Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Friday, May 31, 2013

Olivia Rana Question and Answer Session with the author of Elastic Girl

Olivia Rana

Having worked as a Technical Project Manager for several large corporations, Olivia Rana has now embarked on a writing career.  She has achieved a Masters of Arts with distinction in Creative Writing from Queens University, Belfast, and has achieved success in several short story competitions, including being shortlisted for the Mitchelstown International Short Story Competition, the Fish International Short Story Prize, and winning the Leaf Books Micro-Fiction Competition in 2009.  She has also recently been commended for the Bristol short story award and has had some success with a number of poetry submissions.  She has had several short stories published both online and in magazine publications, and a section from Elastic Girl has recently been published on the Authonomy website, with very favourable reviews from the authonomy community.
Olivia was born in Northern Ireland, and lives in Belfast with her husband and two young children.  Her first novel, Elastic Girl, is set in India, and has been enhanced through Olivia’s extensive travels in India, and her exposure to Indian culture within her Indian family-in-law.  She has now embarked on her second novel, Black Beach, which is set in Iceland and is the story of a medium who communicates with Icelandic huldufolk (hidden people).  Black Beach has recently been selected for an award through the Arts Council for Northern Ireland under their SIAP (Support for Individual Artists Programme), and is due to be completed in early 2013.

As this is Irish Short Story Month year III, please tell us who some short story writers you find yourself often returning to are?  Do you have anything like a favourite short story?  Who are some contemporary short story writers you admire?
It’s great practice as a writer to read and study short stories as it helps with improving all aspects of the writing craft.  Richard Bauch and Jhumpa Lahiri are amongst my favourite short story writers and also the great Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor.  Most recently I have read short story collections by the Irish born Sheridan Le Fanu who has produced some fantastic stories in the horror and mystery genres.

2.  I recently read Strumpet City by James Plunkett (the 2013 Dublin One City One Book Selection).  It presents a culture whose very life blood seems to be whiskey.   Drinking seems much more a factor in Irish literature than Indian, Japanese or even American.    What do you think are some of the causes of this or is it just a myth?.   It seems to me from my reading of Irish short stories that few important conversations or events happen without drinking.   Do you think, based on your travels and times spent living outside of Ireland, that there are unique pathologies to the role of alcohol in Irish society.  Can you offer some comparisons or contrasts to Indian society?
The drinking culture is prevalent in Ireland, probably more so in recent times due to relaxed licensing laws.  The history of drinking is most likely associated with climate, depression and poverty in Ireland and we can see it reflected in other Northern European counties as well.  In India there isn’t the same culture of pubs and generally drinking alcohol is frowned upon, but also economically most people can’t afford to drink commercial alcohol.  Some of the displaced of Indian society do brew their own home made hooch, and in Northern India there is a fondness for whiskey, so I suppose there lies some parallel with Ireland!

3. Declan Kiberd has said the dominant theme of modern Irish literature is that of the weak or missing father?   Do you think he is right?  Is this a factor at all in your work? It seems very much a part of 
Elastic Girl.
I think Declan Kiberd was onto something, and the theme of themissing father is probably associated with the history of Irish migrant workers, and the lack of work driving many men to the pub, so men were largely absent whether at home or away.  The Irish ‘mammy’ was very much (and still is) the homemaker and matriarch of the family and in this respect the father was seen as the weaker of the two.  The missing father may also be a case of ‘distant’ i.e. emotionally detached.  Things have changed in recent years as Irish women are out working and the father has become more involved in family life, but the traditional stereotype will always prevail in our literature!
Within my first novel, Elastic Girl, which is set in India, the father’s affection for his family is very much evident, but due to circumstances he is portrayed as weak and hapless compared to the ‘Mataji’.  

5.   Your bio indicates you worked for a number of years as Technical Project Manager.  Can you clarify what this means for those of without experience and can you tell us how this work might have impacted your writing.
My primary degree was in Linguistics, and following that I went on to study a Masters in Computing, which took me into IT and a career in project management.  I always worked within large corporations and on a day to day basis my work involved planning projects, tracking financials, managing resources and customer interaction.  I was used to be around people every day, so the contrast to writing in isolation is quite stark and took a little getting used to.  I’m not sure that my work has impacted or influenced my writing in any particular way, but perhaps it has given me the ability to be self-driven and focused in a way that helps me to treat writing as a job.

6.   A while ago i read and posted on a long biography of Hart
Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many know of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if he Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read?  One of the most referenced poets is Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life.   Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life?      (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.)
I don’t believe this to be true.  Perhaps poets are more thoughtful, insular or eccentric, but I don’t think ‘chaotic’ is the right word.

7.    Tell us about your educational background?  Please tells us who were some of the writers studied at Queens College Belfast in the MA in creative writing program?  
When I had my first child I decided to return to college (QueensUniversity, Belfast) to undertake a Masters in Creative Writing.  This was intended initially as a year out from my career, but has since turned out to be mnew career! We were very lucky at Queens to have some fantastic writers as lecturers, including Ian Sansom, Glenn Patterson and Carlo Gebler.  As part of the masters we had the opportunity to study life writing, short story, poetry and prose, and though this I found that my strength lay in prose writing.  The Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s is a vibrant hub in Belfast for writing, criticism and appreciation of modern literature and it was there that I gained the confidence and encouragement to continue as a writer.

What are some of your favorite movies?  What was the last movie you saw, the last novel you read?  Do you watch much TV or have favorite programs?  
I don’t watch soaps or much TV in general, sometimes a good drama or documentary, and of course plenty of children’s TV! We try to go out when possible to watch films, but if that fails we will catch a DVD at home.  My most favourite recent film was Argo.

9. Why have the Irish produced such a disproportional to their population number of great writers?  Or is this a myth?
I don’t think it’s a myth.  Growing up in rural Ireland there was always a great tradition of story-telling, where people called at each other’s homes for a ‘céilí’ and there was music, stories and of course a drink or two.  I think that this tradition of story telling encouraged some great writers out of Ireland and being a writer or poet has always been seen as a viable career in Ireland.  Also, there is a great support network in Ireland/Northern Ireland for writers and artists including financial support from the arts councils and also residential centres, such as the Tyrone Gutherie Centre at Annaghmakerrig.  

10. (This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies?-this quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:

" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there."
In Ireland there have always been superstitions and folk stories associated with fairies.  I remember being told that a particular tree in a field near my parent’s house could never be cut down because it was a fairy tree and I recall many stories being told about ghosts and the Irish Banshee (Woman of the fairy mounds).  Interestinglymy most recent novel is about a similar phenomena in Iceland, where many of the population believe in the existence of ‘Hidden People’ (huldufolk), who live inside the rocks, and they believe that to disturb their homes would bring bad luck.  On a recent trip to Iceland I interviewed a fascinating lady called Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, who is a psychic to the huldufolk and has been in communication with them every since she was a child.  I will admit that I was sceptical before meeting her, but she was very grounded and convincing in her beliefs.  I can’t say that I have ever had any paranormal experience involving fairies or such like, but I would never say that they don’t exist just because it hasn’t been proven.  Anything is possible.

11.   Your novel Elastic girl sounds fascinating and I hope to read it soon.  Please give us some insight into what it is about, what inspired it etc-thanks.
Elastic Girl was inspired by a couple of things, firstly a documentary I listened to on BBC Radio Four about a charity who rescues children from circuses in India, secondly the photographic collection ‘Indian Circus’ by American photographer Maryellen Mark, and thirdly by a story I came across of a young girl called Pinky, who was sold to the circus in India as an acrobat.  All of these strands came together to form the basis for my story, which is about a girl called Muthu Tikaram.
When Muthu is sold as a contortionist to The Great Raman Circus of Chennai she believes that she will become a star, but is cruelly transported into a world of tragedy and abuse and at the height of her despair returns home to uncover the stark truth about her past.  The key question within my story is whether Muthu’s life was ill-fated before she was even born and throughout the novel Muthu is looking back into her past searching for an answer to this question.

12.  Your bio indicates your husband is from India-do you feel any sense of cultural conflicts?  how do you feel the two cultural mesh in creating a family?  Where in India is your husband’s family from?  On a related question, do you read much Indian fiction?  
My In-laws are from the Punjab region of India, and came to Ireland in the 1960’s, so my husband was born in Belfast and considers himself very much Northern Irish.  Personally I have never experienced any sense of cultural conflict, but on the contrary have enjoyed the opportunity to learn about another culture and their traditions and I’m thankful that my access to this has helped to enhance Elastic Girl.  I read quite a lot of Indian authors when I was writing my first novel as it helped to 
remind my senses of all the vibrancy of India and to encapsulate the feeling of the place.  Some of my favourites are Arundhati Roy, Anita Nair, Kishwar Desai, Manju Kapur and Rohinton Mistry.

13.  what are the last five books you read?  
Currently I’m reading Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, which is a wonderful book.   Before that I read The Devil I Know by a great Irish writer, Claire Kilroy, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, The One-Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson and Alentejo Blue, an interwoven collection of stories by Monica Ali.
14.   What is your reaction to these lines from Susan Cahill about the beauty of Ireland-”There is a hopelessness that a glut of natural beauty can create when there is a cultural and intellectual morass”.  Is the beauty of Ireland is two edged comes from nowhere and changes everything be over because of this?  

 All I have read about Ireland and all the images I have seen on the net present a country of amazing beauty.  How much does this saturation in natural beauty impact the writing of the country   Does it inspire and defeat at the same time?  
If I’m honest I’m not a big fan of Irish novels that dwell on the Irishness of the place, over emphasising the weather, the landscape etc, but then its perhaps just that I’m too close to it to appreciate this in an Irish novel, as I know I have brought in these factors in my own novels, albeit in a different country.  It’s probably very difficult for an Irish writer to escape from the ‘beauty’ of the place in their writing, but when done in a subtle way it can work beautifully to capture the essence of the place and the people, such as in the writing of Bernard Mac Laverty or Anne Enright.

16.  What, besides friends and family, do you most like about living
in Ireland?   what could you frankly live without?
Obviously I could live without the weather!  I like that we are grounded in culture here, but are still outward looking, and I’m partial to my mammy’s wheaten bread!

19.  Does Belfast get the literary respect it deserves?  when you are outside of Ireland and people find you are Northern Irish, do they go “Oh” kind of like you are not really Irish?   OK this is a rude question, but are Northern Irish as Irish as those from the Republic?  
Northern Irish people are different because of other influences on our culture, but this is not necessarily a negative thing.  Belfast and the North or Ireland was traditionally more industrial than the south and so it hasn’t the same rich heritage of writing in the past as we can see from the south.  At present there are some great writers coming out of Northern Ireland, including recent contemporary fiction writers Lucy Caldwell, Colin Bateman, Tony McCauley and Eoin McNamee, and as I have already said, the support network for writers in Northern Ireland is very good, so hopefully this will encourage the emergence of many more new writers here.
20.  In his book “The Snapper” Roddy Doyle has the father of the family say, as if it were something commonly seen as true, “The Irish are the niggers of Europe and Dubliners are the niggers of Ireland”.  There is a lot of self loathing expressed in Irish literary works from Joyce on down to Doyle.  Is this just a family fight where one might say something terrible about a father, mother or brother or wife and kill an outsider who says the same thing or is it really how people feel?  I do not see this level of self hate in other literatures.   There is nothing like it, for example, in the literature of the Philippines.  Talk a bit about how you feel or think about this.  
I think this harks back to the depression in Ireland and when people here were oppressed; history has a powerful way of seeping into our psyche and being passed down through the generations.  Growing up I was aware of an inferiority complex, particularly towards our English counterparts, but I do think that the younger generation of Irish are more confident and self-assured and that this self-loathing is thankfully becoming less of a reality.

21.   Tell us a bit about your the in India-was it a tremendous cultural shock?
The first time I went to India was with my husband, but I still remember being ambushed by the overpowering smells, sounds and general hub-bub of the place.  We travelled to several parts of India that first time, visiting my in-laws ancestral village in thePunjab which was a wonderful experience.  The beautiful white-washed houses, narrow streets and market squares reminded me a lot of Italy.  India is so varied and rich in culture that it has inspired me tremendously in my writing and I don’t think Elastic Girl would be so effective if I hadn’t had the opportunity to visit India on a number of occasions.

22.     Tell us about your second novel set in Iceland please.    Are the hidden folk of Iceland culturally similar to similar seeming figures in Irish culture?   
There are some cross-over’s between the hidden folk in Iceland the fairy beings we talk about in Ireland.
My Icelandic Novel, Black Beach is about a woman called Frida Jónsdóttir, who is the most famous huldufólk psychic in all of Iceland.  When her father drowns at sea Frida is convinced by her huldufólk friend Pálína that he will be returned to her if she pledges her life to assisting them and avenging anyone who threatens their survival.  Her subsequent promise to the huldufólk lands her in a psychiatric hospital, implicates her in crimes and destroys Frida’s relationship with her sister Katrin.  However Frida continues to believe that one day her father will be returned.  Now she is old and dying and beginning to question her own sanity, so when her father pays her a visit we are left to wonder if this is this the work of a fragile mind or proof of Frida’s wondrous life.

Black Beach is still a work in progress, but I hope to complete this year.

What was your MA thesis about?
My Thesis was actually the first few chapters of my novel, Elastic Girl.  I was delighted to receive a distinction from my Masters, which encouraged me to continue working on Elastic Girl, and a few years and several redrafts later it is finally completed and I have an agent!  

26.   Do you have any particular work habits regarding your writing?
Ideally I like to go for a walk in the morning to clear my head.  I always start with reading over the previous days work, reading out loud as this helps me to identify mistakes.  I usually work solidly for most of the day (as I only have a couple of hours in which to write), trying to write one thousand words per day if I can.  At the end of the day I update a chapter by chapter breakdown as this serves as a quick overview of where I am and how the story is developing.  I’m not a great one for planning a story/novel in fine detail before I start, instead I tend to have a rough idea of my plot and characters and then I let the story develop naturally…sometimes this can work against me when I realise I’m up against a brick wall, but I usually find some way around it!

29. Quick Pick Questions
a.  tablets or laptops? Laptops
b. dogs or cats Neither.  I prefer spiders.
c.  best way for you personally to relax when stressed? Back massage followed by a glass (or two) of wine!
d.  favorite meal to eat out-breakfast, lunch or dinner? Dinner
e. RTE or BBC RTE as it reminds me of my childhood.
f. Yeats or Whitman Yeats
g.  Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC-great for a quick break or American corruption? Both
h. night or day Day.  With two small children staying up past midnight is a challenge!
i  Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights? Jane Eyre
j-best way to experience a new poem-hear the author read it or read it in a quiet undisturbed place?
I prefer to hear it from the author.
k.  favorite singer?  
l.   favorite music, country, rock, traditional Irish, slow love songs, opera or it just depends on the mood your are in
Depends on where I am and my mood, but usually I prefersomething upbeat.
m.  eating out with somebody else paying-best place in Belfast for dinner?
Belfast has a huge range of fantastic restaurants, but Shu on the Lisburn Road in Belfast is favourite.
I give my great thanks to Olivia Rana for her very insightful and interesting answers.

I am very much looking forward to reading Elastic Girl.  A synopis is below.

Elastic Girl – Blurb
Before Muthu Tikaram is born her grandfather murders the family’s landlord, an act of violence which shapes Muthu’s ill-fated life from the very beginning.  When the government evict the family from their home, they find themselves destitute and Muthu’s parents have no choice but to sell their youngest daughter as a contortionist to The Great Raman Circus of Chennai.  As a dreamer, Muthu believes that in the circus she will become a star, but instead she is forced to perform under a gruelling schedule and becomes an innocent victim at the hands of the Ring Master, Mr. Prem.  Finally escaping back to her family, Muthu learns some harsh truths about her beginnings, but it is that truth that finally allows her to fight back and make some sense of her existence.

Mel u

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