Now for an exclusive author interview with Damyanti Biswas, author of the excellent debut novel, #YouBeneathYourSkin
Please click here for the link to my blog entry where I reviewed the novel.
And now for the interview!
This is a powerful crime novel, and in many sections, we read about horrible crimes against women in India. How did you go about gathering research and information on this situation, and why did you feel compelled to write about this very real problem?
Thanks for the kind words on You Beneath Your Skin!
I started writing it in 2012, and at the end of that year, a New Delhi woman on an evening out was brutally gang-raped by a few men, who abused her with a metal rod that caused her intestines to spill on the road. This shook up all of India and made headlines around the world at the time.
My novel already contained snippets of crimes against women, but after this incident, that became the entire theme. I’ve also been volunteering for Project WHY, a small New Delhi non-profit that works for the empowerment and education of women and children, which gave me insights into New Delhi’s underprivileged communities. I wanted a plot point that made visible the violence that was steeped through our society and chanced upon acid attacks. Once I began interviewing acid attack survivors from Stop Acid Attacks, I realised that acid attacks couldn’t remain limited to a plot point alone, and that I had a lot more to say about patriarchy in India, and resultant violence against women.
How did you balance the novel in terms of the serious criminal nature of the plot with character development and allowing us to get to know the primary and secondary characters?
In some ways, I think the crime aspect allowed me to examine Indian society. When a crime is committed, those affected by it—the perpetrators, the victims and the investigators as well their families—are in a moment of heightened emotion. It is at these moments of crisis that our true selves are revealed. Character development and getting to know the characters is at the heart of a why-dun-it like You beneath Your Skin.
All my stories begin with characters, and it is through getting to know the characters that I know their narratives, and the plot of the novel emerges. All I do is take the readers along on this journey.
There are a variety of diverse characters in this novel, with different motivations. How did you go about creating these various people to populate your book? Were you conscious to try and ensure characters were not all perfect or all evil, but have a balance of character traits?
The novel emerged from Anjali Morgan’s character. She’s Indian American, has an autistic son, and has left the States to settle down in India in order to escape from the unpleasantness back home. The rest of the characters all emerged from a series of what-ifs.
What if this woman obsessed with perfection is caught in an imperfect relationship with a married man? What if this secret relationship leads to other problems, and so on and on. I need my characters to be very lifelike, with their own motivations, their desires, their wounds, secrets, affinities and peeves. If they’re not real to me, I can’t write about them. So all of them are flawed and imperfect, like we humans are. All of them have external goals, and they need something else on the inside. My role as a writer is to respect my characters and my readers. I let the characters lead me into the story, and hope their struggles are such that readers would bond with them, one way or another.
Did you develop a careful outline and then stick to it for the entire writing process, or did the story evolve and change as you wrote?
The story went through fifteen drafts. This was my debut novel, and I was learning to write as I went along. The first few drafts were written by the seat of my pants. Then I realised I needed structure. The novel had way too many moving parts, and I needed to keep track of all of them. So I developed an outline using index cards, and followed those in the later drafts.
How did you go about writing your novel – what is your approach to writing?
I finished writing the last draft of You Beneath Your Skin in 2018. My process has (hopefully) become a tad more efficient since then.
Earlier, I went with characters and let them tell the story. I do the same now, but I scribble the story on index cards first, and not a document. I also do a lot of pre-writing: character motivations, desires, wounds, secrets, watershed childhood moments that shaped their lives. I try and visit the places I plan to set the novel in. This helps me understand the sort of story I’m trying to write, the points-of-view I’ll use and why. The index cards become a sort-of-outline, and give me great pointers for a beginning, middle, and an end, and maybe a few plot points.
When writing the first draft, the story changes because of things I’d not foreseen—mainly because the characters take on a life of their own. Once the draft is done, I let it be for a long while, and then come back and do a read-through.
My next few ‘drafts’ are again scrawled on index cards—but this time I have cards for each scene. I stare into space a lot, transporting myself to the world of the story, checking for things like agency of the characters, pace, and the order in which the scenes fit together. I mark out the character’s evolution as the plot advances, and figure out whether the tension rises and falls as I want it to. If these things are unsatisfactory, changes are made on index cards, and I move them around on the board.
Based on those index cards, I write the next draft, referring to them often to remember the birds-eye view of the story. Rinse and repeat till I’m happy with the structure and pace of the story. At this point I send it to trusted beta readers and my wonderful agent, who is very hands-on with edits. If the feedback indicates big changes, I go back to index cards. If not, I use the input to add and subtract pieces from scenes, deepen characters as needed, add or take out setting descriptions, and improve dialogue. After a round of copy-edits, I brace myself for the submission process.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I’m wary of doling out advice. Each writer is an individual, and what works for me might not work for them, because we all come to writing from different social, work, and educational backgrounds.
If I had to give advice to those writing their first novel, I’d say: you only debut once, make it count. A little self-doubt is a good thing—use it to improve your story and your craft, but don’t let your self-doubt get out of hand. Read a lot, widely, and in your genre. You learn a lot through osmosis. Don’t give up, because that’s the difference between amateurs and professionals. And the last bit: listen to all kinds of advice, but follow only what works for you. The essence of the writing journey is to figure out what you want to write, and how you want to write it. No one else can do it for you, and no writing advice is absolute.
Do you plan to follow this up with a sequel, or a prequel?
You Beneath Your Skin has been optioned for TV screens by Endemol Shine, so I did write a synopsis for a sequel season. If some day there’s an opportunity, I would like to write it because I know all the characters and the setting very well.
What are your next projects we can be on the lookout for, and where can we follow you for upcoming news and writing?
I’m currently working on a crime novel set in Mumbai, about a policeman and a bar dancer.
To stay in touch, I run monthly gazettes: the writing gazette is a curated list of writing resources as well as calls for submissions from journals, agents and publishers. The reading gazette contains book recommendations, information on podcasts, and books on promotion. You can find the gazettes here.