Writers on Reading. Part Five, Janice Pariat
You know the feeling, when a friend tells you about someone they know, building them up just enough for you to feel curious about them. And with each memory your friend recounts, you’ve imagined conversations you would’ve had and even feel like that you know that person.
Janice Pariat’s newest book, The Nine-Chambered Heart does just that. Nine people reminisce about a woman they’ve crossed paths with at various points in their life, and hers. What ensues is a complex portrait of a woman, one that questions the very nature of identity, making you wonder if you are just a reflection of how you are perceived by others.
In this edition of Writers on Reading, Janice Pariat lets us sneak a peek into her life, and gives us lofty reading goals. And if you’re an aspiring writer waiting to be the next big thing in literary circles, here’s a word of advice - get a job! Janice’s words, not ours :)
What is your first memory of reading? And how did it lead to writing?
I inherited a vast collection of Enid Blyton books from my older sister, and my first and favourite memory of reading is standing before a tall bookshelf, at the beginning of long winter vacations, picking out the book that would be my first holiday read. Such pleasure—of embarking on an adventure with The Famous Five or The Secret Seven, perched on the edge of endless, school-free, reading days.
If not writing, it led to copious amounts of plagiarism. My first stories were blatant Blyton rip-offs. I stole everything—characters, plots, settings. But in such forgery, there was much fun to be had, and I hope, some learning.
People imagine the perfect reading space to be under a tree or in a grassy meadow, preferably with a loving pet and a steaming cup of tea on the side. What is your happy place to read in?
I can read mostly anywhere—noisy bars, sunny spot on the sofa, in the metro, on trains, and planes, and parks, but I confess to having a predilection for quiet cafés, with endless cake and coffee, where I am part of the world but also outside it.
What works for you - finishing a book before you move on to the next, or shuttling between several books at a time?
As with writing, always finishing a book before I move on—even if by “finishing” I mean I decide halfway through it’s no longer worth pursuing.
Tell us about the one book that you can read and reread.
In all honesty, I’m not much of a re-reader of fiction. (Unless you count the texts I’m required to revisit for my writing classes). I might go back to certain paragraphs or lines from time to time, but usually not books in their entirety. So many books, so little time. I’m nervous I might not finish reading everything that’s currently on my bookshelf—and constantly being added to. Having said that, I’ve picked up Chatwin’s Utz more than once; it’s a small book about the power of art and it never fails to charm and move me. With poetry though, I find re-reading imperative. Sharon Olds’ Stag’s Leap, Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings, Shrikant Verma’s Magadha, Tishani Doshi’s Girls are Coming out of the Woods, Namdeo Dhasal’s Current of Blood, Vijay Nambisan’s First Infinities.
And what features on your current reading list?
Working on historical fiction entails that my reading list, for the last year or so, has been mostly confined to “required reading”. This has included obscure, forgotten memoirs, collected letters, biographies, travelogues and also an array of related fiction. On my current list is AS Byatt’s Angels and Insects, Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, Matthew Sweet’s Inventing the Victorians, Hanya Yanahigara’s The People in the Trees. Entirely unrelated to my current literary project but definitely on my list is Margo Jefferson’s Negroland, Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, and Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba’s gorgeous Daytripper.
In one of your columns, you’ve said, ‘placing pressure on your craft changes your relationship with it’. And I’m sure this is a trial that many writers put themselves through. What then, must a writer do, to move past this and write for the love of writing?
Get a job. Unless you’re privileged enough to live in a place (that isn’t your parent’s house) and not pay rent. Get a job that doesn't take over your life, so you still have time, energy, and headspace, to write. For me, it was truly liberating. For years, I struggled to freelance—and because writers are paid so badly, unable to think past “how much will writing this article pay me?”. When I found myself asking, “Will writing this book make me money?,” I gave up freelancing, and found, fortunately, a teaching job that allows me to be a writer without the pressure of making a living off my fiction.
A significant chunk of your education was spent in boarding schools with gorgeously green campuses. And growing up in the 80s and 90s would also mean that Malory Towers, St Clare’s and its ilk possibly featured in your reading list. Was boarding life anything like what was described in these books? And how does it reflect in your present-day writing?
I did hope for life to emulate art but our contexts were so utterly different, it didn’t quite extend far beyond midnight feasts and pranking teachers. Though I longed, like in Malory Towers, for a pool filled by the sea. I think the similarities lay in friendships—deep, abiding, and for some of us forged while doing community service as punishment for some minor misdemeanour or the other. Boarding school life hasn’t quite made an appearance in my writing—at least not yet, and who knows, it just may sooner rather than later.
Inspiration is said to strike in the oddest of places. Is there any specific place or incident where an idea has taken seed that you find misplaced or humorous in retrospect?
The idea for The Nine-Chambered Heart came to me on a walk after dinner in London, on a cold evening in May 2015. I’m not certain it’s odd or misplaced in retrospect, but I cannot seem to forget that I ate ramen, and it has quite nothing to do with the book.
You’ve mentioned in past interviews that you are a disciplined, 9-5 type of writer. What distracts you from this process, and how do you get back on track?
Living in Delhi, and being part of a social network that’s wonderful and supportive but also tremendously demanding on your time. Now, while I’m working on this book, I’ve (self) imposed a limit of two social events a week. Else, I’ve realised, not much writing will get done.
You had an online literary publication, Pryta much before online publications became mainstream. What words of wisdom do you have for editors and curators of online publications (including Soup)?
Every so often, bring in new and fresh collaborations. Since running an online literary publication is, for most of us, a labour of love, it isn’t always easy to sustain a high and constant level of enthusiasm and energy. You need bolstering.
You teach Creative Writing and History of Art at Ashoka University. Can you take us through a typical Professor Janice Pariat class?
If you were in my creative writing class, we’d begin, always, with workshops on how to read like a writer. Inarguably the most important “technique” to learn when you wish to write. With History of Art, we’d begin with Plato and Aristotle and work our way through the centuries down to Arthur Danto—centering on the question, what is art?
One gets to know the protagonist in The Nine-Chambered Heart from the perspectives of people around her. If she were to write a short epilogue for the book, what would she have to say?
“I had so much to say, I wish they’d shut up and listened.”
Finally, on to quick literary word associations. Tell us the first book that pops into your mind for the following.
Magic – Madeline Miller’s Circe
Monsters – Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent
Metropolitans – Valerie Luselli’s Faces in the Crowd
And of course, the crowd-favourite, Cats – Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World
Interviewed by Ganga Madappa