Author Interview: Nandita Banerjee

What inspired me to write my novels?

A dream inspired me to write my novels.

I must admit that I am not one to take a nightly trip to dreamland, and when I do, I find it incredibly difficult to recall the experience when I wake up, unless it is very intense.

The dream I am about to recount was a very vivid dream and followed a traumatic experience.

It was the January of 2008. My father-in-law had just passed on, and my mother-in-law was lying in a coma in India. My husband, an only child, had to make frequent trips to Kolkata. Between that and his international assignments, he was seldom home with me in England.

Worried, sad, and lonely, I had just my father to turn to, and though he was 5000 miles away, I called him all the time. He was quick to respond and ever ready to listen to my complaints.

And then he suddenly died after a brief illness.

In the days following his death, I was not just lonely—I felt a deep sense of remorse that I had not been there for him during his last moments. I cried myself to sleep every night begging him to appear in a dream and tell me where he was.

Six weeks later he did.

The Dream

I wandered in a faceless crowd at a packed town hall event.

Everyone seemed to know my father and spoke about a stunning villa he had recently built.

“What villa?” I asked. “I’m his daughter, and I don’t know.”

“It’s called White House,” they said to me. “It is such a shame that you have not yet visited him in his new home.”

“Where is this house?” I asked.

They named a country, and the next thing I knew I was at the house. In the kitchen-cum-breakfast room, I bumped into my mother and sister who had already arrived.

I was exhausted from the journey, and although there was a sink and a refrigerator in the room, I asked my mother for some water.

“Let me get it for you,” my father responded on my mother’s behalf and led me indoors to a bright sunny room with gleaming walls and a spotless bed. They were all uncompromisingly white like the starched curtains at the window.

“This is your bedroom,” he said enthusiastically, tucking my suitcase into the closet.

Something about the starkness of the room reminded me of my thirst. “Baba, may I have a glass of water, please?” I asked.

In response, he drew back the curtains and opened the window. Cool air rushed in in rhythm with soft, sweet music.

I caught the heady, exotic scent of flowers, inched my nose forward, and inhaled. “M-mmm.”

“Jasmine.” Baba grinned with a twinkle in his eye.

I had missed that warm fatherly smile and his gentle presence. It seemed ages since we’d last spent some time together. “Lovely!” I followed his line of vision out the bay window to a lush green lawn, bordered with bougainvillea hedges. They created enchanting cascades of color in the light of the setting sun. “When does darkness fall here?”

“Never. This is Heaven.” He beamed. “Let me take you upstairs; everything looks prettier from there.”

I climbed up the white enameled staircase with him, and together we stepped out onto the wraparound balcony.

“Baba, I am dying of thirst,” I reminded him. “Should I return to the kitchen and—”

“Oh, the water. I must give you some,” he said, yet shuffled toward the balustrade. “Look at the view.”

It was breathtaking—the perfect place for soaking in the sunset bliss. And the dulcet melody washed over everything. I saw once more the bougainvillea in its sweet golden glory, clusters of bracts cascading down from a height down to the lawn below. “If only it was a cold drinking fountain!” The words tumbled out of my mouth involuntarily.

Baba looked away.

“I am genuinely thirsty, Baba.”

“Look.” He stared into the horizon. “Can you see your mother’s house?”

Surprisingly, I could. “Uh-huh.” I nodded.

“Look beyond and you will see your sister’s too,” he said softly.

I cast him a furtive glance, intrigued why he was behaving so strangely; he had been a doting father who seldom refused anything. “Baba, it’s not like I am demanding something impossible. It’s just a glass of water.”

His face fell. “Isn’t it enough that we can spend some time together after all these months?”

“But I am so thirsty—”

His face contorted. Perhaps I spoke a trifle impatiently. I hated the hurt look in his face as he leaned back against the balustrade and pointed to a room with a little balcony on the third floor. “Go up there—you will find what you want.”

“You wait here—I’ll be right back.” I bolted up the stairs without so much as a backward glance.

The music around me intensified with every step. I did not stop until I arrived at the room and pushed open its door.

A small museum of antique musical instruments greeted my eyes. Invisible hands played on them. There was no sign of water anywhere.

My eyes filled with tears. “Baba!” I ran out onto the little balcony and peered down. “Baba! Where is the water—?”

Clouds scudded their way across the stairs; the treads and risers vanished into them. The puffs of white magic moved low and fast, rippling, swirling, claiming every inch of the villa.

I awoke.

My first reaction was grief, yet I did not wish to revisit Baba again in his new home. He was in Heaven, happy and secure, and I did not want to barge into his world and make impossible demands that would upset him.

With time I felt an inner peace. Death, after all, was an inevitable process, something that we all had to go through, and something from which there was no escape. It felt comforting to believe that what came after death was not quiet, dark, unwelcoming nothingness, but a place where it was always sunset.

I forgot about my dream.

I was in for a surprise when nearly four years later, the dream popped back into my head, seemingly out of the blue, as part of a story concept—No.7.

When and how did you start writing?

People often ask me how I started writing. Well, before moving to Texas, I had never even aspired to become an author. I had never attempted to write a short story or even a poem. It is unbelievable how I got sucked into it all.

My family & I, moved to Texas from England in December 2011 because of my husband’s job. When my friends from all over the world asked me what I intended to do in this ginormous land of infinite opportunities—I did not have an answer, I could not find an answer.

The situation did not change on December 27, when we arrived in Houston, and checked into our hotel.

Night fell. The next morning looked normal, at least through the hotel window. My husband left for work early. The kids were still asleep. I made myself a nice cup of coffee and put my feet up.

I might have taken the first sip when whole sentences as though from the opening chapter of a book flooded my mind, the names Priya and Ravi recurring in them. I saw Priya and Ravi in my mind’s eye—glimpsed their faces, their hair, their clothes, their mannerisms—watched them interact not only with themselves, but with silhouettes, nameless, faceless, creating plots, subplots—

I had started dreaming up my No. 7 novels—the protagonists of which were to be Priya and Ravi.

I abandoned my coffee and seized the notepads on the nightstands to scribble what was passing through me, but they weren’t enough. Alas, my computer and laptop were drifting across the Atlantic in a shipping container with all our other worldly belongings.

That afternoon when we moved to our new house. I got myself more paper and settled down to write on the empty wooden floor. By the time the container arrived, five weeks later, I had already written the first eighty pages of the first draft.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

Writers are notoriously peculiar people. Some talk loudly to themselves, imagining themselves as the protagonists of their novels, some begin by writing the middle of the story and then fill in the plot gaps, some constantly change dialogues and rework scenes, while there are still others who write a story, only to completely scrap it.

My peculiarity is that I cannot write under strict time constraints.

Most authors can. Something grabs their imagination, and they cook up an incredible novel within a year or two. Some are Nano experts and write up to 90,000 words in a matter of weeks!!

I admire them for I cannot even dream of penning 50,000 words in a month. And I don’t demand it of myself. It is too stressful and so not my kind of thing.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t slacken. Never. Writing is my life.

All I believe in is loving what I do—savoring it. M-mm.

I have all that good stuff coming at me when I’m relaxed, like when I’m listening to music or watching a film or driving down a quiet street.

I often make trips to Starbucks or Barnes and Nobles where I spend hours writing, laughing, and crying as I read and re-read my chapters. I applaud myself for pretty expressions that create themselves in the deep recesses of my mind, stimulated by the ambience of the shops. However, that is not always the case. Sometimes I experience a genuine lack of inspiration. Then I pack up and hit the road.

I stay off highways and follow the back roads. The passing scenery triggers my imagination, and often I feel a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. I scribble away at intersections even after the lights turn green. Sometimes the cops don’t like it, but oh well!! I’m not in the same neighborhood every day.

To be precise, No.7 (the two books) took exactly eight years to write, Thoughts Recollected in Tranquility six months, and In B’tween: The Mist, a year and a half. I cannot say I’ve ever tried to turbo charge my writing. I believe that the length of gestation varies from book to book.

One piece of advice I would like to share with writers.

I think the biggest problem for writers is get over the ‘blank page hurdle.’ Often it is the fear of terrible first efforts, or the worry of having to put your work out into the world and letting others judge it. Both can be enough to stop you from getting started at all.

The trick to overcoming this isn’t easy, but it’s surprisingly effective: give yourself permission to write badly, and just start. Start by getting something, anything, down on paper. Don’t be afraid if it is bad. It probably will be, but that’s okay. Great writers, writers who write beautifully and make a great deal of money, do not necessarily write elegant first drafts. I have often got caught up in writing perfect, artistic sentences, only to realize later I need to take that whole scene out. The first draft should be coherent enough to tell YOU the story. Everything else can wait for later drafts.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

I craft my novels with care, or at least think I do. I know where the plot is going, know the roles of the folks involved, have my protagonist doing all the things she is supposed to do.

Then a character suddenly springs to life, and of his own free will makes choices and takes actions e.g., Dr. Deepak Kapoor in No.7 series, or Randy in In B’tween: The Wisp. He’s not content to be just there for the part that I, the writer, plopped him into the story to play, and he won’t do what I ask him to do.

At first, I worry that this type of literary hijacking will upset the tender balance of thematics I have so painstakingly constructed. But every time it turns out to be the best decision for the story I am trying to write. It is really the point where the magic comes in. I can go far deeper into the storyline than I could ever have imagined. The story holds together, and my characters grow in ways I never expected.

Have you ever written a spin-off about a side character? Could you briefly share how you went about it?

The spin-off novel from my original work, the No.7 series, is called In B’tween: The Wisp. The novel is due to be released this December. It is about Sonya, the daughter of Priya Gupta, the protagonist of No.7.

In the No.7 series, Sonya brings a jinxed book home to Priya from Uncle Dev, a black magician. Before the family knows it, they fall under an evil spell.

In The Wisp, Sonya carries the burden of the curse. Consumed with guilt for bringing on the misfortune on her family, she makes a serious effort to find the jinxed book in order to break the spell. The spin-off gives more depth to her and to the bunch of original characters it includes. 

However, The Wisp is not just about them. It teems with exciting new characters, and they are not all humans.

The fictional ‘universe’ of No.7 extends into space and beyond into Heaven in The Wisp. We have sun bees that sheathe Heaven with their dust, apparitions with ghost perks, disguised spirits that retain their earthly scents, and the snotty-green devil hunting for souls to trap in the fires of Hell.

The Wisp has a much darker tone than the No.7 novels. Uncle Dev is back, and unlike in the No. 7 novels, he plays a significant overall presence in the story.

Have pets ever gotten in the way of your writing?

Yes. I am a dog owner, I understand dogs. I bring them into my novels wherever and whenever I can.

To create a believable world, an environment that readers can easily imagine and feel part of, there must be a pet, at least a dog. I have used golden retrievers and terriers.

I fit the dogs to a specific character to cue readers about their personality. It can say a lot about their state of mind based on how they interact with the dog. Besides, a scene where the hero or villain cuddles with a dog can add a nice break from the tension and give the reader a moment to catch their breath before plunging them back into the suspense.

In the No.7 series, there is a silky gray-and-white terrier called Dish. His wanderings around Herenhuis, the enormous property of the mysterious BLZ, guide the readers through corridors to secret rooms and hidden keyholes.

In my second series, In B’tween, Miss Rosie, is a tailless little brown terrier. She provides a clue for the readers to crack the mystery of the driver’s disappearance in the novel.

My dogs do more than bark. I use their full range of grunts, moans, groans, happy chirps, and playful growls to allow them to express their thought processes. They work incredibly well with my stories.

Have you ever traveled as research for your book?

Researching a book online is entirely possible these days. Authors can access documents, maps, images, videos, experts, and more—all without leaving the comfort of our homes. Finding time to write and edit a book, not to mention performing a multitude of writing-related tasks is hard enough. Who needs to spend time and money on a research trip?

As much as I understand this mindset, I must admit that I find research trips invaluable. My books take my readers to new countries—US, UK, India. They not only throw light on the physical attributes but also on the culture and traditions of the places.

Visiting the places and soaking in the thousands of stimuli that lurk around help me create vivid and authentic settings. The trips bring me closer to the kinds of people who inhabit the places— their customs, traditions, food, clothes, festivals, and habits. I can shape real characters with the quirks, faults, and flaws peculiar to the places.

I firmly believe that no amount of research on its own can help you understand the feel of a place.

What comes first for you—the plot or the characters—and why?

Whether plot or character comes first when composing a novel is sort of like the chicken and egg thing. It greatly depends on the author’s point of view. Plot and character are so entwined that it’s often hard to even separate the two. Like all elements of a novel—dialogue, exposition, description, pacing—plot and character are woven throughout.

However, I invariably start with character. My novels are mostly populated with people resembling those in the Indian community here in the States as well as in Kolkata, the city where I grew up. It is easy to come up with their traits and quirks and not difficult to imagine what past events could have influenced them. Swiftly, the characters acquire mass and density and layers and tissue.

Then as you might expect, it’s all about personality: the core of a character that drives their actions and, therefore, the plot.

What do you think makes a good story?

A compelling story, whether it’s a novel or a short story, requires an attention-grabbing hook, interesting characters, and a compelling conflict.

Not every story needs to begin with a kick-ass sentence, but you only have one chance to make a good first impression. So, open a novel with startling, dramatic action, or an ominous description. They will help to pull your readers in by page one.

Talking of characters, your main character needs to win over the readers right from the start. Don’t be tempted to make her perfect. No human is perfect. Give her quirks, make her flawed and realistic, and above all relatable. ‘Relatable’ protagonists evoke empathy and compassion. Once you have accomplished this, use multiple moments and situations and approaches, e.g., danger, tension, and surprise. These will set the “glue” of empathy.

Introduce your inciting incident and get the ball rolling early in the novel.

Let the conflict escalate.

This conflict could be an internal battle or an external one. It’s even better if you can explore how an internal conflict bleeds into other aspects of your story, or how external conflict can impact your protagonist’s psyche.

Whatever the conflict, it provides crucial tension in the story and drives the narrative forward. Without conflict, your story is dead, and not even limping.

The writer’s goal is to make all these elements work together in order to create a cohesive and engaging tale.