Liu Fang, a retired further education teacher in Hong Kong, also one of the beta readers of the novella ‘When Will You Die?’ by Jayanthi Sankar, conducted an interview via phone on 25 October 2022, without prior preparation. She is a long-time friend of the author since her Singapore days, decades ago.
Liu Fang: Hi Jay, shall we talk about your novella, and more in general about your journey and methods?
Jayanthi Sankar: Happily, Liu Fang, I hope you enjoyed ‘When Will You Die?’?
Liu Fang: More than that, I was sunk deep into it for weeks together, unable to get out. How will you describe it for readers, in your own words?
Jayanthi Sankar: You can say it’s a profound exploration of the three main characters’ inner worlds and it leaves immense scope for readers’ participation.
Liu Fang: But Jay, why only fiction?
Jayanthi Sankar: I live thousands of lives through fiction. Way back, during the mid-1990s, when we were barely getting to know each other. I was into passionate, continuous reading, I enjoyed fiction more than nonfiction. The blend of reality with imagination in varying proportions used to amaze me. The challenges of storytelling and crafting have always fascinated me. Thus, when I unexpectedly played around to explore writing, my first few attempts naturally were fiction. I found that only fiction writing brought in me a joy, thereby making the process memorable. I am open try other genres when they come to me.
Liu Fang: What did reading and writing fiction do to you?
Jayanthi Sankar: While I can gain knowledge through innumerable resources on nonfiction, wisdom comes to me only from reading and writing fiction as they can open up my mind wider every time. During my twenties, I read fiction for only the pleasure of it but soon realised, fiction is not only about the drive to know what happens to the protagonist but a lot more about the backdrop, the plot and most importantly the unsaid words.
The joy I derive in creating my own fictional worlds is incomparable. Every time, I live the life of my character my ‘ego’ dissolves off me a little more, every time, facilitating a continuous unlearning and relearning in me. So, just like reading, writing continues to play a vital part in my spiritual evolution. Reading fiction made me wiser as a person and groomed me as a better writer who can engage her readers’ walk with her in her creative process. I’ve always felt only fictional worlds can bring some meaning to this otherwise mundane and sad life.
It’s at times very interesting to see some of my readers habitually searching for me in my fiction. And every time, they end up not finding me. Contrary to what many tend to believe, fiction writing is never about a writer’s inability to share one’s private life, nor about her inhibition to share her personal life. Whenever she wishes to write about it in the future, she could do it as nonfiction or a memoir. While writing about one’s own life might seem like a bold act, although I agree with that to a limited extent, creating a fictional world is an act of literary art. While the former might inspire and motivate many, only the latter holds higher chances of leaving readers with a creative engagement that often integrates into the core of their wisdom.
Liu Fang: Any reason for this title – When Will You Die? Did you have other options for the title?
Jayanthi Sankar: As anyone can easily guess, the title is a dialogue spoken by one of the main characters, but the context, the nucleus of the novella, will interest the readers. I chose it because of the relevance it carries, like the nucleus of the story, which I realized as I edited. All other options I came up with weren’t as suitable and catchy.
Liu Fang: How are readers viewing the title? Any feedback thus far?
Jayanthi Sankar: It’s too early to know what readers think and I won’t be surprised if they assume it’s a thriller. However, my beta closest readers loved its uniqueness. A couple of young emerging authors excitedly insisted I don’t change it when I thought other options. A senior author said it made him instantly curious.
Liu Fang: Where do you get your themes and raw material from?
Jayanthi Sankar: My characters and plots are from life, just like any other author. However, while experimenting with my storytelling, I play with different perceptions and I love that. That creates so much meta text, leaving the reader with even more scope for imagination. They must decipher for themselves where, why and how they agree or disagree, where, why and how they are biased or not biased, where, why and how they love or hate it. This, by itself, lets the reader discover more about herself. Therefore, reading fiction can transform a person, like it did me. Everything changes when I read fiction. I am no longer the same person I was before. I have changed when I return to my real-world.
Liu Fang: When you work on a novel, do you start with the characters or the plot?
Jayanthi Sankar: Most of my plots develop first, followed by my protagonist’s character arc, incidents, and composing and connecting them. Through the process, I usually feel many changes to my initial mind map or chapter plan. And I gladly let that happen because that’s the creative experience I prefer to be in. Any resistance to that flow, or adaptation required to the change would never help in the creative experience.
Liu Fang: What has been your philosophy of writing so far?
Jayanthi Sankar: I can imagine, and am capable of inspiring others to imagine. Here, we are talking about creative perceptions that touch on the limitless imagination, not the tangible or obvious world. This, in my opinion, is one of the most superior forms of sharing.
Liu Fang: So, what should a novel do?
Jayanthi Sankar: My novel begins with me and ends or extends in with my reader. Each reader adds different values to my creation because each perceives it differently. So, writing for me is creating my fictional world and inhabiting it with people and their lives and problems.
And publishing the novel in the book form is my way of inviting my readers to enter and experience my world and my people. While readers may love, relate to, or even hate what they experience, but all emotions are equally significant to me because each of them is a participation by itself. So, I write leaving ample room for my readers to imagine, experience and participate, rather than simply giving them something to consume easily. My fiction should set my readers to think and ponder beyond my text, perhaps spark a debate.
Liu Fang: Your speciality seems to be human psychology when creating your characters. So, how has that interested you? Has that been your conscious choice?
Jayanthi Sankar: No, I don’t plan to explore that but human psychology is one discipline that I instinctively have in me and I know many of us humans do.
My recently published novella, ‘When Will You Die?’ is socio-psychological fiction. For any fiction, the author must anyway explore human psychology through her characters, as we all know.
Liu Fang: I was going to touch that, when did you begin on this exploration?
Jayanthi Sankar: Whenever I think back, I recall that since childhood, I’ve quietly observed the verbal and non-verbal languages of humans around me. Family members, relatives, neighbours, friends, co-passengers and even complete strangers. I’ve often deciphered their thoughts from the slightest of their body language, eyes, and facial expressions. This has been a boon for the writer I turned out to be as well as a bane for the woman in real life.
Liu Fang: What do you think is the future of books, or literature, with the visual media dominating?
We heard about publishing houses closing for good during the peak of the pandemic. They were not some start-ups or smaller ones, but big names. Reading will stay despite the increasing visual platforms. Maybe I am being too optimistic, but that’s how I feel.
Jayanthi Sankar: Literature is a guide to life, and its perceptions, but the means and modes of reading and sourcing knowledge or wisdom are undergoing major transitions right now. Although book sales will only increase, books might become more audio or digital. The multimedia industry also has a spectrum of standards and therefore, corresponding consumers.
Liu Fang: What would recognition or an award mean to you?
Jayanthi Sankar: My writing has never moved towards them. Recognitions for my books only reinforces my chosen path and motivates me to do better today than yesterday. The energy I gather from those moments allows me to advance, moving past them without ever relying on them.
Liu Fang: What is the role of novels in the contemporary world?
Jayanthi Sankar: Fiction to those who don’t really know what creativity really is, is just making up something in the name of a story. However, its role is deeper than just the story. If we can classify a short story as a minuscule glimpse into life, a novel is a large generous slice of life. Through reading a novel, a reader experiences the lives, events and moments portrayed, increasing her empathy and enhancing her EQ.
Liu Fang: We’ve discussed over phone calls, hours together, you’ve been trying to pull me into SM and I haven’t been showing interest. Tell me, what does SM mean to your writing journey?
Jayanthi Sankar: Liu Fang, we’ve reached a stage in our lives where we cannot live without the social media. Whether we like it or not, the world is becoming more and more virtual and visual. In the past four years, SM has certainly helped me earn a tiny bit of visibility for my books, which also brought in a fair number of readers. One of the attractive aspects of the virtual world is that connections can be surprisingly fast, at times if the author can truly afford the time.
Liu Fang: Do you think we still perceive self-publishing differently from traditional publishing?
Jayanthi Sankar: I think such myths have dissipated in the recent years. There are no such differences anymore. Big names in the publishing industry have started catering to those who are willing to invest in publishing their own works. Vanity is no more a vice! Hybrid and self-publishing are the in-thing now. And, many such books are doing great.
Liu Fang: What are your current and future goals?
Jayanthi Sankar: Every time such a question is asked, I become blank, unable to recollect any, because mostly don’t set goals. Right now, I’m focusing all my attention and energy on the raw draft of the novel that has been beckoning me for years and I had to listen. And an anthology of short stories by various writers is in progress. Aside from these, I’m planning some significant changes to the other part of my freelancing work life as well.
Liu Fang: What would you have done with your life if you had not become an author/writer?
Jayanthi Sankar: I often think of this, but I really am unsure of the answer. To begin with, my journey as a writer wasn’t even expected. I didn’t show any slightest signs of writing till my mid-20s and I still am quite surprised by the path I’ve taken for 28 years. I don’t know where else I could’ve fitted. This could also be because I’ve never had any expectations of life. I didn’t set any goals, not even the fundamental ones. It might sound unbelievable to many, but those who know me for long, like my close friends and my siblings, would know exactly what I mean here.
Liu Fang: We’ve talked on that a couple of times, I remember. What would you tell your younger self who didn’t know you would write in the later part of your life?
Jayanthi Sankar: “Hey introvert! Why do you only read the people around, silently, like some long-standing rock statue observing its predicament? Can’t you open your mouth and talk and start reading as many books as you can? There is a wide world out there, but here, you’re always protected by your parents, like a little timid rabbit.”
Liu Fang: If you hadn’t been an introvert, you might not have written, who knows. Coming to your novella, I think your story telling this time has been different from your previous works, fresh and simple, so how did you come up with the plot?
Jayanthi Sankar: It was fun living Susan, Joe, and Suiyi. However, at times, writing their intense emotions wasn’t easy but nonetheless a different experience. I created them from people I’ve known, although each is a combination of a few people.
Liu Fang: Talking of emotions, what upset you recently?
Jayanthi Sankar: I’ve been coming across prematurely drafted short stories, and that upset. This is so unfortunate, all the scope for a potential good fiction has been missed and written without any appreciation for storytelling, or form. At times, they give a real story as it is. Sometimes, a whole novel is compressed into a capsule and such a piece cannot be a short story but the awareness is missing. I don’t see the sense of craft in many.
Liu Fang: Could you elaborate a little more that, please?
Jayanthi Sankar: Not all stories can be considered a short story. Not every fall under the category of short story but a short story will naturally have a story. The former is just a raw narrative, whereas the latter would have its proper form and the content naturally decides on it. However, I get to read many imitations of ‘form’s without knowing that it does not suit the content, and therefore originality is lacking. When it appears on a platform, they think that’s the best they’ve written.
Liu Fang: Then, what are your writing suggestions for aspirants?
Jayanthi Sankar: My mantra for writing has always been ‘Don’t rush’. Creative writing is not time sensitive like journalistic writings of news or current affairs. So, forget about the clock, time, and deadlines while you create. Deadlines might drive you to begin something but the very concept of time cripples the process of creativity. Sooner you stop writing for the given theme or topic, the better if you wish to expand your creativity. In addition, it is important to never to lose your joy of writing because of the rejections and failures you face, rather, learn from them to become a better author. Difficult, but comes through practice. Learning to step back to critically read the text after a gap would help progress, on the other hand, clinging to it like a new mother does with her infant won’t take them far.
Liu Fang: I hope more aspirants hear what you say. Good luck to ‘When Will You Die?’ I hope it captivates many of readers just as it did me.
Jayanthi Sankar: Fingers crossed.
Liu Fang: And, eager for your next!
Jayanthi Sankar: I hope I improve in managing my time better. Thank you.
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