Shinie Antony is super fun to be with. She is everything her humour writing is – witty, intelligent and stimulating. Antony’s latest novel, “The Girl Who Couldn’t Love”, is gruesome and yet unputdownable, and it made Interviewing India Founder Poorva Dinesh wonder how Shinie tackled her stories and humour pieces, both of which are a far cry from each other. Shinie demystifies her writing process, and in the bargain gives such a brilliant interview that we get hooked on to every word she says. Read on and you will agree that this interview is a master class in itself.
Shinie Antony, Author and Editor, Bengaluru
Interviewed By Poorva Dinesh
You don’t need an introduction, but if you have to introduce yourself…
I am a human being on planet earth called Shinie Antony. Unfortunately, named thus by my grandmother, whose knowledge of English was limited; “shine” was one word she knew and very eager to use. My baptised name is Mary, but every second girl in Kerala is called Mary, so I chose to remain Shinie.
What prompted you to start writing?
I attended a gathering where a lot of underprivileged girls and women were talking about their experiences. At some level I had a mental block identifying myself as a woman. I had crew-cut hair (I grew my hair only in my forties) and wore jeans or trousers. When I heard these women talk about their sexual destiny or biological fate, my mask and youthful pretensions came off. That’s the first time my armour cracked. As I listened to them, I realized I had been living in some kind of a cocoon. These indignities happened to these women and not to me only because of the accident of birth. And that’s when I started looking at people who were below me in the privilege line and not above me. From ‘I have nothing’ I went straight to ‘I have too much’.
Those voices haunted me. All the stories I heard mated with each other and multiplied, and then became these stories I hadn’t yet heard but knew were out there.
What are the challenges you face as a writer?
If I want these voices to reach others, I need a vocabulary of sorts. I have to convey the story in a way I heard it first. I need the reader to feel what I felt, and that is a huge challenge because the gap between what we want to say and what we end up saying is huge most of the times. I beg, borrow, steal from experiences, from the newspapers, the environment around me and try to come up with tales that make the reader sit up and think. If my writing does not disturb the reader or shock the reader in a positive way, then I don’t want to write. I don’t want to write stuff that makes you feel good about yourself. If I cannot change your outlook on something or make you think about something you previously didn’t think about, then I haven’t done my job.
How do the stories or characters come to you?
Characters or a plot may come on tip-toe or with a bang, and my first reaction is always, “No. This is not a story, it is a false alarm,” and I get on with my life. I am quite happy right now because there is no story in my head. I am free; everyday is a picnic now, but when a story starts holding you in its tentacles then your movement is restricted because then you are not interested in a lot of things that are happening because your focus keeps coming back to the story. For example, for one of the characters in a novel, I kept ‘seeing’ an old man shaking his head, and my first reaction was not to look at him. But when I did look at him, he was chained to a tree, and later I realized he wasn’t mentally well, and then the question was who had chained him. So from there on the story started taking over.
How long does it take you to write a story?
When I wrote a short story called “Why we don’t talk”, someone told me that from the very first line to the last I had complete hold over my story. But the thing is I had no clue. And that story took me as long to write as it took me to type it. A very feeble voice was talking in my head and I wrote it down despite not knowing where it was going. I only knew I had to drop everything and write this. I also knew that if I hadn’t written it right then, I would have never written it.
My new novel “The Girl Who Couldn’t Love” occurred to me when I was on a Pune-Bangalore flight. When my friend and I were in the cab home, I didn’t exchange a word with her, and she thought I was tired and sleepy. But the thing is the story kept unfolding itself. My husband had just come back from Paris while I was in Pune. Usually, this is a huge event in my life because my husband visits just thrice a year. But when I got home I didn’t give him a second look and just switched on my computer. Even to get up to bathe, eat or sleep was a torture – the story was just coming out of me and it took me five days of non-stop typing.
Later when I showed it to literary agent Preeti Gill, she suggested ways to elongate it so I would have a novella instead of a short story. Editor Renuka Chatterjee at Speaking Tiger publishing house then suggested many life saving edits. The cover maintained the book’s mood. So though the basic story came out of my head in a hot and fluid rush, the rewrites took at least six months.
What does writing mean to you?
Writing for me is emotional and painful. What happens with some stories is that the more you run away from them, the more they stalk you. I only write because I want to be liberated from this crap. So if you can assure me that I will never write another story again, I will French-kiss you.
Tell me something about your humor pieces…
Easier to write fiction because you are possessed by these stories and characters — than to produce a piece out of thin air. Writing a humor piece is painful in a different way. Humor pieces caricature life. When somebody says that I wasn’t funny enough I feel insecure as a writer and have to avoid terrace ledges.
*With the Bangalore Lit Fest Team in 2016.
Photo credit – Prashant Sankaran
Is it important to be funny all the time? Though I know the task at hand is to be funny…
I am a fan of irony. Picking up serious topics all the time without offending or sounding holier than thou is a tightrope walk. You never know when your heart won’t appear to be in the right place.
The last question has nothing to do with your interview topic, but we ask everyone we interview – what does love mean to you?
Love is listening. If someone is talking to me then I have to respect that person by actually listening.
Does that mean I am in love with you?
Love has so many forms. There is sexual love, romantic love, motherly love, but I am talking about universal and general love. It should be one’s true religion. There is nothing greater in life. I am a human being, you are a human being, and if I don’t understand you and hold your hand, then which god is going to be happy with my prayers? Paying attention, making eye contact, and actually seeing the other person, seeing how similar they are to you despite the many outward differences, I think that is love.