Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Writing What You Know

When The Bridges of Madison County first became a runaway bestseller, well, I read it. Everyone told me I had to, so I did. As I’d expected, it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but one thing stayed with me. If the assignment had been “write up your fantasy life,” this author knocked it out of the park. The novel was the author’s life wrapped up in Harlequin wrapping paper—the “ruggedly handsome” National Geographic photographer out on his quixotic journey, the woman who couldn’t get enough of him. Had the author really meant to so shamelessly model his hero on himself?

A few years later, I read God of Small Things and was blown away, in part, by its sheer originality. How did its author create that breathtaking world, those fascinating characters? I read that Arundhati Roy, in her mid-thirties at the time, said it took her less than a month to write the book. It was easy, she’d said. She just plucked everything she wrote about from her own backyard.

You could say both of these authors inspired me at me some basic level. Instead of getting wrapped up in “can I really write a book?”—and for years, that sort of thinking held me back from even attempting it—I just started writing about what I know.

No, my books aren’t about me or anyone I actually know. Not really. There are definitely elements of truth in them though. A few strays from my backyard, and maybe a couple from my neighbor’s too. It’s easy to pluck ideas from here and there and see how they evolve. I think of it like starting a fire. Rub enough rocks together, and eventually you’ll find a spark.

I did start off daydreaming in front of the blank screen. “What if I could go anywhere on earth, move somewhere new, meet exciting people, have some adventures, learn a few things?” From there, characters evolved, developed faces and personalities, and went out into the world in my place. They didn’t always go where I wanted them to. Instead of following my lead, I had to follow theirs. Occasionally, I’d read a random article in a newspaper or overhear a conversation in the supermarket and my characters would say, “oh, okay, just this once.”

Like Heidi’s characters, mine too navigate between different worlds. The inspiration for my Across Black Waters series came from an old Indian belief that when anyone crossed a sea or ocean (“black waters”) to travel out of the country, they would suffer an unlucky fate. But today, the world has changed so much that the children and grandchildren of Indians who left a generation or even several generations ago, are returning to the country of their heritage as virtual foreigners. There isn’t a corner of this world Indians haven’t settled in and put down roots, creating unique cultural hybrids that inspire the storyteller in me.

Once, on a long flight over to India, I sat next to an Indian woman who was traveling from Spain. She’d moved there some years ago to marry an NRI (non-resident Indian), and together they ran his family business. I was floored when she told me that her husband had never set foot in India, never, yet he had agreed to an arranged marriage with a woman from there he hadn’t met beforehand. When I recovered from my surprise, I asked how it happened that her husband had never made it to India. It turned out his grandparents had moved to Spain as newlyweds and settled there permanently, and his parents (or at least one of them) was born and raised there, and now two generations later, her husband considered himself a Spaniard. I was still dying to know how he agreed to an arranged marriage, but instead I asked the only other thing I could think of that didn’t sound too intrusive: what kind of business? I know, who cares, right? But her answer? “We import goods from China.”

Some stories just write themselves, don’t they?

1 comment:

  1. I'm fascinated by diasporas, and I love the way they create those unique cultural hybrids as you call them. So many stories to explore!