Novel Studio alumna Elizabeth Chakrabarty published her brilliant debut novel Lessons in Love and Other Crimes with Indigo Press in 2021. She took time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions from Novel Studio course director Emily Pedder about her writing life.
Have you always written?
Yes, I can’t remember not writing — stories, poems, a journal.
Which book was the first to have a real impact on you as a reader, and which as a writer?
I remember reading Villette, at a really young age; I was about nine. I’d got through my library books one evening, and took it down from my mother’s bookshelves. I was aware of reading it, and not understanding it exactly, and yet at the same time it interested me as a reader, this literature for adults; it intrigued me more than books for children. As a writer, so many books over the years, it’s difficult to think of a first, unless it’s that dual creative experience of reading as a writer, being really aware of the writing. Anna Karenina is one particular novel I’ve returned to as an adult, and reread sections very much as a writer, looking at its construction and language.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Just to do what you’re doing: to live and to read, and then to write, and not to listen to anyone at all who tells you you can’t be a writer.
Why do you write and what makes it so vital for you?
I can’t imagine not writing, it’s what I do every day in some way; it’s like exercise, something I have to do, going for a walk in my mind, taking the characters somewhere interesting to discover things about them and their world.
We worked together many years ago on the Novel Studio (then called the Cert in Novel Writing). What do you think of the view that creative writing can’t be taught?
Techniques and discipline can be taught and encouraged, and particularly in a group, it is a great way of learning from peers, as other readers and writers. After that though, it’s up to the individual, whether they have something to say in writing, and whether they feel pushed to write — that they have to do it — and if they have the endurance to work at it, despite the immense odds.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience of being published? Has anything been surprising, in a good or bad way?!
It has taken a long time to get small pieces, and then a novel published. I was first published in translation in Swedish years ago, then in French, and finally in English. I met my agent, and gradually we’ve worked together, and she’s stuck with me, and now my debut novel has been published in the UK, EU, Australia and the US in 2021. What’s surprising has been how many stages there are of the publishing process, after your book has been accepted, such as all the levels of editing, the marketing — all the care and attention. What’s been less surprising is just how non-diverse the publishing industry is in the UK, although that seems to be changing.
Which fiction writers inspire you at the moment?
Carmen Maria Machado, Sarah Hall, Jeanette Winterson, Bernardine Evaristo.
Do you have a particular writing process? Favourite place or time of day to write? Favourite pen or notebook?
No, I’ve learnt to write wherever I am, with whatever I have with me. I feel like having things that you have to do, to make writing right, are counter-productive.
At what point in the writing of the book did you decide to structure it in the way you have? And what impact did that have on the structure as a whole?
I started by writing the novel, that is the fiction, but then gradually realised I wanted to add elements of creative non-fiction, to make clear that I had experienced the specifics of the hate crime I was writing about; that the racism is not fiction. That led to writing about how I thought through how to write about crime and racism in fiction, and became the essays bookending Lessons in Love and Other Crimes. As the book became hybrid, a novel with creative non-fiction essays bookending the fiction, that in turn impacted the fiction, and so I then also intercut the fiction with metafictional author’s notes.
What are you working on now?
I’m now working on the second draft of a new novel, which I’ve been working on during, and since we’ve come out of lockdown. I’ll be sending it to my agent soon — she is always my first reader — so other than that, I won’t say more, but as they say, watch this space. In the meanwhile, thank you for reading my work!
Thank you so much, Elizabeth, and huge congratulations on your fabulous debut. We are really looking forward to welcoming you as our guest alumna at next term’s City Writes.
Lessons in Love and Other Crimes is available now. Elizabeth was also recently shortlisted for the Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction, for which her story will be published in an e-anthology by Comma Press. Her story ‘Eurovision’ was shortlisted for the Asian Writer Short Story Prize in 2016 and published in Dividing Lines (Dahlia Publishing, 2017). Her poetry has been published by Visual Verse, and her short creative-critical work includes writing published in Glänta, Gal-Dem and New Writing Dundee, and more recently in Wasafiri, and the anthology Imagined Spaces (Saraband, 2020). She received an Authors’ Foundation Grant from The Society of Authors (UK) in December 2018, to support the writing of Lessons in Love and Other Crimes, and was chosen as one of the runners up for the inaugural CrimeFest bursary for crime fiction authors of colour in 2022.
The Novel Studio is now open for applications for 2022/23 with a deadline of 29th April 2022. To find out more about the course register for our virtual open evening on March 31st 2022 6-7.30pm. For more on all our writing short courses visit our website.