'Stuck Like Lint' author Shefali on melancholy, motivation and doing unwriterly things

The Bengaluru based author speaks to TNM about her book which is on two women - a writer and an editor who share a very special relationship.
'Stuck Like Lint' author Shefali on melancholy, motivation and doing unwriterly things
'Stuck Like Lint' author Shefali on melancholy, motivation and doing unwriterly things
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Shefali Tripathi Mehta’s first novella Stuck Like Lint released towards the end of last year. This is the Bengaluru based author’s second book after What Were They Thinking, a commentary on everyday awkwardness and humour.

The book revolves around two women- a writer and her editor- who share a very special relationship until one day they disappear from each other’s lives. The book is interspersed with short stories from the writer’s book and of course, the editor’s comments! While the prose flows gently through the book, each page flipped leaves one with a sense of profound sadness. The characters are a smattering of men, women and children brought together by virtue of their circumstances and they tell a fascinatingly structured tale.

TNM caught up with the author for a chat:

Your book, Stuck Like Lint leaves a lump in the throat while spinning tales of everyday human experiences in a fascinating way. What was the inspiration behind the book?

My inspiration is always people, endlessly. It’s so fascinating to observe them and wonder what goes on in their heads and imagine what their responses to life situations can be. When you see people living half-lives -- stifled and unhappy, you wish they did not and you put them in a story and make them act to satisfy you. I love twists in tales – mostly those that shake the propriety and righteousness out of people and their idiotic beliefs, not in overt ways but spur-of-the-moment-suddenly; or quietly, connivingly.

The book is interspersed with short stories even as it unfurls the tale of two women- frenemies, if you will- who share a relationship that's as much personal as it is professional. How important is the relationship an author shares with an editor? Is the story inspired by the relationship you've shared with your editors?

It is a high voltage relationship. I was lucky with this book but there can be so much heartburn, so much clash of egos that the book that should be their prime responsibility is often relegated to the background as the writer and the editor get caught in a tussle of one-up-person-ship. It is a practice with many publishing houses to outsource the editing – at least the first draft. This is such a flawed practice because the editor has no stakes in the final book – they take their fee and are done. Most of them are inexperienced and they schoolmarmishly dot the i’s and cross the t’s which looks like a lot of work in track changes but sadly these editors have no big-picture of the story or the voice of the author. But then it is not as if the publishing houses (most of them) even want to publish the best version of every book that they are publishing.

Your short stories float through the book, leaving in their wake a smile and profound sadness all at once. Why does melancholy fascinate you so?

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of the saddest thoughts and all that. But there is no denying the fact that I am a loner and given to a significant degree of melancholy myself which does leak into my writing as it must for that is the compelling reason I write.

Another constant theme you seem fascinated by is the relationship between homemakers and domestic staff who help with the running of a household. In today's time when people who occupying these jobs are struggling to assert their voices and dissent, has it been a conscious decision to represent the reality of this relationship more and more?

Stories write themselves so of course one’s deepest concerns are reflected in one’s stories. I have written a lot about this class of people in my newspaper features. These (mostly) women of limited means who take care of our everyday needs – what goes on in their heads? What are their struggles, their deepest desires, their motivation to work? We keep talking of the urban middle class woman conflicted by her choices – work, children, home, relationships this and that. But here are these women quietly rising and how! We need to get out of the ‘extracting the pound of flesh’ thinking and here I’m not even talking of the abuse of domestic workers that happens in homes, but of families with women themselves working who seem to know all the right class and gender effacing things to say, they are actually awfully close-minded when it comes to the workers in their homes. This relationship needs to evolve with the times.

These women, besides our homes, take care of their own homes and families, send their children to the best of schools and colleges, and tuition they can;  they control their own finances – they manage their bank accounts, many have ATM cards, they save in chit funds; they understand politics to the extent the women they work for do not. An old Amma working with us, who washed and cleaned in homes all day, would be the first woman to vote at our polling booth. I have watched her for years – she would be the first to cast her vote in every election and then she would go to work in homes where the families would be sleeping on account of it being the election day holiday.  So, their children will not be waiting outside your door like they did say, in my childhood, but they will be sitting with you on your sofas and in the cabin next to yours in your offices. The change is upon us, there is no denying that. It is scandalizing a lot of people and I’m so happy. Can you imagine, some of them still have have to call their employers, memsa’ab!

What's the most difficult thing about writing characters of children?

Have you noticed how very young children run with their face ahead of their body? I love children, and watching children is my favourite pastime – our kitchen window opens out to a play area and at any time of the day there are children on the swings, going to school, coming back, parents, grandparent walking them, talking with them. In the recent past, I have seen fathers more involved – they are engaging with them more. There are fathers walking them to school buses who wait patiently with toddlers who want to stop and look at a flower, a cat hiding under a car or want to just take their time hopscotching on the patterns of the gravel. How can writing about this be difficult!

Given the story of the book, I have to ask: what editing suggestion (that may or may not have been realised) did you vehemently reject for this book?

If you have a good working relationship with your editor and you firmly believe that their suggestions enhance your story, the value of your book, you are sorted. When my agent, Preeti Gill sent me the editor, Jaya Sengupta’s ‘evaluation’ of my book, in one read, I was convinced that with a perception like that I have nothing to worry; that we would be partners in this. By the time the book was out, I felt such a kindship with all of them – Preeti, Jaya, Misha (the cover designer), and I working together on a book about, who else? Women!

Being a writer at a time when there is total disregard for privacy, do you think India can hope to have an Elena Ferrante without them being unmasked?

I don’t know of a single writer who would want to be her in these times when authors are expected to be out there and the worth of a book is only in terms of the weekly bestsellers listings, or in featuring on lit-fest panels. How would anyone write anonymously? Would the publishers be okay with that? I have to do unjoyful, unwriterly things so that people read my book. The author Salim Anees whose first novel sparkled with fresh idiom (Vanity Bagh, which also won the Hindu Award for best fiction in 2013) but who did not get on the promotion wagon – I’m sorry but I didn’t get to hear of his later novels. There has been no talk of his books in the last more than one year in my prolific book reading group. It’s sad but that’s the truth of the times.

What is the pace at which you work? As an author up against a competitive market, is there a pressure to constantly publish?

Somewhere the narrative about books got distorted into it being more about authors than about their work. And so, the pressure. It’s not the fault of authors, really, the pressure is from everywhere and it is easy to get caught in the current. Some of the writers that started writing with the aim to publish at the same time as I did, or later, have a lot more to show for. But I write to savour the journey of writing and building a book; and want to look back with gratification and pride.

You can buy the book here.

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