Wonderbook Interview with Vandana Singh

Vandana Singh teaches physics at a state university near Boston and writes in her non-existent spare time. She was born and raised in the city of Dilli (aka Delhi, India), where medieval ruins lie strewn among modern-day edifices. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies and has frequently been reprinted in year’s best publications. She is a winner of the Carl Brandon Parallax Award.

What role or roles do your nightmares and dreams play in your fiction?

Actually I use my daughter’s nightmares and dreams, since hers are much better! Seriously, though, my dreams are messages from my unconscious mind (or so I interpret them) so I take them seriously. I rarely take dream events and images into fiction directly or literally – instead these inform a certain mood that comes through in my writing. I am the kind of writer who relies a great deal on unconscious mind prompts – often I don’t know where my story is going; I’m nearly as blind as the protagonist. It’s the messages from the unconscious – dreams and odd waking impressions and moods – that guide my stories to a large extent.

What’s the process of “cooking” autobiography into fiction for you?

Some things in my life stand out in my mind as things I have to write about. But they have to ripen on the tree of the unconscious, or ferment in the barrels of the imagination – until the time is right. There has to be a transformation from the actual to the fictional. I can never write straight. I generally know when a story is “ready” because then I have an awful compulsion to write it. One of my stories, “Infinities,” was one of these, but I had to wait for years before I was ready, and some of the things I was remembering were so painful that the story was very hard to write. But there was a compulsion, and I couldn’t help myself.

What’s your approach to writing your rough draft and then to the revision process? And does it change from story to story?

It is different from story to story. In a handful of stories the rough draft was near-perfect and needed only tweaks to put it in final form. I wish I could do that on a more regular basis! But most of my stories come from random writing exercises that I do when I can – some of these become seeds of stories. I have learned over the years to know when to stop writing a draft, and to wait for the right stimulus. Sometimes it is a tune, or something totally unrelated I read, and it pushes me in the right direction to finish the story. After that it is a matter of going through the whole thing with a fine-tooth comb and making sure everything hangs together. Some stories don’t feel right even after that process, and that means I have to wait – to see if something clicks and makes it work, or whether I should discard it for parts.

How does the inexplicable inform your fiction?

I wrote a whole story about the inexplicable, called “The Tetrahedron”! But seriously I am fascinated by the unknown. As a scientist I feel that the more we know, the more we don’t know, which suits me fine, because mystery and surprise are such wonderful things. Much of my fiction is about discovery, whether it is to do with some secret of nature or a discovery about oneself.

What kind of life do your characters have beyond the page? Nabokov used to say the idea of a character coming to life would be as ridiculous as saying a potted plant in the setting had come to life.

Well, they talk to me sometimes. Usually before and during the writing of the story. If I do the story reasonably well, they mostly shut up after that. But some characters stay on in my head and every once in a while interject something – an observation, or something wise, or something snarky. For a long time I’ve been haunted by the character of Birha, from my Lightspeed story Ruminations in an Alien Tongue. She’s simply there as a presence, a rather comforting one, although I don’t know why she’s still there so many months after the story came out.

How much do your stories change in the telling of them, and do you often wind up someplace very different than you expected?

Most of my stories change in the telling. Often I have the vaguest idea where a story is going when I start it. Sometimes I only have the first sentence, a single thread, if you will, from which I have to make the weave of the story. Writing is so much a journey for me, because as I write I find out what is happening. Unexpected things happen as I write – for instance, a part of another draft story becomes a crucial component of this one. Or a fragment I wrote in my practice folder becomes a piece of the current story. Or something I remember from childhood suddenly takes center stage. If I knew what I was going to write, if I knew how the story would turn out from the first sentence, I don’t know if I’d have the motivation to write it! Although some stories do come to me fully formed, and the reward in writing those kinds of stories is to see the characters and ideas rendered in the right language.

How does science and your views on ecology/animal life inform your fiction writing?

I don’t always set out to write a story in which science and environment are concerns, but they infuse everything I write. My background in physics gives me a certain way to looking at the world, of being sensitive to the speech of the physical universe, if you like. Speculative fiction is the only literature in which the non-human can be as central and interesting as the human, which is why I love it, and which is why I cannot write ‘straight’ fiction although I enjoy and admire much in that genre.

I am outraged beyond words at what humans have done to the world. Every time I hear about yet another extinct species, however humble, I take it as a personal loss as well as a universal one. It is a constant battle within me to maintain hope – not in a Pollyanna-ish way, but as a deliberate stand, because with hope we at least have a chance; without it, we might as well give up right now. Hope enables us to act even when things look too bleak for the possibility of positive change to occur. For that among other reasons I can rarely write a story that is completely and unrelentingly dystopic. The stories I’ve written in which science and environment play central roles nevertheless have a shred of hope. And yet, I can’t write a story to suit a political position, because my Muse would run away screaming. I always have to approach it slant, to write the story for its own sake, and see how the science/environment themes play out.

What do you think was the weakest part of your writing or your stories in the early part of your career? What did you do to improve that area?

One of the weak issues early on was that I couldn’t extend myself, if you will, to characters who were very much unlike me. This took some practice and it helped me learn a compassionate way to look at people. You can’t understand a person without some degree of compassion and curiosity, even if they happen to be the model for your villain. Apart from that it was a question of training the imagination so that I could stand in the shoes of the other. With practice I was able to create, for example, a protagonist who happens to be old, and a man, and a Muslim, and I think I did this with some success although I am not any of those things (getting closer to being old, however).

On the page, what are the worst ways that a talented writer can self-sabotage or self-betray?

Unconsciously (or not) write to suit a particular audience, thus reinforcing their particular prejudices or reproducing current trends. This is one reason why I try to read stories in translation from other countries and to read in Hindi, my mother tongue. This can also be a danger if one is in a writing workshop, even a good one, because the critiques of others, when originating from a misunderstanding of the writer’s background, can influence subtly how that writer writes and what she might write about.

Why do you write?

It’s a pathological compulsion. It is a way of making sense of the world. It is a way of making sense of myself. It is a means to travel in both space and time, and to have adventures while sipping tea at home. I do it because I can’t not do it. I write because it makes me happy. And I write because those damn ideas are jostling around in my head and if I don’t let them out my head will explode.