Oct 14, 2009

Keeping An Eye On... Vandana Singh

After what feels like forever, I was finally able to get in touch with one of the first authors I approached in my Keeping An Eye On Series. Out of all of the names on the SF Signal Genre Watchlist, Vandana Singh was one of the authors I knew least about and I wanted to correct that. After doing a little digging and reading a few stories, I realized that Vandana was doing some very interesting writing that stood out as unique against the majority of my reading experience. This inspired me to see what the highly regarded author was currently working on and to learn more about her as an author. Unfortunately, I initially had some trouble getting in touch with Vandana and my interview with the author responsible for such brilliant pieces as "Delhi" and "The Wife" was unfortunately put on hold.

However, after a few months trying to track her down, I've finally got some answers which I'd like to share with you.

SoY: If we are keeping an eye on you, what should be looking for in the near future? What have you been working on recently?

VS: I’ll have two short stories out in early 2010, and possibly a couple of novellas next summer. I tend to write mostly in the summer, since I have a very intense college teaching job, which, while it feeds my writing, also prevents it for most of the year.

SoY: If a reader has never heard of you before reading this, what is the one single piece of work of yours (novel, short story, etc.) would you like them to read?

VS: This is a hard question! Perhaps the answer would be my novelette “The Tetrahedron.” Or, if I were allowed to offer a choice, my novelette “Infinities.” The reason I pick those is that the stories are familiar to me like an old shawl or coat might be. If I can inhabit them so easily, perhaps a reader will find more of what makes my fiction my fiction in those stories. If that makes any sense.

SoY: Describe your writing style in haiku-form.

VS: Ask a crow
How it flies; look! A feather
Sails down.

SoY: To date you haven’t published any full-length novels but you have written several novellas and novelletes. Will we see a full-length novel from you some time soon?

VS: I have two novels in my head. But they each require about three months of dedicated writing time, and freedom from various responsibilities, which isn’t going to happen any time soon. On the other hand a novel might sneak up unexpectedly on me. When writing my novella Distances (Aqueduct Press) I came the closest I’ve ever been to 40,000 words. It was like almost falling off a cliff! So you never know.

SoY: What sub-genres are you most interested in? Is there a difference in what subgenres you read and the ones you write?

VS: I don’t really think in terms of sub-genres as much as I think in terms of authors I like to read. I like reading authors with interesting, deep, thoughtful ideas couched in elegant language with or without strong plot elements, such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Jeffrey Ford, Ian R. Macleod, Molly Gloss. I love stories in which science is taken seriously but used with imagination and sensitivity to the human dimension (Kim Stanley Robinson, or Geoffrey Landis, for example). I love stories about alternative ways humans and human societies could be (Ursula K. Le Guin, Eleanor Arnason to name just two). I love stories that challenge comfortable, conventional ways of looking at the world (L. Timmel DuChamp, Karen Joy Fowler, Carol Emshwiller, for instance). Put in terms of sub-genres, I like urban fantasy and some traditional fantasy as well as good hard SF (scientific more than technological), enlightened space opera, pretty much everything if it is well written. The sub-genre I have the hardest time with is alternative history. So I find myself not reading too much of that.

SoY: How does your Indian heritage influence the stories you write? Are there any thematic elements that resonate strongly in Indian culture that may be overlooked by the uninitiated?

VS: My being Indian is possibly the biggest thing that influences my stories. Not just in terms of settings --- most of the settings in my stories are Indian --- but also in terms of characters and plot. I think growing up in India grew my imagination in certain ways that would not have happened in any other place. I’m also fascinated by the idea of India, and writing stories allows me to explore this. As for thematic elements, they are probably pretty obvious in my stories. Non-Indians might miss a few cultural allusions and will probably misunderstand some things because they are generally viewing them through the distorted lenses of stereotypes, but I’m going to be optimistic and say that the main ideas are likely clear to all readers unless they’ve been hiding in a cave somewhere. I also hope that my stories bust stereotypes at least to a modest extent.

SoY: What are your writing habits like? Do you have any peculiar writing habits that somehow work for you but everyone else would find quirky (and/or insane)?

VS: I write like anyone involved with a family and a full time job: in stolen moments. I’ve had to adapt because I have so little writing time, so I write while dinner bubbles on the stove, and get away to cafes when I can. It is good to have a small laptop to haul around. I wish I could admit to bizarre writing habits, you know, like “I can only write in the presence of my favorite pet elephant, who is my fount of inspiration,” but the truth, alas, is far more mundane.

Perhaps if there is anything remotely interesting about my writing style, it is this: more often than not I have no idea what the story is going to be about. Sometimes I have a fuzzy vision, or a glimpse of one scene, or a character. But mostly all I have is a random first sentence, and I follow it to see where it might go. I know there are writers who plan everything down to the details of every scene, and more power to them if that works for them. For me, if I attempted that, my Muse would run away screaming and I would bore myself silly. It is the process of discovery, of gradually figuring out what happens in the story and how it ends, that makes writing an interesting process for me.

SoY: An incident occurs resulting in your removal from the list of up-and-coming genre stars. What is the most likely cause of that incident? Who do you nominate in your place?

VS: I write my novel, and it is a best seller, and I am up-and-coming no more --- I have arrived! Or: I am abducted by aliens, return after an amazing space-operatic adventure and achieve instant celebrity status! The two are about even in probability I think. But anyway rather than appointing someone in my stead I’d like to name at least one person who should be on the list anyway: Anil Menon.

SoY: You’ve written some short-stories specifically for children. What do you find are the major differences in writing for children versus writing for adults?

VS: For me it is less a question of decreasing the sex or violence because there isn’t much of those things in my adult fiction (with some exceptions). One difference is that there are kids in my children’s stories, but the stories are not only about kids. Also, I think my style changes somewhat. The themes I am interested in exploring are mostly the same, but I tackle them differently. My Younguncle books are at the surface comic adventures of the eccentric title character but they are also serious beneath the fun and frolic. And I use Big Words, like “ambrosial,” which bothers some children’s book reviewers. The children’s short stories you mention are mostly quite serious.

SoY: I’m largely unfamiliar with the world of Indian Speculative Fiction. Is there an Asimov, Heinlein, or Clarke of Indian SF? Are there any seminal authors who have been translated into English?

VS: Indian speculative fiction has quite a history. The first SF story in India was probably written around the late 1800’s in Bengali. The problem is that we have 18 languages apart from English and there are very few translations, so we don’t really know where the next Clarke or Le Guin is hiding. One writer who is brilliant, whose translations from Bengali to English were done some years ago, is Premendra Mitra from the 1940’s. I’m waiting to find more such writers in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and other languages. Writing in English are Anil Menon, Manjula Padmanabhan, Samit Basu, Priya Chhabria, Payal Dhar, to name just a few.

The Indian spec fic scene is full of promise. There are annual conferences, there is an Indian Science Fiction Association, and this past summer I co-taught at a science fiction workshop that was bursting with talent. I’ve written extensively about it on my blog (see below).

SoY: Every writer has a favorite word. Mine’s plethora. What’s that unique word that tries to find its way into everything you write?

VS: Oh I don’t know. I’ve lately become fond of concatenation but haven’t had a chance to use it much, yet.

SoY: What has been the highlight of your career so far?

VS: I have a pretty modest career as far as writing, but among what you might call the highlights is a recent review of my story collection “The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories” by Paul Witcover in Locus. And there’s a teeny picture of me in that issue as well. Also four of my short stories have been reprinted in Years’ Best anthologies, most recently “Oblivion: A Journey” in Year’s Best SF 14 (eds. Hartwell and Cramer).

SoY: You are one of the few female authors (and one of only 5 on this list) in a genre dominated by male authors and male readers. What are your opinions on gender parity in speculative fiction today? Do you feel like being a woman viewed as a negative (unjustly so) by some readers?

VS: I don’t have the data on how readers view female authors, so I don’t know. But I know there is gender imbalance in the spec fic field, and it concerns me very much. We live in a gender-biased world, so how could that not be reflected in our field? There have been some fascinating discussions and studies on this on the internet in recent years. There seem to be a lot of women writing spec fic and not as many getting published, or getting their works reviewed, or otherwise taken seriously. While it seems there is less overt bias against women writers compared to a few decades ago, there are still institutionalized biases, subtler biases that are harder to discern. I think these are serious issues that deserve examination by the community.

SoY: You are approached to write a tie-in novel in an existing (and your favorite) SFF universe. Which universe is it? Do you take the offer?

VS: No. I can’t imagine playing in someone else’s universe without changing it too much. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy other universes. I haven’t had a TV for years but I remember being fascinated by Babylon 5, and Stargate Atlantis, and, always, Dr. Who.

SoY: What’s the best thing you’ve read this year?

VS: I can’t pick just one thing because my mind doesn’t work that way, but I’ll restrict myself to two things: Ursula Le Guin’s novel Lavinia and Carolyn Ives Gilman’s novella Arkfall.

SoY: [Obligatory pimpage] Is there anywhere online that readers can follow you and your work? [/obligatory pimpage]

VS: There’s my website, http://users.rcn.com/singhvan which also has information about my recent short story collection and how to order it, and my blog, http://vandanasingh.wordpress.com/. There is an older story of mine archived at Strange Horizons: http://www.strangehorizons.com/2004/20040105/sky_river.shtml.

As much as I've enjoyed talking to some of my favorite authors, discovering and getting to know new authors has been one of the highlights of this interview series. Vandana Singh is no exception. Hopefully, she can find the time to sit down and write one of those two novels sooner rather than later.

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