By Ila Ananya
Originally published on 28 July 2016.
In KR Meera’s new book, The Gospel of Yudas, I tried very hard to dislike Prema, the main character. Prema is a young girl who falls in love with Yudas, a man who pulls up corpses from the bottom of the lake in her village, and a former Naxalite with a secret, and immense guilt. But it is impossible to dislike Prema for wanting only to be with Yudas: she is too unashamed of wanting something, and takes it upon herself to do everything that she can to get it. I knew how the book would end by the time I had finished a few chapters, but there was something so intense and packed about it, that I had to keep reading.
I got talking with 46-year-old writer KR Meera, who has previously worked as a journalist for Malayala Manorama, and is the author of Aarachar, which was translated into Hangwoman (you can read an excerpt here), and won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award (2013), Odakkuzhal Award (2013), Vayalar Award (2014), and the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award (2015). She has also written scripts for TV serials. Here’s what she told us about her latest book The Gospel of Yudas, her writing life and other writerly things.
How did the idea for The Gospel of Yudas come to you?
I can’t say I’d planned the details of the book, but I had promised a Malayalam editor that I would write something for their Onam issue. At around the same time I’d also fallen ill with chikungunya, and couldn’t even sit up and write. But the editor called me, and told me there was a deadline he had to meet, and so I thought I would write, because I’d promised to do this. When I sat down to start, all I saw was a strange bluish green colour here and there on the screen, which reminded me of Sasthamcottah, my village, on the bank of the largest fresh water lake in Kerala. I grew up in that village till I was 17, in a tiled traditional Kerala house which was half a Naalukettu, with an inner courtyard and rooms on its three siders, so that the lake was clearly visible from the front room and outer courtyards. The view was so beautiful from our front room, and I used to spend hours watching the lake. We lost the house by the time I became a writer. All my life, I wished for only dangerous love — someone who would be the epitome of all my values and dreams, inevitably a former Naxalite. As I kept writing, the story fell into place.
Can you tell me about the translation?
The Gospel of Yudas was the first time I didn’t have J Devika translating my work. She’s translated my short stories, And Slowly Forgetting That Tree, and Hangwoman. I didn’t know Devika personally back then and now we’re friends; I only knew her as a talented academician, historian, translator, and critic. In 2004, she called me and asked about translating Mohamanja. I play a lot with words, and it became difficult to translate. But I told Devika to translate it anyway, and when she sent it to me, I was very surprised. She’d managed to capture the rhythm of language, and the sounds of words. For The Gospel of Yudas, Devika said she didn’t want to monopolise all the translations, and I was approached by R Sivapriya, who was with Penguin then as commissioning editor and had commissioned both Yellow is the Colour of Longing and Hangwoman for Penguin, who contacted Rajesh Rajamohan, who said he felt the book had universal appeal, and wanted to work on translating it.
You mentioned that you just sat down and began to write The Gospel of Yudas. Do you usually write this way? — when you start writing, do you plan what it will be?
No, I’m mostly a spontaneous writer. When I start writing, most of the time, I don’t plan what it will be, and it’s not plotted. I’ve heard that many writers do, but I can’t, because sometimes I just start with a single sentence, and I don’t know where this sentence has come to me from. And sometimes there were also work and home pressures that I needed to take care of, and so I didn’t have enough time to plan.
Do you have a schedule, a specific time to write?
When I start writing, I write day and night until I finish the story, the script, the chapter, anything I plan to write. I begin writing by 9 in the morning, and finish between 10 and 2 in the night for days together. I usually sit down to write when I have at least ten days at a stretch when I can work on what I’m writing. Even if I decide to read something, I generally put aside time to just do that.
Do you write every day?
As I said, I only write fiction when I have some days at a stretch to work on the short story or chapters of a novel. But even otherwise, I’m writing something or the other every day, whether it’s an article, or for my work. It’s like my reading — when I write, I don’t read fiction during that stretch, because I get carried away. I read a lot of non-fiction and articles.
Are there times when you’ve decided to re-write stories?
I do that to other people’s stories when I’m reading. I don’t know if you do it? I tend to read and simultaneously wonder how I would have written something. For my own work, I usually need time to edit. It takes me at least 2 weeks before I can objectively read something that I’ve written, so that I can forget that I wrote it. The more time I get, the more I re-write and edit. Usually, I don’t have the courage to read on the first day that I get copies of what I’ve written when it’s just been published — I just look at the print.
Do you show others stories that you’re working on, as a work-in-progress, or do you prefer showing them only the final?
Only the final, and only if I’m a little confident, will I show the story to someone I’m close to. I sometimes show it to my husband, because he’s a very good reader and editor. But I can’t take rejection, so I mostly show it to them as a first-copy.
When was the first time you called yourself a writer?
It’s a common thing for Malayalam magazines and periodicals to run short stories in their issues, so this high demand for short stories generally means that young writers have many avenues. In 2001, my first short story was published, and I was surprised when it was praised by some writers too. With each story I published afterwards, I started getting positive responses from readers and I thought I was being accepted as a writer, though not in a big way. But now that you mention it, I remember the specific day I called myself a writer — I was travelling in Kochi, and was running to catch a train that I was late for. Suddenly a man stopped me, and asked if I was KR Meera. He said he had read a short story of mine that had been published the previous week in Mathrubhumi Weekly, Ekanthathayute Noor Varshangal (translated by Devika as Noor Years of Solitude), and liked it very much. I didn’t even know how to respond to that. I said thanks, and ran to my train. Once I was on the train and had sat down, it struck me that someone had identified me and expressed his happiness over my story. It was an important moment in my career as a fiction writer. Later I found out that there were people who look for my byline. Even today, when I sit down to write, I worry that my readers will be disappointed.
But did it feel like you weren’t writing for yourself anymore? Did this worry you?
I’m always writing for myself, there’s no doubt about that. But I’m also writing for that one reader, somewhere, whoever it is, who can identify with the story and the emotion better than other readers. There will be some who will read, understand, re-read, and think about what they’re reading and get reformed by it. I only publish stories that I like the most. There are many readers who’ll point out to individual stories and say they liked them — I think almost all my stories have found such readers. And at some point you start accepting that stories of yours will be recognised by someone at some point, maybe even many years later. This is encouraging.
Hangwoman was first published in a serialised form in a magazine. What was it like to write like this?
There is a difference between writing a novel first and then having it serialised, and writing a chapter every week. Normally it is ideal to finish the novel, edit it, and then give it for publication in book form, or in the serialised format to a magazine. I haven’t had enough time to work on a novel as it ought to be until now. I usually wish I had the time to plan a story, its characters, but at that time, it was not possible for me to do this, because I had lost my job, and was writing everything that I could write. Novel or short story writing is like an escape from daily life. The writer PK Parakkadavu, who is known for his very short stories, and is the editor of Madhyamam Weekly, had asked me to contribute a novel to him weekly. I agreed, and then got distracted, and then the pressure to write this was mounting. When I started, I first sent him five chapters, and he approved of them, but my husband told me there was not enough Calcutta in them, and we decided to visit Calcutta. I wanted the story to be about the life of a woman in the backdrop of a hanging.
When I came back, I re-wrote the chapters. I got into an accident and broke my leg, because of which I had to take a break for two months. I found it difficult to start again after I had recovered, but by then they had already started the serialisation, so they wanted a chapter every week. From then it was like a race against time, and a big risk and immense stress. I’d also promised to write a script for a director, so I had that commitment as well. In a way, the format helped me because otherwise I keep writing and re-writing things to make them perfect. You really should experience the feeling of having a week to write a chapter, not many people take that risk; I think being a journalist helped me work well under pressure. After Aarachar, I was itching to write something completely different, and an editor at the magazine Vanitha, asked me to write a serialised novel again, in simple language. I was worried that after Aarachar, people expected a certain kind of writing from me, but I really wanted to escape the language, theme and characters of Aarachar. So then I started working on Sooryane Aninja Oru Sthree (translated as A Woman Clothed in Sun), and I started this without a concrete, charted out plan. It was the same kind of pressure, and I only published a part of the whole novel in Vanitha.
You’ve also written quite a lot for TV. What was that like, and has it affected your fiction writing?
Writing for TV needs a lot of stamina, because you have to write between 7 to 9 scenes every day, which means that’s a minimum of 20 to 30 or 35 pages every day. I wouldn’t write in the location, but would write from home and email the scenes. But this only works smoothly for me if I have a disciplined director with a good team, because if they keep changing locations, or scene order, everything would get affected, and I didn’t have the time for that. My first serial was Kilikkoodu, which did well, because it was not melodramatic, and brought in new ideas about the lives of women, and liberated them from the stereotype. In terms of how scripting serials affected my writing, it gave me a steady income, which allowed me to travel. At that point I was writing more short stories and columns. But I went to Agra, and Brindavan, and these travels helped me write more. For example, travelling to Agra and Brindavan and staying there for a few days helped me to write Meera Sadhu, a novel in the backdrop of Brindavan.
Do you have a lot of stories you’ve just stopped working on because they didn’t work out the way you wanted them to? Do you go back to them?
A lot of times I may just lose the thread in the middle of writing the story. I have so many drafts on my computer with just one paragraph written. Sometimes I reject them; sometimes I go back to them. I remember this one time when I was sitting in the office, and suddenly the first sentence of a story came to my mind. I didn’t have the rest of the story, but it remained in my memory all those years. This was in 2005. I lost my job in 2006, and then years passed by and in 2011, K Ajitha, a social activist who I have great respect for, asked for a story for the launching issue of the magazine Sanghadita, her organisation Anweshi was starting. This sentence came back to me then, and this was in 2011. It became a story, which can be translated as The Thing That Happened to Achamma, and many say that it is my best.
Is it difficult for you to say something isn’t working, and drop the story?
It’s not me; it’s the story that decides whether it will be born. I just try and build up from dialogues, visuals, and anecdotes, that I’ve heard and seen. But stories just happen. I think sometimes stories are just there in my subconscious, at the back of my mind, acquiring its form and its craft.
Do you do a lot of research for your stories?
I did do research for Aarachar, which was translated into Hangwoman. Around 2009-2010, I became very serious about writing, and doing research while I was writing. Doubts would come up as and when I wrote something, and then I’d do research immediately.
And what about reviews of your books — do you like reading them?
I’m equally happy when people write that they have enjoyed my work, as I am when they read it closely and criticise it intelligently. It’s irritating when their argument becomes personal. When you’re writing the review, you should have a hypothesis, and then analyse the book, line by line, part by part, looking for where it successfully validates the hypothesis, and where it doesn’t. Today, criticism isn’t done in this way—I think it’s done like this more in English reviews than in Malayalam reviews. I’m happy with the English reviews because they take it seriously, they’re more genuine. For example, if you decide to read a translation, it means that there will be many culture-specific words, things you might not understand, and this is all an investment. It means that you’re taking it seriously.
This interview is the second in a series of interviews with women writers
about the writing life and process. Read the first one here.