“I follow words and lines and voices and come to discover the characters, and they take me on their journey,” author Damyanti Biswas tells IC.
Damyanti Biswas’s debut literary crime novel, You Beneath Your Skin has had rave reviews. The plot revolves around a successful psychiatrist, a conflicted single mother, and a clandestine affair. As Indian American Anjali Morgan struggles to cope, she finds herself at the center of a gruesome crime spree investigated by Jatin. The story unfolds as the readers follow Anjali and Jatin across New Delhi as they confront old wounds and unearth old secrets to save the ones they love.
All the proceeds from the sales of this novel go to Project WHY – a program that provides quality education to underprivileged children in New Delhi, India. In this interview, she talks about her creative process, the art of bringing her fictional characters to life, and her philanthropy.
IC: Tell us about your love for writing. How did you get started?
DB: I can’t say with honesty that I love writing. I love having written, but on some days I wish there were no compulsion to write. On days my body is restless with the need to write but the words on paper seem tepid, I wish writing were not for me. Same with when my work is on submission: when acceptance or rejection is out of my hands-on days like those I find myself wishing away the writing life.
I’d never imagined being a writer—and I’d have laughed at the idea 16 years ago. But once I married and moved to a different country where I was jobless for the first time, I found myself willing to try anything at all. My husband brought home an old IBM Thinkpad with the letter I and Y missing, and I copy-pasted those letters from the internet in order to write my first article, for which I was paid the princely sum of 20 USD.
That started me off on my writing journey, and soon, upon the advice of website owners who were tired of my poetic words on dry topics like domaining, I attended my first fiction workshop. And here we are, more than a decade later.
IC: Tell us about your creative process.
DB: For flash fiction, I usually start with writing prompts. Also for short stories. No plotting is involved at all. I follow words and lines and voices and come to discover the characters, and they take me on their journey. I keep tinkering till I realize I’m damaging the story, then send it for critiques to trusted readers.
I begin novels with characters, though I’m trying to change that. You Beneath Your Skin started with Anjali and Sakhi: they came to me while writing prompt-based flash fiction. For my latest work, I’m trying to go from premise to character to plot.
Once I have my characters, I plot using index cards—dreaming up scenes, and checking the entire story for beats and structure as I shuffle the cards around. The only rules are: respect the characters and the reader, and always be escalating. Once I have the basic structure down on index cards with the plot points where I want them, I write a draft. Following this, I let the draft rest for a while and then fine-tune the structure again. A pass each for character arc, pace, dialogues, setting, and I’m ready for beta readers or my agent. Once I receive feedback, the process starts all over again.
IC: Tell us about your association with the Project WHY.
DB: I met Anuradha Bakshi, the founder of Project WHY, back in 2006. I began as a supporter and then turned into a volunteer within a few years.
I’ve been visiting them, interacting with their teachers and beneficiaries for more than a decade now, and feel very grateful for the work they have done for New Delhi’s underprivileged children and women since the year 2000.
IC: What role did it play in inspiring you to write ‘You Beneath Your Skin’?
DB: A large part of You Beneath Your Skin is set in underprivileged communities. Most of it is inspired by Project WHY, their surroundings, and the people I met while volunteering for them.
IC: Are the characters in your book based on people you know?
DB: All characters are based on people we know or have read about. That’s just the nature of the beast—as writers, we all need raw material. Personally, all my characters are a mixture of various people I’ve met, my own attributes, and in some cases, a function of the settings and the backstory.
IC: Did you struggle to develop any of your characters?
DB: Of all the characters, I think I struggled the most with Jatin. He’s unlikable, and it was challenging to layer him as a patriarch with nuance and sensitivity. His arc was also difficult to trace throughout the narrative.
IC: Do you have a least favorite character in your story? Who is it and why?
DB: All the characters in the story have their facets—I’ve tried to make them real, with plausible weaknesses and strengths, and their own individual desires. I have tremendous empathy for all of them, even those who are quite morally ambiguous. As a writer, I don’t think it is my job to judge characters—that’s the reader’s prerogative.
IC: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
DB: That question makes me laugh because it is an infrequent and welcome surprise when words arrive without forewarning and I’m able to enter a meditative ‘flow’ state.
Things fall into place on those days—whether I’m editing or plotting, or working on the premise or characters. These are rare occasions. Most of the time, I show up, do my part, plod along, and feel very inadequate, like a complete fraud. To answer your question, I find my entire artistic process quite tough on most days!
Surabhi Kaushik is a writer from the heart and finds joy and comfort in her words. You can find all her published work on her blog https://surabhiwritersmind.blogspot.com