, but I’ve gotten to know her better while writing two of her novels.
I also feel, there’s nothing better than daily news to give you ideas. It has enough horror, disgust, hatred, violence, evil in its pages to keep your creativity flowing. There were so many scenes in the book that have been inspired by real incidents, things that I’ve read in the news. Not only about superstition or witch hunting, but also something that a crass politician would’ve said when yet another woman got raped. Everyday domestic violence, which is reported in a single paragraph, taken verbatim from police notes or crimes of caste and religion which are all about power. There’s no dirth of inspiration in our country, especially when one is writing a thriller.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I like to hike and do birding, though I am pretty bad with remembering names of birds. I just like to look up in the sky, notice flights of birds and if it’s night then at the stars. Crunch of leaves under my footwear and a breeze. Weekends are usually spent outdoors, hiking, walking, running or just sitting in the park with a book. Bangalore’s weather is perfect to spend a day outdoors, so most of my weekends are spend like that. I also like live music, so spend a lot of evenings in a pub listening to indie music. Or I watch violent, bloody movies or TV series—the darker they are, the more I enjoy them. Other than reading books, which I squeeze into the weekday, terming it research, I don’t really do much else.
Are you working on anything at the moment? When can we see your next work?
I’ve just finished the second adventure of Anantya Tantrist series, so am taking a break. It’s to do with the Delhi’s rich socialites abusing a supernatural species for immortality. Quite violent and fun as usual. Other than this, I have almost finished a novel for young-adults based in Manipal, which is a rivalry between two paranormal investigation groups. I am hoping to start on a comic project soon. And I’m also helping out an NGO with their communication and social media plan.
Do you have any advice for aspiring/emerging writers?
I know you’ve heard it enough, but write. There’s something magical that happens to you when you start putting word after word after word. You can think on a story, but nothing will give it wings as words. The process of writing, putting one word after another, will help you bring the story in your head onto paper. Write. If you can’t do it well, keep doing it. Read the masters, the accomplished novelists to see how they express the world around you. Your control over language as well as your finesse in expressing an idea will improve only through the process of writing. One word after another. You can see some detailed blogs on this on my website (www.shwetawrites.com/writing).
About Your Reading Life:
What do you prefer while reading: paperbacks or ebooks?
I read on both. Ebooks and pads are for out of print books or scholarly books that I read for my research. I make it a point to buy all paperbacks of Indian authors that I want to read since I love getting their signatures in their books!
Do you re-read books? One book that you would read again & again?
Yes. I’ve gone back multiple times to Kahlil Gibran, Ursula Le Guin, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. In comics it is Neil Gaiman and Asterix.
Your favourite author(s)?
A few of my current favourite writers: Ursula Le Guin, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Samit Basu, Jim Butcher, William Darlymple. Currently I am exploring a sub genre of science fiction called feminist science fiction. Each book you read influences your story in certain ways. I’ve learnt mysterious style from Gaiman, humour from Pratchett, and a way mere words can touch your soul from Le Guin.
What book(s) are you reading at present?
- Life, The Universe and Everything – Douglas Adams
- Delhi – Khushwant Singh
- Doctor Dread – Ibne Safi
- Unlocking the air and other stories – Ursula K Le Guin
- Lajja – Taslima Nasrin
- The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
What can I say? I am a scattered reader (and writer).
Read more about her on www.shwetawrites.com