Rochelle Potkar is a well-known fiction writer and poet based in Mumbai. In an exclusive interview with Poornima Laxmeshwar, Bengaluru Review’s Editor, she discusses her creative process and her debut collection of stories, Bombay Hangovers .
PL: When writing we usually flesh characters by blending amusing traits, some real and some imagined. How much of your characters are imaginary?
RP: Almost half of all of them. I tentatively imagine what they ought to be, extrapolating theme, connecting it to the story, or suitability of setting.
The other half is based on real-life traits, that I have observed of people whom I have come across from all walks of life.
I try to discover the character and not superimpose my expectations, following his/her scent through a trail, waiting for them to reveal their inherent intentions, actions, stakes, and points of bargain.
This is an abstract process, though, that swims in an amniotic of osmosis. Every result produces different alchemy.
PL: How do you go about writing a story? Like in ‘Arithmetic of breasts’ the focus is mathematics and in ‘Parfum’ obviously, it is on perfumes. Is there a process to it?
RP: Initial inspiration may be in the form of visuals, a character sketch, a riveting event, a what-if question, or random half-ideas that fit together begging for a probe.
Once I am ensnared by this initial epiphany, I follow the brave and foolish act of not fearing how long it might take to discover all the characters and the whole story.
I believe in time for inception, incubation, development, and editing of drafts, even making shapes of stories in whimsical doodles on blank pages, proceeding along wrong paths, until I make it back instinctively to right paths.
Sometimes I have taken 3 years to discover an ending. Sometimes the ending revealed itself at the beginning.
PL: How much do you think language is important in a story? How do you go about picking the right jargon/ Do you research it?
RP: I research technical jargon for a character’s profession or historical milieu. For the short story form, you don’t need exhaustive research compared to a screenplay or novel. You can get by with smaller quantities of this ingredient.
Language is very important in the delivery of the story - not only as a vehicle of tone and mood, but also conveying the authors’ [detached or urgent] relation to the story, and affects lyrical rhythm as much as in poetry.
Apart from the language in the narrative, in dialogue, it separates one character from the other.
Language for description can build an atmosphere. So it has its sub-applications.
Eavesdropping is the research for dialects and styles of dialogue delivery and I must do more of it in the future.
PL: Did Bombay as a geography fall itself as a theme? Or was it a conscious decision to work on Bombay stories?
RP: This book was an unconscious project. I had written the first story ‘The metamorphosis of Joe Pereira’ in 2007 and the last one in 2015. When I feared losing my data to computer crashes, I began collating material and realized these stories have a common thread of Bombay, also realizing how deeply this city had affected me.
PL: Where do you draw your stories from? What stirs in you to pen them down?
RP: There is an addiction, a creative compulsion to tell a tale. It might come from what disturbs me in this time period, city, country, world, or galaxy. (Galaxies are relevant since I am interested in sci-fi.)
Apart from this, the need to explore humanity, relationships, also self-relationships. I find magic in realism.
Human irrationality and dichotomy drive me. The frontstage versus backstage contradiction is a constant source of black-comedic amusement. What is revealed, what concealed and the why’s of it. A human being is so vulnerable, yet so crafty, cunning, resourceful or innovative, depending on how grey is grey a character.
PL: What do you think is more difficult as an art - poetry or prose? Why?
RP: Poetry is easier in its first drafts and subsequent editing, where we evolve with time to chisel away words.
Prose, on the other hand, because of its heavy word quantum takes a while to structure well. The more a form spreads on paper, the more gravitas, twist and tension it requires – like adhesive - to sit on the page and hold the reader’s attention.
PL: What are the usual themes or ideas that you like to explore in your stories?
RP: My recurrent themes seem to be around feminism and womanhood, and transient themes keep changing from tale to tale, based on a curiosity toward science, history, social behavioural-shapeshifting, events, epiphanies, or characters.
PL: What are you currently reading and what can we expect next?
RP: I am fine-toothcombing a soon-to-be-published manuscript of cross-translated English/Marathi poetry with poet Sanket Mhatre, where I will be debuting as a translator.
I am also working on my first novel.
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