Interviews · 06/11/2013

A conversation with Olivia Chadha

What books and/or authors have had the most influence on your writing?

I enjoy heroic journeys and narratives that somehow get to a character’s bones rather than simply skimming their skin. Most great writers have this uncanny ability, but I always return to three genres for this reading experience since I was a child: Greek Classics and mythology, literary fiction, and graphic fiction. I enjoy reading texts that explore a character on the brink, a character about to learn what they are made of, viscera to toes. Authors whose work is inspiring to me include people like Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, Rohinton Mistry, Gish Jen, Neil Gaiman, Homer, and Dante. We can follow a tragic character along their path toward potential heroism in, obviously, Homer’s work and, not so obviously, in Jen’s Typical American, Mistry’s A Fine Balance and Gaiman’s Sandman. I enjoy reading stories that explore the essential parts of human motivation (i.e. survival, protecting one’s family, identity, and honor) but also ones that explore elements in society that push us to our limits. It is in those small but precious moments that we truly understand ourselves just a little more.

How do you decide when a piece you’ve written is “finished” enough to publish?

My philosophy is simple. When you think a novel is finished, write another couple drafts. And when you’ve written another couple drafts, write just one more. That’s when a novel might be finished. It’s a difficult process, because writing one draft can take a year or more commitment. Novelists are superstitious creatures who sometimes have the fear that something devastating will happen before they actually publish the work, which breeds urgency. But still putting your best work forward is key, and shopping a piece too early can be detrimental. Short stories are different because they can be written in a day or week or month. It’s always healthy to do a few drafts before you send it out for publication or review by an agent. And if you’re lucky to have writer friends, having one more set of eyes on your work is more than helpful in determining if you’ve produced what you think you have, and if that thing is actually ready to be read widely.

What would you consider to be a productive day of work, and do you have a writing routine?

Like many writers I wake in the morning, pour coffee into a mug, and sit in my office for as long as I can. A good day of writing can mean I’m writing new scenes from 8 a.m. until noon, and then I collapse, exhausted for a nap. I like to edit in the afternoon. I also prefer to maintain that dreamy state of mind when I write, and find finishing a sentence that I left unfinished the day before (I think that might be Hemingway’s advice) helps continue the momentum as well. As far as production goes, a good day means that I’ve produced 3 to 5 good pages. On a miraculous day, I can produce up to 10 to 15 pages. My off days are still committed to story, and I research and I use them to review what I’ve written in order to understand if I’m still holding true to the trajectory. Novels can be messy creatures that need constant taming and grooming.

What part of your writing process do you most enjoy?

The imagining part. It’s a breathtaking experience to peer over into a massive and impossible void where I alone can make anything happen as long as it’s part of the story. It’s such a Herculean task to begin with nothing and to imagine an entire world from setting to dialect, from character to conflict. I write because it’s the hardest thing I could do, and I enjoy every minute of it.

Your novel, Balance of Fragile Things, centers around a multicultural (Sikh and Latvian) family in upstate New York. Why did you choose to amalgamate these two cultures, specifically?

These two cultures that seem disparate have surrounded me whole life. My father and mother came to America from India and Germany respectively, and my brother and I were brought up in this all-American household that was influenced by philosophies and traditions based in Sikh and German/Latvian cultures. As an avid reader my entire life I couldn’t find a character like me in any book. We rarely see multiethnic characters in literature, and even more difficult to find is an ethnic character dealing with the environment. There is a predominantly Western perspective in eco-fiction, which I believe is limited and exclusionary. I truly wanted to produce something new to fill a void.

Do you have a favorite chapter or section of the novel? If so, what is it and why?

This kind of links to my first response, as my favorite parts of the novel are the moments where characters are on the brink of breaking or also learning who they really are. When Paul realizes his family’s well-being and future depends on the success of his business and finding who has contaminated their water, he realizes that he would do absolutely anything to protect his family, even kill. The scene still gives me chills.

What else are you working on, and where can readers go to find more of your work?

I’m writing a young adult novel that is set in Nederland, CO that has eco-fictional elements as well as folkloric tendencies. I hope to have it completed this year and if the winds are right, perhaps published next. I’m a contributing new author columnist on BookDivas.com and my short stories have been published in various literary magazines and journals. My website always has the best current information about my work and where to find it.

Finally, what advice would you give yourself when you first started writing?

Dear Little Olivia, Yes, you should write another word, and then another, and yet one more. Never waver. It’s quite like masonry: brick, stone, mortar, and soon in time you will make a house full of life. With hard work, you will make your own luck.

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Olivia Chadha began her writing career with a stint in Los Angeles writing comic book scripts. Balance of Fragile Things is Olivia’s first novel, and some of her other works have appeared in The Pinyon Review, Damselfly Press, and Every Day Fiction. Olivia holds a Ph.D. from Binghamton University’s creative writing program and has taught writing at Binghamton University and the University of Colorado, Boulder. Like her stories and characters, Olivia brings a boundary blurring perspective to her writing: she was born in Illinois, raised in New Jersey, and grew up in Southern California. Her family is of mixed Latvian/German and Indian descent. www.oliviachadha.com