V - Your poetry collection has launched recently, how are you feeling right now?
Sweta - Very excited and nervous. And a little guilty about eating my favorite cupcake from Buttercup.
V - When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Sweta – It was so long ago that I can’t remember exactly when. Maybe from the time I learnt to hold a pen - I am from the ink-pen generation. When I saw pen dipped in ink, birthing words on paper, making that commitment, I fell in love with the art of writing.
My parents introduced my brother and me to books rather early in our lives. And every time I saw a Tinkle, Chacha Chowdhry, or Enid Blyton, I would admire the name of the author splashed on the cover. I just knew that one day I wanted my name on a book.
V - How long does it take you to write a whole poetry collection?
Sweta – There isn’t a magical formula. Each project is so unique. The process from start to completion depends on several factors: theme of the book, frame of mind, emotional commitment to the topic, my environment, style of poetry, and the energy around me. While some books happen in barely any time at all, other projects demand their time.
V - What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
Sweta – Pretty ridiculous, if I may say so myself. It can vary anywhere from 8-12 hours in a day or more. But then “writing,” as you know, involves more than inscribing words. There is research and editing involved as well. And not forgetting, networking and readings.
V - What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
Sweta – I like being a racehorse when I write--see nothing around me. No kidding. I have tried writing in a park, but then the smell of food or the sight of charming handbags and shoes are such distractions. I need to be surrounded by four walls to write.
V - When did you write your first poem and how old were you?
Sweta – I started scribbling in my diaries when I was a kid. Ask my brother about it. He’s lugged my carry-on luggage, filled with semi-used notebooks, from India to Europe to Africa, when we were growing up. But when I was in eighth grade at Oak Grove (a boarding school in Musoorie, India), I wrote my first, serious poem. I must have been a pre-teen then, I guess. The poem was addressed to my father. Mussoorie, with its nippy and foggy weather but nurturing milieu, was the perfect place to write poetry. (My school was rare, in that, it churned out a lot of creative professionals.)
V - What do you like to do when you're not writing?
Sweta – Talking. Seriously, ask anyone. Also, I laugh at my own jokes, not just while sharing them, but also while thinking about them in public places at the oddest of times.
Apart from entertaining myself and the people around me, I am addicted to “active” verbs: dancing, cooking, hanging out with friends, entertaining, watching reruns of “Criminal Minds” and movies with my husband, visiting museums, catching a Broadway show, chatting on Skype with my nieces, going for long walks and taking yoga classes--anything that doesn’t involve my sitting still for more than fifteen minutes. It’s a standard joke amongst friends and family--“Sweta always needs an activity.”
V - What does your family think of your writing?
Sweta– I don’t even know where to begin. I feel blessed and humbled. My husband, my father, my nieces--Diya and Sana--and my husband’s cousin Nidhi are probably my biggest fans and unconditional supporters. This isn’t to say that the others aren’t, but these folks are just special in what they do.
My husband, who otherwise is a man of extremely balanced emotions, goes berserk when my pieces get published. My wonderful publisher, Victor R. Volkman, sent me a poster of my book, Because All Is Not Lost. My husband decided to put it up in his office. Sometimes, he has more faith in my abilities than I do. I get my writing genes from my father. He reads every one of my blog posts, essays, stories, and poems. He keeps me sharp, and we debate all the time. My nieces are hilarious! The older one, Diya, reads my stories, before my brother and sister-in-law can get their hands on them, and she explains it to Sana, the younger one. Sana then asks me to quiz her on my pieces when we talk on Skype. And lastly, but equally importantly, Nidhi is incredible. She has the sharpest editorial eyes. She is so fearless and candid with her critique. And just as easily comforts me with stories.
V - What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
Sweta – Nothing is impossible when you put your mind to it. I believe our brain and heart have an indescribable capacity; you have to direct them appropriately. And faith in your own self is key or else it’s very easy to get sidetracked by the negativity spread by some people.
V - How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
Sweta – By now several. They are all special in their own ways because each book is a journey of its own. However, Because All Is Not Lost, and my first fiction novel, which is with an agent, are probably closest to my heart.
V - Do you have any suggestions to help me become a better writer? If so, what are they? Sweta – Hardly. Don’t embarrass me. But I will say two things that I follow: write everyday and discipline yourself. Anything is better than blank paper. I can’t tell you the number of times I have revisited an old journal and picked up lines that at one point seemed irrelevant.
Also, have a schedule in place. The stereotype about us artists is that we only work when the creative juices flow and the muses pay a visit. But that’s not the case unless you live in a bohemian world. Most of my writer and artist friends have a routine they stick to. As Peter Vries said, “I write when I'm inspired, and I see to it that I'm inspired at nine o'clock every morning.”
V - What do you think makes good poetry?
Sweta – Honesty and motivation. I believe if the poet writes about things that require personal investment (emotionally), sincerity automatically creeps into the work. Poetry then becomes a story - --accessible and unpretentious.
V - What inspired you to write Because All is Not Lost?
Sweta – I am a raging optimist. The glass is always half full in my eyes. Of course, dejection and bad news bother me but for an insignificant amount of time. I like to believe that worse is only as bad as you make it out to be. I am not undervaluing the feeling or impact of loss, but ultimately, one has to come out of that shell and appreciate who and what is still present versus what’s become a part of the past. I wanted to get that message out without being didactic about it. At the end of the day, every human being has suffered loss in some form or the other. And what better way to connect with the heart than poetry.
V - How would you describe 'Because All is Not Lost' to someone who has not read any of your previous poetry?
Sweta – It’s a book you want to buy as a holiday gift for everyone in your world. So, rush to the stores, NOW, and show you care! This book will change your life. Haaa.
But seriously, this is a book about hope. It’s simple and therapeutic. The theme isn’t ambiguous, and the poems are based mostly on real life experiences. I can promise you that every person who reads this book will find at least one poem that resonates with her or him.
V - You are known to write all kinds of things. Does poetry come easy to you? What other things do you write? Do you have a specific writing style?
Sweta – Though I write both prose and poetry, I have to say that poetry and creative nonfiction essays come more naturally to me than fiction. Maybe it’s my personality but I say it like I see it. And given that poetry and nonfiction are straight from the heart, it’s effortless, for me. But that said, once I immerse myself in my fiction manuscript, I thoroughly enjoy it. It just takes a little time to get there. The liberty that you can take with fiction is incomparable.
Aside from the above mentioned, I have a blog (http://pandorastwocents.blogspot.com/) where I post opinions on a wide range of things: culture, traditions, movies, books, perspectives, etc. As for my writing style, it depends on the genre I am working on. Even within each genre, depending on the theme or topic, I might use a different voice.
V - How did you come up with the title?
Sweta – It came to me, literally. I felt that’s exactly what I was trying to convey in each poem.
V -What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Sweta – Some of the poems are more personal and closer to my heart than the others. Writing them meant revisiting and reliving those incidents that I had buried in a box of denial.
V - Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
Sweta –As clichéd as it sounds: the worse is over. Good follows bad. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, so don’t give up.
V- You have mentioned Mausi and Dada in the book, who are they and how did they influence the events in your own life?
Sweta – Mausi, was my mother’s elder sister and Dada, was my paternal grandfather, both gnawed by the teeth of cancer.
I lost my Dada when I was five. When I would visit him in the hospital, he would ask me to sing and dance for him. He’d lost his voice, so he would write his requests on pieces of paper. Mausi passed away in 2009. When I last saw her, which was in 2008, she had cooked my favorite food and spent the evening discussing my poetry. She was probably the first woman from my parents’ generation to read my work.
I have asked myself the same question over and over again--why is it that I felt these two losses more than the others? Was it because my last communication with both my Dada and Mausi was when they made my ordinary moments extraordinary? Even if subconsciously, do we as humans seek that experience? I don’t have an answer, but I know that my encounters with them had a big part to play in the creation of this book.
V - Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
Sweta – Several, I would say. But from the top of my head, I can think of Sadia Shepard. Her memoir, The Girl from Foreign, is such a beautiful and honest piece of work. Also, I couldn’t put down Khaled Hosseini’s books: The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. He has such a simple yet evocative style of writing.
V -What was the book that most influenced your life — and why?
Sweta - Oak Grove, my boarding school, turned me into a bibliophile. The library there was to die for. It was there that I got introduced the phenomenal world of Jane Austen.
I have to say that Jane Austen’s works have truly influenced my life. She was a visionary. For a woman, who grew up in a very different society and time, it's amazing how she tapped into today's core challenges two centuries ago. Her thoughts, social commentary, and lessons on morality are relevant even today.
V - What are your current projects after Because All is Not Lost?
Sweta – I have a chapbook coming out in August titled, Kaleidoscope: An Asian Journey of Colors. Plus, another poetry collection, Whispering Woes of Ganges & Zambezi, a collaborative effort with a poet from Zimbabwe, is due for a July end release.
V - Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members
Sweta – I feel fortunate; lot of my friends, both old (especially my Fergusson and Oak Grove family) and new, you know who you are, have encouraged me along the way. They have cheered me incredulously with their phone calls, emails, Facebook messages. But two of my friends, Rashi Baid and Jaya Sharan, deserve special accolades. They have never once left my side.
When I told Jaya and Rashi, at separate times, “I have a dream,” they both responded: “Go for it.” It’s Rashi’s (bad!) luck that she lives in the same city and neighborhood as I do. I have called her up at wee hours and without as much as squinting breath, she’s laughed, danced, and cried with me.
Jaya lives in Calcutta (India). She’s known to call me in the middle of my night, when she’s at some party, to randomly discuss my work. When my first book came out, she sent her father on a wild goose chase. He went to every bookstore in Calcutta to see whether or not a hard copy was available.
V - Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Sweta– I am involved in a project with a visual artist from Australia, which is rather exciting. Aside from that, I currently am working on a book-length poetry manuscript and my second fiction novel.
V - Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Sweta – I have this awful problem of not knowing when to stop working. My next “Thing-to-do-list,” reads: Discipline myself to take breaks and let go.
V - Give us three "Good to Know" facts about you. Be creative. Tell us about your first job, the inspiration for your writing, any fun details that would enliven your page.
(a) I am a planner and a compulsive organizer. So much so that I have given my husband and a few of my friends a list of everything I want (music, food, wine) at my funeral. These are moments when he wonders why we are still married. J
(b) I believe Shakira’s song, “Hips Don’t Lie” can single-handedly create world peace. Not just that I can dance to the song anywhere and anytime. Ask my friends (especially Ellen Goldstein, Georgia Clark, Katherine Mary Govier, Hadeel Assali, Norma Valdez-Jimenez, and Maria Del Carmen Cifuentes), and they’ll vouch for it.
(c) I don’t like being told what to do. While taking my twelfth board exams, I got so bored of the examiner’s sermon and constant nagging that I napped for a good thirty minutes. Did I mention that my mom, like most other Indian mothers, wanted me to study medicine? Funny story: I would go for these entrance exams and doodle flowers or poems for hours together. I recently confessed to my mother, and six months later, she’s still in a state of shock. J
V - What else do you want your readers to know? Consider here your likes and dislikes, your interests and hobbies, your favourite ways to unwind whatever comes to mind.
(a) I don’t know how to wear a sari.
(b) I can dance anytime and anywhere.
(c) Bollywood and art are my religion; my kitchen is my temple; and chilli chicken & chicken biryani are my sacred feast.
(d) Look me up if you need white wine recommendations on the types, pairings, and tastings.
Interviewed by Smita Singh for V