Shanthi Sekaran’s second novel Lucky Boy is a moving and timely account of motherhood, immigration, infertility, adoption and minority life in contemporary America. It’s an eventful road trip from the Mexican border to Silicon Valley, told with verve and love. Her precious writing time is usually spent among trusted friends.
Where are you now?
I’m on a train from Seattle to Portland, having pleasant flashbacks to train journeys in England. Only the seats on this train wider and cushier, and no one’s come through with a tea cart.
Where and when do you do most of your writing?
I designate one or two writing days per week. These usually happen at a desk at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, or at a cafe in Oakland, where I meet two writing buddies every couple of weeks. When I’m deeply engrossed in a project, I can write anywhere, anytime I can, and usually do.
If you have one, what is your pre-writing ritual?
First, to get out of the house. To get a cup of tea and check my email, my facebook, my twitter, just to get those things out of the way. A short walk often helps to clear my mind, too.
Full-time or part-time
Definitely part-time. I have two young children and teach writing at an art college, so my own writing only occupies a single, closely-guarded corner of my life. But I like having that tension, knowing that my writing time is precious and that I have to make the most of it.
Pen or keyboard?
Pen encourages a better creative flow. When I can, I write longhand first, then transfer to my laptop as a sort of second draft.
How do you relax when you’re writing?
I’m not sure I want to relax when I’m writing. I’m pretty mellow, pretty relaxed by default, so I like when my mind gets a little zingy. The non-relaxed state is what I hope for.
How would you pitch your latest book in up to 25 words?
Okay. Well, it’s a page-turner that gives life to very fraught questions around undocumented immigration, motherhood rights, ambition and fertility.
Who do you write for?
Who do you share your work in progress with?
Full first drafts go to my husband and my agent and sometimes a writer friend or two, depending on what I’m looking for. Anything before a first draft stays solely with me.
Which literary character do you wish you created?
Boris from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I loved following him from his boyhood friendship with Theo (the main character) into adulthood, and watch him grow from a misguided ‘bad influence’ to a tantalising, charismatic, bad-news adult.
Share with us your favourite line/s of dialogue, poetry or prose.
The final two pages of Toni Morrisson’s Beloved. It’s not marked off as a chapter or an epilogue. It’s just there, unlabelled, separate from the main text. These pages are a sort of prose poem, with the refrain, “It was not a story to pass on.” The paragraphs, as you read them, morph into a sort of chant, maybe a call and response. It ends with this last paragraph, and a haunting, echoing final word:
By and by all trace is gone, and what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water too and what is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted for, but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather. Certainly no clamor for a kiss.
Which book do you wish you’d written?
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve tried to think of something more obscure to make myself seem cooler, but really, nothing matches this book for simplicity and energy and story. From its very first lines, Fitzgerald writes with tenderness and regret, and so gracefully. You can tell that he was past his glitterati days, that he was wiser, and perhaps sadder, when he wrote this.
Which book/s have you most recently read and enjoyed?
Swing Time by Zadie Smith, Good Girls Marry Doctors edited by Piyali Battacharya, The Green Road by Anne Enright.
What’s on your bedside table or e-reader?
Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock, Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera, Burmese Days by George Orwell, Pachinko by Min-Jin Lee
Which books do you feel you ought to have read but haven’t yet?
Home by Marilynne Robinson, The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Which book/s do you treasure the most?
The ones I’ve loved and held onto since I was a teenager:
The Godfather by Mario Puzo. We had a ratty old copy from one of those mail-order book clubs. I couldn’t put this down over the summer of 1994, when I was 17. I populated my imagination with members of that summer’s Italian World Cup soccer team. Paolo Maldini was Santino Corleone.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. I first read this my senior year of high school. I remember reading it once, then twice more in quick succession. This is a book I can pick up and and sink into again and again. I can’t fathom how it was less regarded than Jane Eyre in its time. This book is darkness and sex, unapologetic drama. There’s such intensity in its narration, and such sadness. I’ll go back to it always, and I’ll never get tired of it and I’ll always find something new in its pages to love.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. This book is what, like 1500 pages long? I tore through it. It may as well have been 200 pages long, for all I noticed. I read this one summer in India when I was eighteen. I was staying at my grandmother’s house, where there was absolutely nothing to do but read and read and read. And so I did. This book contains multiple universes. It’s a comedy of manners, a tribute to the poetic ghazal, an exposure of social injustices large and small, an illumination of India at the dawn of independence. Its characters are unforgettable. If I could unread this and read it again, I would.
What is the last work you read in translation?
Loquela, by Chilean writer Carlos Labbé (translated by Will Vanderhyden).
Which story collections would you particularly recommend?
Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua, War by Candlelight by Daniel Alarcón, Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, The Hidden Light of Objects by Mai Al-Nakib
What will you read next?
The Weight of Him by Ethel Rohan, Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
What are you working on next?
With everything going on in the US right now, this feels like a time to devote myself to essays, to non-fiction, to engaging directly with the world right in front of me. Lucky Boy does that, but I want to continue this direct engagement with shorter pieces for a while.
Imagine you’re the host of a literary supper, who would your dinner guests be (living or dead, real or fictional)?
Roald Dahl: He seems kind, he’s one of my favorite authors, and I’m surprised I haven’t mentioned him before now. And while we’re at it, I think I’d populate the rest of the table with his characters: Danny (champion of the world) and his father, the grandmother from The Witches, Charlie, Matilda, the giraffe, the pelly and ‘me’.
If you weren’t writing you’d be…?
A detective. Or possibly a miserable version of something else.
Shanthi Sekaran teaches creative writing at California College of the Arts, and is a member of the Portuguese Artists Colony and the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Best New American Voices and Canteen, and online at Zyzzyva and Mutha Magazine. A California native, she lives in Berkeley with her husband and two children. Her first novel, The Prayer Room, was published by MacAdam Cage. Lucky Boy is out now from Putnam. Read more.
Author portrait © Daniel Grisales