NAW interview with Vandana Jena…

NAW- When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?

Vandana Jena- I have always been fascinated by the written word. My entire childhood was spent in living in a dream world created by Enid Blyton. I realized that I wanted to write when my teachers in school said that they enjoyed reading my essays and stories very much and wondered if I was taking my parent’s assistance in writing them! The truth was quite the reverse. I had been sending reader’s feedback and small pieces in my mother’s name whenever magazines like Femina or Eves Weekly invited readers to write on a topic. By the time I was sixteen I had published a few pieces in magazines like Youth Times and Femina in my own name and even won prizes for them.

NAW- Do you write fiction only or delve into other genres also?

Vandana Jena- I write all kinds of fiction. I have written a novel called `the Dance of Death,’ published by HarAnand publications in 2008.  My short stories have been published in over 15 anthologies including three “Good Bad and Various Shades of Brown,’`India Smiles,’ and `Blogprint’ published by My short story `Blood Ties’ is also published in the NAW publication `Mr. Cheng’s  Silver Coffeepot.’I have also had my stories  publishedin magazines and newspapers like  Good Housekeeping, Femina, Savvy, New Women,  The Statesman and The Pioneer. I have published over 250 middles in leading newspapers like the Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Pioneer. I have also written on women’s development, women’s empowerment and adult education.I have edited three books on adult education.

NAW- Do you draw inspirations for your stories from real life events or is it completely a product of your imagination?

Vandana Jena- Actually it is a blend of both. At times it is purely awork of my imagination at other times, the trigger is a real life incident I have read about in the newspaper or magazine or an incident, or something which is work related.

NAW- What are you reading right now? Are there any authors that you would name as influences?

Vandana Jena- I am reading `Death comes to Pemberley’ by PD James which continues Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with a murder mystery.  The one author who has had a major influence in my life is Ayn Rand whose writings deeply influenced me during my teens.Her philosophy in `Fountainhead’ and “Atlas Shrugged’ has been an inspiration. Howard Roark remains my hero till date.

NAW- Indian publishing is presently witnessing copy cat syndrome with every publisher rushing after the tried and tested formula. Did this not deter you from writing your debut novel- Dance of Death which is not a typical sugar coated book?

Vandana Jena- I honestly believe that a writer should write something she believes in because then it will have a ring of authenticity. I can only write on subjects I am familiar with or those with which I am comfortable. I could not have written chicklit even if I tried. However having grown up on a staple diet of detective fiction (Agatha Christie, James Patterson, P D James, Mary Higgins Clark, Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George) I would like to try my hand at awhodunit.

NAW- Did you face any difficulties in getting published? How did Dance of death get its publisher?

Vandana Jena- I found that getting my short stories and middles published was really easy. My protagonists were usually the urban, educated, empowered women with whom the readers of the magazines could identify with.  However I did face many difficulties in getting my novel published. One publisher I spoke to openly admitted that they were looking for authors in 25 year age group, preferably those straight out of a B school! My son who had just graduated from Management Development Institute (Gurgaon) just then offered to get my novel published in his name, if that helped! The Dance of Death got its publisher by accident. I met Dr. Narendra Kumar of HarAnand Publications in abook launch and then sent him acollection of short stories for publication. He liked them very much but said that short story collections had no takers, however if I wrote a novel he would consider publishing it. I promptly said that I had a manuscript ready and after reading it he agreed to publish it.

NAW- Tell us about the research you did for your novel?

Vandana Jena- I did not need to do much research because my novel is largely based in insurgent prone Manipur in India where I worked as Sub Divisional Officer and Deputy Commissioner and Delhi where I was born and brought up and where I have worked extensively. The novel touched the theme of domestic violence and HIV/AIDS, both were subjects I had handled in my profession. However the Internet has always been very useful tool which I used extensively for researching Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, provisions of law etc.

NAW- What was your inspiration for Dance of Death?

Vandana Jena- I wanted to rip apart the mask of the “happily married woman,’ which I saw many of my friends wearing while the truth of their marriage was far more sordid.  I wanted to focus on the issue of domestic violence which affects many women although most of the battered women are in denial and pretend that it only happens among the working class. I also wanted to highlight the trauma of women who never stray but find themselves infected by HIV/AIDS because their husband’s stray. In my novel I have portrayed women as victims because I wanted to highlight the pain, the humiliation and torment women undergo while maintaining the façade of a happy marriage. The inspiration for my heroine was my young cousin,a beautiful young microbiologist  who was briefly and unhappily married to adoctor, who returned home after three months of  her marriage and died soon after of  what I call, `a broken heart.’  My book however ends on an optimistic note where the heroine Chhaya, steps out of the shadows to find her place under the sun.

NAW- Writing is not looked upon as a full time vocation in many countries, were you aware that making a living out of writing is difficult when you first started out?

Vandana Jena- I knew from the beginning that I could not indulge in the luxury of being a full time writer.  So after my Masters in Political Science I taught in Lady Shri Ram College New Delhi for two years and then joined the Indian Administrative Service. Presently I am Principal Adviser in Planning Commission New Delhi. I am lucky that I could continue writing, although my literary ambitions have always had to take a backseat over my professional commitments.

NAW- NAW receives a lot of queries from writers who have no idea how to edit. In fact, some even say that writing is the easy part, editing is difficult. How do you edit your novels? Do you take help from friends, family for feedback?

Vandana Jena- For my novel, the Dance of Death I actually engaged an editor and that really helped. I must also mention that  during the course of my career, I have edited journals  including the `Civil Services Newsletter,’  `Management in Government,’ and  so am somewhat familiar with the task of editing.I do use my immediate family, my husband and two sons as a sounding board for my stories. I am also a member of a couple of Writers Groups but to be entirely honest I am not really comfortable with the idea of sharing my unpublished work with writer friends.

NAW- What (in your opinion) is the most difficult part of a book publishing process- the writing, editing or to hunt for a publisher?

Vandana Jena- Definitely the hunt for a publisher especially since some publishing houses like Hachette do not accept unsolicited submissions and require submissions only through an agent. Besides publishers want something racy while strikes a chord with the younger generation. Finally I am somewhat reclusive and that is a big disadvantage in finding a publisher. As my younger son says, “You may be able to write, but you do not know how to market your book!”

NAW- Please name your 5 favourite books.

 Vandana Jena- Five of my favourite books are-

  1. Fountain Head- Ayn Rand
  2. Gone with the Wind- Margaret Mitchell
  3. Remains of a Day.- Kazuo Ishiguro
  4. The English Patient— Michael Ondatjee
  5. Catcher in the Rye- J D Salinger

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

Vandana Jena- I have four upcoming projects. The first is a short story collection called,`Blood lies and Other stories,’ which portrays women in various  shades of grey. Another is a collection of short stories called `The Incubation Chamber and other Stories,’ which portrays the strong willed empowered women of substance. I  am  also seeking  a publisher for a light hearted novel called, “The Good, the Bad and the Pagli,”  where the protagonist is a homespun Miss Marple who loves solving little mysteries, till  the Vice Chancellor of the University she works in gets murdered and she finds that she is  a prime suspect! I am currently working on a novel based on a real life incident I heard about, of a man whose wife was raped and murdered by a Swami in his home. He along with his infant daughter, hunted down the Swami after chasing him for ten years. After tracking the Swami, he murdered him and then surrendered to the police. The novel revolves around the chase and the seven deadly sins which he encounters during the intervening years. The novel is nearing completion.

Vandana JenaVandanaKumari Jena is an IAS officer by profession and a writer by inclination. Currently she is Principal Adviser, Planning Commission, New Delhi. She has published over 250 middles in leading newspapers. Her short stories have appeared in over fifteen anthologies, including “Black White and Various Shades of Brown,”  “India Smiles,” and “Blogprint” published by Penguin India and the Chicken Soup for the India Soul Series.  Her novel “The Dance of Death,” was published in 2008 by HarAnand Publications. She can be contacted at vandana.jena(at)gmail(dot)com

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