Chitra Viraraghavan has been an editor at Oxford University Press India and has taught English at university in America. She is currently working as a freelance editor and a textbook writer. The Americans is her first novel.
NAW- Tell us about your book, The Americans. How did you get the idea for it? What is it about?
I did a PhD in the States in the mid-90s and had occasion to visit again after a gap of several years. It was then that the idea for the book came to me. My novel explores questions of identity, of what it means to live in a land that is alien to you in different ways. But I would not classify my book as immigrant literature because that’s literature written by immigrants about themselves. My book is, in a sense, written by someone who’s outside that experience and yet has had a chance to explore it first hand.
NAW- What drew you to writing?
I guess I’ve spent my entire life working up to this point. I should have had a book out a long time ago but one has to earn a living, too, right? I guess I was busy doing that all these years, and that was a different type of writing as well – writing school textbooks. I had to finally reach burnout point before I decided it was now or never with my novel writing. Before that, I did write poetry and short fiction, of course. I also did a fair bit of academic writing while doing my PhD.
NAW- How long did you take to finish the book? How did you decide the title?
It took me about three years in all, writing in bits and pieces. Not every day, as someone more disciplined would do! I had two choices for a title. But I thought the particular one I went with would be intriguing to readers.
NAW- The Americans basically deals with the theme of identity, right? How did you research for the book?
A lot of what went into the book was what I observed, living and studying in the States. But since America was essentially a foreign land, I had to do some research to make sure I got things right, to cross-check things. There were other things that I didn’t know much about at all, such as conscientious objection, which is a variation of how one becomes or is a US citizen, and other specific laws and legal procedures that I needed to research. I spoke to people, looked up things on the net, and read stuff to make sure that what I was saying was authentic.
NAW- How would you define an American?
I’ve spent a whole book exploring this question. I hope people will be interested enough to read for themselves and find out!
NAW- What can a novice reader expect from The Americans?
I’m hoping what will prove to be a fun read! My book is classified as literary fiction but there is a fair bit of drama in it which should engage all sorts of readers.
NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey.
I’ve been in academic publishing as an editor and so the publishing world was not alien to me. But fiction is a different thing altogether. I was lucky to have my book read and accepted within fifteen days by one of India’s top fiction editors, V K Karthika, of Harper Collins India. And perhaps because of the theme, lucky enough to attract Harper Collins USA. They will be bringing out the US edition in May 2015.
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
I read and read and read! I’m particular about my exercise. Since I live close to the sea, I’m able to combine my need for spending time close to nature with my exercise routine. I also have my regular work, of course.
NAW- Please name your favourite writers. Are there any who you’d like to name as an inspiration?
Always a tough question. But perennial favourites –Tim Winton, Anne Tyler, Philip Larkin, Ashokamitran, Harper Lee.
NAW-What are you currently reading?
Just finished reading a compellingly honest memoir by a famous Indian actor, Naseeruddin Shah. Before that, a brilliant Hindi novel in translation by Nirmal Verma entitled ‘The Red Tin Roof’ published in 1974. At present, the newest Murakami, an old Granta on ‘Mothers’ and a ton of poetry – as usual.
NAW- What will you be working on next?
I’m putting together a bunch of short stories. I need to write to a few more to make up the collection. I’m also thinking out my second novel, which will be, most likely, a historical murder mystery.