- Have you always wanted to be an author since young?
Jayanthi Sankar: Absolutely not. I didn’t even show any slightest noteworthy sign of a serious reader, let alone a future writer. I did have, perhaps the natural basic interest in reading or writing commonly expected of any child. And, I was a hardcore introvert during my formative years. I still remember, often receiving comments like, “This girl observes everything and everyone around her but never opens her mouth to express herself.” Even today, after my 28 creative years and my multiple books, many elders in my extended family don’t believe I write.
- Then, what actually prompted you to pursue writing?
Jayanthi Sankar: Only after I started reading seriously during my mid twenties, I realised a voice of a critic forming deep in me but it took me longer to clearly hear that voice. That’s when I had to find out how difficult it is to write fiction before I could even criticise other works. And that playful seeking of mine led to my writing ‘Turning Point’, a short story based on my random, silly and illogical early morning dream. It came more as shock when it got published in print. However, it took me years of attempts at several more short stories before I started believing I could indeed try writing, because I loved the creative experience and the unpredictability in that process. It was fun challenging myself to bring in writing what I did in my mind. Years of passionate reading during the early 1990s brought me to writing and various explorations at knowing more of the inner worlds of human beings have sustained my interest for decades.
- Which books made you cry, angry, rejoice?
Jayanthi Sankar: I’ve cried reading many fiction, but The Kite Runner by Khalid Husseini sank so deeply in me like never before and the moving experience still stays with me. And, I knew what to expect from his next – Thousand Splendid Suns, which again shook me. In recent times, ‘When breath becomes air’ and ‘Independence’ made me emotional. ‘The book of lost names’ and ‘Prisoner of Tehran’ have angered me. And, ‘Kafka on the shore’, ‘Vegetarian’, are ‘Empire’ are few of my all time favourite works that delighted me for their freshness.
- Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
Jayanthi Sankar: I always strive to be original and creative in my work, which is why I’m able to reach more of the seasoned reader base. It is impossible for me to customise or cater because I need to satisfy the reader in me first. She is satisfied only when she faces newer creative challenges. And, I write what I will enjoy reading.
- How do you balance making demands on your readers with your caring for them?
Jayanthi Sankar: I think both of them are significantly important to me. I love to challenge myself while writing and to invite my readers to challenge themselves to read. Although what I give to my readers is mostly layered and often profound, I’ve always ensured my language is as simple as possible. This is more to facilitate a smoother reading experience in them.
- What in your opinion is essential for a protagonist to form effectively?
Jayanthi Sankar: Human beings are mostly flawed, so I believe any protagonist must shape himself or herself.Creator, therefore, needs to work more with her intuition. Only then, I think, better credibility and therefore a better understanding of human psychology, can even be possible. Natural rawness, to some extent, might help. It does for me. This applies more to the genre of realism, of course. And importantly, vibrant and organic characters can only emerge when we avoid idealism, which might to a greater extent suit other genres like pulp, romance or mainstream fiction. But, in literary fiction, which is my forte, idealism can ruin character building, and often also the story telling. Idealistic thought and approach can easily prevent originality from happening, halting the story from artistically advancing forward, and preventing credible characters forming. And, all characters thinking like the author can only be a disaster, certainly.
- Share with us about the most important features of your fiction that help it stand out.
Jayanthi Sankar: Over the years, I’ve often heard my readers saying the absence of the author and her voice are some of the most striking features of my writing. My novel’s rounded approach to incidents and problems offers more than one perspective in any issue. And, also my explorations of different creative ways to ‘show’ and smoothly move my story forward.
- What comes first for you, the plot or the characters, and why?
Jayanthi Sankar: It depends more on the theme or the subject that brews in me, like it is for most of the literary fiction writers. For instance, Misplaced Heads, was more plot-driven but Tabula Rasa was nearly character-driven. The former had the grand backdrop, hence a strong protagonist and the main characters. In contrast, the latter had diverse characters that inhabited the naturally unfolding world. And certain characters of Tabula Rasa led to creating my most recent sociopsychological novella, When Will You Die? which in turn has inspired me to explore my WIP novel.
- In that context, how do you come up with your titles?
Jayanthi Sankar: Just as the theme of my fiction chooses its form, the title churns out as my chapters unfold and progress. Although I do get other options as I move forward but I retain the first title, mostly. It would either be the nucleus of the chosen theme or a subtle abstract streak to represent the larger perspective I wish to send across.
- How long on an average does it take for you to complete writing a book?
Jayanthi Sankar: It varies. Since I write fiction, I can’t work with my clock ticking behind my back. I’ve written ‘Dangling Gandhi’for a few years. It took me several years to complete Misplaced Heads. While Tabula Rasa brewed in me for almost eleven years When will you die? took me over two years and my current work in progress has been with me for over four years and might take more time to reach its final shape.
- Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Jayanthi Sankar: Both, as it is for most authors. The initial creative stages, where I let my heart and mind lead, bring in me a mysterious energy. During rewriting and editing, when my intellect takes over, I feel drained from the constant debates within me. The exhaustion eventually spreads also to my physical being.
- What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Jayanthi Sankar: When I begin with content editing to cut parts is the most difficult phase because I might enjoy reading certain parts I’ve written but I give more importance to relevance and also the artistry becomes critical. Deciding on what to cut and what to keep can really be challenging.
- Does a fat ego help or hurt writers?
Jayanthi Sankar: It is only natural we believe that ego might help with character building, emotion, and to keep finer sensitivities and a good amount of confidence while writing. This is possibly true for many writers. On the other hand, it could hurt the author in various ways, post publication. But, in my experience, it’s been quite different. I’ve experienced my creative process peeling off a tiny portion of my ego, every time, leaving me with lesser of it. I haven’t yet deciphered this enigmatic feel because I move on to my next waiting project, every time, perhaps deeply pining to lose yet another bit.
- What is your goal when you start writing a new book? And, what do you aim to invoke in your readers?
Jayanthi Sankar: I’ve trashed dozens of drafts without any hesitation and at least a dozen old folders lie untouched in my older drives. I must be happy with my process and its end result – not so easy, but I contentiously strive by rewriting. And, once on print, I love to watch my readers enter the world I created, to experience, infer, debate and at times lift its value up through their participative reading. Reading fiction, after all, is not just reading the text or the story but more of living the lives of the characters of my newly created imaginary unknown world that I’ve tried to superimpose on the world of fairly familiar reality. Also, connecting the dots.
- And, if you could spend a day with another popular author, who would you choose?
Jayanthi Sankar: I have a whole list of authors I wish to spend time with. That includes Haruki Murakami, Amitav Ghosh, Han Kang, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
- One thing essential for any writing process? And, how do you handle self-doubts during your progress?
Jayanthi Sankar: If I get any self-doubt while choosing themes and plots, I throw away ideas and texts. Like, whenever I sense I might not be able to handle or it might be too controversial, I don’t take it up. For example, I mostly refrain from exploring certain complicated psychological issues. Each author has her own ways of working, but from my experience, a clock-based or regimental work pattern can only be heinous to my creativity. So, I tend to become nearly oblivious to date, time and routine. I consider myself fortunate if only I can afford that luxury of inner journey. Rest can follow organically. And, when I start thinking as another character of the fiction, pushing the protagonist behind, things get a little clearer, and short respites from my drafts can also rejuvenate my exhausted mind.
- Do you base your characters off individuals from your life or include only snippets of your personal life into your novels?
Jayanthi Sankar: Neither. Like I said earlier, all of my characters are imaginary. Even if they have tiny streaks of real people, they are only mostly a combination of a few. And my personal life mostly never reflects in my fiction.
- Then, what do you normally base your themes on?
Jayanthi Sankar: Writing lived experiences, I understand, can only limit your imagination and my fiction has no lived experience. If ever I write about my lived experiences in future, it might only be a memoire. I love to explore the worlds I don’t, or won’t ever get to live in reality, regardless of whether I like or dislike them. As a result, I naturally end up shaping characters that are completely different from me, or the people I get to meet or know in my life. I live many different lives as I write them. That’s precisely why many of my readers are puzzled by my diverse characters.
- Where do you source your raw materials from?
Jayanthi Sankar: More from the inner and the outer worlds of people I get to know or observe and humanity at large. It might sound contradicting when I say I source from people and their lives but none of my characters or plots are real. 95-99% of my content is fictitious if i can make it clearer. I end up giving many perspectives back to humanity through my worlds. And, my fiction reflects more of Singapore and her people as I’ve lived here for more than three decades.
- How do the personalities of your characters affect your personality or vice versa?
Jayanthi Sankar: They’ve helped me understand human psychology far better. While building my characters, I naturally live them and therefore there are some obvious but subtle changes in me felt by those around me, though seldom. However, they are never permanent. My characters mostly don’t have my traits. Assuming they have an iota of me, when they are mixed with the nature of other persons, or fictitious elements they wouldn’t resemble me or my life in any way.
- On that note, what do you think of the readers who habitually search for the writer in her writings?
Jayanthi Sankar: A reader matures only when she shuns this habit, which in my opinion is only the result of shallow, narrow, preconceived or distracted reading. Writing lived experiences need to be categorised under a entirely different genre, I think. We can’t consider them as fiction, many fail to realise. For example, an author, especially like me, writing for 28 years, can’t possibly manifest in her everywhere fiction, can she?
- What literary beliefs have you challenged through your works?
Jayanthi Sankar: Breaking the conventions, I’ve explored innumerable refreshing and engaging ways to move my story forward. I’ve shown my readers that the human brain can comprehend and enjoy the challenge and reading such texts thereby facilitating more participation in my work.
- And, what do you ultimately aspire to achieve through your writing journey?
Jayanthi Sankar: Exploring different created lives and worlds, I get to align my thoughts. And, I give innumerable perspectives back to humanity.
- How much do you depend on the editing process for your manuscripts?
Jayanthi Sankar: It’s much more than just my writing. At times, I edit content longer than my rewriting takes. And my happiness during these stages is directly proportional to the number of breaks I can take away from my texts. I also get to shun ‘me’ and ‘I’ during this phase. Respites enable me to read afresh, not missing out on any issues that require fixing. When my manuscript is ready to move on to the grammar, syntax, line, and punctuation phases, I rest it at least once more.
- What’s your most and least favourite part of publishing?
Jayanthi Sankar: Interestingly, editing is my most favourite at the initial stage and final proofreading is my least favourite part of publishing and all in-between are inevitably important, I tell myself.
- Which is better, traditional publishing or indie publishing?
Jayanthi Sankar: I think all such myths have dissipated in recent decades. Even the big names in the publishing industry cater to those willing to invest to get their works published. Vanity is no longer a vice, you must realise! Hybrid and self-publishing are the trends. We see many brilliant books among an ocean of substandard ones.
- We hear you designed the book cover of your novella. What would you suggest to an author who wishes to try to design hers?
Jayanthi Sankar: I’m currently designing the initial draft of my WIP book cover. Sometimes, I also get commissioned to design book covers by some of my fellow authors for their publications. If I can do it, any creator should certainly be able to do it as well. An author knows best her fiction, better than others, or an AI, and so her cover idea will definitely suit her book the best. She could at least use it as a basis to show a professional designer.
- What is the most unethical of the current practices in the publishing industry?
Jayanthi Sankar: Exploiting the increasing impulsive interest and desperation in young aspirants, mostly caught in the illusionary web of social media. Sadly, they think becoming a published author is their ultimate achievement but not everyone of them subsequently continue their pursuits. Many of them treat authorship akin to SM. They are ready to pay through their noses to get published. As a result, an ocean of substandard publications easily and unreasonably buries the fewer exemplary works. When money becomes the game player, it easily compromises on the values of books and industrial practices. This is why many of the debut authors disappear after their short-lived interest fades away.
- What are the common traps for aspiring writers?
Jayanthi Sankar: Rushing to complete a book is as ineffective as not finishing the first draft. Reluctance to rewrite chapters, as if rewriting is an imposition ordered by the school principal, won’t take the aspirant far. In avoiding practical concerns about the challenges of writing, following the so-called rules regarding story development and arcs, and being trapped in the illusions of numbers and algorithms, post publication, would only prevent them from tapping out their fullest potential. They might end up only replicating the successful contents, also in their books. And, unfortunately they would lack freshness.
- Has SM helped you promote your works?
Jayanthi Sankar: Social media has certainly given my books some visibility. There is no denial there. However, I think there are limitations to how much it can really expand the readership or increase the sales. And, I realise, such things also depend on how much time and effort I can actually invest in it. At the same time, we all know authenticity is becoming a rarer commodity on the fast developing SM, and we all have quickly accepted it as the norm. We get to see many of the bookstagrammers with all hypes, more interested in posing and posting themselves as book lovers than genuinely reading books. They are keen to grow famous influencers rather than sincere readers.
- We know you as a passionate fiction writer, but do you have any plans to write in other genres?
Jayanthi Sankar: I do plan to write a few but nothing has been converging yet, as they’re only at the ideating stage. I plan to slow down. More because, we’re so caught in the loud madness of SM. It constantly strives to suppress genuineness. This, therefore, can pose unprecedented challenges for creators like me who end up requiring stronger, more sustained commitment to nurture passions and pursuits. Slowing down and regular SM detox can be the saviours.
- Is there one life skill that paved your own path?
Jayanthi Sankar: When I mull over the words and actions of people in real life, I’ve noticed I habitually step back to observe, throwing away the ‘me’ or ‘I’ out of me and the setting, involuntarily. This has not only helped me build my characters realistically but also helped me evolve spiritually as a person, and as a writer. I believe my ability to observe situations, people, and their emotions without instantly evaluating them has also enabled me to naturally put others before me. And this has consistently strengthened in me as decades rolled by.
- What pulls down / boosts up your spirits?
Jayanthi Sankar: Situations where certain unreasonable attitudes assume things without even trying to understand the background or intent properly drain my energy, but only momentarily. I make it a point to bounce back quickly. When I come across genuine gestures, initiatives, or reviews, I’m elated and inspired.
- At what point do you think one should call oneself a writer?
Jayanthi Sankar: I don’t know about others but I’ve always felt I’m a WIP human being. Similarly, I’d be a writer in the making, till my last, I know.
- Share with us about the means to fill your rice bowl.
Jayanthi Sankar: Appreciate the clarity of thought – writing rarely buys writers their daily loaf. That said, I’ve worked as a translator, transcriber, and interpreter for over 20 years. This excludes my three years as a journalist. I also get commissioned to edit manuscripts of fiction. My recent freelancing experience of eight months has led me to a role of full-time interpreter and I gladly accepted the opportunity that knocked on my door. It suits my desire to reduce my screen time. Right now, I work as an interpreter with MOM-CRD, in 3 languages: English, Tamil and Hindi.
- What epitaph would you prefer after you exit the world?
Jayanthi Sankar: ‘Lived hundreds of lives through writing and thousands through reading’.