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Aching to recapture the Past – Natalie Wood speaks to Ken Doyle, a Mumbai-born Anglo-Indian scientist and writer
I am no fan of National Novel Writing Month. It smacks too much of an international publishers’ promotion fest for my tastes.
So it’s fortunate that many established writers disagree with me as the discipline needed to produce the skeleton of a full-length story within such a short time helps many to the finish line.
I thought of this when interviewing Ken Doyle, a Bombay-born Anglo-Indian scientist and writer, whose long spell in the creative wilderness ended when he was introduced to ‘NaNoWriMo’. He has now gone on to produce work in several genres, including a series of captivating short stories based on the India he knew as a child.
Doyle now lives with his family in Milford, Delaware, USA where he works from home but styles himself as a “writer by night’. I asked him to explain this:
‘Writer by Night’ sounds most alluring. But is it simply what you do after you return home from your day job?
Actually, my day job also involves a good deal of writing, although of a different nature. I work from home and provide marketing and scientific writing services to clients in the biotech and biomedical industries. In some ways, it does make it more challenging to sit down and turn my attention to writing fiction at night. However, being self-employed also gives me some flexibility with scheduling that I wouldn’t have if I worked for someone else.
You seem to have lived at least as long in the USA as you ever did in India. Do you miss it? Badly enough even to return there to live? I ask because I sense a feeling of writerly dislocation permeating your stories.
I do miss certain things about India, specifically, Bombay (Mumbai) where I lived for 22 years. On the other hand, India has changed quite a bit since I left, and in many ways, not for the better. Hindu nationalism is now more rampant than it ever was, and politics has become more polarised. Also, after living in the U.S.A., the minor annoyances of everyday life in India — bribery, corruption, the glacial pace of bureaucracy — become magnified when one attempts to return. Still, I know what you mean by writerly dislocation. One of my favourite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri, made this the theme of her first novel, The Namesake. I’m sure it’s something that most immigrants feel, and it’s a dislocation in time as much as it is in space. We cherish fond memories of our childhood and adolescence that are tied to a geographic location, but if we revisit that location in later years, we can never recreate the past.
If I’m wrong, what keeps you in the west?
Primarily my family. Most of my siblings live in the U.S.A., and my immediate family would not be able to make the considerable adjustment to living in India. There are also many things that I appreciate about living in the U.S.A. For example, it’s very easy to start and operate a small business. In India, I probably would have given up long ago, due to the bureaucracy and tax complexities.
I see that you began writing in your teens. Again, I feel there are more than the reasons you state for leaving writing aside for so long. After all, writers never stop writing! So is there another reason?
I’d love to be able to pinpoint a specific reason, but I think it amounts to changing priorities. In my teens, I had very few responsibilities and a great deal more time to write. Once I entered graduate school and 70-hour work weeks became the norm, it killed a lot of my creative spirit. After that, it took a long time for me to go back and rediscover what I had lost.
I must suppose that you write science fiction because you are a scientist in real life. Do you think a writer needs a background to write science fiction or can it be done purely from one’s imagination?
Science fiction was my first love and I hope to return to it on a larger scale, although I’m currently trying to establish myself in a different genre with Bombay Bhel and Gateway of India. SF spans a broad spectrum, from “hard SF” that involves a great deal of scientific knowledge to speculative fiction that may require very little. So I think it’s possible for writers with varying backgrounds to write good SF. I must admit that I enjoy the harder variety, though. I recently read Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear, and I was amazed at his detailed knowledge of molecular biology and genetics, which is my field of study.
What do you like doing away from either your day job or when you aren’t writing?
Reading is my first choice when I need some “down time”. I also enjoy listening to music and being in places where I can connect with nature: the beach or state parks.
Tell me about Chughani Manor, occupied by the characters that appear in Gateway of India. Does / did it ever exist – even under a different name? Did you live somewhere like it as a child?
It’s a thinly disguised real building that still exists. I didn’t live there, but spent many happy moments there at family gatherings and other visits.
Were you perhaps the little boy who played chess with a famous cricketer or the would-be scientist who bought a laboratory kit from a moonlighting teacher? In other words, are your affectionate portraits based on real people and events? Certainly, there’s a ring of truth that gives your hugely enjoyable stories their integrity.
I suppose there’s always a little bit of ourselves in what we write, even if we don’t intend for that to happen. I did enjoy chemistry as a child and still remember that first chemistry set. I find stories that draw on a personal memory or childhood experience the easiest to write; they tend to flow better and have a natural rhythm to them that is difficult to create, at least in the first draft, when one is writing about a completely fictional scenario. Many of my stories are based on childhood memories, while others (such as Solar Power and Bhel Plaza in my first book) are based very loosely on actual events, as reported in the media, with which I had no prior connection.
In which other genres do you write aside from science fiction and literary fiction? Do you, for example, ever try your hand at flash fiction or poetry? Or even non-fiction, aside from writing related to your work?
I did write some flash fiction, although it would still fall under the speculative fiction umbrella. I’ve also written some poetry, but it’s been a while. I have a very rough and incomplete draft of a young adult urban fantasy novel, and I hope, some day, to write a YA epic fantasy novel.
Finally, as I’ve read your single short story, Saturday Date as well as Gateway of India Book Two, I suggest that Saturday Date appears to be among your earliest stories written as an adult and is quite different from those that have come later. What triggered this? Is Mary, who may viewed almost as an anti-heroine, simply emblematic of your idea of those who live in abject poverty or did you ever know people like her personally?
Saturday Date was actually written after I completed my first book, Bombay Bhel. It’s more in the style of those earlier stories, but it also acts as a prequel of sorts to the first story in Gateway of India, Book One. In a way, I think it may be seen as a transition between the two books. There really was a woman who used to sing in our neighbourhood for alms when I was a child, and there are several legends (and conflicting reports) in the media about her life story. My version, of course, is heavily fictionalised. Nonetheless, growing up in Bombay, I came into contact with people like that every day, and perhaps that’s why the huge gap between the rich and the very poor has influenced many of my stories.
© Natalie Wood