With the release of her second book, The Hope Factory, Lavanya Sankaran tells Suneetha Balakrishnan how her stories are born.
Lavanya Sankaran’s first book, The Red Carpet (a collection of stories on Bangalore), made history. After an auction on the book, which lasted over three days and involved nine publishers, was interrupted by the famous New York City blackout of 2003, and was written up in Publisher’s Weekly and other trade magazines, it won critical acclaim around the world, and spent two years on the Indian bestseller lists.
At that time, she was an investment banker but Lavanya clarifies, “I am a writer by profession. I have been writing since I was a child — and no matter what else I did with my time, writing was part of the journey and, ultimately, the destination.” Her second book The Hope Factory, out in May 2013, is part of a two-book deal (including The Red Carpet, 2005). Excerpts from an interview
What did you publish before The Red Carpet?
I had two lucky breaks early in my writing career. I got signed by a top agent in New York, Lane Zachary of Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, and the title story, The Red Carpet, was published in The Atlantic Monthly magazine — fabulous, considering they published 12 stories a year, selected from over 15,000 submissions. The Red Carpet was the first to explore the landscape of contemporary urban India in fiction. It was startling and exciting while it happened, but none of that was very helpful to me in the long term; I had to push the success of the first book out of my mind in order to write the second.
What does The Hope Factory discuss?
The Hope Factory is about modern India — chaotic, captivating, bewildering, heartbreaking. It crosses so many landscapes: social, political, industrial, familial, a changing world full of growing pains. I wanted to capture all the nuances very carefully and also structure this complex, multi-layered story very tightly. The writing took me six long years.
How are your stories born?
In The Hope Factory, the crux of Anand’s story fell in place for me late one night after, of all things, a television programme. I was watching a National Geographic special on American pioneers and what it took for them to survive and succeed in such a hostile environment — and that’s when it clicked. I realised I was seeing something similar all around me: for years, I had been watching Indian business people struggling to build world class businesses in an environment that didn’t support them in any of the crucial ways.
Kamala’s story — the awkward, wonderful, fiercely protective relationship between a single mother and her 12-year-old son — had a different genesis. I had just fired my maid for repeated absenteeism. She pleaded for another chance. It was an awful, uncomfortable conversation. When she turned to leave, I saw her son waiting for her at the open door; he had heard every word. This young boy of 12 looked at me as if he hated me. He picked up her bag and, with his arm protectively about her shoulders, walked his sorrowing mother across the street into the rain. I have never seen him again, but he stayed with me.
Do you read your peer writers?
I read voraciously, of writers past and present, every single day. Of contemporary books, I really enjoyed Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis, David Mitchell’s A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.
How much feedback do you need when writing?
I need absolute solitude when I write. Not just physical solitude, but the freedom that mental solitude brings. I keep even the ghost of a reader at bay during this time. When the first draft is done, I am ready to critique and edit my writing. I am passionate about this, visiting and revisiting my sentences and my scenes endlessly. When this process is done to a certain level, that’s when I may sometimes take the feedback of an actual reader, a friend whose literary judgement and honesty I can trust.
No matter what else I did with my time, writing was part of the journey and, ultimately, the destination