Sunday, 15 March 2015

Author Interview: Sunny Singh

It's been another busy week on the blog but there's no let up in book news as today Sunny Singh joins me on the blog to talk about her latest book Hotel Arcadia which is published next week.

Sam is a war photographer famous for her hauntingly beautiful pictures of the dead. After a particularly gruelling assignment, she checks into an expensive hotel. Unfortunately she has chosen the exact moment terrorists attack the hotel. Abhi, the hotel manager, begs her to stay quiet and stay put. 

Abhi has never wanted to be a hero; a disappointment to his army father and brother. He thought he'd come to a safe haven at the hotel, a place where he could be himself. Now stuck inside the sealed-off manager's office in the middle of a terrorist attack, he is desperately trying to keep those still alive safe. His lover Dieter is amongst the hostages in the bar and the photographer Sam, refusing to stay in her room, is roaming through the hotel taking pictures, potentially coming face to face with the terrorists at any moment. 

A small child, Billy, is found alive under the bodies of his dead parents and Abhi has to persuade the non-maternal Sam to bring him back to her room. He's hurt and Sam has no clue how to look after a child. As the tension mounts and more people are killed, the bond between Sam and Abhi, between Sam and Billy, grows. If any of them get out alive, none of them will ever be the same...

Can you tell us a little bit about your latest novel Hotel Arcadia?
Sam is a war photographer who checks into a luxury hotel that is attacked by terrorists. Her way of coping is by reverting to what she does best – take photographs of an unfolding crisis.  Abhi, is the hotel manager, who is trying to keep as many people alive and safe as possible.  The novel follows these two very different people, from very different worlds, who are brought together by a terrible event during the course of the siege.  

We hear about terrorism on a daily basis in the news so what made you decide to feature this strongly in your novel?  Were you not worried that this might detract people from reading?  
I agree we hear about terrorism a lot but I don’t think we hear all the stories that are possible. Most of our news tends to focus on the bad guys (terrorists) and the good guys (cops or soldiers).  What we don’t hear enough of are ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and do extraordinary things.  And to me that means the novel is more about compassion, courage, generosity, friendship and love, and how all these amazing human elements flourish in the most horrific of circumstances.  I think readers will realise that my book isn’t about the horrors of our world but rather the human ability to overcome it. It really is a book about love, and courage, and hope.

How much research did you have to do to enable you to write Hotel Arcadia?
I am an obsessive researcher and to be honest it is my favourite part of writing. I love learning and those eureka moments when one finally understands something.  The terrorism part was easiest as my sister is a terrorism expert and I raided her very extensive library.  And I was a journalist for quite a few years so that helped too. But there were lots of things I didn’t know and ended up researching from scratch, such as PTSD.  I also spent quite a lot of time reading and even interviewing people.  But I also spent time just chatting with people in the military, and to journalist contacts to get the cadences and inflections of speech, and observing people for their body language, and reactions. 

In addition to straightforward research, I have to admit that I am a bit of a magpie when it comes to writing. I collect any shiny bits I can find.  Often I don’t even realise I have secreted away some little nugget of information or a snatch of dialogue or an image until it turns up in a story. With Hotel Arcadia I was fortunate as I have a lot of friends who are foreign correspondents, aid workers, and security experts so I found I had accumulated quite a treasure of information, stories, details.

What can we expect from you next?  
Right now I am finishing up a book for the BFI on a Bollywood star, Amitabh Bachchan.  I go between novels, Hotel Arcadia is my third, and non-fiction as the latter seems to clear my mind.  I think nonfiction, and focussing on facts, and lets my brain rest and refresh.  Plus I have been working on a collection of short stories so hopefully I will get the last few written up for that soon. 

How did your writing journey start?
When I was little, I had three ‘great ambitions’ for when I grew up. I wanted to be a brown bear and live in the forest – until I sadly discovered that we can’t switch species at will. Next I wanted to be kidnapped by aliens and spent a fair amount of my teenage years figuring out ways to make ‘contact’ and was sorely disappointed.  The last and most achievable option was to become an author because I loved were books and reading.  Even today, to me, the idea of making up stories for a profession seems pretty much as extraordinary and impossible as switching species or travelling to outer space. Now, most mornings, just the thought of getting to write puts a big smile on my face. 

Are you a plotter or do you prefer to see where a plot takes you?
I think I am a lazy writer because my three books have all started with the character.  I work obsessively on working out the characters until they become almost more alive to me than real people.  And they take over my brain completely. With Hotel Arcadia, it got to the stage that I would get lost in my own neighbourhood, or not notice traffic because Sam and Abhi had pretty much taken up all my brain.  At one point, my sister looked at me mid-conversation and asked, ‘is that what Sam thinks or what YOU think?’  It took me a while to realise that I was unconsciously testing out bits of my characters’ dialogues, personalities, selves on people.  

On the good side, once the characters become so alive, all I need to do is let them loose in a story and they write it out themselves.  So I knew Sam and Abhi were in this luxury hotel but then I just followed them through the story. That also means that things happened that I could not have predicted even the day before I actually wrote them. In fact there is one shocking incident – I won’t say more in case of spoilers – that I didn’t realise would happen until I wrote it out. After writing it, I felt nearly as shattered as Sam and Abhi had experiencing it. 

What is the best writing advice you have ever received?
I went to university in America and just before finishing my degree, the novelist Maxine Hong Kingston spoke on campus.  I interviewed her for a student magazine so had a chance to chat with her on my own. I love her book, The Woman Warrior so I was fan-girling a bit.  I wasn’t sure if I should go on for an MA or get a job and I still remember what she said: ‘go live, the writing will come on its own.’  I don’t think she had any idea how literally I would take her words. I flew out to Mexico the day after completing my degree, supposedly for a holiday that extended to a three year stay, and never looked back.  I still follow her advice – just live, experience, learn, and the writing seems to come from that living.

What does a typical writing day look like for you? 
There are few typical writing days because I juggle a full time job, writing, and various other projects. But I know my ideal one would involve waking up early in the morning, having a few hours without interruption to write. Then I’d go for a swim, and have the rest of the day for other things, including seeing friends.  Of course that doesn’t happen very often and writing is more about stealing time from everything else I have to do. But a girl can dream, right? 

What would  you say is the best thing about writing?
For me writing has always been about connecting with people, especially from very different cultures and countries. Books were my gateway to worlds as disparate as Russia, Nigeria, Columbia and Britain, so I hope my writing can do a little bit of the same for someone else. 

But something really magical happened some years ago. My best friend from school was from Yugoslavia and I lost contact with her in the early 90s. This is before the internet and then her country went through a most horrific war and disintegrated.  Then my novel With Krishna’s Eyes was translated into Serbian a few years ago. And out of the blue, I got an email.  It was my friend from school! She had spotted the book in Belgrade bookstore and realised she could find me online.  Now it feels like we never lost contact at all, even though we weren’t in touch for nearly twenty years.  

Where do you get the inspiration from for your stories? 
I think my much of the inspiration comes from the research. My second novel, With Krishna’s Eyes, was born from my interest in film-making, history and how societies live with change. Hotel Arcadia was inspired by a combination of reading about terrorism, especially since 9/11. But it also came from reading biographies of women photographers and journalists. Suddenly one night I was reading about Margaret Bourke-White, and Sam – the protagonist of Hotel Arcadia – just popped into my head, insisting that I write her story down. It took lots more work to figure out the novel, but she guided it from the first moment.

What writers inspire you?  
This is probably the most difficult question because my favourite writers are drawn from India, Europe, Africa, Latin America and there are so many. I guess I always re-read Dante, especially when I am starting a book because he gives me words and rhythm without interfering with my own stories. I read a fair amount of poetry although mostly in Hindi and Meerabai, a 16th century woman poet from northern India, has long been a personal heroine. She was a princess but walked out to travel and live as a poet and her songs are still sung across the country. 

But beyond that, I am inspired by all sorts of writers. For Hotel Arcadia, I went back to Alistair Mclean and Jack Higgins. At the same time, I was reading Georgette Heyer because she uses language in such a joyful light handed way, especially for the dialogue.  It may sound strange to look up to writers of thrillers as well as romances but it makes sense to me because I love reading both. 

If you could write in a collaboration with another author, who would you like to write with? 
I wish I could but I am both really possessive and really insecure about sharing my work. It is ironic that I teach Creative Writing because I have never been part of a writing group and I can't share my work-in-progress. Even when it has been polished and edited, and even published, I get really anxious about people reading it.  Strangely enough it isn’t the reviews or reactions that worry me but the actual act of someone reading my words.  

I had a funny moment with Hotel Arcadia because it was initially shared with my first reader on dropbox and I accidentally realised that you could see on your computer when someone had a shared file open.  You can’t imagine how I suffered! 

Sadly this also means I can’t collaborate with anyone else, because I would have to let them read my work. 

What’s the last book you’ve read that has made you cry?
Paul Sussman’s The Labyrinth of Osiris. I love his Inspector Khalifa books and he had told me that this was to be the last one in the series and one of the main characters would die.  But then just before the book was to be released, Paul suddenly passed away.  The book sat for nearly a year on my shelf because I couldn’t bring myself to read it. Then I was headed to Egypt and Paul loved the country, and wrote about it, so I decided to take it along.  But even then, I could not bear to read it. Then while I was in Luxor, there was a military crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood and Rabaa Square protesters, and I was stuck in my hotel because of the curfew. Paul loved Luxor, and his hero – Inspector Khalifa – is from there. Suddenly, it seemed apt to read his last book in that city. Given the real life tragedy, for Paul and Egypt, the book weirdly felt prescient. I cried my eyes out. But it seemed fitting for the book, and for Paul.

When you’ve finished writing a book, do you treat yourself to a reward?
Yes, I do. I love travelling and generally plan a trip to somewhere I have never been.  I have a huge travel bucket list that seems to grow regardless of how many places I visit.  And this will probably sound really weird but I love travelling by myself.  It always feels more adventurous, and of course, one meets people all the time. 

After finishing Hotel Arcadia, I went off to Jordan and it was a most magnificent trip.  I rode a camel through a nearly deserted Petra, explored the Crusaders’s castles, wandered in the footsteps of TE Lawrence, and clambered all over the steam locomotive used in the Lawrence of Arabia movie.  And I felt like the luckiest person in the world. 

Have you anything exciting planned for publication day? 
Not really as there will be a book launch and other events coming in the next few months. But I do plan to celebrate a little by heading to the pub for a drink with friends. 

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