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Bringing the Short Story On Line

[box]Indira Chandrasekhar, editor of Out of Print, talks about writing fiction, the Indian fiction scene and finally, about running Out of Print itself. Anupama Krishnakumar listens in.[/box] [box type = “bio”] Indira Chandrasekhar is by training a Ph.D in Biophysics who has studied the dynamics of biological membranes at research institutes across the world. She spent 17 years overseas and upon returning, began to indulge in writing fiction, especially short stories. Last year, she, together with Samhita Arni and daughter Mira Brunner, started Out of Print, an online platform for writers of short fiction with a connection to the subcontinent. She recently co-edited an Anthology of short stories that will be published shortly.[/box]

 

Firstly, congratulations on completing a year of publishing ‘Out of Print’! An online literary magazine exclusively for short stories – how was the concept of ‘Out of Print’ born?

And to you, you two-year-old veterans!

Out of Print arose from a combination of things. We felt there is a place in our region for a strong online literary magazine devoted to short fiction, and judging by the number of published authors one sees in book stores, people are writing.

There was also the intellectual curiosity for someone like me, a scientist accustomed to extracting patterns: is contemporary fiction connected to the region really informed by our common narratives? Do we still sense the voices of our ancestors given our culturally complex diversity and individuality? Are we being parochial (and I can tell you that none of us on the editorial team is in the least parochial in terms of the literary or intellectual – when it comes to mangoes, perhaps, … ), or is there validity in our mandate of providing a platform for writing from or connected to the subcontinent?

We often hear that writing short stories is perhaps the best first step to approaching writing fiction. Would you agree?

I assert that I don’t see short stories as a first step to anything except themselves.

Short fiction is a coherent, clearly defined literary form and requires precision and strength of purpose to craft well. A good short story must capture mood, character, storyline in few words. It doesn’t have the luxury of meandering, but cannot give the impression of rushing or being restricted. It’s all about essence.

Like any other writing, crafting a short story is a good exercise in understanding word, voice, point of view, character…, which, of course, reinforces any other form a writer may wish to explore.

What are some of the things you look out for in the stories submitted for publication in ‘Out of Print’?

A good story, with energy and engagement. Lightness and depth. Integrity of voice. Craft is critical – an understanding of how to pace a story, the balance of dialogue and exposition. And then, there is that indefinable aesthetic filter that we all develop, the thing that allows a story from outside to in, permits it past acceptance barriers – bluntly put, do I and my editors, Samhita Arni and Mira Brunner, each like the story, do we all want to have it in Out of Print. I think there is only one time we allowed a story that one of us seriously didn’t like and had to be convinced to accept.

You write short stories yourself. What is it that you choose to focus on in your stories? Or in other words, what can be called the recurring theme in your stories?

My writing comes from my own observations, contemporary as well as the ones that emerge from hidden places in memory. And from stories of people and place – for example, my mother, who is a marvellous story-teller, and my aunts, are a fountain of stories that touch upon the sad and tender weirdness of humankind. I draw from these and extend them, morph them into fiction.

Ultimately, the thing that drives my writing is probably trying to come to terms with the balance of existence – justice, survival and the factors that influence those long or short correlation times to annihilation.

According to you, what are the some of the wonderful aspects of fiction as a form of literary writing?

It almost seems presumptuous for me to be answering this question. For surely no one needs someone else’s answer. If you read, you know the intellectual and emotional stimulation, the soaring of the imagination, the exploration of limits that fiction provides.

Do you think writing fiction could be tricky too? In what ways?

Yes of course. There is the question of fiction vs integrity; as a writer you have to balance these. Also, you want to be read, you don’t want to bore your readers, you want to be able to develop the skill to keep their attention, carry them with you, clear them of pre-perceptions and then fill them with something more. You become increasingly aware that you are a commentator on society. Personally I find that in order to honour that position, and not be pompous about it, I need to extricate myself from the ‘self’ view and immerse in the imagination.

What are some of the common mistakes, if I may call them that, that you see aspiring writers make when it comes to writing fiction – based on your experience of the many submissions that you may have received for publication in ‘Out of Print’?

It’s tough to navigate the path between re-working your writing and having confidence in it. There’s that punch of excitement when you think it’s ready, you want the world to read it, appreciate it, see what you are trying to convey.  That’s something aspiring writers should definitely exploit. But they also have to be brutal in their examination of their own writing, clean it up, take out their personal agendas, and more than anything, remove themselves emotionally from it so they can edit it from a literary viewpoint. Of course, this is easier said than done, and if someone can give me a formula for getting it all right, I’d be grateful.

As someone who runs an online literary magazine exclusively for short stories, I can totally understand your love for this form of fiction writing. All the same, I am curious to know your thoughts on novels. What is the sort of edge that you think novels have over short stories?

I don’t really see the different forms as competing with each other. They each have their place in writers’ and readers’ lives.

I read both. As a writer my focus is on the short story, but I am working on a longer piece.

While we are talking of novels and short stories, I have a question on the publishing trend in India, with respect to (general) fiction. Do you feel that Indian publishing houses today tend to prefer novels more than a collection of short stories, even from first-time authors? If yes, what do you think could be the reason for this? Do you think this is a healthy trend?

I don’t think that tendency among publishing houses is unique to India. As far as I can tell, collections of short stories from a single writer, as also anthologies from various authors are less favoured than novels. Perhaps it’s perceptions about marketability, perhaps it’s the anxiety about consistency – will every story be as good as the other (as every chapter is??!), I really don’t know the reason.

On the other hand, there are recent examples of collections and anthologies from Tranquebar, Zubaan, Penguin, and so on. An anthology I am working on with friend and writer Rebecca Lloyd will be brought out by Thames River Press, London, which also has a Delhi branch. Additionally, it is encouraging when awards for fiction recognise a short story collection from among the other forms – Out of Print author, Mridula Koshy’s If it is Sweet won the Shakti Bhatt award, The 2009 Pulitzer went to Elizabeth Strout, the 2010 Pulitzer runner up was Daniyal Mueenuddin, …

There are also many Indian bloggers who are now turning into authors. What are your thoughts on this development?

Well, if they are so driven, why not. The immediacy of the blog post does not demand the same stringency perhaps, but that is certainly a hurdle that can be crossed.

Lastly, talking of ‘Out of Print’ again, do you have any specific goals for the magazine going forward? We’d love to know more about them!

We hope to maintain our energy and quality in exploring the short fiction form in English.

We get some high-quality submissions and solicited contributions. This issue features U R Ananthamurthy – a great honour – as well as Chandrahas Choudhury and Murzban Shroff, and an edgy story by Sharanya Mannivanan. We are revisited by Nighat Gandhi who submitted a story that she translated from the Urdu by Firdaus Haider. Speaking of revisiting, Kuzhali Manickavel’s work has appeared twice. Our authors include well-known ones such as Anjum Hasan, Devdutt Pattanaik and KR Usha as well as relative unknowns. It includes writers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the diaspora. So I feel we are off to a strong start.

We always seek sponsors so we can get to a position where we can honour our writers by paying them. Right now, one of the focus areas of our blog is our authors – their publications, their thoughts on writing. But it would be great to do more. And finally, to reiterate, to find good stories, and allow them to reach an ever-wider audience, that is our goal.

Out of Print website : www.outofprintmagazine.co.in

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