by Jayaprakash Sathyamurthy
There are two stories that kicked off what I like to think of as my writing career. The first is Aranya’s Last Voyage, which won a short story collection held by the Deccan Herald in 2009. I had talked myself into giving up writing – do all writers do this from time to time or just the whiney ones like me? – but I’d had this story in the back of my mind for a long time and decided to take a chance and write it for the contest. It was based on a dream that I had had a long time ago – I still remember the house in Jayanagar where I was at the time. My first attempt to turn the dream into a story had been a science fiction story, but this time around I found a register that was better suited to what I wanted to do. With ‘Aranya’, just the act of naming the main character seemed to make things fall into place. Even though I gave my character an Indian name, he is not an Indian and the story is not set in our world. But using an Indian name gave me a link to the character. Also, Aranya means ‘forest’ and while there are no forests in the story, the imagery made me think of sages in jungle ashrams, and helped build up a picture of a certain kind of wise, austere and diligent man. I remember writing the story in a few intense bursts. Once it was done, I did very little revision before sending the story off. I’d always balked at finishing my stories because of the sheer length I imagined they had to be, but the contest’s word limit – under 5000 words – helped me focus on just getting the beginning, middle and end of the story in place. Learning to finish was the hardest lesson for me to learn, and the most important ability that separates a writer from someone who just kind of wants to write. Winning the contest made me feel like my notions that I could write well and tell an interesting story were maybe not just self-delusion.
Not a lot happened after that, for a while. I had a few short stories published in anthologies for younger readers, but I was fast reaching a dead end, as I really wanted to write something a lot more weird than the editors I was dealing with at the time were interested in. The idea of writing a ghost story based on local urban legends and tall tales started to take hold of me. I have always loved fiction that is tied in with a specific city in the way Peter Ackroyd and Michael Moorcock have written ‘London novels’ and I believed that Bangalore was one of the great cities – a place that is always changing but somehow still contains all its older selves alongside its new identities.
I put aside my multiple half-baked WIPs and spent a lot of time putting this story together. I poured so much of myself into the story – not just my life but all the things I had picked up from the stories I loved the most. There is a strong autobiographical streak in that story, and I wound up consciously toning down certain things because they were perhaps too revealing. I know that sounds like a bad way to write, but I think the balance between the needs of the story and my own confessional was getting skewed. Even though the story still has a lot of me in it, it doesn’t have too much of me in it.
After a few rejections I somehow had the temerity to ask Anna Tambour, a writer whom I respect a great deal and who had been generous with her time in the past, to take a look at the story. Not a lot of people will take the effort to thoroughly critique some random newbie’s tale, and Anna’s comments were so thorough and insightful that the story wound up being exponentially better. I was doubly grateful for the help because an editor I had previously shared my story with an editor I used to work with and her comments, while not unfair, were so out of sympathy with the aims of the story that they wound up being more or less useless. I revised this story multiple times, and the revisions made me fall in love with the craft of writing – honing phrases, shaping and reshaping scenes and dialogue, weighing motivations, coming up with motifs and figuring out where to place them – and of course the grunt work of finding spelling and grammar mistakes and fixing them. I know that many people find this the least appealing part of the process, but it can be magical.
Sadly, more rejections followed and Anna decided to host the story, Come Tomorrow, on her own website. Having something up there in a venue that was not my blog gave me a sense of finally being something like a ‘real’ writer. When the story was given an honourable mention in the extended list that Ellen Datlow puts up on her blog each year, after compiling her annual collection of the year’s best horror fiction, I felt vindicated. I was convinced that a couple of venues that had rejected my story were wrong to do so, and of course every writer probably feels that way. Having my story recognized by two people with good taste and an extensive knowledge of my chosen genre helped show me that sometimes the rejected writer is right.
Today, I think I’ve got a grip on the process of writing. I always have a few ideas for stories, and I am nearly always working on a story. I’ve developed the stamina and discipline to be productive and I try to broaden my scope, teaching myself to tell more kinds of stories. Everything I have written since Come Tomorrow has broadly been weird fiction or horror, but I’m willing to drop the horror element altogether and try out different ways of writing weird fiction. I intend to write all sorts of things – I’m in this for life, now. I still feel a little shaky from time to time, and I have considered the possibility that my current run of good luck will dry up and that I will cease being published, but I don’t feel that will stop me from writing.
Still, we are contingent beings and I don’t think I would have made the leap from kind of wanting to be a writer to actually being one without these two stories. I don’t know how good they are, and conversely I am not sure I have actually improved as a writer since I wrote them, but at least I am able to read them without cringing, and with some enjoyment.