Latika Vasil was born in India, moving to New Zealand with her family as a young child. She has mostly lived in Wellington with a couple of overseas stints in the States and Singapore. She has worked in the education sector as a researcher and lecturer, as well as in the public service as a research adviser. In 2010 she completed the Advanced Diploma in Creative Writing at Whitireia Polytechnic. Her stories have been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Landfall, Takahe and Hue and Cry, and broadcast on Radio New Zealand National. Her first collection of short stories, Rising to the Surface, has recently been published by Steele Roberts Publishers. Currently Latika spends most of her time writing fiction, working as a freelance researcher and writer, and doing volunteer work.
1) Latika, how long have you been working towards this first short story collection?
It feels like much too long! In actuality I’d say the writing of the stories occurred over a period of 3-4 years and then getting the book ready and out probably took another year. I’m quite a slow writer and it took me a while to get together enough stories so that I would have a pool of stories from which I could select the ones that worked best together as a collection.
2) Rising to the Surface features a stunning cover by Michael Soppitt: it not only looks great, but from what I know of your fiction, it also fits what’s inside the book very well. How did you manage to find such a great cover?
I’m glad so many people have responded so well to the cover! Finding the cover fell into place quite nicely. I had an image in my mind of something involving an underwater scene but a surreal take on that. Water is a strong motif in the book with several of the stories featuring the ocean at pivotal moments in the characters’ lives. I also liked the feeling of people being inside a bubble, which the cover depicts so beautifully, as I feel many of my characters are living inside their own little bubble worlds. So having this concept in my mind I turned to the internet, as you do, and found this photograph by Michael Soppitt in the UK, and he kindly agreed to me using it! I feel very lucky that I was able to have some input into choosing the cover.
3) How would you describe the style of story in Rising to the Surface to a reader who isn’t familiar with your work?
I would say the stories are strongly character-driven and the settings tend towards urban New Zealand. There’s a lot of contemporary Wellington in the stories. I did try to create some variation though in style and voice. There are male and female narrators, characters of different ages and lifestyles, and tonally the stories are quite varied. Having said this, I think there are some thematic threads linking the stories – the idea of disconnection and loneliness. Many of the characters are at a point in their lives where they are perhaps adrift and looking for something to hang onto – something a bit more substantial. This all sounds slightly heavy but I’ve been told by many readers that the stories have a sense of humour too!
4) Was it a difficult job to choose a set of stories that would work well together in your debut collection?
First of all I felt quite happy that I had enough stories to be able to pick and choose! I tried to select stories that had enough variation to keep things interesting but also with links and connections so that hopefully it feels like the whole is greater than the sum of its part. I think this is really important in a collection. It doesn’t have to be overt but I think there has to be some sense of connectedness to the stories.
5) Especially in a debut collection, the first story in the book plays the key role of introducing the potential reader to the author and her work. What made “The Sand Mandala” just the right story to open the collection?
Yes, it’s like music – the first track on an album is so important. It sets the tone and hopefully lures the listener (reader) into your little world. One of the reasons I chose “The Sand Mandala” is that everyone kept telling me it was their favorite story and insisting I start with it! I think it works well because it had many of the features and themes that are mirrored in some of the other stories – the idea of the chance encounter and how that can be a catalyst for reflection and change. I also liked the visual quality to the story as it leaves the reader with lots of lovely images. It felt like a positive note to start with even though it is partly about death and impermanence.
6) I’m noticing a strong trend towards publishers, e-publishers in particular, wanting novellas at the moment – a complete change from a few years ago, when they were very hard to place. Do you write, or have you thought about writing, longer forms of fiction?
Definitely. And you’re absolutely right about the new interest in novellas. As a writer I guess novellas provide a nice middle ground between short stories and novels. I’ve always been a huge novel reader so I would love to write one. This would involve a different writing approach for me as I tend to be quite intuitive and chaotic when writing stories. I don’t overly plan the story at the outset and often just ‘go’ with the character and follow where they lead. I think with a novel there has to be some structure and planning ahead of time. Chaos will not do! I have a few ideas bubbling away at the moment for novels…
7) Who are some of the authors who have influenced your own writing?
I have read a lot of short story collections the past few years – Lorrie Moore, Binnie Kirshenbaum, Alice Munro, have been highlights. Elizabeth Strout’s beautiful collection of linked short stories Olive Kitteridge has been influential. I like the idea of linked short stories and would love to explore that in my own writing.
8) And who are some of the authors you currently enjoy reading and whom you think readers of this interview might be interested in?
Recently I have been reading several Indian-American writers. Both Jhumpa Lahiri and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni are amazing short story and novel writers.