23 September 2012

HNS Guest of the Day - Vanitha Sankaran

writer and program Chair of 
HNS Florida 2013

Thank you, Helen, for giving me the opportunity to be a guest on your blog. It still tickles me to talk about my debut novel Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages, and about the path I took in getting to be a writer in the first place. As a first generation child of Indian immigrants, I always understood that while writing was fine as a hobby, I had to choose a more practical career, preferably in science or medicine. 

Luckily for me, I have both an aptitude for and interest in research and I studied optical and biomedical engineering in college and graduate school. Writing was something I’d had to put aside while I pursued my studies so imagine my surprise when I sat to write the introduction to my dissertation and the first chapter of a novel came out!

That chapter was the genesis of Watermark, which tells the story of Auda, the daughter of a papermaker in a small French village in the year 1320.  Mute from birth and forced to shun normal society, young Auda finds solace and escape in the wonder of the written word.  She writes troubadour-style poetry, which attracts the attention of a handsome but troubled painter, the town’s Vicomte and, more frighteningly, the Inquisition. The choices Auda makes show a true bravery as she discovers who she really is.

It took me nearly a decade from writing that first chapter to becoming a published historical novelist but along the way, I’ve learned some crucial things about myself and about life in general:

1.      Nothing you ever set your mind to is a waste. I spent ten years in school for my engineering degrees and another ten working in industry. But where my work was once all science and no writing, I now use my research skills to hunt down facts and details about history—who the peoples of our past were and how they lived. I use my writing skills in my day job to communicate about new research and technologies. Sometimes the two careers even overlap, like when I researched the history of antibacterial agents for a scientific article, and used my knowledge of medieval herbal remedies in a scene for my novel.

2.      The things you love in life have a way of making it into your writing. I have always nursed a need to travel. For me, there is nothing better than immersing myself in a foreign culture and learning the mores of a different way of life. Those travels always spark new ideas, and sometimes even spawn research trips of their own. I’m sure many other historical fiction writers and readers ill understand the thrill of traveling a road that your beloved characters may have walked on, or finding a hidden nook they may have traded secrets and sweet nothings in.

3.      The things you hate, or at least dislike intensely, may also make it into your writing. I was always a mediocre student of history. Dates and lineages made my head hurt. They still do. But a well-written novel about the Plantagenets can make me sit up. I might not remember the dates, and will certainly forget who begat whom, but I will know the details of who and what you are talking about. And I will certainly be motivated to seek out detailed information about a “throwaway” fact that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

4.      Writing need not be a solitary life. In fact, when I opened myself up to the community of writers at large, I was surprised to find how many others are excited by the same questions I am, and stymied by the same frustrations. I have learned how to improve my craft through giving and receiving critiques, by teaching, and simply by listening to what others have to say.

That interest in learning, which I think is common to writers of all sorts, is what led me to the Historical Novel Society. The first HNS conference I attended was held in Chicago several years back. I remember being overwhelmed by being surrounded by so many other writers muddling along a process similar to mine, and in being able to meet the luminaries who shaped my reading and writing world. It’s a world I want to be involved in more and more.

The London HNS conference will be my first attendance at a non-US gathering of writers; I will be attending not just as a member of the audience but as the Program Chair of the next HNS meeting, to be held in St. Petersberg, FL in 2013. Like Ms. Barden, whose conference I am looking forward to with great anticipation, we hope to present panels, workshops and discussions that appeal to readers and writers, bloggers and reviewers, and novices as well as experts. Despite the many cries heralding the death of historical fiction (which seem to ring out every decade or so), people still want to read about the past. We want to write about the past, and learn about the past. I am looking forward to meeting writers I might not get a chance to connect with otherwise at the London HNS meeting, and hope to see some of you, both there and at HNS 2013.

(Helen - and I am looking forward to meeting you too!)

Vanitha's Banquet Guests

Such a fanciful party it will be to have guests from all over the world dining together for one unforgettable evening. Dinner will be served in the clouds, where no mere mortal can witness such a miracle. The feast will be a conjuration of delicacies from each guest’s personal favorites. All philosophical, lifestyle, and allergic needs will be tended to for we will have magicians on board!

    My fascination with myth and history stems from a perennial favorite, 
King Arthur. I prefer to meet him as he was in 
Joan Wolf’s The Road to Avalon
both warrior and lover in one complicated package.

  Seated to his left will be the laureate Aung San Suu Kyi
who makes history with every graceful word she utters.

     Next on the list are Celia and Marco from Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. Whether with fantasy or illusion, their tricks are sure to delight.

      Back to anchor us to reality is the sage Veda Vyasa, whose tellings are what my personal cultural history is based on.

  What kind of dinner would it be without the flair of the Greek gods added in, and so we have invited Hades to join the group. I am not sure which personification he will choose to arrive in, but there are many, especially in recent 
YA literature, that are sure to enchant.

    Hades might appreciate Mulan as his dinnertime companion. 
I, for one, would like to know how much of her true life 
Disney managed to portray.

 Mulan, in turn, will have a lot in common with the Lady Alanna, from Tamora Pierce’s works. The fearless knight is a heroine of mine, 
back from when I was a girl.

   Though Thomas Jefferson may feel out of place in this crowd, 
given his wide education and penchant for learning, 
I think he has a thing or two to teach the rest of us.

 And our last companion to join us will be the Pegasus
Animals have tales too, you know.  

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