Book Talk: A tale of two sisters and two worlds

NEW DELHI Wed Mar 31, 2010 10:24am IST

NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - Writer Tania James oscillates between India and America in her debut novel about two sisters, illegal immigration and bikini waxes at an Indian beauty salon.

In "Atlas of Unknowns", Anju betrays her sister for a chance to study at a New York school. While she struggles to fit in, her less privileged sister finds success back home in India.

A trade paperback edition of "Atlas of Unknowns", first published in 2009, will be released in Britain in April.

James, who was born in 1980 to Indian immigrants and now lives in New York, spoke to Reuters about her novel, her inspirations and her next project -- a collection of short stories.

Q: Would you describe 'Atlas of Unknowns' as a tale of two sisters?

A: "That's a Dickensian way to put it -- maybe I have the wrong title. But yes, it is a tale of two sisters, and the troubles that befall them. It's also a story about a fractured family, about Jackson Heights, about an Indian beauty salon, about the insistent pull of the past on the present."

Q: What motivated you to write this book?

A: "As with any story I write, I'm initially motivated by an image or a situation. With this book, there were a few different situations, like the child who suffered an accident while playing with firecrackers. That situation stayed lodged in my mind until I wrote my way out of it, and there began the novel. And then that situation led to others, and soon, what motivated me was what I can best describe as the book's internal engine. It seemed to be pushing toward discovery -- about characters, their circumstances, where they had been and where they were going."

Q: Was Anju's journey to America inspired by a similar immigrant experience?

A: "I can't point to any particular experience. I do remember doing a short interview for The New York Times with a group of threaders at an Indian beauty salon in Jackson Heights. Their voices stayed with me. And though none of their stories really led to my conception of Anju, I did start to imagine a place in that salon for a runaway like her, who had suffered an unlikely fall from grace."

Q: How easy or difficult was getting your debut novel published?

A: "In a way, the process of getting a novel published seemed rather uncomplicated compared to actually writing it. I didn't set out to write a novel -- I had only written short stories in the past -- as I was intimidated by the expanse of a novel.

"Not to say that writing a novel is more difficult, in fact I feel the opposite now that I'm back to short stories these days, but at last I had about 120 pages and I had to stop calling it 'the thing' and admit to myself that it was a novel.

"Around that time, my agent called to tell me that she was negotiating with an editor over the sale of my short story collection. I gave her the novel as well -- and things kind of snowballed from there."

Q: Any advice for aspiring writers?

A: "Write what matters to you. Or perhaps, more importantly: just write."

Q: Do you set yourself some rules when you write?

A: "Not really. I get a little bit grumpy if I'm not at my desk with a cup of tea by 8:30 a.m., though lately with daylight savings, I've been a shamefully late riser.

"I've always admired those people who wake at 4 a.m., go for a swim, eat a full breakfast and dive into the work. Maybe someday I'll get my birthday wish and turn into an early riser."

Q: Have you started your next book? What is it about?

A: "I am writing a collection of short stories -- or re-writing would be more specific. They are set in a range of places, from Louisville, Kentucky to Sierra Leone so they're literally all over the map."

(Editing by Miral Fahmy and Alex Richardson)

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