Much of my work steps out of the world, to reach into strange and fantastical dimensions,” says Indira Chandrasekhar. Delve into this interview with a Biophysics PhD turned writer-blogger-editor
Scientist, fiction writer, and the founder editor of Out of Print, an online short story magazine, Indira Chandrasekhar has dabbled in varied disciplines, and how. She takes bold strides for the short-story genre with her refreshing writing style, as she opens the world of fiction to science. In 2017, she published Polymorphism, a debut collection of her short stories, with HarperCollins. Polymorphism subtly navigates the issues of casteism, abuse, and bullying, all social ‘ills’, a deliberate theme choice, Chandrasekhar explains. The Hindu has deemed her work as one that “any good lover of fiction will enjoy”, while Hindustan Times has said it delves into the “emotions that define humanity”. Her work appears, among other reputed publications, in Emprise Review, Eclectica Magazine, and The Little Magazine.
Chandrasekhar speaks about combining her expertise in science with fiction. Modelling an emotional family dynamic on the anatomy of an atom, she puts on paper what only exists in imagination! By adding advice to budding writers, she also reveals the different genres she is dabbling into in the near future, including long-form non-fiction.
You’re a scientist. When one thinks of science one thinks of logic, whereas fiction is associated with creativity. In your work, there is a confluence of both! Can you tell us more about the blending of both roles?
Science too has a strong element of creativity – yes, logic, structure, rationality are critical framing axes – but one has to allow the imagination to work within the space defined by those axes in order to interpret data. That being said, yes, I am working with different ways of interpretation and observation. Narratives in science involve analysing structured data, which emerge in fiction from exploring more intangible connections. It is by drawing the elements of one into the other that my stories evolve. In Lennard-Jones, for example, I play with weaving a simplified interpretation of a potential energy model that is used to describe the bonding between atoms, and a child’s struggle with finding her place in the complex emotional network of her family.
There is a deep satisfaction in contributing to making a work sharper, it is an altruistic exercise of sorts, a service to the work.
I had the impression that ‘Illness’ is an underlying theme in most stories from the collection. I felt imprisoned in a hospital room. I could see the white sheets, smell the distinct hospital smell. Was this exploration of ‘illness’ deliberate?
Thank you for that comment, Michelle – it means something that the stories evoke such a strong visual and emotional reaction from a sensitive reader such as yourself.
Experiences, from the quotidian to the intensely felt make their way into my writing. In other words, I certainly engage with personal experiences in the stories, some that I lived through and others, just distant observations. ‘Intensive Care’, for example, arose from having spent time with someone close to me in hospital, but it is, at the same time, a collage of different experiences. To answer your question, therefore, yes, there are specific connections to illness in the works. However, illness is not a unique emotional idea that drives the collection.
You have published a great number of stories in Out of Print. What do you enjoy the most about your role as an editor?
There is a deep satisfaction in contributing to making a work sharper, it is an altruistic exercise of sorts, a service to the work. It is also a fascinating experience to hold one’s own voice and style back and turn one’s abilities over to another writer’s voice.
Out of Print is dedicated to the short story. I have always wondered, why not poetry too?
I like focusing on the form, I like the clean, acuteness of prose, it was just a choice I made for Out of Print.
‘Premise’s is an initiative by Out of Print which encourages reviews of short stories. I love the endeavour. Do you think in reviewing/ reading a review of a short story the reader internalises the story in a way they wouldn’t have before?
Yes, speaking from my own experience, I imagine it would. I know that when I enter a story to edit it, I read it with hyper attention. Similarly, when I am evaluating or reviewing a work.
I begin the story with the intrusion of the mechanical, the machines rather than the people, a destructive and emotionally removed action. The story, however, carries an element of hope, touching on the human need to build relationships.
It’s been over a year since Polymorphism came out. How has your journey been? Did you find that readers received your stories the way you hoped they would?
Readers have responded to the stories in Polymorphism in interesting ways: from sophisticated readers, to unknown ones, I see that they have entered the works with levels of understanding that are profoundly gratifying. Sometimes, readers interpret a story, extending it beyond what was in my head when I wrote it, and the story takes on its own life, its own narrative! It is quite exciting, really. Such responses have been to a range of the stories in the collection, from the realistic works like Does The Word Even Exist in Our Language and The Perfect Shot, to the slipstream or speculative fiction works such as Polymorphism and The Embryotic.
Do you categorise your work as ‘speculative fiction’? When Sarah Hall was asked at the Manchester Literature Festival about whether she categorises her work as speculative fiction? She said, ‘I think all fiction is speculative. All fiction is science fiction. You have to convince the reader of a different version of something. It’s marvellous reality.’ Do you feel the same?
That fiction extends the actual and allows a reader to see a ‘marvellous reality’ is something one cannot argue with.
I do, however, think that much of my work steps out of the world as we know it, to reach into strange and fantastical other dimensions. So, as much as I resist the narrowness of typifying by genre, and identify with Hall’s broader view, I also recognise that my writing often deforms the normal and skews reality to allow the narrative to evolve more fully into a new normal and could, in that sense, be categorised as strange or speculative or slipstream fiction.
Of course, too much control can also be destructive.
Your story Insert was a brilliant interpretation of the metaphor of ‘building walls and breaking them down’. Any comments?
Insert is a story that I feel a particular connection to, commenting as it does on the shocking transitions that urban spaces in India are going through daily. I felt it necessary to document the strange alienations and displacements that transitions result in. I begin the story with the intrusion of the mechanical, the machines rather than the people, a destructive and emotionally removed action. The story, however, carries an element of hope, touching on the human need to build relationships.
How do you decide on how much information you reveal to the reader and how much to withhold?
Crafting of a story, especially short fiction that is such a sharp, elegant form, requires experience, practise and committed editing –in my case. I know writers who say they can produce a story in an afternoon! I work at refining a story over months, removing material extraneous to the main thread of the narrative and editing out indulgences in the text, revisiting the core idea to see if the balance needs to be changed…. Of course, too much control can also be destructive. In a recent conversation with the wonderful Rebecca Lloyd whose mentorship gave me so much strength in my craft, she was talking about the release of just letting go and writing.
In My kitchen, my space, I loved these lines: “She was holding out the grey aluminium saucepan with the crêpey Teflon interior. Not the Teflon-coated pan, Mala wanted to say. The neutral flakes of the rubbery, indestructible polymer will enter my children’s bodies. Resinous, elastic scales, eternally non-reactive, will lodge in my children’s organs and accumulate in unknown crevices, making their sweet bodies obese and cancer-prone.”
Can you tell us how these lines came to you?
The lines reflect what I was thinking about at the time – the terrifying consequences of non-biodegradable materials! Recently I was in the oceans, at sea for a week in a pristine ocean. We landed on a pure white beach on an uninhabited island, unbelievably beautiful, and were horrified to encounter all manner of plastic trash. Truly upsetting.
I once heard Paul Zacharaiah say that it behoves a writer to convey a message – I interpreted that to mean that the writer must use their skills to say something, that the text should not be wasted. Certainly, these lines were not as deliberate as all that, but their intention was to draw attention to the environment and how violation of nature directly affects us.
Develop your strengths, read writers you admire, work on the craft, don’t be glib, and be bold..
Your dialogues stand out for their authenticity. I recently read an article by Sayantani Dasgupta titled ‘Why writers should eavesdrop constantly if they want to better their craft’. What are your thoughts?
Are you asking me to admit that I am an eavesdropper? Haha! It is a question of getting the rhythm and the cadence right, and being sensitive to different voices. I appreciate your comment about the dialogue.
Do you have a favourite story from Polymorphism?
Ahhh – no. That is like asking whether one has a favourite child, or animal. You love each one, even as you recognise the differences in the way they were conceived, their birth, qualities, trajectories.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on two longer non-fiction works and in the immediate, refining a short story called Women Also Work in Scientific Institutions Or The Creation of Drones.
Advice to young writers?
Develop your strengths, read writers you admire, work on the craft, don’t be glib, and be bold.
Written by Rheea Mukherjee
Rheea Rodrigues Mukherjee is the author of The Body Myth (Unnamed Press /Penguin India 2019) which was shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live First Book Award. Her work has been published and featured in Scroll.in, Southern Humanities Review, Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Vogue India, Out of Print, TBLM, and Bengal Lights, among others. She co-founded Bangalore Writers Workshop in 2012 and currently co-runs Write Leela Write, a Design and Content Laboratory in Bangalore, India. Rheea has an MFA in creative writing from California College of the Arts.