Wednesday, May 05, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jenny Bhatt

Jenny Bhatt is a writer, literary translator, and book reviewer. She is the host of the Desi Books podcast. Her debut story collection, Each of Us Killers: Stories, came out with 7.13 Books in September 2020. Her literary translation, Ratno Dholi: Dhumketu’s Best Short Stories, came out in October 2020 with HarperCollins India. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in various venues in the US, UK, and India, including The Atlantic, NPR, BBC Culture, The Washington Post, Literary Hub, Longreads, Poets & Writers, The Millions, Electric Literature, and more. Having lived and worked her way around India, England, Germany, Scotland, and various parts of the US, she now lives in a suburb of Dallas, Texas. Find her at

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

This first book was a long time coming. I turned 48 the month it was published in this year of a global pandemic year and the US presidential elections. I’d expected it to change my life, just not in the ways that it has done so eventually. I’ve learned a lot of publishing industry lessons. I’ve learned that writing and publishing are definitely not the same thing. I’ve learned that I could happily live on without having another book published ever again. And I’ve learned that there are many other non-monetary benefits to being a marginalized writer.

My writing is still about exploring issues and questions that confuse me and keep me up at night. I’ve never looked for easy answers. What’s changed now, though, is that I have more faith in myself that I will, eventually, find the right words and ways to communicate, at least to myself, what I must.

Writing will always be a part of my life. I’m just not too enamored with the whole book publication game and the performing monkeys we have to become to sell books.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or nonfiction?

I came to fiction as a child listening to stories told by family elders — folktales, fairytales, family histories. Fiction has always been a way to work out my own thoughts about something that makes a home in my head. I write a lot of nonfiction too but fiction is where I find the more profound and meaningful answers I need.

What pretty much set the course for me was winning a children’s short story competition at age 10 at the national level in India. My English teacher had encouraged me to enter. I never thought about winning but I’d loved and wanted to explore one of the four prompts as the story title: ‘Robots Who Wrote Poetry’. My version was a cross between H G Wells and The Wizard of Oz, I recall. And winning the award in that category sealed the deal for me in terms of personal career aspirations. It validated that I had something valuable to contribute to the world.

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?

I can circle around a writing project for months — making outlines, character and scene sketches, early drafts as grocery list items, personal journal notes. When I eventually settle into a project, it flows well enough. First drafts often bear very little resemblance to the final work. If my final draft is too close to the early drafts, I know I’m not done because that means my own thinking hasn’t evolved enough through the writing process. It’s really why I write, in the end: to work things out in my head; to end up at a different place from where I started.

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?

It always begins with a short piece: a scene, a character sketch, an image description. Then, I find the threads or nerves that connect the bits and pieces into a larger and more cohesive pattern. Right now, even though I say I have a novel in progress, it’s really a collection of linked stories that need more connective tissue to bring them together.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I see public readings as a necessity to help sell books. I’m not a performer and I’m not fond of crowds. So I don’t see readings as helping my creative process at all. They leave me quite exhausted, to be honest. But I also appreciate where certain kinds of readers need to have that form of connection with a writer to be moved by the latter’s words. We all come to our reading with different kinds of hunger. Some of us want to see ourselves represented, some of us want to learn about other cultures, some of us want to learn about the cultures we inhabit (especially when that’s not the same as the culture we were raised in.) I respect all the many reasons we come to books as readers. And I understand that some readers need to feel like they know the writer to connect with their work.

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?

I don’t know about theoretical concerns. Questions, I have plenty. And they can range from the prosaic of “how can person X in situation Y manage?” to “what if the world was not like this but like that?” Often, the question itself will change through the writing process and that’s when I know I’m making some real headway because I’m framing the issues differently by exploring deeper or differently.

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?

I see writers as the people who raise difficult questions, who speak truth to power, and who make us see things in this world that we’re either missing or turning away from. And I think that now, more than ever, we need writers to keep doing all of this. 24/7 social media turns everyone into a circus performer. YOLO and FOMO makes many get drawn to the next viral sensation. And we miss so much of our own lives, as a result. The best writers make us see our world and our lives in new, different, more profound ways. I don’t look to writers for answers. Those I must find within myself. But I do look to writers to frame the issues and questions properly; to help me focus my distracted gaze on what should matter.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Both difficult and essential. That second, detached perspective can help me spot issues in my writing that I will never see on my own. The best editors I’ve worked with had a lot more faith and confidence in my writing than I’ve ever had. And that helped me loosen up and open up more in the writing. It makes a world of difference to find the right kind of editor. The opposite can happen too: an editor can be so censorious or so limiting in their own perspective that they don’t know how to help a writer get to that next level. I’ve worked with this kind too and am beginning to see the signs earlier now so I can step away quickly.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

The best piece of writing advice? It’s actually a fun little trick a writing instructor once used in a workshop: summarize your story/essay into a "In a world . . ." movie trailer sentence. If it sounds substantive enough, you're on the right track. If it doesn't, you've got more work to do. I find this, after all these years, to still be a good litmus test. I've abandoned several stories/essays because they didn't pass this basic test. If a piece isn't substantial enough, no amount of pretty words will make it so. It means I have to ask tougher questions of myself rather than putting more lipstick on a pig.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to translation to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

In my case, it’s short stories to translation to critical prose. I do need to be in different frames of mind for each kind of work. But, in the end, each one informs or develops my writing muscles overall. Writing fiction helps me with translating fiction because I understand the original writer’s craft and style and voice better. Translating has made me a closer reader of my own work and that of other writers I’m reviewing. And reviewing makes me see my own writing and the works I’m translating with a dispassionate eye, especially when I’m in the editing phase. So it’s all connected and I hope I can continue to do all three forms of writing. I wrote a bit about this symbiosis here:

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

This year hasn’t been great for routines because of geographic moves, book promotion stuff, the pandemic, etc. Generally, though I prefer to write early AM or late PM, when the world isn’t coming at me from all directions. A typical day, ideally, begins with a big mug of brewed masala chai with some poetry reading. Then, I check for any urgent messages before settling down for a few hours of writing. That’s what I did through the years of both my books. Now, working on a novel, I’m trying to get back to that rhythm and discipline.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Music, poetry, a favorite book—all of these are inspiration sources. I wrote about how music works for me here.

The one place that never fails is my personal journal. I’ve always found that, if I’m stuck, I can work out what’s bothering me by writing it out in my journal. It might take a while to untangle the many threads and figure out which one to grab and follow further. But I usually get there. I wrote about this at Poets and Writers earlier this [last] year.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Hot masala chai brewing on the stove.

14 - 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?

Music, for sure, as I mentioned above in #12. Visual art, to some extent, yes. Mostly, though, my inner circuitry is rewired by reading other writers’ works.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I read a fair bit of financial stuff because I studied to be a certified financial planner at one time and I find the world of finance pretty interesting. I love to read about cognitive science, especially the many ways that it intersects so many other disciplines. And I read a fair bit about the publishing industry because, well, I want to understand better the forces and biases that govern it.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Write a novel. Translate a novel. Write a book about literary criticism but in a non-academic or non-scholarly way. At this present moment, these projects are at the top of my mind.

17 - 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’ve had many jobs already, from waitressing to tech executive to yoga instructor. If I hadn’t switched to writing, I might have become a personal financial advisor because I did train for that after my corporate career.

But if I could pick another occupation rather than writer, I would probably be a publisher or a commissioning editor. Because I’d want to be involved with books in some way or other.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

It started with that 10-year-old short story competition that I mentioned in #2. But the reason I’ve stayed with it, even given up a lucrative corporate career for it, is probably because it keeps me sane. It’s my way of being in the world, of coping with the world, and of contributing to the world. That is all.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read was Toni Morrison’s Jazz. It was a reread for a writing workshop I taught this year. I wrote a bit about the experience this time around at The Millions.

The last great film? This is tougher as I don’t watch a lot of movies. Probably a classic Bollywood movie, though: Golmaal. It’s a cult classic by the director, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and features a stellar ensemble cast at the top of their comedic game. And they don’t make ‘em like Hrishi-da anymore. I’ve seen most of his movies many, many times.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A novel. A translation. A book review. The next Desi Books podcast episode. It’s not the best process but it’s how anything gets done.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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