An Award-winning Fiction writer
The Wise Owl talks to Jayanthi Sankar, an award-winning writer of several books on fiction. Tabula Rasa her third book, and second novel was a 2022 NYC Big Book Award ‘Distinguished Favourite’ in the category of Historical Fiction and received an ‘honourable mention’ in San Francisco book Fest award 2022. Misplaced Heads, was on the Eyelands Book Awards 2020 final list of historical fiction in Greece, making its mark as an outstanding postmodern historical fiction. The winner in fiction: short story in 2020 International Book Award -American book fest ‘Dangling Gandhi’ also won the international The Literary Titan award. The title story Dangling Gandhi was shortlisted in the 2nd Twist & Twain International Short Story Contest out of the 165 worldwide entries. Her other recognitions include CLS Global award, the prestigious Tagore Ratna Award, among others
The Interview : Jayanthi Sankar
(Prof Shiv Sethi talks to Jayanthi Sankar)
The Wise Owl talks to Jayanthi Sankar, an award-winning writer of several books on fiction. When Will You Die? her fourth book, a novella, amazes her readers with its profound exploration of the human psyche. Tabula Rasa her third book, and second novel was a 2022 NYC Big Book Award ‘Distinguished Favourite’ in the category of Historical Fiction and received an ‘honourable mention’ in San Francisco book Fest award 2022. Misplaced Heads, was on the Eyelands Book Awards 2020 final list of historical fiction in Greece, making its mark as an outstanding postmodern historical fiction. The winner in fiction: short story in 2020 International Book Award -American book fest ‘Dangling Gandhi’ also won the international The Literary Titan award. The title story Dangling Gandhi was shortlisted in the 2nd Twist & Twain International Short Story Contest out of the 165 worldwide entries. Her other recognitions include CLS Global award, the prestigious Tagore Ratna Award, Top 50 most influential Authors 2021 by Delhiwire and Lit fest excellence award and Sahityakosh Samman by NE8x apart from several other shortlists and nominations.
As part of her strong belief in creating and expanding the communities through literature, she has curated and edited two anthologies - Dancing Gold Flecks and An Iron Fist In A Velvet Glove published in 2023. While the former is a collection of 27 unpublished short stories from 18 writers of India and Indian diaspora, the latter is an international collection of 32 pre published short stories from 27 contributors from USA, Singapore, India, Philippines and Myanmar. Also a watercolour hobbyist, she works currently with the ministry of manpower-CRD as a full time (English, Tamil, Hindi) interpreter after freelancing for more than two decades excluding three years’ experience in journalism. Sankar enjoys expanding the scope of her creative space has been in several international panels of literary festivals including the APWT 2018 at Gold coast, Singapore Writers Festival, Asean- India Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival. While living in her fictional world most of the time, she constantly interacts with the characters as they form and shape up. So, writing a novel is more of a lively internal process that she truly loves and she’s all into experimenting, especially in moving her story forward. Born and brought up in India, the Singaporean writer Jayanthi Sankar has been living in Singapore since 1991.
SS: Have you always wanted to be an author?
JS: Except for the natural interest in reading and writing commonly expected of a child, I didn't show any other noteworthy signs of a serious reader, let alone a future writer. A hardcore introvert during my formative years, I remember receiving comments like, "Oh, she observes everything around, but never opens her mouth to express herself." And, after I started reading seriously during my twenties, I realised it took me a long time to hear the voice of the critic forming in me. That's when I had to find out how difficult it is to write before I could criticise others’ works. And that seeking led to my writing 'Turning Point', a short story based on my random and illogical early morning dream. It got published in print. It took me more attempts to write several short stories before I believed I could pursue writing. Even today, many elders in my extended family don't believe I write, after 28 years and multiple books.
SS: Which book made you cry?
JS: Although I’ve cried reading many fictions, The Kite Runner by Kalied Husseini sank so deeply in me like never before and the moving experience stays with me. And, I knew what to expect from his next - Thousand Splendid Suns, which again shook me.
SS: We know you as a passionate fiction writer, but do you have any plans to write other genres?
JS: I have a few in my mind, but they are only at the ideating stage. Usually, I share details only after half my execution. We can’t forget we’re caught in a loud and mad world of SM, constantly striving to suppress authenticity, can we? It can pose unprecedented challenges for passionate creators like me. So, it requires strong, sustained commitment to nurture my passions and pursuits. It’s the same for many authors out there, I’m sure.
SS: Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
JS: I don’t even come in the middle. 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 to meet your needs.
SS: How do you balance making demands on your readers with taking care of them?
JS: Both are significant. First, I love to challenge myself while writing and invite my readers to challenge themselves while reading. Although what I give to my readers is layered and often profound, I’ve always ensured my language and showing is as simple as possible. This is to facilitate a smoother reading experience.
SS: What in your opinion is essential for a protagonist to form effectively?
JS: Human beings are mostly flawed, so I believe any protagonist must shape himself or herself. Only then, credibility and therefore a better understanding of human psychology, is even possible. Natural rawness, therefore, might help. This applies more to realism. And importantly, vibrant organic characters can only emerge when we avoid idealism, which might to some extent suit other genres like pulp, romance or mainstream writing. But, in literary fiction it can totally ruin character building, and often also story telling. Idealistic thought and approach can prevent originality from happening, moving the story artistically forward and creating credible characters. And, last but not least, all characters thinking like the author can only be disasters.
SS: In that context, how do you come up with your book titles?
JS: Just as my fiction theme chooses its form, my title churns out organically as my chapters unfold to progress. Although I get other options later, the first one is mostly what I keep. It would either be the nucleus of the chosen theme or a subtle abstract microcosm to represent the larger perspective I wish to show.
SS: Share with us the most important features of your fiction that help it stand out.
JS: Over the years, I have learned from my readers that the absence of the author and her voice are one of the most striking features of my writing. My novel's rounded narration of incidents and problems offers more than one perspective. My explorations of different creative ways to 'show' or smoothly move my story forward.
SS: How do the characters' personalities affect your personality or vice versa?
JS: They’ve helped me understand human psychology better in terms of how the human mind works. While building my characters, I naturally live with them and therefore there are some obvious changes to my nature, subtly felt by those around me. However, they’re just temporary. None of my characters have my traits. They wouldn't resemble me or anyone I know even if they had a bit of me, when blended with the features and nature of other fictitious characters or other fictitious elements.
SS: How long on an average does it take for you to complete a book?
JS: Since I mostly write fiction, I can't work with my clock ticking behind my back. So, it varies. I've written books for a few years as Dangling Gandhi, for several years like I did Misplaced Heads., Tabula Rasa has 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 me more time.
SS: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
JS: Both, as it is for most authors. The initial creative stages where I let my heart and mind lead bring energy. During rewriting and editing, where my intellect takes over, I feel drained from the constant debates within me. The exhaustion eventually spreads to my physical being.
SS: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
JS: I think where I begin with content editing to cut as many parts, is the most difficult. This is because I might enjoy reading certain parts I've written, but I give more importance to relevance and artistry are more critical. Deciding on what to cut and what to keep can be challenging.
SS: Does a fat ego help or hurt writers?
JS: We believe that ego while writing might help with character building, emotion, and to keep finer sensitivities and a good amount of confidence. However, it could hurt the author in various ways post publication. I've experienced my creative process nipping off a tiny portion of my ego, leaving me with less of it. I haven't deciphered the enigmatic feeling as I move on to another every time.
SS: What literary beliefs have you challenged through your works?
JS: Breaking the conventions, I’ve explored innumerable refreshing and engaging ways to move my story. I've shown my readers that the human brain can comprehend and enjoying the challenge reading such texts facilitates more participation in creativity.
SS: And, what do you ultimately aspire to achieve through your writing journey?
JS: Exploring different created lives and worlds, giving back to humanity innumerable perspectives.
SS: How much do you depend on the editing process for your manuscripts?
JS: It's much more than just my writing. I edit content for as long as my rewriting takes. And my happiness during these two stages is directly proportional to the number of breaks I can take away from my texts. This is because respites enable me to read afresh, not missing out on any issues that require fixing. When my manuscript is ready to move to the grammar, syntax, line, and punctuation phases, I rest it at least once.
SS: What’s your most and least favourite part of publishing?
JS: Interestingly, editing is my most favourite at the initial stage and proofreading is my least favourite part of publishing.
SS: Which is better traditional publishing or indie publishing?
JS: I think such myths have dissipated in recent decades. Even the big names in the publishing industry cater to those willing to publish their works. Vanity is no longer a vice, you see! Hybrid and self-publishing are trends. We see many brilliant ones among an ocean of substandard books.
SS: We hear you designed the book cover of your novella. What would you suggest to an author who wishes to try to design his or her own?
JS: I'm currently designing the first draft of my WIP book cover. Sometimes, I'm also commissioned to design book covers by fellow authors for their publications. If I can do it, any creator should be able to do it as well. An author knows her book in-depth, better than AI, and so her cover idea might suit her fiction the best. She can at least use hers as a basis to show a professional designer.
SS: What are common traps for aspiring writers?
JS: 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 help. In avoiding practical concerns about the challenges of writing, following the so-called rules regarding story development and story arcs, and being trapped in the illusion of numbers and tags after publication, they won't be able to reach their full potential. They might only replicate what others have done and lack freshness.
SS: What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
JS: Exploiting the increasing impulsive interest and desperation in young aspirants, mostly caught in the illusionary web of social media. They think becoming a published author is their ultimate achievement. They treat authorship similarly to SM. They are ready to pay through their noses to get published. As a result, substandard publications bury exemplary works. When money becomes the game player, it easily compromises the values of books and industry practices. Many debut authors disappear after their short-lived interest fades away.
SS: Has SM helped you promote your works?
JS: The social media has certainly given my books some visibility. However, I think there are limitations to how much it can expand readership. And, I realise, it also depends on how much time and effort I can invest in it. Authenticity is becoming a rare commodity on SM, and everyone has quickly accepted it as the norm of our era. Many of the so-called bookstagrammers with all their hype are more interested in protecting themselves as book lovers than genuinely reading.
SS: Share with us about your means to fill your rice bowl.
JS: Appreciate your clarity of thought - writing rarely buys writers their daily loaf. That said, I have worked as a translator, transcriber, and interpreter for over 20 years. This excludes my three years as a journalist. My recent freelancing experience of eight months led the ministry of manpower to consider me as their full-time in-house interpreter and I've gladly accepted the role. It suits my desire to reduce screen time. Right now, I am an interpreter with MOM-CRD, in 3 languages: English, Tamil and Hindi.
Thank you, Jayanthi Sankar, for taking time out to talk to us. We wish you the very best in all your creative endeavours