Latika Vasil has worked as a university lecturer, a public servant, and is currently a freelance writer and researcher. She chats to fellow Steele Roberts author SARADHA KOIRALA about her debut collection of short stories, Rising to the Surface.
SARADHA KOIRALA: The title story of this collection is quite moving and perhaps an allegory about aging and having purpose. The title of the collection too alludes to a theme of having not yet reached a destination or hovering between things. Was it a conscious choice to have this recurring theme through the book? Or was it something that you noticed later?
LATIKA VASIL: Yes, you’re right. I definitely wanted the title to reflect the idea of people being in transition, of not having quite reached their destination, of hovering in-between. In fact, one of the earlier titles for the book was Transit. Rising to the Surface as a title came to me quite late in the process and the story of that name was one of the last stories to be written and included in the collection. I think sometimes as writers we’re unconscious of the themes that intrigue and obsess us and they simply appear in the stories in a subliminal way. Later, once the stories have been collected and you can compare across them, the themes seem to pop out more clearly and it’s nice to see some cohesion at play, even if it isn’t orchestrated.
SK: Your stories show some very careful observations about the way people interact. The story ‘Transit’, for example, explores what happens when unrelated people crash into each other and how that might affect the trajectory of their lives. Do you find your stories generally start with observation?
LV: Yes absolutely. It’s probably my psychology background but people and their motivations have always intrigued me and I do tend to pay close attention to how people behave and interact. The role of chance encounter and how that can impact on people is fascinating to me and several of my stories have explored this. In ‘Transit’ we have a character who is very empty and jaded, someone who is depressed, and he meets a couple of people on his business trip, by chance, who make him see himself in a new and more honest light.
SK: ‘Jelly’ stands out as a favourite for me and it feels as though there’s a stronger emotional investment in this story. Is this a fair comment?
LV: I’m really glad you like it as it’s one of my favourites too. As a mother myself, at the most basic level, I wanted to reflect that special unconditional love that connects parents and children, especially in this case as the relationship was intensified by the mother being a sole parent. On another level what I wanted to explore in this story is how quirkiness and being different—normal or not normal—can be contextually defined. The mother thinks her son is special and singular and brilliant but in other social contexts, such as at school, suddenly these characteristics become something else, something deviant, and the mother has to deal with the labels and the repercussions and also how she views her son. I think that more and more we’re narrowing our perceptions of ‘normal’ and trying to fit people into tighter boxes. In New Zealand especially we don’t tend to celebrate eccentricity.
SK: Are there characters in the collection based on people you know or are they largely imagined?
LV: I tend to be a magpie, collecting observations from different people, from here and there. There is no single character that is based entirely on a real person but little quirks and characteristics of people I know have inspired me. I don’t think I have offended anyone… There has only been one story that I felt ‘iffy’ about in terms of being too closely modelled on a real person and an event in their life. It wasn’t a particularly unflattering portrayal but I decided not to include the story in the collection (my lips are sealed…). In a couple of stories, news events about crimes provided the seeds for the stories but again it was my take on real events and definitely fictionalised.
SK: When I put a collection of poetry together I spend ages painstakingly putting the poems in an order that works—even though I know people won’t necessarily read the book from beginning to end. How important was ordering your stories to you and how did you go about doing that?
LV: That’s really interesting. I guess as a somewhat haphazard reader of short story collections myself, very rarely reading them in order from beginning to end, I didn’t initially spend too much time on order but it was in the later stages of editing the book that I started to pay closer attention to arrangement. For example, I had initially grouped together three stories that all featured male narrators and this had the effect of seeming like they were all running together. Similarly, I had grouped together two stories featuring solo mothers. It worked better breaking these up.
SK: Do you find your work as a freelance writer informs, distracts, complements or hinders your fiction writing experience? In what ways can they work together?
LV: I do approach them as quite distinct activities. When I’m writing fiction, I’m just focused on discovering the characters and exploring the situations they find themselves in. I’m in that world while I’m writing. My work as a research writer involves a similar type of absorption but there is a lot more prescription in terms of style and form. In both fields, however, I’m aiming for good writing. My freelance work requires an adherence to deadlines; in my fiction, work I’ve found deadlines to be more slippery! In some ways it would be good if some of the discipline involved with the freelance writing and meeting deadlines transferred over to the fiction writing. But with fiction writing I guess speed isn’t necessarily a virtue. You think a story is finished but then you go back and find something else you want to polish and that’s often a good thing.
SK: What sort of time frame was involved from deciding to put a collection of stories together to its eventual launch?
LV: It’s felt like quite a long time! The stories were written over a period of four or five years and then the editing and publishing process was probably another year.
SK: What other writing projects do you have on the horizon?
LV: I’m currently working on a couple of new short stories. Long term I would like to write a novel. I have a few notes and outlines for novels that I’ve been working on but its early days and I’m a little superstitious about talking about projects until I’m well into them!