Nottingham based Author, columnist and illustrator Shreya Sen-Handley got rave reviews for her first short story collection, ”Strange’, published by HarperCollins. That this book also managed to impress internationally acclaimed writer Ruskin Bond has further raised expectations. Shreya, who is writing a libretto for the Welsh National Opera, and a travelogue for HarperCollins, has got her platter full at this moment. In a freewheeling interview with Samay Paribartan,
she opens up on the relevance of short stories in this modern era, her latest projects, the waning habit of reading, master craftsmen who kindle the zeal to weave new engaging tales and her idea of observing people before giving them life through words. Excerpts…
Your book on short stories ‘Strange’ has been well-appreciated. Even, Ruskin Bond described it as ‘masterful’. Share the process of coming out with such a captivating collection.
I began writing short stories in 2013 or so, so quite late in my writing career. I’d been a TV and print journalist for around twenty years already at that point, working with the likes of MTV,CNBC, BBC, The Guardian, Times of India, The HIndu, The National Geographic, and more. But I had always enjoyed reading short stories and suddenly one day I wrote one, and found it immensely enjoyable. Readers really took to it too and it ended up being published in Australia and broadcast on their radio. This encouraged me to write some more and each one I wrote went on to be published, shortlisted for prizes, and so on, both in India and abroad. But even then I didn’t really think of a putting them together as a collection till HarperCollins and I started working together on my first book, a memoir through the prism of the female body, called Memoirs of My Body. They loved the stories I had already written and wanted me to write another dozen with all the flow, rhythm, invention, insight, and clever twists of the first few, and so ‘Strange’, my first collection of short stories was born.
You’re going to tour big cities of Britain as part of writing a libretto for Welsh National Opera. What’re there on your bucket list?
I have written a libretto for the Welsh National Opera. I am told I am the first South Asian female to have done so and that is of course a huge honour and terribly exciting in terms of the road ahead for all of us as well. The Welsh National Opera is headed by Prince Charles and one of the major opera houses of the world so our opera will be staged at some of the grandest venues at some of the biggest cities in Britain, and eventually maybe even abroad. I can tell you it will be going to the hometown of the Beatles , Liverpool, the Welsh capital, Cardiff, the huge multicultural melting pot that is Birmingham, and more. So it is really for the National Opera to decide where it goes, but I would of course love for it to travel to India, especially Kolkata!
Tell us about the projects that are in your pipeline?
I have a third book coming out with HarperCollins, a book of travel stories, possibly called The Accidental Tourist, possibly out next year. I have had travel columns in the National Geographic and The Hindu and written many a travel story for other big publications as well, and it feels like the right time to write a longer one but with all the elements my readers have always enjoyed – the humour and whimsy and vivid descriptions that transport. I am also writing a novel which international publishers have shown an interest in already though it is at a very early stage. This is a psychological and medical thriller. It is rather intense and I am taking my time over it. I might also be editing an anthology in Britain, there is also a play in the pipeline, about the partition of India, also in Britain, and there may be another opera too! Plus all my other work including illustrations and the teaching of creative writing will, fingers crossed, also continue!
We often hear that the habit of reading is waning. Would you buy this belief; what’s your viewpoint?
Fewer people read books, this is true, because there are so many other distractions. But people still read and the children who do get into it, read more widely and seem to draw more from it than we ever did. So reading is thriving, if in pockets. And when life is so packed full of things to do as it is today, books need to cater to the changing needs of readers, not by “dumbing down”, nor does writing have to be any less beautiful or in-depth as a result. Which is where the short story comes in. They are perfect for the windows that we have nowadays to read something beautiful, engaging,surprising and thought-provoking. Short stories are such brilliant compact journeys just right for the modern world but they don’t haunt you any less when you finish – just like any other longer piece of good writing. And that’s another reason I wrote Strange, and why many more good short stories should come into being – it’s just what the modern reader needs!
Being a celebrated published author how do you assess the medium of kindle edition of a book?
While i prefer the smell, feel and look of a “real book”, the Kindle has its uses, especially when commuting or traveling. It is a matter of personal preference and so I say, let both flourish, and reading will too, as a result.
Name the authors who continue to inspire you even now with their craft?
There are so many, far too many to mention. Right now I am revisiting a PG Wodehouse story alongside Philip Pullman’ latest book. I am also waiting eagerly for the next book in Hilary Mantel’s Booker winning Wolf Hall saga. I have recently developed a renewed respect for the old masters of the short story form – Roald Dahl, O Henry, Maupassant, and more – having followed in their footsteps recently. There are many more writers, both old and new, who continue to inspire me to try my hand at new and wonderful forms of writing. I have read more theatre recently, having accidentally become a playwright/librettist myself. I shall be taking home a ton of books from India too (as always), having just spoken at the very popular Times Lit Fest in Delhi, and discovered many titles I felt an urgent need to read immediately!
We go through different phases in our lifetime. How do you overcome stress, failures and other negativity?
I think it is love and wonder, which might sound crummy till you realise it is what keeps most of us going. All kinds of love- romantic, familial, platonic, or even the love you encounter for your art – it all helps me carry on in the face of obstacles. But so does the love that I invest in things because that gives you just as much purpose as the many types of received love that sustain us. And that sense of wonder that you must never lose as you grow; the need to discover and explore new things of all kinds- stories, art forms, places and people. All of these together gives my life direction and helps me overcome the obstacles in my way. And there have been many obstacles along the way, but equally there have been a hundred reasons to keep trying.
Since you’re a well-known columnist, author and illustrator you also spend considerable amount of time in observing people. What are the things that catches your eye or keeps you hooked?
Oh that really is one of my favourite activities! Watching, listening (including earwigging as the English call it – essentially listening in on the conversations of others!) and then surmising, embellishing and inventing to create whole stories out of snatches of experience and fleeting encounters, that’s got to be one of the best things about being a creative person! That deductive and empathetic leap that we make, and must make, to connect to the world, absorb what it has to offer and then fashion art out of it, is what makes every day such a treasure trove of inspiration. And so much fun! I don’t know that I look for anything in particular because some of the best stories come from the most unlikely sources and when you’re least expecting it, though of course the eye or ear may be drawn to the unusual, but if you keep watching and listening, never discounting anything as potential source for a cracking story, inspiration will come to you!
By Sarnavo Das, in Samay Paribartan