Writing fiction takes a lot of talent, of practicing the craft, of endless learning. As part of learning craft, I’ve had the good fortune of interviewing authors, teachers and agents— and sharing their wisdom with you on this blog. Today, as part of this series, I bring you Indian author Krishna Udayasankar who has penned the mytho-historical series, The Aryavarta Chronicles, an exciting part of an emerging trend of historical fiction set in India.
1. Your first book, Govinda is based on an Indian epic, the Mahabharata. To an audience that doesn’t know the background, how would you sum it up in a teaser?
I’m going to borrow a reader’s comment here and call it: The Indian ‘Game of Thrones’. My own teaser would probably be to call it a story of political intrigue, war, action and social transformation set in what is often called the ‘Epic Age’ of Indian history. Read it also particularly for the characters.
2. Mahabharata is full of magic and myth. You’ve stripped fantasy from it and given your readers a historical socio-economic novel. What was the impetus behind that?
Understanding the history, the kernels of fact behind what has subsequently been aggrandized and used to legitimize or justify social elements, is an essential way of understanding the cultural and moral fabric of the society we live in. Consequently, I wanted to explore the scriptures as the epics as tales of humanity, not divinity; as something that could have been history and not some improbable fantasy-tale that defied all logic and science. The more I tried to find these explanations, the more I caught on to the idea of the epic ages as a time of socio-political revolution, and my story as one of change in the status quo.
3. For you, what are the challenges of writing historical fiction, and what are the rewards?
The biggest reward is a sense of closure. The attempt to demystify these stories and their injunctions is almost like a quest for a more believable truth, an attempt to make these amazing characters and stories more ‘real.’ If I can take the liberty of being dramatic: it helps me make my peace with the world around us.
As for challenges, research is an enjoyable but tough part of the process. It can take many months, even years of painstaking work trying to reconcile legend with logic and scholarly evidence and variations in popular narratives across the world – depending especially on what region and eras you are writing about.
I think the other bittersweet dimension comes up when what I write questions deeply ingrained beliefs or contravenes popular versions of the stories that people know. It has, on occasion, led to pretty strong feedback (if I can call it that) from readers. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy a good debate any day and more than open to discussion on my books. But the comments do get personal sometimes and I’m still learning to laugh at them, rather than get upset.
4. Who are your favorite authors, and why?
Rudyard Kipling, Isaac Asimov, Kalki Krishnamurthy and J.R.R. Tolkien, to name some. As for the why – it’s the mythopoesy, the world-building, not to mention Kipling’s way with words and phrases. I’m also a fan of the Calvin and Hobbes comics by Bill Watterson. My favourite book, though, is Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. I also enjoy poetry a lot.
5. What was the last book you read?
I finished both Julian Barnes’ ‘Levels of Life’ and Terry Pratchett’s ‘A Blink of the Screen’, recently. Am now reading John Williams’ ‘Augustus’ and have Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’ lined up on my shelf.
6. What is the aspect of writing that interests you the most?
Daydreaming! Wordsmithy. Writing pithy dialogues, especially between characters that are good friends. Describing emotions usually not explored. Detailing sensations and feelings. Reading to write. Reading, wishing I could write that way. Writing crap and feeling miserable enough to go into existential angst.
Oh wait, you asked me for the aspect that interests me the most, right? That one is easy – I hang out with a really awesome bunch of imaginary friends almost all the time.
7. As an Indian author of historical fiction, what is the one concrete piece of advice you would give to an aspiring fiction writer?
In general, I believe all writers should listen to, and then promptly ignore, all advice. Having said that, I’ll also add, more as a reminder to myself than for the benefit of aspiring writers: Treat your subject/story/material with respect. The story (and this is particularly true for historical fiction) has endured in memory and myth for a long time; it has a life of its own and is bigger than you are. Respect that and engage with the story. It was here before you and your writing, and will probably stick around long after you are gone.
8. Tell us something about your forthcoming publication. Where can readers find the Govinda?
Both Govinda and Kaurava are available in major bookstores as well as online. They are also available as e-books. Kurukshetra, the third volume in the series is expected to be out by this November.
Krishna Udayasankar is the Indian author of Govinda and Kaurava: Books 1 and 2 of The Aryavarta Chronicles (Hachette, 2012; 2013) a bestselling series of mytho-historical novels that have received critical acclaim. She is also the author of Objects of Affection (Math Paper Press, 2013), a collection of prose poems. A co-editor of Body Boundaries: The Etiquette Anthology of Women’s Writing (The Literary Centre, 2014), Krishna holds a PhD from Nanyang Business School, where she works as Lecturer. Her current projects inclu
de a novel based on the mythohistory of Singapore’s founding by a Srivijayan prince. She lives in Singapore with her family, which includes two dogs with varied literary tastes.
Do you read or write historical fiction? Have you read any historical fiction set in India? Ever read a book by an Indian author ? Would you like to read the Aryavarta Chronicles? (Fire away in the comments and one of the commenters would win a copy of Govinda!)
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