Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is an award-winning poet and author, whose books have been translated into 29 languages, including Japanese, Hebrew, Dutch and Russian. Her new book, The Forest Of Enchantments, is Sita’s version of the Ramayana. Excerpts from an interview:
What was your trigger for writing The Forest Of Enchantments?
I have been wanting to write a novel with Sita as the narrator of her own story ever since I wrote The Palace of Illusions 10 years ago, which is a similar project, with Draupadi as the main character. But it was a challenging task because I needed to research and read other versions of the Ramayan. So it took me a while.
Have you always seen yourself as a writer?
I only started writing seriously several years after I moved to the United States. I think immigration was a tough experience for me (I was terribly homesick). And writing helped me understand both the challenges and the benefits of immigration.
What has been your inspiration as a writer?
I have been inspired by the lives of immigrants, especially women. I have been inspired by the Indian stories my grandfather told me when I was growing up. I think my fascination with the Ramayan and Mahabharata stems from that. I have been inspired by writers down the ages, from Tagore to Tolstoy. Especially women’s voices have been important to me, namely Toni Morrison, Mahasweta Devi, Anita Desai and Margaret Atwood.
Does your writing draw influence from vernacular books?
I love reading Bengali books. Krittibas’s Ramayan was a major source for The Forest Of Enchantments. As was Mallika Sengupta’s Sitayan.
With the digitisation of books, have you moved to reading books on screen or do you prefer the old-fashioned books?
I have moved largely to books on screen. They take up very little space, are convenient for travel, and are environment-friendly. But I still have bookshelves filled with my old books, which I love.
What is your writing process like?
I usually write three or four days a week, when I am not teaching at the university. My best times are early in the day and late at night. I write well when the environment is quiet. I often get writer’s block! Then I have to stop and figure out the story or the character. Sometimes I read books that are similar to my project to get inspired.
How difficult or easy is it to get published? Have you had to modify or change the content of your book for it to get published?
It is not necessarily easy to get published, even after many books. It is even harder for people breaking into the field. This is especially true if you are writing books that are literary rather than a page-turner. When I feel a book is ready, I show it to my agent and she gives me feedback. Sometimes I revise based on that—more so for structure and style.
Who’s your first reader? And who are your biggest critics?
My group of writer friends are my first readers. They give me honest feedback. I recommend having a writers group for all writers. It also forces you to write by imposing deadlines. Family members are generally the toughest critics. When my mother, God bless her soul, was alive, I was always a bit afraid to show her my books! But now that she is gone, I miss her frank comments.
Do you think marketing plays a role in the success of a book?
Yes, in present times, marketing and publicity are both important, more than ever before, because you need to get the right kind of information about the book out to your readership—and there is so much “noise” out there. Some of this work has to be done by the publisher. It is helpful to have a social media presence. I really enjoy social media and love to interact with my readers on Twitter, Facebook and most recently, Instagram.