Interview with Shweta Narayan

Shweta NarayanShweta has been published in Shimmer twice: once for her story “The Mechanical Aviary of Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar,” in The Clockwork Jungle Book (Issue #11) (click here to listen to her read it! 2mb MP3 file), and once for her tale “One for Sorrow” in Issue #10.  You can email her at shweta@shwetanarayan.org, or just visit her at her author website www.shwetanarayan.org. In this interview, we ask her about “One for Sorrow” – but feel free to read her second interview about her writing process!

Where did the idea come from?

I was reading one of Terri Windling’s Folkroots columns, about birds and bird shapeshifters.  It contained a lovely description of swan maidens.  I thought “Swans, how beautiful, how graceful… but… raucous, badly behaved birds are so much more fun!  What would magpie fairies be like?”

Maggie appeared in my head the next day, clever and tricksy, with bright dark eyes and a rusty voice.  She said, “I’ve stories I could tell you, lass.”  But she didn’t really want to be in the stories, she just wanted to tell them.  That’s where Lainie came in.

How did the story change as you developed it?

A lot of this story is unchanged from the first draft.  That’s unusual for me.  But it came to me all in one piece, and then I spent my first-draft time writing verrrry slowly, while diving into the Scots language and the Scottish dialects of English.  I read dictionaries, grammars, poetry, speeches; I researched the politics of language issues in Scotland.  (Yes, I’m a language geek.)  I fell into the sentence patterns, remembered the music of Aberdeen English.  I wasn’t really able to do that in later drafts, so I tried not to change the prose much, except where native Scots had comments on the language.

Also, Maggie outright resisted change.  She turned up full-fledged in my head and showed me her story in flashes of vivid image.  I got them wrong a few times in the first draft, and had to fix them – but I knew when I had them right.  Lainie, on the other hand, kept changing, both during the first draft and after.  She started off as just a kid for Maggie to tell the stories to, and developed quickly into a young lady with her own mind and her own issues; issues that — I finally realized – mirrored Maggie’s.

Most of my redrafting was trying to get Lainie’s emotional story right.  I had her acting guilty and lonely and I didn’t know why!  I finally realized that she must have done something stupid, let a dear friend down,  because she wanted to fit in.  So Em finally entered the story, in the very last drafts, though I was hinting to myself that she ought to exist all along.  I just took a while to pick up on the hint.

You know the advice “Sometimes you have to kill your darlings.” Was there a scene or line that it really hurt to cut, but cutting it made the story stronger? May we reprint that scene or line? Or link to a very old version so that we may marvel at how much it changed?

I didn’t cut any scenes.  I did change one majorly, emotionally: the one where Lainie first meets Maggie.  In my first draft I defused the tension too quickly, and made them both behave far too well.  Going in and letting Lainie be sullen and Maggie be cold was hard, but – well, while I have nothing against wise old women and nice little girls, that’s not who these characters are.  The old version:

“He’s not supposed to talk to strangers,” Lainie said, trying to keep her own voice from shaking.

“And some are stranger nor others, eh?”  Maggie waggled a finger in Lainie’s face.  “I see more than you wee girls think I do.  Aye, and I hear more too.”

Lainie stood her ground this time.  She took a hard breath and nodded. “Aye,” she said.  “And that’s why I was picking up the feathers. To say sorry for that, see.”

Maggie’s hand dropped and she blinked, onyx eyes disappearing for a moment into the pottery face.  “Sorry?” she asked.

“Aye well… me mam says to say sorry for calling you a witch.  Though –” Lainie bit her lip.  “I’d liefer say sorry for being rude, whether you’re a witch or no.”

“And for that you were wanting to bring me a handful o’ down?” Maggie asked.  Frown lines appeared on her face, deeper cracks shaping her forehead.

Lainie nodded, hoping it was a thoughtful frown and not an angry one.

“Aye, and these.” She held out the white feathers.

Maggie looked blindly at Lainie for a moment, and then she smiled.  “Do ye ken, lass,” she said, her raucous voice softening, “the bairns been cheeping and tittling about me for years.  I’m thinking some of them thought shame when they growed up, but you’re the only one that’s sain sorry.  What do you make of that, eh?”

The words hit her like stones.  Lainie still remembered her first day of school, when the other girls circled and stared and grouped and giggled.  She imagined years and years of that, of being all alone, and she could not find a single thing to say.

“I’ll tell you what,” Maggie continued quietly. “If you’re queerie, it’s best you be young and bonny.  Auld and uncanny’s a terrible thing to be.”  She shook her head, then.  “You’re too wee for such thoughts.  Were you thinking to give me all of those, then, for nothing in return?”

Lainie nodded.  “To say sorry,” she repeated.

“No, lass, ’tis enough for me that you were wanting to.”

Feeling daft, Lainie let her hands fall to her sides.  “Are you not wanting them, then?”

“If they’re unmarred, and if they’re black or white, then I’m wanting them.  But not for nothing, na?  I’m no thief .”  Maggie smiled. “So tell me, lass, what shall I give you for these?”

How is this story like your other work? How is it different?

In some ways it’s a lot like my other work.  It’s a shapeshifter story, and I’ve been writing shapeshifter stories of one kind or another for the last eighteen months.  Also, it has a call-and-response character in the two different story threads, which seems to be my favourite story shape.

However, this story has several things I’ve never done before.  It’s quite dialectal, for one thing, and Maggie’s story is oral-storytelling, overtly using repetition and rhythm and the sound of words.  For another thing, Maggie’s a very different character from any other I’ve written.  Partly because she’s old, but partly because I’m really not a magpie kind of person.  Some stories, I feel like I’m figuring myself out by writing them.  This one, I feel like I was figuring someone else out, a new friend who was nothing like me at all.

How did you celebrate your first sale?

I blew the money on a cup of tea.
It was a lovely cup of tea.  It also wasn’t very much money.

Does your work tend to explore any particular themes?

Otherness, perhaps.  Being caught between groups, or trying to live in multiple worlds.  I’m drawn to shapeshifters because they are inherently part of two worlds and not entirely part of either.  I tend to write characters who are on the edges, on borders, and not quite fitting in.

What people have helped you the most with your writing?

  • My husband, who likes reading.
  • My dissertation advisor, Eve Sweetser, who’s introduced me to most of the fiction I love best (and some of the authors I love best).
  • My local writer’s group, and other writers I know, who I can trust to tell me what I need to fix.
  • My Clarion teachers and classmates, in ways I’m only just beginning to figure out.
  • The online community http://absolutewrite.com, which has many resources and many wonderful people who are willing to help a clueless newbie.

Favorite book you’ve read recently?

My favourite book in the last week or two has been The Magic and the Healing by Nick O’Donohoe.  But I’ve read so many wonderful books recently!  I think the one that will stay with me longest is the collection The Fate of Mice by Susan Palwick.

If you have a day job, what is it? What do you like about it?

I’m a student.  I’m working on a dissertation.  So no day job.

Favourite food?

Depends on my mood.  Right now, chocolate cake (to celebrate this sale)

What are some of your hobbies?

Reading, hiking, getting into serious discussions about ridiculous things, playing board games, card games, roleplaying games.  Reading out loud to children, though I don’t get to do that nearly often enough.

All-time favourite movie?

Bend it like Beckham

What do you want to be when you grow up?

I have to grow up?

Are you sure?

Quiz: How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb? Please explain your answer:

None.  They change all by themselves, given time (and stop working).

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