Last summer I was lucky enough to be selected to be part of the judging panel for the Fellows of Nature Short Story Award in South Asia. It was a huge honour to be considered worthy of such an event!
The judging process was so much harder than I thought it would be. I was given about 30 (there were 165 entries in total) stories to read and judge based on various criteria. It took two whole days of reading and allocating a score out off a possible 20 for each piece of writing.
There was one clear winner that stood out for me within my selection: A wonderful story called ‘People of the Sun’ by Meghna Pant (the entries are unnamed when judging). I was delighted to hear that it was selected to be the overall winner!
Meghna very kindly agreed to an author interview…….
What form does your writing take?
Our Indian shastras tell us that from the formless comes the form, and the form takes you back to the formless. As a writer I strive to experience the formless and give it form. And then again engage with the form to experience the formless. I savour the form and discipline of literature to weave life’s chaos and senselessness into linearity. Yet, ultimately it is not form that I’m seeking as a creator. I’m seeking growth and elevation, a path on which to glimpse the higher self. This is the only way in which I know to ensconce myself in the very essence of art.
How often do you write?
While writing my first two books – One & A Half Wife and Happy Birthday! – I was working full-time as a journalist, first in New York City and then in Dubai. I worked non-stop for five years. I filled the days with a job, with which to pay the bills, and wrote like a maniac during every free moment. It was exhausting and exhilarating. Now, thanks to the mild success of those books and my freelance journalism work, I am a full-time author.
My day begins and ends with writing. I’m either writing, thinking about what to write, reading, finding means to sustain my writer’s life, or experiencing new people, countries and encounters to keep my mind bloated with ideas and inspiration. I follow a strict regiment with deadlines and goals. I write 500-1000 words a day on average. I like to be organised in every aspect of my life, so my house has to be clean, finances have to be in order, health has to be heeded, family and loved ones have to be indulged, and work has to be done. I am, therefore, borderline manic my time, not permitting its wastage in the hands of fools or life’s many distractions (including social media).
When I begin writing a story or novel I become so consumed that I can write up to 16 hours a day, without a break, for months on end. I once had my laptop tip over and cut my upper lip (I’m a horizontal writer), and I didn’t get up till my T-shirt was bloody because I was in the middle of writing a crucial scene! That is mania, love, passion, obsession. This is what writing means to me.
How does writing make you feel?
Writing is like jumping off a cliff and not knowing where you will land, or whether you’ll land at all. It is a soul-wrenching all-consuming process that demands you to put the rest of your life on hold.
Writing makes me feel excited, exhausted, complete, empty, frustrated, exhilarated. It makes me feel everything and then nothing.
Ultimately though, the smell of a new book, my new book, which holds years of my life, my little dreams, and being able to send it off on its own journey, out into the world, to fulfill its destiny, that is happiness. Nothing, no one, no struggle, no award, no acclaim, no review, can ever replicate this feeling of joy.
Where//when do you write?
Like Truman Capote, I am a completely horizontal writer. I need to be lying down on the bed or couch, tucked under a blanket to be able to think and write. I’m so finicky about quietude (even in a mad bustling city like Mumbai) that I find the whirring of a fan distracting and can sit through sweltering Indian summers without even a fan on! My family thinks I’m crazy, but that’s not necessarily an abhorrent quality for a writer to possess!
I write best in the morning before my mind has completely awakened to the world and, then, late at night when my mind is slowly unawakening to the world.
What do you write about?
Writing is the only thing I’ve done in my life without expecting anything in return. So none of my writing is pre-determined by peripheral factors; no city, no race, no gender, no religion, no amount of recognition or appreciation frames it. My stories are formed and developed keeping only the moments in mind, those epiphanic moments when the character or the plot or the truth, or all of the above, reveal themselves, most often without even knowing it, and it all comes together or falls apart. Exactly like life.
I am currently writing my fourth book and second full-length novel MEN WITHOUT GOD. It is a dark tale set in – and between – China and India. It is a powerful portrayal of longing, strife and family in the wake of war. It’s my most ambitious work and is, in equal parts, scaring me and exciting me.
What’s the best thing about writing?
My favourite part about writing is having discovered my passion for short stories. I think short stories have made me a better writer. Brevity allows little indulgence for the writer to get carried away with the beauty of their style. It forces a distillation of plot, character, story and form. It demands the writer to hold a moment, keep it heightened, without risking the reader giving up on the story. A good short story can never flag and asks for taut writing with specificity, cleanliness, fleetness and an unflinching attention to detail. The effect of a short story has to be exquisite and offer the reader (and writer) something as transformative as an awakening.
My love has paid off. Many of my short stories have been published in prestigious international literary magazines, including Avatar Review, Wasafari, Eclectica, The Indian Quarterly and QLRS. Random House India published Happy Birthday in 2013 and the book was longlisted for the world’s biggest short story award: The Frank O’Connor International Prize 2014. Juggernaut published my second short story collection ‘The Trouble With Women’. And I recently won the 2016 FON South Asia Short Story Award.
Writing is like falling in love. You cannot experience it without letting it change who you are.
How long have you been writing for?
I was 19 when my first short story, Aberration, was published online. The plot and characters stayed with me for months before I gathered the wherewithal to finish the story. But the discipline of writing, its stark loneliness, does not usually appeal to the young and skittish. So I started writing seriously around nine years back, though at that time it was only short stories. Since I had no training as a writer (my degrees are in Economics and MBA Finance), I took several writing courses in New York. After a fair share of rejections my short stories began to be published in reputed US literary magazines. The idea for a full-length novel, One & A Half Wife, came only in 2010, and that’s around the time I also started putting together short stories that would come together in the collection Happy Birthday!
Meghna Pant is an award-winning author and journalist. Her debut collection of short stories Happy Birthday (Random House India, 2013) was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award 2014, the world’s biggest short story prize. One And A Half Wife (Westland, 2012) – her debut novel – won the national Muse India Young Writer Award and was shortlisted for several other awards, including the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. She is also the winner of the 2016 FON South Asia Short Story Award. Her new short story book The Trouble With Women (Juggernaut, 2016) is now available on the app.