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July 25, 2011

The Facts About Fiction

Text by Nasrin Modak

It was in her genes and she may have juggled a few writing-related jobs for a living, but even a decade ago, little did author Jaishree Misra know that she’d be playing with words to create fiction with an underbelly of fact observes Verve

  • Jaishree Misra, Author, A Scandalous Secret
  • Jaishree Misra, Author, A Scandalous Secret

So what’s with secrets, sins and Jaishree Misra?
Such negative words, and yet such fertile ground for a writer! In truth, though, the ‘Secrets’ series had a typically accidental start. Harper Collins in the UK had offered me a 3-book deal on the basis of a manuscript I’d named ‘Golden Friends’ because it was a celebration of female friendship (the words come from a Housman poem, ‘With rue my heart is laden for golden friends I had …’). But, in their wisdom, the publishers decided to re-name the book Secrets & Lies instead and, even though I kicked and fought for a bit, I had to concede in the end to their superior marketing expertise. So, once I was saddled with that title, it seemed like fun to try a kind of ‘franchise’, seeing that these were going to be commercial fiction books. Hence Secrets & Sins and now A Scandalous Secret. They’re not a series, the only thing they have in common is that they are all based around the idea of secrets from the past that have the power to destroy the present.

Your journey as a writer began when …
Back in 1999, I’d left my job at the BBC as the breakfast shift interfered with the care of my daughter. Stuck at home for a longish day sans husband and daughter, I was downcast and bored and started to play around with a new computer we’d bought. I needed a few pages of text to be able to master nifty Word tricks and started to write a short memoir of sorts when, quite suddenly, I found I simply couldn’t stop. In just a few days, I’d produced fifty odd pages which I then started to shape and ‘novelise’ and that was what grew into my debut novel, Ancient Promises.

And did being related to the legendary novelist Thakazhy Sivasankaran Pillai make a difference?
Not in terms of learning the craft as he lived in Kerala while I was growing up in Delhi. Nor did our relationship help in getting me published because my first deal was with Penguin UK to whom I was a total non-entity. But I think it must have helped to have had a great writer like him in the family when I was growing up. The fact that he was so down-to-earth and displayed a wicked sense of humour probably helped take some of the mystique away from the business of writing which might otherwise have seemed an unattainable goal to me.

Your stories are inspired by…
All sorts. Sometimes they spring from something I’ve heard or read. Sometimes a chance meeting can set off an idea, or even an over-heard conversation. I remember Vikram Seth saying in an interview that it was the sight of an unknown young man standing on the banks of the Serpentine and looking gloomily into the water that gave him the idea for An Equal Music so I’m thankfully not alone in finding stories in unlikely places.

Did those odd jobs in writing help you become a good writer?
Without a doubt. When I first moved to England, I did a whole variety of jobs – teaching special needs adults in an FE college, social work for an organisation called ‘Homestart’, child care/protection for the Social Services Department, later on broadcast journalism and film classification. My working life was messy and unplanned but I now know that I was developing a very useful ‘Writer’s CV’, which essentially means that I gathered a whole lot of useful experiences and widened my horizons which enabled me to go off into many disparate worlds with less effort than would otherwise have been the case.

Do you miss living in London?
Immensely! It’s such a fabulous city, so rich culturally and linguistically. We used to live quite centrally and I walked to work, which made me feel very much part of the city – unlike the view-from-a-car-window that life in India usually involves. As I had to cross the Thames twice a day, I took to waving back at tourists who would be chugging along in those river-boats below and felt very pleased to be part of the landscape that they were enjoying. I wonder how many home-videos across the world have a sequence of Mad-Indian-Woman-Waving-from-Bridge.

A Scandalous Secret….What made you want to write it?
The idea was sparked off when a few high-profile cases emerged in Britain of well-known women (Claire Short, Pauline Prescott) who, as young unmarried mothers, had given up their babies for adoption in the unforgiving 50s. Both the aforementioned women had emotional reunions with those children when they came in search of their birth mothers, although I was aware that such happy endings were probably rare. Anyway, reading their stories made me think of how often women in India might have faced the same plight too and that was the seed of the story of A Scandalous Secret.

How much of fact inspires your fiction?
I think fact has to underlie fiction to make it credible (leaving aside genres like fantasy or sci-fi, of course). Most stories emerge from factual material but imagination comes into play when those facts are taken and transmuted into something else altogether. This process is particularly exciting for a writer when the characters are created bit by bit and then gradually take over their own eventual fates.

Tell us about your Big Dream
I’m working alongside a few other parents of people with special needs to help create a long-term residential community for the future care of our children. The Delhi government has given us three acres of land and a disused community centre to get going. The place is being renovated at the moment, and admissions policies and contracts are being drawn up so that we can start moving our first residents in by the autumn/winter of 2011. It’s very exciting as it’s spear-heading a new way at looking at the care of people with disabilities.

When you face a writer’s block…
I take it as it comes and don’t agonise much over it. Quite recently, it felt as though I wouldn’t write another word again. But, suddenly, seemingly from nowhere, inspiration started to flow again.

Writing a story is like…
Playing God. But only to some extent as the characters do tend to take over after some time and then the whole thing is pretty much out of the author’s control. I know that can sound weird and mystical but it’s something to do with character development and recognising. There are certain things your characters will either do or not.

How do you find the time to write?
This used to be a huge issue when I was doing a full-time job back in London but it’s obviously easier now. The bigger problem now is to discipline myself to sit down and write when I know I do not have to squeeze the writing into the interstices of an otherwise busy life.

What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced as an author?
Moving agents. I had David Godwin sell my first book but he seemed to be struggling with me after that because my work was bordering on popular (rather than literary) fiction, which is his speciality. Being a thorough gentleman, I felt he was unlikely to ask me to move on and so, rather than languish endlessly on his list, I decided to leave and look for someone more keen on popular fiction.  It was scary leaving a glittering agency like DGA to start that hunt again but, luckily, I found someone else some months down the line and David and I have stayed friends.

What’s next?
In terms of writing, another historical fiction book – but one that moves between contemporary times and times past. I’ve just started work on the manuscript so it could be a while before it becomes a book. And, of course, seeing our residential community project through to the second phase.

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