Nandini Sengupta with Sanjeev Sanyal, bestselling writer, historian and currently principal economic advisor in the Ministry of Finance
Hi Nandini. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m looking forward to chatting with you about books, writing and more books. Let’s start.
Sue: From non-fiction to historical fiction – what made you choose this path? Are the challenges different for each genre?
Nandini: My first book — Babies From The Heart – was born out of my own journey as an adoptive parent. I felt I had to document the ups and downs that my husband and I went through when our baby girl Kiki came into our lives. It was our way of giving a loud shout to all those parents who are thinking of adopting or have adopted a baby and the research for the book helped me connect with a wide range of adoptive parents. It helped answer a lot of questions for me and over the years I have had readers tell me it helped answer some of their queries too. The book did very well and I got offers to write more parenting books but I did not take them up because I wanted to write the books I have always loved to read – historical fiction. In a sense this fascination began in childhood, thanks to my mother’s swords and sandals bed time stories — from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Durgesh Nandini to Sharadindu Bandopadhyay’s Kaler Mandira.
Later when I started reading myself, I’d invariably choose hist-fic classics like Kenilworth, Rob Roy, Count of Monte Cristo, Three Musketeers and gothic Victorian literature like Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Over the years I found myself reading more and more hist-fic and when I decided to write fiction, that’s the genre I was obviously most comfortable with.
The challenges are indeed totally different for fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction is, I feel, a little bit easier to write once your research is ready. Structurally it is certainly easier to write. It’s a simple three step process – do your research, divide the material under different subject heads, use that structure to plan out your chapters. With fiction, it’s a little bit complicated. Here too you need solid research, particularly for hist-fic but that’s just the beginning. Unlike non-fic, the research isn’t the meat of the story in fiction, it’s the bare bones. You have to use your imagination to add character, plot elements, pace and a denouement and do so in a way that the reader will hopefully find interesting.
Sue: The King Within focuses on the Gupta Empire. It is a period of history that some may say is forgotten. Tell us more about the book and what inspired its creation.
Nandini: It all started back in 2007 when my late husband Sumitro and I decided to visit the famous Ajanta-Ellora caves in Aurangabad. When I saw those magical frescoes in Ajanta, the serene meditative beauty of the Padmapani and the Vajrapani, I was gobsmacked. It was like looking into a mirror and seeing a face through the fog of time. These were people like me who lived a millennia and a half ago. What were their lives like? What kind of food did they eat? What kind of clothes did they wear? What did they do for fun? I had millions of questions swirling in my head and the only way to answer them was to start reading. That’s how I delved headlong into ancient Indian history. I read everything I could lay my hands on.
From Vincent Smith to AL Basham, from Radhakumud Mukherjee to RC Mazumdar, from Rakhaldas Bandopadhyay to AS Altekar, Romilla Thapar to Upinder Singh to Walter Spink to Abraham Eraly – I spent the next 7 years just reading up on ancient India. Slowly the outlines of the story began to take shape in my head and once I started writing the characters came alive too. I decided to focus on 3-4th century India because there aren’t too many hist-fic narratives based in that period. And yet, it was a glorious age for India and perfect for a good old-fashioned swashbuckling historical romance.
Sue: You have two sequels of The King Within lined up for the near future. Tell us about your writing process – how do you balance research and writing?
Nandini: I am lucky that I spent 7 years researching the period. That way, my research is already in place for the sequels to The King Within. Typically my research gives me the kernel of the story and I use that to first flesh out the plot and then work on the characters. Although I write in creative bursts, sometimes getting up in the middle of the night to jot down dialogues between key characters, I am fairly left brain when it comes to structuring my stories.
I start with a basic plot, tweak it till I am happy with it, break it down into identifiable chapters, do detailed character sketches, and then start writing. I also like to sketch some of my key characters. I used Nandalal Bose’s coin sketches as the template for Deva, the hero in The King Within. I also sketched items of jewellery and apparel – like the Vijantika necklace and headgear that the lead characters wear in the story. Here too research helped. I got hold of an excellent book by Roshen Alkazi which had details and line drawings of costumes in ancient India. That helped tremendously. The point is, if I don’t visualize what I am writing about, how can I expect my readers to see it through my words?
Sue: In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
Nandini: My rule number 1 is to stay ‘in the period’ throughout. Which means I do not read anything that is completely divorced from the milieu I am writing about. Nor do I watch anything that will detract from that focus. So for the past couple of years, I have been reading either history books or historical fiction and watching similar stuff too. It’s a good thing last year’s Booker Prize winner was a hist-fic novel. Otherwise, I would have had to wait till I finished writing the trilogy before before attempting to read it.
This focus is important because it helps me to pick up the story every morning without having to spend time getting into the zone. Beyond that, visualizing details of costume, food, architecture also helps. That’s why I like to sketch some of the details – that way I can describe them better.
Sue: Wow. You are very disciplined!
Time for a quick fire round now.
Nandini: History and doctrines of the Ajivikas, a vanished Indian religion by AL Basham
Sue: Favourite man/woman in history…
Nandini: Favourite Man, Chandra Gupta Vikramaditya aka Deva, the man who spent more than ten years living in my head as I wrote his story in The King Within
Favourite Woman: Noorjehan. What a fascinating woman. Fell in love with her after reading Indu Sundareshan’s Twentieth Wife.
Sue: Favourite fictional hero…
Nandini: Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights
Sue: Favourite fictional heroine…
Nandini: Anne Boleyn from Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
Sue: I like Heathcliff too!
Tell us about your current writing project and when we can expect the next book from you.
Nandini: I have just finished writing my first historical novel for children. I had great fun writing it and I can safely say it’s a lot more difficult writing for kids than it is writing for adults. The book should be out sometime this year. The sequels to The King Within are expected from 2019 onwards.
Sue: This was such an interesting conversation. I just mentally added some of these books you mentioned to my TBR list! Good luck, Nandini 🙂
Grab the book here: https://www.amazon.in/King-Within-Nandini-Sengupta/dp/9352645855