Wednesday, June 23, 2010

On India

JAN: I met Susan Oleksiw when she was the co-founder and editor The Larcom Press, which published The Larcom Review and several mysteries - including my first novel, Final Copy. But before she was a (terrific) editor, she was a mystery author. The Mellingham Mystery series, featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva, which first appeared in 1993 and continued until 2006. And before that, she was the author of a A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery (1988), a reference guide so beloved that people still show up at conferences with copies of it for her to sign.

She is also the co-founder of Level Best Books, an annual anthology of crime fiction by New England writers.

But if all that doesn't impress you. How about this? She is a scholar of Sanskrit. And she uses her passion for India in a new series, featuring sleuth Anita Ray, who appeared in a few of her short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock and Level Best anthologies. The first novel in the series is Under the Eye of Kali.

I don't know too many scholars of Sanskrit? So my first question for Susan is: How did that happen?

SUSAN: India has been the great love of my life since I was a young girl and someone gave me a book of fairy tales from Asia. I wasn’t one for mythology or most children’s fiction, but I loved that book of Asian stories. As I went through school I was fortunate to have teachers who were knowledgeable about Asia and they nurtured my interest. And then I went off to graduate school and discovered an even bigger world. I fell in love with Sanskrit the first week.

JAN: How did that translate into the new series?

SUSAN: I knew I was not going to be able to spend as much time in India as I wanted, so I did the next best thing—I wrote about it. When I begin an Anita Ray story or novel, I tend to eat a lot of Indian food, read work by Indian writers, listen to Indian music. I pull out photographs from India—mine and others—and get back into the place I love.

JAN: Tell us a little more bit about Anita Ray. What is she like?

SUSAN: Anita Ray is the daughter of an Indian mother and an Irish American father. She has a dual perspective and comments on things that would be obvious to an India. She is very much of her Indian culture—she is a Nayar, and although she enjoys tweaking her relatives, she is careful to abide by most of the rules.

But she also has a lot of the independent attitudes of the typical American young woman, and these are actually becoming more and more common among some westernized groups in India.

JAN: How and why did you choose her to be the sleuth? Do the two of you share any traits or history?

SUSAN: Anita is the woman I wish I could have been—free as the breeze, seemingly untethered to anyone or anything, with all the world before her. She has no desire to be a responsible adult and does her best to avoid moving in that direction. This is what drives her relatives nuts. And wouldn’t we all, at some time, like to be free of the duties and obligations and responsibilities that fill our day?

JAN: I sure would!! Tell us little bit about Kovalam, the Indian tourist town you chose for the setting? What drew you here?

SUSAN: When I first lived in India, in 1976, there was one luxury hotel on the beach, recently opened, and never full. The foreigners found it eventually, and the developers followed. In the years since then, the beach has sprouted something of a small Indian town.

The area has enough variety in people, lodgings, lanes, to provide lots of challenges to Anita.

But I’ve also given her lots of relatives—a large family spread all over India and the rest of the world. She will have many opportunities to get into trouble and trip over murders.

JAN: I know you also work full time, how do you juggle writing and work?

SUSAN: When I begin a book I write every day. It doesn’t have to be much—part of a scene or an entire short scene—but I have to work every day. I am still employed as the executive director of a small social service agency in Gloucester, MA, so I write in the evening after I get home from work. An hour or two is usually enough, and at some point I’ll take a couple of days off to reread the entire mss and decide on the major areas of reworking.

I’ve recently adopted another technique to help me move along. At the end of each day I note the date, words written, and comments on the scene and ideas for future scenes (the murderer’s shoelace should show up in chapter 7, for example).

When I’m writing, my mind is just full of small details and on some evenings after work I empty my purse of half a dozen small slips of paper listing ideas I’ve had while sitting in a meeting or heading for the supermarket.

One of the things I try to tell people when they ask me about getting into writing is that writing is work. When I describe the process and everything I have to do, even after I’ve sold the mss to a publisher, I listen to myself and wonder why anyone would do this if they didn’t have to. But I always have ideas for the next book before I’ve finished the one I’m working on. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of ideas or the urge to turn them into stories and novels.

My final words on my deathbed will be, “Oh, just let me finish this scene.”

To learn more about Susan, India, or her books, check out her website at:


  1. Hi, Susan -- yep, writers write because they have to -- but not because someone else says so. It's an internal drive. We'd do it whether we got published or not.

  2. Isn't it interesting how different places speak to each of us? Maybe it's a place from our childhood, or maybe it's just a place that captures our imagination, as in Susan's case.
    Your series sounds fascinating! And good for you, Susan, for writing what you dream about.

  3. Susan, I love Anita Ray and reading about the trouble she gets in and out of. I can't wait to read a whole novel with her.

  4. Terry,
    I often wonder if its mild obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    Because it often defies logic....


  5. Hey Susan! I love the discussion about writing every day. I used to think--oh, I don't really need to do that. I'm organized, I meet deadlines, if I miss a day here and there, it won't matter.

    But then I was chatting with Alafair Burke--and she said she writes EVERY day. EVERY day. Even for five minutes. And then she said--even if it's just five
    minutes, somehow, the book gets done.

    And that was compelling.

    So it's interesting that you feel the same way.

    It must be such a tough job to be a publisher and an editor--worlds most of us never truly get inside.

  6. Susan has been my role model for writing (and critiquing, and editing) ever since I started writing my first mystery 16 years ago! I can't wait to read the full-length Anita Ray.


  7. Welcome Susan. I'm looking forward to reading your book because I have a lifetime of close connection with India. My husband used to be an executive in Air India for many years and we traveled there often--sometimes staying at beach resorts! I too love it there.
    And I find it hard not to write every day. Somehow it's buzzing around in my head so it's easier to put it into the computer.

  8. Hi Susan, nice to have you here! India is definitely on my wish list and I love reading books set there so I know I'll enjoy yours.

    there's nothing harder than getting going on a manuscript once you've taken a break, so I think your method of jotting ideas down before you stop sounds excellent. I'm going off to make some notes right now...

  9. Rhys, yes. Buzzing. There's a funny-great situation that's sort of the opposite of writer's block,and it's when you cannot wait to get back to the computer.

    I love that.

  10. Some years ago I came across a comment by Picasso that I've always remembered. He said, when painters get together they talk about the cheapest place to buy paint thinner. When writers get together, they talk about the meaning of life.

    But, for once, he was wrong. We talk about our odd habits and wonder why we do these things. But we don't plan to stop.