A Literary Meditation: Interview of Author Jayanthi Sankar

 Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: Been thinking of asking you some questions ever since I finished reading ‘When Will You Die?’

Jayanthi Sankar: Go ahead; I shall try to answer them.

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: Why a novella? Was it just how much the story demanded or did you decide on the size even before plotting you story? 

Jayanthi Sankar: I wanted to challenge myself to spread a canvas too wide like I normally do and also write a tight narrative other than historical fiction. And the most effective way for me was to explore the inner worlds of my characters rather than the incidents of their outer world. The novella was apt for that.

In any case, the plot is certainly crucial, but the content is even more important to a writer like me who is more introverted. Therefore, it is also possible for a novelist to be more interested in truth-telling devices that may or may not even appeal to her readers but those are the author's choices for her own creative reasons.

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: Even though your title sounds like a thriller, the actual genre is psychological fiction, why this title?

Jayanthi Sankar: This title fitted my fiction like the nucleus of an atom so perfectly that I figured I wouldn't change it, even though I envisioned higher possibilities of readers thinking it was a thriller. And, mostly serious readers look for my fiction, I’ve observed. Further more, I thought, anyway, who sets the rule that a title should indicate the genre of the content? Who says socio-psychological fiction can't have such a title? As a writer, my strongest belief has always been to never write things that are cliché or common. Throughout my 28 years of creative expression, my language, craft, and storytelling have always fit naturally within my convictions. If I continue to think of ways to break rules and norms in conventional storytelling, craft and characters why not in this as well? In my opinion, novelists constantly are, or should be, in search of not only truths but also newer unconventional experiences in fiction. These experiences they can create for themselves and for their readers. I may not know what I want when I begin, but I clearly know what I do not want as I progress. I write more for my creative happiness would be a better way to put it. Readers would eventually find my fiction different from what they would normally expect. Originality and art naturally happen.

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: How were you able to get into the mind of a delusional man and also a seemingly calm woman at the same time?

Jayanthi Sankar:  I made those two main characters out of several people I know. While I had in mind Susan and Joe from my real life when I began writing, they did not resemble them in the slightest when I finished writing it.

Such role plays become inevitable for a novelist. I can't be myself all over my novel, in all the fiction I write, talking through all the characters just as I do in my real life, can I? Imagine all of my characters resembling me? Fiction would certainly be a total disaster. It would be pointless to write.

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: We readers aren't getting your views from any of your characters or incidents, do you consciously write so that they don't manifest in your writing?

Jayanthi Sankar: From my humble perspective, a novel is bound to include a voice, however subtle, of the author that is heard through the characters' thoughts. I give them life, a face, or a gaze the reader can experience. It may not be a familiar gaze, but one that is born out of almost nothing. Readers' experiences may differ completely from what the author intended. Fiction, often a hypothesis, continues to test itself, be reinvented, and debated.

My belief in showing and not telling has influenced me so much during my initial creative years that I do not tell anything but let my characters think and talk. That does not mean I’m not strong in my own opinions. It is just that my fiction does not need my opinion. For instance, when I talk about religion in my fiction, do I sound like an atheist? When I talk about atheism, do I sound religious? Nevertheless, I need to be both when writing fiction, especially when building my main character and his/her foil.

I can’t create characters that reflect only my own thoughts and ideologies all the time. At least I can’t continue to create characters that way in every novel I write. How long can such a journey last? I am always filled with imagination and creativity. My characters, therefore, do not resemble me. Many in my closest circles who know me well and have read my fiction would know what I mean here. Therefore, it might disappoint or puzzle some readers not to find me in my text. Those who know me and my nature might even be alarmed when they encounter certain characters I create. They are what my plot and theme demand, not what I like or dislike. This is precisely why I often say I live thousands of lives through writing and reading fiction.

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: Does your own conscience react when you read or write negative characters?

Jayanthi Sankar: I don’t believe in negative characters or positive characters. Just as life has both sides to it, humans are of both natures, or each human has a mixture of both. So, a clear mark or label on characters is unnatural. That said, during my childhood, I used to be an introvert. So much that I used to feel so uneasy meeting new people until I was twenty. Throughout my life, I have constantly questioned, within myself without verbalising, the motives behind the words and gestures of people I’ve known. I have tried to understand their thought process, for I have always been a person who puts others before herself, naturally so, without any special effort or display. This, I suppose, helped me portray my characters psychologically later on when I began writing.

Reading is the other side of the coin, Many readers habitually and eagerly search for the author’s presence in the fiction. In any case, they think a novelist has to argue if not opine, think if not say or tell, express, or at least emote a little. Otherwise, they wouldn’t like the novel. They lack the patience to enter the unknown worlds of the novel. Generally, readers believe there should be some connection between the creative and the reader and that only relatability will help them get into the novel. These readers aren’t ready to put any effort into their reading. They need to grow as readers as well as individuals before they can genuinely read to enjoy, without any preconceived notions. Fiction is a separate world which, in my opinion, does not even belong to the novelist after it has been created. Leaving it for readers, the novelist moves on to the next work.

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: What is the intent of leaving the climax open-ended?

Jayanthi Sankar: I deleted two chapters that I felt took me nowhere, except that they were expanding my canvas which I didn't want this time. Open-ended cliff hanger happened when I altered my last chapter and I felt it was just nice. 

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: What was the most challenging and rewarding thing about when will you die?

Jayanthi Sankar: Exploring the inner worlds of my characters was the most challenging although I planned to do just that. Usually, my fiction has more unsaid words that lead readers to think more than what's said but this time that has come out better than ever simply because psychology by itself is abstract. During my final edits, I liked the freshness and simplicity that many readers also might like. 

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: Do you think the back stories of a character is enough to not antagonise him/her? Or is it the words that the author uses to describe them that has the effect?

Jayanthi Sankar: The back ground and personal journeys of the characters are just there. Definitely not to justify their later actions but more to explore the unexpected transformations that happen as the main story unfolds. And they might help me in creating character arcs and maybe in building the characters themselves. 

As I analysed the words and actions of people in real life, I naturally developed something that come easily to me. To step back and throw away 'me' or 'I' out of me. This has not only helped me build my characters realistically but also helped evolve as a person. 

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: Which part of the character forms in your mind first? How they look, how they speak, how they act or what's their role?

Jayanthi Sankar: It depends, for example in this novella how they speak, react and rebel required more attention whereas in my previous novels the roles of my characters started forming in me first.

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: How open do you think are Asian audience to socio-psychological fictions that question their beliefs? 

Jayanthi Sankar: Human psychology does not vary much with continent or culture. And thanks to decades of globalisation, exposure through the SM, the west and the east naturally mix and are attracted to each other. It remains to be seen what the reverse globalisation aftereffect of the pandemic will bring in the future.

Readers should rightfully enjoy such fiction, with all the increased awareness of psychological issues following the pandemic. If history can be imbibed in a reader through historical fiction, understanding co-humans, so crucial in the modern world, is certainly possible through socio psychological fiction.

Let's consider translated works from Japan, China, Korea, Latin America, Africa; don't we understand their worlds? As we practice, we learn to think beyond the familiar and to take on challenges that can only be taken on if our minds remain open. A few pages into the book, one may begin to sense universal elements emerging, which can only be achieved with an open-minded contribution from the reader, since reading is in itself an art form that can only grow with time and effort. Isn't it strange that a reader who is fascinated by undiscovered fantasy or abstract mythology wants some sort of connection with a contemporary novel?

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: Though we all see such characters in our real life every day, we never stop to know their whole story. Who inspired you to write these characters so life-like?

Jayanthi Sankar: Characters from my previous fiction! I was amused when this revelation struck me while I was editing the manuscript. I don’t believe fiction is only about making fake people and putting them through fake places or fake situations to cook up a story. We know it is about mixing reality with imagination. But how much of this? And how much of that? How entertaining? Is it even necessary to make it more meaningful? Only the novelist can make these decisions. The right mixture would set the tone of the fiction.

And interestingly, the characters from ‘When Will You Die?’ have already inspired me to write my next WIP.

Whenever I read a novel, I think, “Here is a world so newly created. There was nothing quite like this before she/he wrote this! Someone created it almost out of nothing, and this gives me great joy. There's something sacred about creating something out of nothing- but it's so subtle that only a fraction of readers will notice it. For this reason, I think fiction has a place in this mortal world, with a variable moral aspect.

I’m reminded of what Milan Kundera stated in his Art of the Novel, "The novel is a meditation on existence as seen through the medium of fictional characters." That resonates with what I've always believed about the role of fiction. Years ago, when I first came across the quote, I felt energised, thrilled to have found the master’s words matching what I’ve always believed.

Sredhanea Ramkrishnan: Good luck to ‘When Will You Die?’

Jayanthi Sankar: Thank you.

 Sredhanea Ramkrishnan:

A Food technologist by profession and an aspiring author by passion, Sredhanea has written more than 20 blogs in the Coffelicious publications of Medium. She Published 7 Self-help articles in magazines like 'The Infinithoughts' and is a Freelance content writer for Carty studios. Her Debut historical fiction 'THE CORD' Won best aspiring author award from 'The cherry book awards',  and 'The Rising Author of the year' award by Priya's  wisdom publications, ‘Budding Author of the year’ by JEC publications and was also nominated for ‘Best Debut Author’ by Felicia words Publications. She is also a co-host of LOL-Love of Literature, a podcast for aspiring authors and an avid fiction reader and reviewer.