THE WRITING LIFE ... Padma VISWANATHAN
TOSSING THE LEMON
ERIC FORBES talks to PADMA VISWANATHAN about her first novel, The Toss of a Lemon, and how it came to be written
PADMA VISWANATHAN was born in Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, in 1968. A Canadian fiction writer, playwright and journalist, her ambitious first novel, The Toss of a Lemon, was published in 2008 by Random House Canada. Her writing awards include residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Banff Playwrights’ Colony, and first place in the 2006 Boston Review Short Story Contest. She received her Creative Writing MA from Johns Hopkins and her MFA from the University of Arizona. and lives with her family in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She lives with the poet and translator Geoffrey Brock and their children in Fayetteville, Arkansas, in the US.
Inspired by the history of her family, Viswanathan takes us into the world of a Brahmin clan, bringing to life an India that’s is not often talked about. At the core of the novel is Sivakami, married at ten, widowed at eighteen. As her caste requires, her head is shaved and she wears widow’s whites, and from dawn to dusk she cannot contaminate herself with human touch, not even to comfort her two small children. She dutifully follows custom, except for one defiant act: She returns to her husband’s house to raise those children. Her servant, Muchami, bound by a very different set of caste rules, becomes her public face, and their singular bond holds three generations together through a turbulent half-century of social and political change.
Where were you born and raised? Could you tell me a bit about that slice of the world? And where do you live now? Do you write full-time?
I was born in Nelson, British Columbia, and raised in Edmonton, Alberta, all in the Canadian west. It was not that cosmopolitan while I was growing up, and I mainly wanted to leave, and now that I have been gone for 15 years, I am setting a novel in that part of the world. It’s as though I had to move away to see its imaginative potential. I now live in Fayetteville, Arkansas, which is exactly in the centre of the US, far from my origins in many ways and yet an oddly comfortable place for me. I guess I write part-time and look after my kids part-time, though both feel like full-time jobs! I will, this winter, also be taking on some part-time teaching work, now that my kids are getting older and the promotional energy required by my novel has lessened.
When did you know you were going to be a writer? Was it something you had always set your heart on?
I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was in my mid-twenties. I finished a sociology degree at 20 and was working in policy research, but feeling dissatisfied. I fell into social action theatre, creating theatrical pieces, often interactive, intended to stimulate dialogue on social issues. This was fun and rewarding, but agit prop necessarily oversimplifies and I grew uncomfortable. Then, I joined a novice playwrights’ circle and wrote the first scene of my first play, a comedy called “House of Sacred Cows.” I felt as though I’d been whapped, gently, on the forehead by the heel of a giant hand. This is what I was meant to do! It was such a relief, finally, to discover my vocation. The play was commissioned, miraculously, for development and production and I started research for my novel shortly thereafter.
What do you enjoy most about your life as a writer? Are there any aspects of it that you do not like?
I love my life as a writer, but I’m exceptionally fortunate. I spend my days thinking about things that interest me and then about how to express them, most often in fiction. I’ve done very little writing on things I didn’t choose to write about. I make my own hours. I often wish there were more hours in the day, but that desire’s not limited to writers! I also love that I have such flexibility: not only do I work on whatever I want in a given day, but I can jettison work if I need to look after my kids when they’re sick, or whatever. And then there’s the work of giving readings and interviews and meeting my readers. Although I sometimes resent the time away from my writing, and it can be anxiety-making to meet and talk with new people—and to be away from my kids, when this involves travel—it is also very, very gratifying to meet people who have been touched by my work. Given all this, the fact that writing generally pays little and unsteadily seems a small price to pay.
Could you describe your writing process? What part of the process do you enjoy most as a writer?
I’m not very systematic, and my process seems to vary a lot from one project to another. In most cases, a character or a dilemma pops into my head and takes hold of me and a story starts developing out of that person or problem. I have also written stories inspired by other stories and works of art. In all cases, what I most enjoy is seeing what can evolve, story-wise, from a given set of conditions: what development of plot or character would be most logical as well as most surprising? I also love tinkering with language. A good metaphor, mine, or more often, someone else’s, can send me over the moon ... metaphorically speaking.
What are your “writing” hours like? Where and when do you write best?
I write weekdays, 5:30-7 and 8-12. I’ve always written in the morning, but it used to be 8-2, till I had kids. Now I find I need to get up before the bustle of breakfast and teeth-brushing to make sure my first hour is given to imagination, not organisation. I can write almost anywhere, given relative solitude and quiet, but at home, I write in my study, which was designed by my husband and custom built for me into the attic of our home.
Was it difficult getting your first novel, The Toss of a Lemon, published in 2008? Did you experience much difficulty in finding an agent or a publisher?
Oddly smooth! I became friends with the wonderful Sri Lankan-Canadian writer Shyam Selvadurai (Funny Boy, Cinnamon Gardens) at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, an artists’ retreat in New Hampshire. He heard me read from my novel there and generously offered to introduce me to his agent, Bruce Westwood. I had resolved on not showing the book to anyone in the publishing industry until I thought it was one draft away from publication, and although it took me eight years of writing to get to that point, I think it paid off in speed and ease once I was ready. By then, I was living in the US, and so I also approached an American agent. But the Westwood Agency won me over: Bruce is legendary in Canada; they represent many writers I had long admired; and they were passionate about my book. Once Bruce and his assistant Carolyn Forde were on the task, all went quickly! We had several bids in Canada within weeks. When Bruce showed the book to American publishers, we got a preemptive bid from Ann Patty at Harcourt USA within a week. It has also sold in five other countries.
Could you tell me a bit about The Toss of a Lemon? What was the seed of the novel? Did it evolve into a work different from what you imagined it to be? If so, how? What are some of the themes you dealt with in it? Were you conscious of these when you first set out to write the novel?
The novel centres on a Tamil Brahmin woman, Sivakami, who is married at 10, in 1896. Eight years later, she is widowed, with two small children. She observes the restrictions her community demands: her head is shaved; she wears only white; and, most cruelly, she cannot be touched from dawn to dusk, even by her little ones. She rebels in one key way, however: defying her brothers by remaining in her own home instead of going to live with them. Although she basically can’t or won’t leave her house, she raises her children there with the help of a trusted servant, Muchami, her public presence and her closest confidante. Sivakami makes this move in order to give her son, Vairum, a secular education instead of the Brahminic, priestly education her brothers had planned for him. Vairum makes good on her gamble, becoming a successful industrialist, but he also rejects much of the orthodoxy that is Sivakami’s (and Muchami’s) mainstay. We follow this family through 60 years and three generations, mirrored, in ways both subtle and profound, by a changing India. The book was inspired by stories my grandmother told me about her grandmother, who was married as a child and widowed at 18 after her astrologer husband predicted his own death. In other words, the skeleton of the story follows that of my ancestors, though it departs from the “real” story in many ways.
When I got the idea for this book, I had never written fiction and so had no idea what sort or size of book it would turn out to be, though I did want to fictionalise the stories I’d been given. The central themes seem to be the ways that caste is rigid or flexible, maintained or transgressed; questions of predetermination versus individual will; and the interaction of personal inclinations with societal expectations. And again, no, I had no idea at the start what would surface as most important.
Did the writing of your first novel require much research?
Yes, two years of solid research. First, I spent a year interviewing my grandmother every month or so, and transcribing those interviews. Next, I went to India to do more research, revisiting the places that inspired the locations of the novel, interviewing other relatives, and reading up on the particular history of this area of India. Then, after five years of writing, I returned, to do more intensive research on particular threads and details that I hadn’t known would become important before I started the writing.
In historical novels, there’s lots of historical research. Do you need to be absolutely faithful to history? Should writers use history to their own ends?
I don’t really know what “absolutely faithful to history” means, in the sense that past events, and memories, even more, are always open to interpretation. As for “using history to their own ends,” I tend to think the perceived truth of a piece of fiction is the primary means by which we evaluate it. Fiction is the business of verisimilitude, so we always pick and choose what is useful to us, and build around it to make something that we think might convey an emotional or narrative truth. It happened to me, in the writing of my novel, when I imagined or guessed at events my grandmother hadn’t told me about but affirmed, on reading the manuscript. These ranged from her father’s infidelities, to a conversation she herself had with her husband, my grandfather, to the close relationship between her grandmother and that grandmother’s lower-caste servant. In every case, I was astonished at how my thinking on what I had been told led me to recreate “history” that was unrecorded and unrecounted.
Did you know where you were going with the novel as you wrote or did it evolve on its own volition?
For the first few years, I wrote pieces out of sequence, just working on episodes that interested me from the stories I had heard. When I had a certain amount of material, I started to edit it together, cutting out bits that didn’t seem to fit and writing in to the gaps. At a certain point, I thought, “If this were a big Russian novel, this particular character would figure in the ending.” But it wasn’t a Russian novel, obviously! Still, that character returned, and started to take on a significance I hadn’t fully apprehended in advance. Then the final 40 pages, which are slightly edited, of course, but largely intact, came out in a rush, in two days. I’ve never written so fast. I guess that’s what you mean by “on its own volition!” At a certain point, I could see the logic of the narrative, and my main task was to get it all down. Two more years of editing and rewriting then followed before it was ready.
How do you know when your manuscript is completed? Do deadlines determine this or do you feel a sense of confidence that there is no way you can improve on the text anymore?
I’m generally pretty insecure about that, in fact: with a few exceptions, I tend to think a piece is finished when someone is willing to publish it! At the very least, when a piece is out in the world, it does have a certain degree of untouchability. It assists me a lot in rewriting to have the opinion of a couple of trusted readers. It’s difficult for me, otherwise, to see what I do or don’t need to do.
Now that you have published your novel, would you go back and change it?
I remember once reading an interview with Nadine Gordimer, in which she said she wouldn’t go back and change her early books, that they represented who she was then, and deserved to be left alone, or something like that. I was disbelieving: I tended, especially early on, to quickly disown or at least be very uncomfortable with old writing, so I couldn’t imagine not wanting to go back and fix things. But the fact is that, regardless of my first novel’s strengths and flaws, I’m not at all interested in working on it anymore! And I don’t (yet!) hate it! I feel I’m a very different writer in certain ways from the one I was when I began, so my next novel will represent another stage, as will the one after that, and I guess I’m fine with that.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing the novel?
That I write primarily to entertain myself and explore my thoughts, and so hope there are enough people out there who share my fascinations, obsessions and sense of humour for me to earn a readership.
What do you hope to bring from the experience of writing this novel to your next one?
The process of writing my first book was the process of becoming a writer, for me. I hope that I accumulated some wisdom about how to develop characters and how to write the kind of prose I like. But I also don’t want to become self-conscious or overly critical: it’s hard to regain the freedom that one has when writing a first book, completely out of the eye of the publishing world. I am trying, though, as much as possible, to make sure I don’t close any avenue of imagination or thought for fear that it might not work.
How did you decide on the title of your novel?
The title of the novel came very late in the game. My working title, during eight years of writing, was Thangam, the name of one of the characters. It became clear fairly early that she was not central enough to own the title, but The Toss of a Lemon only occurred to me a couple of weeks before I sent the manuscript out! I think I needed to finish the thing to see clearly what it was about.
The title’s significance is this: Sivakami’s husband, Hanumarathnam, is an astrologer. What she doesn’t know at the time of their marriage is that his horoscope contains a prediction that he will die: die sooner, that is, than later. He is hoping, however, that the birth of a son might avert this disaster through the interaction of their horoscopes. Hanumarathnam, as an astrologer, wants to calculate his children’s horoscopes himself and he needs the exact birth times to do this, though he is not allowed to be present at their births. His solution? He gives the midwife a lemon and tells her to toss it out the window the instant the baby’s head appears. He will be waiting in the garden outside the birthing chamber. The first child is a girl and the midwife does as instructed. He calculates the horoscope, and while it has enormous repercussions for his daughter, it doesn’t change his own fate. The next baby is a boy ... and a breech birth. (By the way: all this happens in the first 50 pages of the book. I’m not spoiling anything for readers!) The midwife is confused about when to toss the lemon, since the first glimpse she has of the baby is not of his head! Hanumarathnam makes a calculation, but, contrary to his hopes, the little boy’s horoscope confirms the prediction against his father’s life. Much of the rest of the book follows from these two tossed lemons, though we are never sure whether the boy’s horoscope is accurate or not.
As a writer, how much say do you have over the covers of your novel? How much and to what extent are you personally influenced by cover art?
I have veto power but have only exercised it once and haven’t tried to get involved too much. Marketing my book is not my area of expertise. Also, I generally have been very fortunate: almost all of my book covers have been really beautiful. I love, love, love a beautiful book, and it certainly influences my choice of whether to buy.
I am always interested in the kinds of books writers read during their early or formative years. What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Who are some of your literary heroes, so to speak? Have they in any way contributed to the making of who you are as a writer today?
My favourite writers when I was a child were probably E.L. Konigsberg, Louise Fitzhugh, P.L. Travers, L.M. Montgomery and Roald Dahl—I can see now that they all contain humour, secrets, and, for me at least, exotic landscapes. I was very influenced by them, and still think about their books all the time. I did read a lot of kids’ books, and the ones I liked, I read over and over and over.
Who are some of your favourite contemporary novelists? What are some of your favourite contemporary novels? Do you have an all-time favourite novel?
The most important contemporary author in my personal canon is Salman Rushdie, though no one would guess that from my prose. Midnight’s Children and Shame break my heart over and over. I also intensely admire Canadian writer Ann-Marie MacDonald, particularly for her hilarious and erudite play, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), and her novel, Fall on Your Knees. Other contemporary novels I have loved? Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter, Jonathan Ames’s The Extra Man, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, Jane Gardam’s Old Filth ... God, where do I stop?
All time favourites? Hmm, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, for one. Sterne involves his readers by playing with them, and if he alienates others, that’s a chance he’s willing to take. No writer should try too hard to please. And Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones would be my desert island book, as it pretty much contains all the fictional lessons and enjoyment I would ever need. Still, it is flawed, which is reassuring: even books I would place on an altar and worship are, much like Hindu or Greek gods, imperfect. Borges inspires me to imaginative daring and also to forgive my own failings.
Could you suggest a couple of good reads that you think haven’t got as much attention as they should?
Hmm ... I’m not exactly a fiction bellwether and don’t always know which books have and haven’t gotten attention, but I’ve recently read a couple of Canadian books that were well-recognised in Canada but that may or may not have made a big splash internationally. M.G. Vassanji’s The Assassin’s Song was brilliant; the emotional transparency and the cumulative tragedy made me weep at the end. Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault was the other Canadian novel I read this year that I recommended to everyone. It comes out in the US this spring. Also, my friend Catherine Bush’s novels: Claire’s Head, The Rules of Engagement and Minus Time. Another Canadian writer! She writes intricate, intelligent novels that I think deserve a wider readership. Watch out for her next one!
What kinds of books do you read nowadays? Any particular genre? Do you read popular or commercial fiction? What are you reading at the moment?
I dither semi-systematically between novels and literary nonfiction, classic and contemporary. At present, I’m reading Fredy Neptune, a novel in verse by Les Murray, which I picked up during my Australian book tour. I’m also reading The Secret House, by David Bodanis, which is marvellously entertaining, a day spent in the hidden science of an average day, the furniture rebounding from the impact of a foot placed on the floor and thousands of mites also bouncing invisibly underfoot, that sort of thing.
Do you think more competitions or creative writing courses are imperative in increasing the number of good writers and/or improve the quality of writing?
What? Where? Not at all!
In your opinion, what are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novel from the merely good?
Literature is, by its nature, an idiosyncratic enterprise. A dear professor of mine, John Irwin, once said that a great book is one that breaks your heart, and that is about the only credo I have found to stand the test of time. A book may break my heart with its daring, its artistry, its economy, its genuineness, but if I hear that crack, that’s my measure.
Literary festivals tend to eat into writers’ writing time. What do you think of literary festivals? How do you decide which ones to go to? Do you enjoy going to them?
Here in the US it’s more readings than festivals as such, but I think we’re talking about the same sort of thing. I have had enough success with my book to receive invitations but not enough to turn them down! So I basically, so far, go wherever I’m invited, schedule permitting. And yes, once I’m there, I enjoy them as much as I enjoyed them before I was a writer, and for similar reasons—it’s wonderful to be surrounded by people who love books and want to talk about them—but it’s much harder for me to leave home now that I have young kids, and that aspect is stressful.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a second novel, under contract with Random House Canada. It’s called The Ever After of Aswin Rao, and takes place in contemporary western Canada. The story centres on an Indian man named Seth, a devotee of a very popular Indian guru. He became a devotee in the course of comforting a friend through the death of the friend’s wife and son in the Air India bombing of 1985. The story actually hinges, though, on a highly ambiguous sexual misdeed committed by Seth’s guru. Seth must come to terms with his faith in light of that revelation. And there are a few other mysteries, which will be revealed in time …