The eight stories in Sindya Bhanoo’s wonderful debut collection, Seeking Fortune Elsewhere (out now from Catapult), detail the lives of South Indian immigrants as they and their families grapple with significant change and disruption. The Masters Review had the privilege of publishing “Different” (appearing in the collection as “A Life in America”) a few years ago, and Sindya was kind enough to discuss the collection and her writing in more detail with Austin Ross.
Ross: How did the collection take shape? Did you realize the thematic connection of the stories later on, or did you intentionally set out to write stories around the theme of immigration?
Bhanoo: I wrote most of the stories over the course of three years, while I was in an MFA program. I had no idea that they might form a collection. My advisor, Bret Anthony Johnston, read some of the stories and told me to keep working on them. He pointed out that they were thematically linked and felt certain that they would come together as a book.
As for the focus on South Indian immigrants, I write fiction because I think there are certain stories and people absent from the larger record. All too often, the stories of immigrants, of women, of those from marginalized communities are absent from the archive. Fiction gives us a chance to go back and correct that, not completely but partially.
I had the privilege of reading an earlier version of “A Life in America.” Can you describe how that story in particular changed as you revised? When did you know you’d landed on the finished story?
For one, the title changed many times! For a while it was called “A Resignation.” I really have the hardest time with titles. They can’t be on the nose and yet they must be meaningful.
I wrote many versions of the story but I always knew one thing—the story would center on this professor who had done something wrong. I wanted to spend some time with this professor and understand who he was and where he was coming from. People are neither all good nor all bad. We are, each of us, far more complex. His wife was an important character too, though not the central one. She is not blind to what he is doing. She is far more aware than him, in fact. Still, for various reasons, she is not able to do much about it.
How does your journalism work affect your fiction, and vice versa?
It affects my fiction in many ways. As a newspaper reporter, I’m lucky to have had tremendous editors who have always pushed me to be clear and succinct. I was trained to never waste the reader’s time. Because of this, my style is to cut to the heart of the story fairly quickly. To me, this doesn’t give the story away, it allows it to unfold.
Fiction allows me to linger in a way that journalism did not. What I love most about writing fiction is chronicling day-to-day experiences and ordinary moments in the lives of my characters. When I do this, I’m able to achieve an emotional truth, one that helps me understand who a person really is.
Fiction has informed my journalism too. When I’m reporting I tend to work very quickly. I ask a lot of questions and gather a great deal of information, write a story and then move on. These days, even when I’m reporting, I try to give myself an extra moment or two. It’s remarkable what I notice when I do that.
Can you describe your drafting process? Do you work on multiple projects at once, or just one? Do you quickly write a rough draft and revise, or revise before moving on?
I write fiction like a journalist! I spend time gathering information about my imagined world. I write down everything I know about my characters, anecdotes, scenes, bits and pieces of information about what’s lying on a desk, or what the weather is like. I do it all on my laptop, but it is as if I’m writing everything down, messily, into a reporter’s notebook. Then, with all that information in hand, I come back to my desk and write. That’s my very messy first draft. That’s the point when some sort of story makes itself apparent to me. Then I spend months (sometimes years) revising.
There’s a line in “Malliga Homes” that stood out to me for obvious reasons: “The offspring of the rich are rich, and they do not seek their fortunes elsewhere.” How does this view of wealth and status influence the collection?
I am always considering how wealth, status and privilege affect the way a person walks, talks and acts in this world. That line in “Malliga Homes” speaks to several things. Those who leave their homeland are often in search of better lives. It may be for wealth, or it may be for a better education, or safety or freedom. But they are looking for something they do not already have, and may not get, at home. “Malliga Homes” also alludes to how those who leave somehow find the means to do so. There are also those who don’t leave because they simply can’t. Those characters are present but silent in “Malliga Homes”—the boy who cleans the pool, and the waitstaff.
Could you describe the process of selecting work(s) for a collection? Were there stories you ultimately decided to not include? Were the previously published pieces revised for this book, and how did you decide on the final order of stories?
There was one story that was originally part of the book but my editor, Megha Majumdar, and I ultimately decided to keep it out of the collection. It didn’t quite fit, though I tried to make it work because it is linked to “Malliga Homes,” the first story in the book. Perhaps it will appear in my next story collection.
Once the individual stories were done, I spent a lot of time thinking about order. It so happens that four stories are set in India and four are set in the United States. I wanted the reader to feel some sense of traveling back and forth while reading the book. Two stories—“Malliga Homes” and “Three Trips”—touch Indian and American soil. I knew they would be the bookends.
What are you working on now? What are you reading, and who are the writers you turn to most frequently for inspiration?
I’m writing more stories and working on a novel. I’m still a journalist. Reporting gives me access to a variety of people, places and perspectives. My favorite writers? Alice Munro, YiYun Li, Jhumpa Lahiri, William Trevor, Elizabeth Strout. Currently, I’m reading The Immortal King Rao by Vauhini Vara.
Interviewed by Austin Ross
Sindya Bhanoo is the author of Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, out now from Catapult. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, New England Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an O. Henry Award, the Disquiet Literary Prize and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers’ conferences. A longtime newspaper reporter, she has worked for The New York Times and The Washington Post. She is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers, UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Carnegie Mellon University. She lives in Austin, TX.