Exclusive Interview with Author Kamala Nair

Kamala Nair with her book, The Girl in the Garden
Kamala Nair with her book, The Girl in the Garden

RoB: Writing a novel is a huge undertaking. What routine/system did you set in place for success?

KM: I wrote the majority of The Girl in the Garden while working full-time editorial jobs at magazines in New York City, so I knew that if I wanted to finish, I would have to be very disciplined about my routine. My mind tends to be fresher in the mornings, so I would set my alarm a few hours before I had to be at the office, get up, make a cup of strong tea (toward the end I switched to black coffee), and sit at my desk to write. Even though getting up that early was a challenge, I loved the feeling of being awake while the rest of the city slept. It was still dark outside and the streets were silent. There was something magical about moving from the world of sleep and dreams directly into the world of my novel…especially when writing the scenes where Rakhee rises at dawn to visit the garden. New York is an inspiring city for a writer, but it’s also full of distractions, and I often succumbed. I had to turn down a lot of invitations and miss out on many exciting events in order to write during the weekends.

RoB: What did you do when you had writer’s block?

KM: I would re-read a favorite novel or poem, listen to music, take a long walk or a nap, pace around my apartment, or watch bad TV and make myself feel guilty. If all else failed, I would try to stop being so hard on myself and step away from the work for a few days, or even weeks if necessary. For the most part, this story poured out of me. I had to write it. If I ignored it for long enough, I would begin to feel physically and emotionally uncomfortable, and would have no choice but to return to writing.

RoB: What did you turn to for inspiration?

KM: Books. Books and my early love for reading are why I chose to become a writer in the first place, and I always return to the works that have moved me over the years whenever I need inspiration. I also liked to read biographies of successful people whom I admire. Reading about their discipline and perseverance in the face of challenges, often much worse than anything I’ve ever had to endure, inspired me to continue when things got especially hard.

RoB: Did you feel it to be a lonely process?

KM: Writing a novel is a very solitary journey. No matter how many people are cheering you on in the backdrop, it’s ultimately you alone sitting at your desk with a pen and paper, or your laptop, spinning a world that exists only in your own head, and committing to seeing it through to the end. I can’t write if I am connected to the Internet, or hearing background conversations in a café, or even listening to music with lyrics, so writing this novel meant spending countless hours in a silent room with only myself and my thoughts and fears for company. Especially with a first novel, nobody is really invested in the outcome except for you, and there is something very lonely about that. I think it takes a particular type of person to handle that loneliness. My creativity flourished in that kind of working environment more than it did in an office surrounded by people, but I know that is not the case for everyone. On the other hand, it could also be extremely collaborative. I started the novel while I was doing a creative writing graduate program at Trinity College Dublin. After a week of writing alone, I would get to sit in a classroom and discuss my work with a group of insightful, talented writers. I also had a small writing group in New York, and we would meet every two weeks to share our work and encourage each other.

RoB: How long was the process from beginning to end?

KM: Writing the book took me about three years, including revisions. I was lucky enough to connect with my wonderful agent, Marly Rusoff, shortly after I started sending out query letters. She sold my novel to Grand Central Publishing at the end of 2009 and it’s just out this month, so it has been a long road from start to finish.

RoB: Were you scared along the way?

KM: Yes, and I’m still scared! I don’t know if that fear ever goes away. There is no set career path to becoming a writer, the way there is for becoming a doctor or a lawyer, so in many ways I have felt like a blind woman feeling around in the dark, following my instincts and hoping they are leading me in the right direction. I’m sure any Indian-American can relate to the pressure to make a safer, more obviously lucrative career choice…it’s very hard to turn your back on that, to ignore the advice of your parents, and risk failure…I almost went to law school, and changed my mind at the very last second because I knew if I went I would never finish writing The Girl in the Garden.  I knew that regardless of the outcome, I would regret that more than I would regret missing out on a law degree, so I decided to take the risk. I’m confident with the choices I’ve made, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still get stricken by fear.

RoB: Who’s your favorite author(s)?

KM: It’s so hard to single out just one, but if I had to pick, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is my favorite novel of all time. I adore Jane Eyre as well, along with most 19th-century British novels. I am obsessed with Irish literature, which is why I decided to attend Trinity. James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, W.B. Yeats, Claire Keegan, William Trevor. Other favorites include Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, and Banana Yoshimoto. A diverse bunch.

RoB: Who’s your favorite character in your book?

KM: The character I like the most is Krishna, for her sweetness, courage, and unconditional friendship. The character I feel the most attached to is Rakhee. Although the story is not autobiographical, I put a lot of myself and my own emotions as a child into her, and I think we’ll always be inextricably linked.

RoB: Was there a moment you can look back on where you knew you wanted to write?

KM: I have been writing for as long as I can remember. As soon as I could read, my main source of entertainment came from books. That organically shifted into writing my own stories to entertain myself at a very young age, though at that time I never consciously thought, “I want to be a writer.” I just did it because it was fun and it made me happy. I loved animals, and used to write long illustrated sagas about a gang of animals living in a forest. I started to get positive reinforcement from my family, friends, and teachers, and won a poetry contest in sixth grade. It gradually started to dawn on me that maybe I could be a writer when I grew up. I never really let go of that idea. I was also a typical little sister who wanted to do everything that my older sister did. She was really into books and writing at an early age, so that gave me even more of an incentive to keep at it.

RoB: Anything you want to say to aspiring writers out there?

KM: I would suggest reading as much as possible. You can join writing workshops and earn writing degrees and gain a lot from those things, but when all is said and done, the best education comes from devouring books. I still have a lot to learn, but I recognize myself growing stronger as a writer with every new book or old classic that I read. I think all the greatest stories are, at their core, love stories, whether they are about romantic love, familial love, nature, or friendship. And the stories we connect with most deeply have been written from a place of love. So, if writing is something you really want to do and succeed at, write every single day even if it means missing a party or getting an hour less sleep, and tune out all the outside noise…just focus all your energy on writing something that you truly love.

RoB: Thanks for chatting with us Kamala. We wish you much success with this book and the others that will surely come after it.

Read our review of The Girl in the Garden

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