Wednesday, May 24, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Anuja Varghese

Anuja Varghese (she/her) is a Pushcart-nominated QWOC writer based in Hamilton, ON. Her work appears in The Malahat Review, Hobart, The Fiddlehead, and Plenitude Magazine, as well as the Best Women's Erotica Volume 6 and Queer Little Nightmares anthologies, among others. Anuja serves as Fiction Editor for The Ex-Puritan Magazine, as well as a board member for gritLIT, Hamilton’s literary festival, and co-host of LIT LIVE, Hamilton’s monthly reading series. Anuja holds a degree in English Literature from McGill University and is currently pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate from the University of Toronto, while working on a debut novel. Her short story collection, Chrysalis (House of Anansi Press, 2023), explores South Asian diaspora experience through a feminist, speculative lens. She can be found on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok (@anuja_v across platforms), or by visiting her website

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

My most recent work IS my first book! It feels different from having stories included in literary magazines or anthologies because it’s very recognizable as MY book. It has felt a little life-changing to have the book out in the world at book stores, festivals, events, etc. and to meet and hear from readers who are connecting with the stories and characters in different ways.

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

I am in awe of poets and the alchemy of poetry, but it’s not where I hear my own voice. I’ve published a few creative non-fiction pieces here and there, but I find it really hard and draining – especially if I’m trying to tell the truth (or some version of it) about my own life. Making shit up has always been where the creative energy is for me.

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?

Most of my stories start with a very clear moment, or particular voice/character, and flow from there. Sometimes that unfolding of the story in different directions comes very quickly and I’ll have a first draft in a few days. Other times, I’ll get stuck somewhere along the way and it can take weeks or months to figure out where the story wants to go (or if it has anywhere to go at all). I tend to edit as I go, so by the time I have a completed first draft, it’s usually pretty close to the final shape of the piece, although it always takes a few subsequent drafts to finetune.

4 - Where does a work of fiction 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?

When I first started sending out my work and getting published in literary magazines and anthologies, I wasn’t thinking about putting them together in a book. My stories weren’t connected in any way, and some were what you would call “literary fiction” while others were “speculative fiction.” I was very lucky to have Farzana Doctor as an early mentor and she was the first to look at my work and say, “Maybe there’s a book here?” Once I gave myself permission to collapse the walls between “literary” and “speculative,” Chrysalis really started to take shape as an intentionally genre-blending book.

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

I love it! A lot of my stories have elements of fable and fairy tale in them which lend themselves well to being read aloud. For me, the work comes alive in a new way when I get to read it to an audience.

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?

More and more, I’m seeing conventional genre distinctions as outdated and elitist, in terms of both content and form, so I’m interested in exploring questions around writing beyond genre constructs and how we can blend or subvert genre expectations to create new stories and ways of storytelling.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I have an art piece commissioned from artist and writer Hana Shafi (@frizzkidart on Instagram) that features the quote “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” - Toni Cade Bambara. I believe the stories writers tell, the characters we allow to be heroic in big and small ways, and the possibilities we put on the page for the way the world could be are all part of the role we play in shaping/changing the culture.

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

I have been fortunate to work with really excellent editors, both for Chrysalis, and for individual stories that have been published in other places. As the writer of the work, I’m sometimes too close to it to see it clearly. A good editor can look at the piece as a whole and ask the right questions to fill in gaps, clarify ideas, create tension, and cut dead weight.  Overall, I think the editorial process has been essential to strengthening my work.

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

I was in a workshop with Silvia Moreno-Garcia and she said “Publishing is a treadmill, not an escalator, so you better learn to walk.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (literary fiction, speculative fiction and erotica/romance)? What do you see as the appeal?

For me, moving between genres isn’t just easy – it’s necessary. For a while, I was trying to be very disciplined and only write “Capital-L-Literary” fiction and the work felt so forced and stilted. Now, I always have a few different writing projects on the go – whether it’s a short story, a bit of fanfic, a script, or progress on the novel, and being able to move between genres/projects helps to keep me in a generative space.

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?

In addition to my writing practice, I have a full-time job, two kids, and my work as Fiction Editor with the Ex-Puritan Magazine. So… the short answer is there is no routine. I write very much in the spaces in between the rest of my life. Sometimes, the best (and quietest) window of writing time for me is 12-3am. I do take myself on a few weekend writing retreats a year, where I’ll hole up in a hotel room, order room service, and be allowed to get lost in the work in a way that everyday life doesn’t allow.

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

I go back to books or movies, or sometimes, particular scenes in either, that evoke emotional or sensory cues that relate in some way to what I’m trying to write. I also try to write where the energy is – so if I’m stalled on one writing project, I’ll move to something else, and often one will inspire new directions in the other.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Jasmine. My mum always has jasmine plants growing in her kitchen. It’s also a scent I associate with Kerala, where my dad is from. It’s not my home, but it was his, and there are memories of heat and food and dust and family tied up in that.

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 is a powerful influencer for me and I tend to have very specific playlists depending on what I’m working on. My current WIP is historical fiction/fantasy/romance (love that genre blending!) based on medieval India and the music that has been the background of this work is a mix of Carnatic music, arrangements for kathak (a form of Indian classical dance), and Sanjay Leela Bhansali soundtracks.

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

Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing has been hugely important and influential for my own work, and her approach to infusing her writing and her life with feminism, imagination, empathy, humor, and balance speaks to the values I try to be guided by, in terms of my creative work, my work as a partner and a parent, and my work as a member of my local and literary communities. As a short story writer first, I also consistently go back to masters of the craft like Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri. Every time I read their work, I come away with something new, which in turn inspires and sharpens my own writing.

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

Write a novel that inspires a slew of (preferably smutty) fanfic, voice a video game character, adapt something I’ve written for the screen, sleep under the stars in the Sahara.

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?

My mother still holds out hope, I think, that I may one day be a lawyer and I think I might have ended up doing that if I hadn’t been lured into a life of creative pursuits.

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

I don’t know how to do anything else!

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

I just finished Lindsay Wong’s new short story collection Tell Me Pleasant Things about Immortality and it’s fabulous – so weird and funny and sharp. I think the last film that really moved me was Everything Everywhere All at Once. Again – super weird in so many ways, but also weaves together all these beautiful threads about family and survival and hope amidst chaos. Plus, Michelle Yeoh is just a fucking treasure and I would watch her in anything.

20 - What are you currently working on?

A novel that will hopefully inspire a slew of (preferably smutty) fanfic!

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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