Sabyasachi Nag is the author of Uncharted (Mansfield Press, 2021) and two collections of poetry. His work has appeared in Black Fox Literary Magazine, Canadian Literature, Grain, The Antigonish Review, and The Dalhousie Review. He is a graduate of the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University and the Humber School for Writers. He is currently an MFA candidate at the University of British Columbia and the craft editor at The Artisanal Writer. He was born in Calcutta and lives in Mississauga, ON. www.sachiwrites.com.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Back in 2006, when I published my first book I was uncertain – what did I write? Is it any good? With my recent title, Hands Like Trees (Ronsdale Press, 2023), I am still full of self-doubt. So, what changed? I think the nature of uncertainty changed. Much like copper fresh out of the mill greens with time, acquires a patina, I found newer things to be anxious about. Luckily though, my most recent work deals with similar questions as my first title – questions about identity; belonging; the true nature of heroism – hopefully the answers evolved with time.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to poetry for my love of language – the sound of words and the relationship of sounds to meaning. Also, because poetry can fulfill you immediately; instant gratification keeps you hooked. During the early phases of my writing, that instant and guaranteed payback was vital for me to continue.
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?
Some forms are relatively easy for me, some are harder. I find short fiction, for instance, particularly hard. I take a long time to craft a story. My most recent title for instance – it’s about 200 pages and includes nine stories, involving one family where characters repeat, yet it took me eight years from start to finish. Why? Because there are more than a dozen ways to write each one. Some writers take a long time to write anything. I belong to that category for the most part.
Sometimes a story comes quickly and is pretty bad. Sometimes it comes quickly and is about okay. I think, for me, in general, everything cooks on low flame, as I like to take everything through the same alchemical process – something burns somewhere, you watch it become ash, you dissolve it in water, extract the hard pieces from the distill; mix them again and something else forms…and now something else burns, somewhere else and you start over.
My first drafts are rough. I rarely look at them again. I find note-taking as a process to get stuff off my brain. It’s a good method for my mind to stop wandering and pay attention. But I easily forget the notes I have taken. Good ideas usually stick, they never leave the brain.
4 - Where does a poem or 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?
For me, poems can start anywhere – a washed-up grocery list; a weird arrangement of shoes; late blooming tulips; the neighbour’s cat; the sound of a word; an image, real or imagined. Meanings inside poems have to be mined, so one can be courageous to start.
Stories, for me, usually start with an idea, not fully formed, but something with a head and a tail and I pickle it in a bell jar; let time work out the middle before I approach it again.
By the time I start the actual writing, I usually know what it is going to be – a story or a novella, or a poem. Of course, each form requires a different approach. I don’t think of a “book” at first.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I think it’s important to get out there and read. It’s a great way, if not the only way, to listen to the sound of one's writing. I don’t do that as regularly as I’d like. I intend to do it more often.
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 like theoretical constructs about writing to stay in the background, in the Jungian unknown. I don’t like to think of my writing as a response to anything other than my urge to string up words and hopefully make sense. I don’t carry a predetermined set of questions. I believe new questions emerge from the same old questions whether such questions were once answered or not.
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 feel the writer’s role in culture is to keep telling stories. Stories are so important, we couldn’t live without them for more than three minutes – the time it takes to be completely breathless. While telling stories, one may discover stories tend to repeat. So then, I think, the writer’s role is to keep finding newer ways to tell the same set of stories.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I feel it’s essential. The editors I have had the chance to work with were all so good. They often did for me what a good photographer does. They made the material look better; removed inert bits; made sure the balance between space and conflict is optimal; challenged me for clarity.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Show up. Writing will happen.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I like the idea of it because, first of all, it’s a great way to push something away that’s breaking the brain. It’s liberating. But I like to not overdo it as I am easily distracted. If I don’t move between two ideas or two pieces of writing carefully, I fear, I might be so consumed by the new stuff, I might never come back to the thing I was doing when I got deflected.
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?
A typical day for me starts with a cup of piping hot Darjeeling tea with 2 green cardamom pods, 2 cloves, 3 black peppercorns, and a piece of cinnamon stick, the size of my thumb. Other than that, I don’t like routines.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing gets stalled I like to read. That’s where a good bit of my inspiration comes from; some of it comes from films; and the rest comes from sitting by a window, doing nothing. I also like to listen to podcasts about wasps and butterflies.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home is a complex idea for me and it means many things – identity, separation, alienation, rift, etc. Honestly, no one fragrance can capture the whole essence of the word ‘home’. It means different things at different times and carries many different fragrances.
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?
I agree. And to add, Cormac McCarthy said "Books are made out of
books, the novel depends for its life on the novels that have been
written." I depend a lot on books. And sometimes on films, nature, music,
science, religion, people, art, and a host of things that are too many to list.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work,
or simply your life outside of your work?
Other writers important to my work are far too many
to list. I like returning to Tagore – who I listen more often that I read; Premchand
who I like to read in original; of course Borges who continues to amaze me
always; and Marquez, Cesares, Alice Munro, Atwood, John Williams, Don Delillo…it’s a long, long list. I easily forget the books I read and have to
reread the same books many times over, only to realize I wasn’t paying
attention the first time. I think, for artists, the boundary between life and
art is so fluid, it’s impossible to recognize where ‘life’ starts and the ‘story’
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
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?
If I could pick any other occupation aside from writing, without a doubt, it would have to be a farmer’s; I love the idea of small scale farming.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I think that’s because it’s one of the few things I can do well.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I finished reading Toshikazu Kawaguchi’s Before the Coffee Gets Cold last week, before that I read Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand. Last great film – I watch a lot of Bengali films – Kaushik Ganguly’s Nagarkirtan about gender identity; Atanu Ghosh’s Mayurakshi about home, place, and time; Goutam Ghose’s Shankhachil about borders and belonging; Indrashis Acharya’s Pupa about euthanasia. I also like revisiting older films – Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Christopher Nolan’s Memento to name a few.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a novel about a place that no longer exists, where I believe I had lived briefly, many years back, perhaps in a previous life.