Anita Kushwaha grew up in Aylmer, Quebec. Her road to publication included a fulfilling career in academia, where she studied human geography at Carleton University and earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. She is also a graduate of the Humber School for Writers creative writing program, a member of the Canadian Authors Association and the Women's Fiction Writers Association, and the recipient of a Literary Creations grant from the Ontario Arts Council. Her novel SIDE BY SIDE won an Independent Publisher Book Awards' Silver Medal for Multicultural Fiction in 2019. She is also the author of a novella, THE ESCAPE ARTIST. Her novel SECRET LIVES OF MOTHERS & DAUGHTERS was released in Canada on January 28, 2020 by Harper Avenue and on February 18, 2020 in the US, UK, AUS and NZ by HarperCollins Publishers. She lives in Ottawa.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I published my first book, Side by Side, last year with Inanna Publications. It took me between seven to eight years to complete, probably because it was my first successful attempt at completing a manuscript, which meant it was pretty awful for a long time and took the most rewrites I’ve ever done. Having said that, it is the book that’s closest to my heart, dealing with issues of mental health and loss by suicide. It found a very good home with Inanna. Last spring, it won an IPPY Silver Medal for multicultural fiction, which was totally unexpected. The thing that’s changed my life the most, and what I’m most grateful for, is hearing from people who connect to the story and share their story with me. I always wanted Side to be about empathy and connection. It seems to be finding its people. There’s really nothing better.
As for Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters, I’ll have to get back to you! The book releases [released] in Canada on Jan 28th, and a few weeks later elsewhere, published by HarperCollins. It compares to my previous work in that it focuses on the lives of South Asian women and the social and cultural pressures they face, as well as the themes that seem to always make their way into my work, such as identity, belonging, immigrant experiences and mental health. This time around I have a little bit more experience under my belt, so I feel more grounded. I mean, an infinitesimal amount.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I started off with poetry, actually. But I’m self-aware enough to know how bad my poetry is, so I keep that to myself. I think of it as a public service.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Every project is a little different. I tend to start off by scribbling ideas into a notebook. I don’t plot much but I do find it helpful to have a rough idea of where I’m headed, while leaving the how of it all up to the creative process. Like I mentioned above, Side by Side took me several years to write and revise. Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters has been about a five-year process. My novella, The Escape Artist, came quickly but then some of the ideas I explored in the story had been with me since age eleven. I tend to think about new projects for years before I get down to writing them, then I try to finish a first draft as quickly as possible, and revise and revise.
4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Since I’ve made novel writing the focus of my creative life, that’s how I tend to think about things, but at time I’ve drawn on or combined shorter pieces together.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I’m an introvert, so readings tend to wear me out. I love connecting with people, though, so I’ve learned to space out any readings that I might do.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
The undercurrent of my work tends to focus on silence and the consequences of silence, to the self, to family life, to our place in society, examined through a cultural lens. What keeps people from using their voice, speaking the truth they know, at a personal and public level? What are the costs? I also have an interest in exploring issues of identity, belonging, immigrants experiences, and the lives of South Asian women and the particular social and cultural pressures they face, as well as topics that might be considered taboo in South Asian communities, such as mental health.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
For me, reading and writing are acts of empathy. I’m not sure what the point is if not to touch hearts and minds, to hopefully inspire others to think and feel.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Definitely essential, but also difficult. The longer I spend on a project, the more drafts I hold inside my head, and the less clearly I see my own work. So, feedback is critical. But it’s a vulnerable state to be in, waiting to hear what someone thinks. Rapport is so important, and kindness goes a long way when both giving and receiving feedback. I’ve learned to be open to criticism, but also to trust my instincts as a writer about what to keep or change.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Writing advice: Writing is the reward. (Joyce Carol Oates, Faith of a Writer.)
Life advice: You save yourself, or you remain unsaved. (Alice Sebold, Lucky.)
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’m one of those people who loves structure. A typical writing day starts early with a cup of tea. I try my best to stay away from social media until I’ve gotten a couple of solid hours done. Then I usually like to go for a run or a walk. After lunch, I’ll either write for a couple more hours or review what I wrote earlier in the day. I finish off with catching up on messages and (groan) social media. My favourite time to read is at the end of the day, when all distractions are gone, and I can sink into someone else’s story. Bliss.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When writing gets stalled for me, it’s usually a sign of exhaustion. I turn to the things that fill my well—sleep, time in nature, jogging, yoga, books, music, baking, hanging out with my cat, Noodles. Sometimes, if I’m really burnt out, the only thing that helps is watching comedies on Netflix. That usually gives my tired brain the time it needs to unspool and rest. I’m happiest when productive (i.e. a workaholic), so once I’m rejuvenated, the words come all on their own.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Rose and sandalwood incense, always. Growing up in an Indian household, that was/is the scent of home for me.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I definitely believe in the idea that creativity spawns creativity. I’m hugely inspired by nature and music. Both help fill my well and spark creativity that adds richness to my writing. I’ve worked out many tricky plot issues while jogging and listening to music. In fact, the epigraph for Side by Side is from a song, and each of my books has their own playlists, songs that I drew upon to conjure up certain emotions or moods. Rivers, trees, and outdoor spaces feature quite a lot in my work. If my characters are at a crossroads, they usually find themselves in the woods or close to water.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I read widely across genres, and many authors have influenced me, but I’ll mention a few key ones here. I grew up in a small town in Quebec, raised on books that didn’t reflect me or the experiences of my immigrant family. The consequence was that it limited what I thought I could be, and which stories mattered. When I was nineteen or twenty, I read Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. That collection of short stories changed everything for me. I’ll never forget the nuances of South Asian family life in those stories. I started to believe that not only could I write from my perspective, but there might also be someone out there willing to read what I had to offer, someone who might need the stories as much as I did back then, and always will. I suppose that’s why writing for me is an act of place-making. You can carve out a place for yourself with a book. You can inject your voice where it was previously dismissed, minimized, ignored.
I call Margaret Atwood my High Priestess – reading her has always felt like taking a masterclass to me. When I read her work, I need to have a notebook beside me, because her creativity sparks creativity in me. She also reminds me write bravely.
I’ve recently finished Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet and was blown away by her mastery at weaving together the personal and political. Her work has deeply influenced my current WIP.
I also grew up reading a lot of Victorian femlit and love the Brontes. Hence the nod to Jane Eyre in Secret Lives of Mothers & Daughters.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I always thought I would have travelled around the world by now. I would still love to do that. I also fantasize about moving to the west coast of Canada. Living in a tiny house in Tofino or Victoria is on my dream list.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I was quite happy as a researcher. I wouldn’t go back to academia, but the idea of working at a grassroots organization with lots of time in the field would be all right, especially if it involved northern travel. I left part of my heart in the arctic.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I did do something else! Before committing to writing full-time I was an academic, but when I finished my doctorate, I was ready to move on and take a leap of faith. I’d always written, since I was little, but it took me a long time to believe I could do it in a public way, and even longer to believe someone might care about the stories I wanted to tell.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
For movies, Interstellar.
19 - What are you currently working on?
My current WIP is a sisterhood story, more bitter than sweet, inspired by The Blind Assassin and the Neapolitan novels. Lots of complex family dynamics and secrets, also in keeping in with my interest in exploring issues of identity, belonging, immigrant experiences, and the lives of South Asian women. I was fortunate to receive a Literary Creations grant from the Ontario Arts Council to support the project. The manuscript is with my agent at the moment. I’m trying hard not to worry about it. And failing.