Indu Sundaresan was born and raised in India. She came to the United States for graduate studies and has been a full-time writer for the last thirteen years. The Splendor of Silence is her third novel. She makes her home in the Seattle, Washington with her husband and daughter.
Moe: Looking back, did you choose the writing profession or did the profession choose you? When did you ‘know’ you were a writer?
Indu Sundaresan: When I was growing up in India, writing or becoming a writer was never really considered a true profession, merely a hobby (Medicine and Engineering were job worthy degrees!). Even though I wrote a short story and sent it in to a contest when I was in college, I never considered myself a writer, or thought this was what I would want to do. I did economics for my undergraduate degree, and came to the US for graduate school–I have graduate degrees in economics and operations research. When I finished graduate school, I decided, one day, to write a novel. So I bought a computer and wrote a novel. There was no fear involved in that decision, no sense that it was a big undertaking. Then I wrote another novel. And then, I wrote my first published novel and its sequel, The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses. But I suppose like most writers who trudge through masses of rejections, I only knew I was a writer when I published The Twentieth Wife. Now, of course, I know better. I was a writer all along!
Moe: What inspires you?
Indu Sundaresan: What has inspired me so far is the lives of people from the past, and the excitement and thrill of being able to imagine and recreate a world for them to live in.
Moe: Every writer has a method to their writing. On a typical writing day, how would you spend your time?
Indu Sundaresan: I have no typical writing day–I suppose that is my method. Since my work typically involves a great deal of research, I spend a few months reading and making notes on what I think might find its way into my novels. And then, I will sit down to write the novel. I write at a steady stretch, with few breaks during the day and this goes on until I’m done with a first draft. I’ve sent in my work to my critique groups or to friends for comments before finishing my novels or discovering how the story comes together and always find myself struggling after that to finish because now, all of a sudden, I am back in editing mode, not a writing mode. I also do research while writing, of course–there is no way I could retain that much history and information in my head–but it’s now only to be able to write out a scene or a chapter.
Moe: How long does it take for you to complete a book you would allow someone to read? Do you write right through or do you revise as you go along?
Indu Sundaresan: I will edit my novel quite fast at first, until I think it is readable, and then I give it to my friends and ask them for comments, during which I go back to revise. When I get their feedback, I compare notes with what I’ve done since giving them the manuscript. Although I struggle when I get comments early on, before finishing the novel, I prefer to have editorial comments while the work is still malleable enough to be changed–that gives me fluidity with the work and allows me to see where even major changes need to be made.
Moe: When you sit down to write is any thought given to the genre or type of readers?
Indu Sundaresan: Yes, to some extent. The first write through is always just for myself, if I don’t like the voice of the novel, well, it won’t go anywhere. If I don’t like the sound of the narrative, I change it to something that is more musical–but whatever kind of animal the book turns out to be, in its very basic form, it is written to please my ear and my senses. All else, comes later in future edits.
Moe: When it comes to plotting, do you write freely or plan everything in advance?
Indu Sundaresan: I don’t plan everything in advance, but I do plan some strands of the storyline in advance, and these are usually subplots. I know they exist, I know how they play out and what will happen to a certain character, now all I need to do is weave these subplots into the main storyline. One example of this from my most recent novel, The Splendor of Silence, is what eventually happens to Kiran, Mila’s brother. The Splendor of Silence is a love story between Mila and Sam, and they are the main protagonists of the novel, but when I first began to write, their stories were still murky to me. Yet what Kiran, Mila’s older brother, has to go through, what role he was to play in Mila’s eventual decision about her love for Sam… all of this I knew before I had put down one word on paper.
I know I’m being a little obscure here about Kiran, but I do think that if I were to be more clear about his character in the novel, it would give away too much to someone who wants to read The Splendor of Silence—and when that revelation comes, it will be heartrending.
Moe: What kind of research do you do before and during a new book? Do you visit the places you write about?
Indu Sundaresan: I write a lot from memory, and I tend to set my novels in places I have already been to. So no, I don’t visit places in anticipation of writing a novel about them (in my experience that never works). I just travel to places because I am interested and while I am there, if there is a story in these old monuments and forts in India, then I will find it and make it my own. When I need to refresh my memory, there is, of course, no dearth of books I can read.
Moe: Where do your characters come from? How much of yourself and the people you know manifest into your characters?
Indu Sundaresan: Some of my characters come entirely from my imagination–in The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses, both based on the life of an actual, extremely powerful empress, Mehrunnisa existed already in historical documents. Yet, because she was a woman who lived in a harem (she was Emperor Jahangir’ twentieth wife, hence the title of the first novel) and was veiled when in public, there is very little in the documents about her true character. So much of how she is in the two novels is how I imagined her to be, given the path her life took–the early marriage to a Persian soldier, an unhappy marriage with him, his death, her marriage to Emperor Jahangir at 34 years of age, her immense power for the next 17 years in a time when women were not meant to be seen or heard.
I do put some characteristics of people I know into my characters, but they are so diffused that I doubt anyone will recognize themselves.
Moe: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If yes, what measures do you take to get past it?
Indu Sundaresan: Yes, especially if I feel the novel is not going well (which I suppose IS writer’s block). When I get to this point, I write a lot of other stuff. I will take out all my writing workbooks and do exercises, I will read and write short stories, I will work on writing something, anything, every day until I feel that I can go back to the manuscript.
Moe: What do you hope readers gain, feel or experience when they read one of your books for the first time?
Indu Sundaresan: I like immersing myself in the place and the people. When a reader picks up my work, any of the three novels, I hope she will be so engrossed that she will not be able to put the book down until it’s done, and when she does, she will not forget details for a long time.
Moe: Can you share three things you’ve learned about the business of writing since your first publication?
1. You are your book’s best asset.
2. There is no one else who knows your work as well as you do, and who should be able to talk about it as well as you can.
3. If you write a good book, people will talk about it and more people will read it, despite the publishing industry’s famous (or infamous?) shelf life for a book, sometimes a book will go well beyond everyone’s expectations. I’ve found this to be true, especially of The Twentieth Wife. I still hear from people who are reading the novel (it first came out in 2002), choosing it for a book club, inviting me to their book clubs and talking about my work.
Moe: What is your latest release about?
Indu Sundaresan: The Splendor of Silence is the story of a young American soldier named Sam Hawthorne, who comes to the princely state of Rudrakot in northwestern India (secretly) in search of his missing brother Mike, and while there, he falls in love with Mila Raman, the daughter of the local political agent. Mila is greatly attracted to Sam herself, but like him, she too carries secrets, and is forced eventually to decide between her love for Sam and her duty and loyalty to her father and her two brothers.
The Splendor of Silence opens twenty-one years later near Seattle, Washington, where Olivia, Sam’s and Mila’s daughter receives a trunk of treasures from India for her birthday. In that trunk, among the silk saris and the jewelry, is a thick letter from an unknown narrator which tells her the story of her parents’ love for each other–a story Olivia never heard from her father Sam.
The novel is set during four days in May of 1942 in the princely state of Rudrakot, a few years before Indian independence from British rule and amidst the chaos and upheaval of the second world war and the nationalist movement in India.
Moe: What kind of books do you like to read?
Indu Sundaresan: I read a lot of fiction, and some non-fiction.
Moe: When you’re not writing what do you do for fun?
Indu Sundaresan: I garden, knit, LOVE to cook and try out new recipes. But the most fun part of my day goes in looking after my daughter!
Moe: New writers are always trying to glean advice from those with more experience. What suggestions do you have for new writers?
Indu Sundaresan: Be persistent. There will be many rejections, and each time you get one, dust off your novel (or your short story, or query letter) and find another agent or magazine to send it out to. Then you can feel dejected for a while! But if your work is not out there, it will not get published. And, if it’s not very good, it will not get published–this happens to be true. So work on it until you do think it is perfect before sending it out, and then… revise again.
Moe: If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
Indu Sundaresan: I don’t know… a potter, a sculptor, a painter?
Moe: What is your favourite word?
Indu Sundaresan: Imagine.
- The Splendor of Silence: A Novel is available from Amazon.com.
- The Splendor of Silence: A Novel is available from Amazon.ca.
My interview with Indu Sundaresan was originally published 3/18/2007 at Literary Fiction, BellaOnline.