Ep 200 What is it like to be Obama’s speechwriter? And meet Shankari Chandran, author of ‘The Barrier’.

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In Episode 200 of So you want to be a writer: Allison new book The Book of Secrets is out now! What is it like to be Obama’s speechwriter? Discover more apps to help with your writing and social media tips for authors. Your chance to win a copy of the latest Candice Fox and James Patterson book Fifty Fifty. Meet Shankari Chandran, author of The Barrier.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

 

Show Notes

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From Veggiemama

Val and Al consistently dish out both useful and current information about the world of writing, in a relatable way with a great sense of humour. Their practical tips from real-world experience are invaluable, and this podcast is one of the best sources of free education about all styles of writing. I for one am grateful for their generosity and have benefited greatly from it. Happy 200th episode from a long-time listener, ladies! I’ll have a slice or two of banoffee to celebrate 😉 xx

Thanks, Veggiemama!

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Writer in Residence

Shankari Chandran

Shankari Chandran was raised in Canberra, Australia. She spent a decade in London, working as a lawyer in the social justice field. She eventually returned home to Australia, where she now lives with her husband, four children and their cavoodle puppy, Benji.

When she can see the funny side of parenting, she writes for Mamamia.com.au. Her stories about motherhood, multi-culturalism and the perils of returning home are captured on her blog

In January 2017, she published her first book with Perera-Hussein, called Song of the Sun God. Her second book, titled The Barrier, was published by Pan Macmillan Australia in June 2017.

Shankari is now researching her third book, a work of fiction also set in Sri Lanka, because she can’t leave the place alone. She writes every day, with Benji at her feet. Benji’s nom de plume is Ben-Jazz.

Follow Shankari on Twitter

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WIN: Fifty Fifty by Candice Fox and James Patterson

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Thanks so much for joining us today, Shankari.

Shankari

Thank you for having me, Valerie. It’s a pleasure.

Valerie

Now I am so excited. I am just so excited and thrilled for you. I have in my mind The Barrier, by you, Shankari Chandran. And oh! Look, first of all, let’s just set the scene for our listeners. And for those readers who haven’t read the book yet, can you tell us what the book is about?

Shankari

I’d love to. The Barrier is set in 2040. So it’s a post-apocalyptic thriller. The world has been destroyed by an Ebola pandemic and global religious wars. There is a wall built between the west and the east. The world is divided into two. There is a ban on the movement of people, particularly people of particular religions. There is a global vaccination program and another global crisis looming.

Valerie

Now how in the world did you come up with this idea? And I have to say, from page one you hook the reader in. And even though it is set in this post-apocalyptic world, something that I don’t relate to – well, no reader can relate to in any sense – and this world that is so far into the future, as soon as you start reading, it’s totally believable. And you totally hook the reader in. So well done for that. But I just want to know how in the world do you come up with this really quite complex range of ideas and such a far-off world?

Shankari

Thank you, Valerie. It’s funny you ask that, because the answer between you, me and whoever is listening, is that I was sitting by the side of the school pool, watching my four children swim up and down endlessly – part of a new swimming program – and I was bored and pretending to be engaged, and wishing that an asteroid would hit the planet. And then I thought, well, that’s a little selfish. Let’s envisage another way to end the world.

And at the time, I was reading a lot of dystopic fiction, because I was trying to screen it for my children. My older children were getting to the age where they wanted to read Hunger Games, so I was pre-reading to make sure it was okay for them. I was also watching a lot of news. I was just binge watching the news. Because I had just finished my first manuscript, and I had put that down, I was taking a break and I was now re-entering the world by watching the news.

So I’m reading dystopic fiction, I’m watching the news, and troubled by the fact that they both like alarmingly alike. And so from there, it sort of generated this fear and anxiety within me about the world that I was leaving to my children. And for me the best way to cope with anxiety is just to write. And I let the fear out of the box and onto the page.

Valerie

Wow. And you produce an incredible novel in the process. So that’s kind of a good result from therapy, I guess.

Shankari

Cheaper than therapy, let me tell you!

Valerie

Yeah, cheaper than therapy. So just take me back. Because you’ve had a career as a lawyer. Can you just give me a very brief history of your career until this point?

Shankari

I will try to be brief. I worked for ten years in the social justice field, working for an international corporate law firm. I ran their social justice program around the world. So we were based in about 30 countries at the time. And my job was to look at identifying social needs within the communities in which we operated and to match those community needs with the skills and the resources that our law firm had.

And so the projects ranged from trying to ensure representation for detainees in Guantanamo Bay, to developing training programs for lawyers in Rwanda which was rebuilding its legal profession post the genocide, to providing lawyers to do that kind of typical street law work in legal clinics around the world.

Valerie

Did you always want to be a writer during this time? Or did this urge come upon you later in life? How did that work?

Shankari

I have always wanted to be a writer, pretty much from the time I was ten actually, when Mrs Vandermark gave me my first journal and said, just keep writing. And I then later, a little bit later came to the law, and realised that the law could do something useful. And the law enabled me to write. But throughout my school and my twenties and thirties, I dabbled in a little bit of fiction. I’d write a little bit, and then put the pen down, and really lacked the courage to go much further with it than 500 words.

Valerie

Wow. This is way more than 500 words.

Shankari

Yeah, this is 85,000, I think.

Valerie

When did it become a reality for you? In that you decided, I’m going to push past the 500 words. I’m going to actually write the whole manuscript?

Shankari

When I moved back from London to Sydney, I started to blog in order to help me make that transition, that remigration back home. And I was doing the 500 words, and really sensed that I was building my courage and building my voice, and was getting ready to give that big novel a go. You know how all people who want to be writers feel that they have that one novel, at least that one novel within them?

Valerie

Yes.

Shankari

So I felt like that one novel was sort of bubbling to the top. So in about 2012, I put aside the blogging and consciously sat down to give it a go. And then I wrote every day and just kept going, as Mrs Vandermark told me.

Valerie

But blogging is very, very, very different to writing a novel. So how did the blogging contribute to that journey towards finally wanting to write the novel?

Shankari

I think blogging was about helping me gain confidence in my voice, actually. Because I initially started the blogging for that therapeutic reason of helping me reintegrate back into Australia. And I found then there was a readership for my blog. And that was incredibly reassuring. And eventually a lot of what I was writing appeared on Mia Freedman’s site Mamamia.

And it became addictive. All people who write, this will resonate with them. Once you start you just can’t start. And it became this daily exercise that was energising and exhilarating, and also really calming and meditative for me. And I really, I just couldn’t stop.

And it’s such a pleasure and a thrill for me to sit down. When I know that I have got a day ahead of writing, I’m just flying in the morning. And at the end of a good day of writing, it’s just such a good feeling.

Valerie

Do you still blog?

Shankari

Occasionally. I have lately, because I’ve been so incensed with various things that are happening in the world. I think every time I watch the late-night update on Trump, I sit down to pen an angry blog.

But I do find it very hard to switch between the headspace required for a blog and the headspace of writing. Because writing is so immersive. Fiction, that sort of long distance fiction, is really immersive. And you have to sit with your characters and in that world, and just be very quiet and let them do their thing. And you create them, and they create themselves, and that process is very different from blogging. Blogging is like having a chat with yourself or your best girlfriend. And for that, it’s loads of fun. I really enjoy it. But it’s a very different headspace.

Valerie

So you were blogging and then you decide, I’m ready now to write a longer piece of fiction. And then you were at the swimming lessons with your kids and thought about this dystopian future. So what were the key things that you started with? Were they characters? Did you have a clear idea of the plot? How did it actually emerge in the very first period?

Shankari

When I started to do this, I had this concept. It was the concept of a world that had been destroyed by something; I wasn’t sure at that stage by what. And a world that was then, following this apocalypse, had been reorganised with religion being used as a tool. And that was the concept.

And I remember discussing it with my brother on a holiday and just saying, guess what! I’ve got this idea and personally – pat, pat, pat – I think it’s brilliant. And my brother, of course, I think my brother’s probably the only person in the world that finds me funny or insightful, and he was like, yes, that’s great, let’s go with that! And of course, we’ve had the same upbringing, so we’re both fascinated by religion and the way it shapes people and societies. And the way that it can be used to construct identity and to deconstruct communities.

And so it started with that concept of religion and a post-war new world order. And I then sat down and just allowed myself to do that magic pen writing. And I picked a female character. I had in my mind, I was initially planning on writing this novel for my children, as an answer to Hunger Games. I was going to give them the Australian-Sri Lankan left handed version of The Hunger Games. And in doing so I had created a Sri Lankan-Australian Katniss Everdeen who looked an awful lot like me.

And I wrote the first sort of 5 – 10,000 words, got to the end of that, and two things – I came to two realisations. The first was that I didn’t particularly like my central character. She wasn’t enthralling me. However, another character had emerged called Noah. And the second realisation was that this novel that I was creating for my children was far too violent for my children, and was now no longer a young adult piece of fiction but an adult fiction.

And so I then took that character who had emerged from the writing and allowed him to be the main character. And I just gave him the central space. And I began, in the first draft I think we began with a torture scene. I won’t say much more than that. We began with a torture scene, and I just allowed him into that small room, which I know quite well from my work as a lawyer, and the work that I’ve done looking at the way that states abuse power and the way that states can interact with citizens or non-citizens and combatants. I have some awareness of what the inside of that room looks like, where the state takes individuals to be tortured. I allowed Noah into that room, I gave him some tools, and I just sat and watched what happened.

Valerie

Wow. And so did you draw on a lot of experience from your work as a lawyer? You just described one situation where you have. But this book also covers lots of elements of Ebola, of military-like situations. What did you have to do to research the other stuff that seems so far from the life of a mother of four children living in Sydney going to swimming lessons?

Shankari

Absolutely. It’s amazing what you think of by the side of the pool, Valerie. I had to do a lot of research for this novel. I have a lot of doctors in my family, and one of them is an immunologist who runs a tuberculosis laboratory. And I spent a lot of time with her, with my sister-in-law, understanding the way containment, where disease works, the way containment works, and the way scientists approach vaccine development.

So I really felt like, I actually read a text book or a textbook and a half on immunology, read a lot of papers, journal articles and so on, and then spent a lot of time with her just understanding how she works, what that laboratory does, and how to then extend that science into science fiction.

Because although I would never typecast this novel as a science fiction novel – for me it’s a high concept thriller that deals with questions of morality and power – it has some science in it. And I wanted to both use existing science but extend that science. And whilst creating new science, make sure that it was internally consistent, and internally robust, so that the scientists, if only so that the scientists in my family would read it and say, yes, that actually sounds entirely plausible.

And so I went through that process. I did a lot of scientific research. And of course, as you know, you actually shed a lot of the research. So my first draft was incredibly scientific. And I love that, because I grew up with science and surrounded by doctors and scientists. But really, for the reader it wasn’t necessary. It was important for me to read it and understand it and be able to use it authentically, but then to be confident enough to pull it out of the novel as well, so that what I’m left with is something that feels real, but has the pace that you want from a thriller.

Valerie

Yes. So on that point then, I can see how if you’ve done so much research, especially when you personally know immunologists and people who you can draw on for their expertise, I can see how it can be tempting to include too much of the science and the explanation. How did you then determine what to chuck out?

Shankari

I went through rounds and rounds of deletions, to be honest. My father is a neurosurgeon as well, so a lot of this novel looks at the way that faith operates within the human brain. So it looks at where does faith come from? Does it come from the outside? Does it come from within? Does it come from our heart, from our soul, or from our brain? And my father is a neurosurgeon with, now, a growing interest in neuroscience and neurotheosophy, which is the study of the impact of religious practice on the brain.

So, as I said, I have grown up really loving neurosurgery. So it hurt me to take out the neurosurgery, and it hurt me to take out the science. But I kept trying to look at it from the perspective of the reader. And we learned this with the course that we did with the AWC, which is that L.A. Larkin taught us not only to look at the thriller genre from the perspective of someone who’s writing it, but to look at that from the perspective of someone who’s reading it. And to ask yourself, what is that you want? What are your expectations? How fast do you want to be turning those pages? What do you want at the end of each chapter?

And so when I looked at it from the perspective of a reader – and I am a very avid and passionate and often critical reader – when I looked at, when I put that hat on, it really helped me in letting go of so much of the science. And also some of the grief. Because the other thing that this novel explores is grief. And that grief was initially based on conversations and a relationship I have with one of the first friends I made in the world, my childhood friend, who lost her own daughter at a young age. And so the main character in my novel has lost a child. And a lot of the exploration of grief in this novel was my friend’s own journey through her grief and her relationship with God and her faith as a result of this terrible loss of her child. And it was important to write that in that novel, and to give Noah, the character, all of that history and that emotional baggage. And it was important for my friend to read it and it was important for me to write it. But it was also important to at a certain point be able to let go of that and to pull it back out.

So it was a continuous process. And then eventually when the manuscript went to Pan MacMillan, I sat down with their team and they were brilliant. They really very respectfully took me through that editorial process and showed me what they thought could be improved by pulling out. And so that rewriting process with them didn’t actually involve me rewriting scenes or adding scenes in. A lot of it was just about learning when and where to have the confidence to take a little bit out.

Valerie

So you were already well on your way with your novel. And then you decided to do a course at the Australian Writers Centre. So why did you?

Shankari

Because I had got to the point where I just couldn’t help myself any more. I had produced this manuscript. And I had produced it very quickly over time. I was very determined to get this piece done. And I had set myself the Stephen King challenge, which is you put super glue on your bum, you shut the door, and you write for six to eight hours a day. And you aim to produce, I think Stephen King aims to produce about 3,000 words a day. And I set myself, because it was the school summer holidays, I could only write very…. so I think I’d set myself a thousand words a day during this period.

And at the end of that period I had produced something like 70,000 words. And I read it and I thought, I love the concept, I love the main character Noah, and this sidekick had emerged, Sahara, the undercover secret agent and assassin. Sahara had emerged. And I loved them both. And I loved the scientist, the third part of this triangle. There’s a scientist in South Asia, the rogue scientist that they must investigate. But I just knew that I wasn’t doing them justice. I knew that I was almost there, but not quite.

Valerie

How did you know?

Shankari

I don’t know. When you read a novel, you read a book, you watch a film, and you think – that’s brilliant. Or you read something and you think, actually, that needed something more. It was missing something. And I couldn’t put my hand on what it was missing.

I was confident by then in certain elements of it. I was confident of the plot… No, actually, no. Confident of the characters, let me reframe, I was confident of the concept, confident of the characters, but felt that the plot and what they were doing, what I was enabling them to do and what they were doing was not enough. And I just couldn’t work out how to fix it. So I was listening to podcasts, I was reading textbooks on writing, I was deconstructing thrillers, I was watching thrillers. I just couldn’t do it myself.

Valerie

Right. And so what about the course changed or made it click for you to figure out what you needed to change to make it work?

Shankari

Every minute of that course was useful, and I wish that I had done it months before I had started on the project. It just, from the beginning, L.A. Larkin was very, very direct and brutal about the concept thriller. And I like that. I’m a lawyer. She’s very respectful, and very kind, but incredibly direct.

And she knows the genre. So she was able to break down the thriller into its conventions. And to say this is what works, and we know that this works. Because there’s this body of brilliant thrillers that tell us that this works. And readers tell us that this works. So trust the conventions of the genre. And you are allowed to play with them. And she encouraged us to do that in the future, but once we had fully understood those conventions.

So the course was about breaking down the genre and looking at the components, and looking at real examples. And examples that resonated with me. Because a theoretical discussion of how to write a thriller isn’t actually going to help me. And she’s a brilliant writer, and she’s really not about let’s create a paint by numbers thriller. She’s about understanding what works, and then working out how to deliver that.

And so we then looked at a number of thrillers, both novels and films, and when you’re viewing it critically, with a mindset of understanding those conventions, you see what the author or the writer is doing. And you realise then, you have this awareness, you’re simultaneously the writer and the audience, or the writer and the reader, and you can see what the writer is doing. And you can sense yourself as the audience responding to it. And it’s a fascinating heightened awareness that you have after you’ve done this course of this genre that you previously had the audacity to think you’d just sit down and pen a thriller, pen a thriller today!

So it was a really wonderful insight into that genre. And it gave me enormous, well firstly gave me some skills and tools and awareness, and then it gave me the confidence to tackle that. To be prepared to look at my work, to see what I had done, and to view it through that lens, and to not be afraid of deconstructing it, and to not be afraid of rewriting it. And to really enjoy that process.

So to see the conventions of the genre, not as a burden or requirements that you must meet, but as this wonderful set of guidelines that you would enjoy aspiring to and meeting. And so there’s a different mindset to writing, actually.

Valerie

That’s great. So let’s get down to some practical discussions. You’ve got four children that are all in school.

Shankari

They are finally, thank you, love you, but thank you god, they’ve all gone to school now.

Valerie

So tell me about your typical day when you are writing. How do you, where do you put in your pockets of writing? Do you have set blocks blocked out? Or do you write when you can? Let’s discuss it on a practical level.

Shankari

Yes. All of the above is the answer to that question. I love those days when I know that there’s nothing in my diary, no commitments, no children to be taken to doctor’s appointments, and all those things that you love doing but that also pull you away from your writing.

So I love those days when I have a full day of writing. And on those days, I will take the children to school, I’ll come home, I will change into my trakky daks, sit down, turn the phone off, sit down and I’ll write hard from 9:15 to 2:40. Or 2:30, actually, because I really need at 2:30, I need to put it away and I need to get my head out of the world that I’m in, and I need to click back into the world that I live in.

Valerie

Do you take breaks?

Shankari

Very, very short breaks. I don’t. I don’t like to.

Valerie

Really?

Shankari

I don’t like to. Because I enjoy being in the world that I’m immersed in, even if it is often a dystopic horrible world where terrible things are visited upon characters I love. But I just find it breaks my flow. And there’s really no reason for it. As a mother, I’ve learnt to eat standing up, and I’ve learnt to do other things very, very quickly.

Valerie

So tell me, how long are your breaks?

Shankari

It depends. I do try to be organised with certain weird things. Like, I will try to bulk cook late at night, for example. Because the children need to be fed, Valerie. They’re so insistent about this.

Valerie

So annoying.

Shankari

If I haven’t got a meal prepared already – you know, here’s something I made earlier, children, two nights before – I will allow myself to stop and I will cook and therefore I will try to give myself no more than 45 minutes to create a couple of meals, do a load of laundry and eat a meal and take a wee break. But time is very precious. 2:30 comes around so fast.

So that’s a good day, when I have a block. I find that I don’t have as many of those days as I would like. And I have in the last couple of years really tried hard and learned to steal moments. Because I previously used to have this idea that I really needed to have a block. I must only be able to write if I can sit at my computer for four hours, undisturbed by anything. And of course, it doesn’t work like that.

So what I’ve learnt to do in the last couple of years is, literally, between pick-ups and drop-offs, particularly for a first draft, I will set myself a really aggressive word count target. And then that means that I will force myself between errands and chores and between activities, I will sit down and just write very, very quickly.

Valerie

Like, in the car?

 

Shankari

Yeah, in the car. If the children are in the shower, I will literally just do thirty words and then run back and make sure they haven’t drowned standing up in the shower. So it’s actually just stealing those moments.

And then writing in the evening. I’ve had to train myself to write in the evening. Because I’ve never actually been a good student at night. I was always an early morning person. And it was really only working as a lawyer that I learned to power up the brain between 9pm and 1am. But with writing, with that writing process, I found I really struggled to do that late at night. So I would reserve things like editing for late at night, or research for late at night. But in the last few years I’ve learnt to actually be creative late at night and to write and to create late at night.

Valerie

So do you work from 9 til 2:30 and then at night from 9 til 1?

Shankari

No, I don’t. But on the days when I haven’t had a good writing day during the day, I will then make myself sit down in the evening and write until I’ve got to where I wanted to be.

Valerie

So in your first draft, you said you set yourself an aggressive word count. What’s that, approximately?

Shankari

Well, if I’m trying to be kind to myself… I sort of lie to myself, Valerie. I tell myself that my word count is 1,000 words a day. But my secret word count is actually 2,000 words a day.

Valerie

But you know that, so it’s not really a lie, is it?

Shankari

Well, you know, what can you do? So I’m secretly working towards 2,000 words a day. But I’ve told myself, in order to manage my anxiety, that it’s 1,000 words a day. Because if I tell myself it’s 2,000 words a day, and you’re looking at a blank page – particularly if you’re having a bad writing day – then that’s really quite frightening. Whereas if you tell yourself that it’s just 1,000 words a day, you can do it.

Valerie

So how often do you hit your target? Whether that’s the secret one or the non-secret one?

Shankari

Yeah, look, I’m pretty good. I’m pretty good with that first draft. But I think only because it’s such a privilege to write. It’s just a wonderful feeling to sit down there and to have that world open up to you and to be able to participate in that. And I think because a lot of what I write about are justice issues, there’s a massive crossover between the way that I was raised, the work that I did as a lawyer, and the things that I write about, it does feel like a privilege to explore that world and those characters. So it’s not a burden.

Valerie

Would you describe your career as having now changed to become a fulltime writer? Or are you taking a break from law, from your legal career? What is it?

Shankari

That’s a good question. If we were sitting in a law firm interviewing, I’d say that I had just taken a break. I was adding value, you know, enhancing my intellectual and cultural life by writing a novel or seven.

I am embarking on a new career, Valerie. Let me just put it out there. I am embarking on a new career. And it’s terrifying to say that. Because this career is fraught with peril. It is far more uncertain than any career I’ve had before. And it is largely unpaid. Or it does not pay well. Unless you are the outliers of the world. And so we shall see, but I am certainly embarking most sincerely and with great commitment to make this happen.

Valerie

I have no doubt you’re going to succeed. So tell us then what’s next for you? This is out, The Barrier is out. It’s been getting a great response. What’s next for you? Are you already working on something?

Shankari

I am, thank you for asking. I’m trying to keep up with social media, for starters. Because The Barrier has been, it has been really well received. And I’ve been so grateful for that support. It’s wonderful to see it go out there and to see people enjoy it.

So that in itself involves a lot of maintenance, I suppose. You’re sort of interacting with people and pushing the book out there. And it’s brilliant. Because you’re talking to people who love the same kind of literature as you, and worry about the same, have the same concerns about the world as you, and they have the same politics as you. And so you have these great conversations. So part of what I’m doing at the moment is really just working to promote The Barrier.

And the second thing I’m doing, which is really my first love, is writing. And so I’m researching and working on my third piece, which is a novel set in Sri Lanka, again, because I just cannot leave Sri Lanka alone. And it’s set in 2009 at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. So it looks at those last few climactic months leading up to the very end. And it’s a political thriller, again. And it’s set against the geopolitics of the region. Because Sri Lanka is surrounded by this rising superpower of China and ageing super power of the United States and India and a number of other countries who all want a piece of the region. And Sri Lanka got caught in the middle. And so it looks at both the geopolitics of the region, but also the personal struggle of one particular human rights lawyer as she investigates the public execution of a high-profile journalist in Sri Lanka.

Valerie

Wow. And so, how much of it have you written?

Shankari

I have written a lot of it, but I’m not going to say more than that.

Valerie

Okay. Well, I have no doubt that we will see that on the bookshelves soon, in bookstores soon. Congratulations, Shankari, on The Barrier. It’s just such a fantastic concept and so well executed, and I have no doubt you’re going to go from strength to strength. So thank you so much for your time today.

Shankari

Thank you very much. Thank you for your support, and for the support of the AWC.

 

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