“I longed to have India in my life!”
Sujata Massey, who made her mark as an author of mystery narratives, has penned her first historical fiction, The City of Palaces. Born to an Indian father and a German mother, Massey worked for a few years at the Baltimore Evening Sun. The US-based author has also penned the 10-book Rei Shimura mystery series, which includes The Salaryman’s Wife, an Agatha Awardwinner for best first mystery, and The Flower Master, which won the Macavity Award for Best Traditional Mystery.
What was the inspiration for City of Palaces?
Calcutta! The city spelled with a ‘C’ that I began visiting as a child in the early 1970s. My family and I went back and forth between Baranagar, the North Calcutta municipality where my grandparents and other relatives lived, and the old Ramakrishna Mission in Gol Park where we stayed. Later on I stayed a few times at the New Kenilworth Hotel, a former British bungalow that was close to Chowringhee and Park Street. But as the years passed and I tried to locate streets full of wonderful old bungalows that I knew were within walking distance, I found they had vanished. I wrote a book about pre-modernised Calcutta to stamp memories into place for myself and hopefully for some readers, too.
What were the challenges of writing historical fiction?
I have always been interested in very small, journalistic details, probably because I first worked as a newspaper journalist. I wanted to know things like how much a diamond engagement ring was priced in 1946; the tram route from Chowringhee to College Street and more. These details could sometimes be found in autobiographies and old newspapers, but typically I needed to interview people. So, travel to India, and connection with older people, was essential. One wonderful asset is my father, who was born during the ’30s and is able to remember details of some events like the Japanese bombings of Calcutta in the early 1940s. When I couldn’t travel, I read and worked on better understanding Indian languages (I did not grow up speaking any of them). About six years ago, I was studying Hindi at the University of Minnesota and began investigating its spectacular Ames Library of South Asia, which holds about 200,000 books and documents gathered in the last century. The memoirs and old novels and government records were thrilling; before I knew it, my own picture of British Bengal was forming. I moved on from that library to the British Library in London. And then I flew to Calcutta, where I paged through the crumbling old newspapers that revealed cultural details and political opinions of the time that haven’t made it into history books.
How did your experience as a journalist influence your writing?
I became comfortable with writing and was able to meet daily deadlines. And reporting instills in one a belief in the power of truth and accuracy.
Was the switch from writing non-fiction to fiction easy?
Not at all! I’d been trained as a reporter to leave my opinion out of everything. As I began writing my first book, a mystery about a Japanese-American English teacher in Japan, I was good at describing the beautiful, quirky Japan she lived in – but had unbelievable trouble expressing her feelings about what she saw. So, I wrote in the first person, which forced me into her shoes. I now usually write in the first person, because otherwise, it’s too easy for me to shift into impartial journalist mode.
Do you have the storyline laid out before you begin writing?
Yes…and no. I always am certain of the place I’m going to write about, as well as the cultural and personal themes. But I don’t necessarily know how many people are going to wind up being hurt… or what the romantic outcome will be. Events unfold naturally once you are in the characters’ zone. As I get rolling with a book, I sometimes write a few lines about forthcoming plot events on index cards and shuffle them around. This also keeps me focused because I usually write books much longer than they should be and wind up cutting material.
From Japan to India – how close is your connect to the two countries?
When I was living near Tokyo and writing my Japanese mysteries in the 1990s, my intellectual and emotional connection to Japan was extremely strong. Then I returned to the States, and the connections changed. I became a parent and wanted to raise my children with an exposure to India – through their grandparents, our participation in a cultural school, watching films and listening to music, socialising with other South Asian families, and continued travel to India. I longed to have more India in my life when I was young and the US has changed so much that it’s now possible for my children to have this.
How much impact did India’s culture have on your personality?
My identity growing up was definitely that of an immigrant; but outside of Indian food cooked at home, some Bharat Natyam classes and attendance at occasional pujas, I did not have a traditional Indian upbringing. As a child, I absorbed Indian culture through Amar Chitra Katha comics! My desire to write about India came as an adult.
How often have you visited India?
I’ve been five times, and hope to visit a lot more. At age nine, I’ll always remember waking up and walking outside the Hotel Janpath in New Delhi, realising I was finally in India and about to have the most marvellous adventures. I recall gorging in old Calcutta eateries like the original Flury’s, the Grand Hotel, Ambar’s and Kwality Cafe. I will never forget a Ramakrishna Mission monk scolding me for attempting to check out books that were not in the children’s section of the Mission Library.
I’m making steady progress on a mystery novel about an Indian Medical Service family set back in 1920s Madras. It’s more humorous and light-hearted than The City of Palaces – but still deals with big themes like independence from Britain, India’s artistic culture, and women’s rights. I’m also revising a Rei Shimura mystery set in Japan after the tsunami. I wish there were two of me, so I could get both books done this year!