Second Generation Stories with Jyotsna Sreenivasan

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Show Notes

Jyotsna Sreenivasan discusses the power of second-generation stories; Indian American stereotypes in fiction; tips for writing dialogue and expressing the internal thoughts of a character whose first language is not English; writing and publishing as an author without an MFA; freeing herself from the pressure to publish; transforming a novel into a novella; the long road of revision; and how her latest book, the story collection These Americans, came to be.

Mentioned in this episode:


Laura Maylene Walter (00:00):
Who knows, writers. You might have no one showing up to your bookstore reading right now, but just wait.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (00:05):
<laugh> You, too, can be President.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:07):
You, too, can be Obama. That's the takeaway.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:13):
Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:31):
I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. In today's episode, we're speaking with Jyotsna Sreenivasan, author of the novel AND LAUGHTER FELL FROM THE SKY. And more recently, the story collection, THESE AMERICANS, which won the Rosemary Daniell fiction prize at Minerva Rising Press. She's a recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual excellence Award, an artist fellowship grant from the Washington, DC Commission of the Arts, was a fiction fellow at the Sewanee Writer's Conference, and a finalist for the PEN Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. She works as a middle and high school English teacher. Jyotsna, welcome to the podcast.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (01:12):
Thank you so much. I'm thrilled to be here.

Laura Maylene Walter (01:15):
Well, we're glad to have you. I always begin by asking my guest their connection to Ohio. So I thought you could just start by telling us where you're from and where you are right now.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (01:24):
Yeah, so I was born in Barberton, Ohio, which is, I think, considered a suburb of Akron. My dad was getting training, medical training. He's a physician, and I was raised in Northeast Ohio. We lived in Toronto for a couple years, and we lived in India for a couple years, but we came back to Ohio. So I spent a lot of time in Northeast Ohio. I left for a long time. I went to college in Michigan. I worked in Washington, DC for a long time. That's where both of my boys were born. We went to Idaho for eight years. That's another story <laugh> and then we came back to Ohio and I'm in Columbus right now. This is my 10th year in Columbus.

Laura Maylene Walter (02:06):
It's interesting to hear all the places you've lived because I see shades of that in the story collection. I'm not, of course, suggesting that it's autobiographical, but just...

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (02:14):
Oh, it's totally autobiographical. It's good. <laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (02:18):
<laugh> So THESE AMERICANS is a short story collection published just last year. It contains eight stories and a novella surrounding Indian-American, but especially second generation Indian American characters. I'd love to hear about this overarching theme for the collection. I know you run a website called Second Generation Stories. That includes reviews of books by children of American immigrants, and you yourself are second generation. So I'm curious, what is it specifically about the stories of the inner lives of American immigrants and their children that is such fertile ground to explore in fiction?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (02:55):
Growing up in Ohio, I desperately wanted to fit in. I think that's one of the differences between the immigrant generation and the second generation. And I don't want to speak for everybody, but the immigrant generation, they often come here as adults. They have a very strong tie to the country that they came from. They speak the language fluently. They obviously want to be part of American culture and the American dream and, and have a good job. But then their kids, we often just want to fit in. We feel ourselves to be American. We want to be considered American, but then other people looking at us from the outside sometimes will be like, no, you're not really. Who are you? Where are you from? And so for me, it was just always trying to figure out who I was. I mean, we all feel like we don't fit in at some point, especially in middle school, <laugh> right?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (03:39):
So part of that is universal, but you know, just wanting to fit in and wanting to know what is it that makes a person American and trying to figure that out. It's not in this book, but I was reading a book by another author. She's a Vietnamese American author. And she talks about being obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder, that very traditional American heritage. So as an adult, this character was obsessed. And as I'm reading this book, I was looking at old pictures, like childhood pictures, and I came across this picture of me in a pioneered dress that my mom had made for me.

Laura Maylene Walter (04:10):
<laugh> Amazing.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (04:10):
I was like 10 years old. And I had written this skit that I made my friend participate in, and my mom took this picture. And so like, I wanted to be a pioneer.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (04:20):
Like I wanted that heritage, you know, like, I didn't know what to do with my heritage. It just seemed so weird. And this was like in the seventies, things were not quite as multicultural as they are now. So I just thought it was my problem like that. I just couldn't figure it out. And then it took really until after I was in grad school, I think I read THE WOMAN WARRIOR by Maxine Hong Kingston, which is a memoir. It's kind of a fictionalized memoir about a Chinese American girl. And I'm like, oh my God, her life was different than mine, but I'm like, this is my life. You know, trying to figure out what it means to be American. And your parents are telling you things that they expect you to understand, but you don't understand them because you didn't grow up in that country that they grew up in. And so there's so much commonality. I started reading all sorts of second generation literature. I call it becoming American. We're the becoming American generation because America's a land of immigrants largely, but many of us identify as Americans, but when does that becoming American part happen often in the second generation. So that's kind of why I'm so fascinated by that.

Laura Maylene Walter (05:15):
Yeah, that's really interesting. And it makes me think I can't speak for all writers either, but in general we come to writing, maybe we feel we don't fit in or we have an outsider's view. And then you add being second generation to that, that would add such an additional complex and rich layer to that sort of universal feeling we probably all feel, so I could see that reflected in your work. Definitely. Well, I would love to also get an overview about your career trajectory as a writer and author, because you've published a novel back in 2012 and the story collection and you've done other writing. Can you tell us about how your career has grown and changed over the years and especially how that might guide or help other writers who would hope to have a career like yours one day?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (06:02):
That whole word career I'm like, what do I do with this word? Because I was a little bit rebellious and a little bit passive aggressive about it when I was in high school, you know, the stereotype and it's true. It's a stereotype because it's kind of true that Indian parents want their kids to be doctors. Well, my dad wanted me to be a doctor and he kind of put intense pressure on me to be a doctor. And I rebelled by saying, I'm just not gonna choose a career at all. You know, I'm just not, I'm just gonna read books and I studied English literature and I didn't really give a thought to how it was going make a living. I ended up getting a master's degree, not getting a PhD. I was in the PhD program, dropping it out of the PhD program. I just can't even imagine what my parents were going through.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (06:40):
They were like, this child is crazy <laugh> so I kind of just almost like followed my instincts about where I wanted to go next at each step. I didn't really have a grand plan. I always wanted to write fiction, but I also wanted to be of service to the world. Like I want to do something that I thought was good for the world. So I ended up moving to Washington DC and working at nonprofits, like being kind of a staff writer at nonprofits for many years and kind of realized that as much as I loved the mission of the organizations I worked for, like office work was not my thing. So I ended up getting my teaching license and becoming a secondary school teacher, which I love, I love being a teacher. So I feel like I'm being of service. It does kind of tie in with my writing because you know, as I'm teaching the literature, I'm getting more into that literature and maybe it's maybe seeping into my writing. One could hope <laugh>. So I don't know that I had a grand plan that someone else could follow. I think, you know, everyone's path is so individual, you know what I mean? I could talk about the fact that I didn't get an MFA.

Laura Maylene Walter (07:47):
Yeah. Let's talk about that. Yeah. Cause I know a lot of writers who don't have an MFA sometimes feel uncertain or insecure about that, sometimes, in my experience. So tell us about that. Did you ever consider it and how has it been not having an MFA?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (08:01):
That's a kind of a common path for someone who wants to be a writer is to go ahead and, and get into a program master of fine arts and creative writing. Back when I was in grad school, this was in the eighties. It was maybe not quite so popular to get an MFA. I mean they still existed obviously. Um, and I did think about it in a passing moment. Um, I thought, well, I love to, and I to write and I could do this, but I thought I'm already writing. Not very well at the time, but I was doing it. And the other thing is I was looking at the kind of writing that I saw coming out of some of the MFA programs. I didn't do an exhaustive search, but I was looking at some of the writing and I thought, well, this is very cold and this is kind of very self-consciously writerly, you know?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (08:43):
And I was like, what about plot? What about characterization? What about writing from the heart? And so I wanted to forge my own path and see if I could figure out what my voice would be and all of that. Also I tend to be a people pleaser. So I, I think I was afraid that if I went into an MFA program that I would just want to please the teacher, because at that point I was really unformed. Like I didn't have a voice. I didn't know what I was doing. So like to have somebody else come in and say, well, this is how you would do it. I would totally follow that. I would totally do that. Right. I feel it was the right decision for me because I have been able to kind of figure out what I wanted to write about. I started writing a novel for children, like who does that in an MFA program.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (09:23):
Like you're not encouraged to do that at that time, at least. And so I kind of was able to explore, you know, characterization, plot, setting in a shorter format. The other thing that is really great with not having an MFA is because like when you have the MFA, then you can get a job at a college as a creative writing professor. And then I feel like there's a lot of pressure to publish, right. For me, I think that would've been hard. I don't have any pressure to publish now. Like nobody at work cares if I publish or not, it's not something that even talk about at work. So I have that freedom because we all get a lot of rejections. Right. I mean the more you send out, the more rejections you're going to get. And so I just don't have to worry about it because my livelihood is not on the line. You know what I mean?

Laura Maylene Walter (10:05):
Yeah. It takes the pressure off your creativity. You're not making that a part of your professional career that you need to actually put food on the table. Right. I think that's great.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (10:16):
Right. Right. So my food on the table job is different. Not completely different, but separated

Laura Maylene Walter (10:21):
Well. So speaking of it being separated, I wanted to ask you about that at one point, and this is a great time for it. I read an interview with you where you just mentioned, if someone, not sure if it would be your students or a colleague where you teach learns about your writing and maybe says something to you about it that you might find it kind of awkward. And I just found that so interesting because I think a lot of writers have that experience of feeling like it's almost a separate part of their life and maybe try not to cross all those wires. It's almost, not quite, almost like having a secret identity as a writer. So I'm curious how you feel.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (10:53):
It's kinda, it's kinda cause you, you never know what people are interested. You know, I really don't want my students to Google me and blah, blah, blah, all that. I that's very uncomfortable. I think you said it very well that just trying to keep those two parts of my life separate.

Laura Maylene Walter (11:08):
Yeah. I think this is on my mind because just a few days ago, a very loose acquaintance, someone I don't know very well, but I see semi regularly ended up finding out I'm a writer. This was not something I'd ever talked about. And it was actually very sweet. She went out, I had no idea. She bought my book and read it. And then the next time she saw me, she raved about it and was telling all our other loose acquaintances. And again, it was very touching. I mean it actually brightened my day, but I have to say I was also embarrassed and a bit shy about it. And it's so interesting because as writers, we are very public in a lot of ways. I mean, we're on a podcast right now and we <laugh> we're on social media, but there is something about it that it still feels like a private pursuit to me sometimes. Like I'm still a kid in my bedroom writing stories. I don't know if you ever feel like that.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (11:52):
We kind of are. We're not kids anymore, but we are still in our bedrooms writing. So someone was asking me like, are you trying to create a community through your writing? And I said, no, it's a personal relationship that you have with the reader. Like when you read a book, it doesn't matter how many other people have read a book and you read it. It's a personal thing for you, whether you're connecting with that book, those characters and all that. So maybe that's it. I don't know.

Laura Maylene Walter (12:14):
Now I'm thinking anyone who's been in a book club knows that we all really read a book completely differently and have a different experience of it. Well, but speaking of great books, let's talk about your collection a bit. One of my favorite stories out of many favorites was "The Sweater." This was one of several stories that has a strong mother-daughter theme. And I'm always a fan of mother daughter stories, but the story was so beautiful and the style, it felt not quite stream of consciousness, but it was almost like a diary recording of the character's thoughts as she's knitting herself, a sweater. So I was wondering if you could talk about that story a bit and your inspiration for writing it and how it came together stylistically.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (12:56):
My mom really does do a lot of hand work and just like the girl in the story, I would bug her to teach me, you know, she'd be sitting there crocheting or knitting or embroidering like, no, you have to show me how to do it. She had to stop doing what she was doing and you know, put a little needle into my hand. I was like five years old when I started. And so yeah, I really wanted to do that to kind of follow in my mom's footsteps. And also just like the young woman in the story, my mom was amazing at it. At least I thought. And I was like sitting here with my clunky yarn, you know. <Laugh> I actually did knit a sweater. It was based on a sweater that I really did knit, but I knit it like much later in my life.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (13:30):
It was like already married and all of that, the young woman in the story she's in college, she's trying to figure out what she wants to do with her life. She's avoiding studying for her GMAT, but instead is doing this sweater and she's avoiding a lot of things in her life while knitting this sweater. You know, it was a long time ago that I first drafted the story. I guess I just wanted to, that was an important part of my life and an important connection with my mom. And I had never read a story in which a person was knitting a sweater, I guess. And so I wanted to try that.

Laura Maylene Walter (13:57):
And you seem to embrace the autobiographical elements of the stories. Would you like to talk about that a bit? I never assume someone's fiction is autobiographical. And so I'm curious what your take is on that and how you feel if readers are trying to draw connections between your life and the lives of your characters.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (14:15):
Not all of the stories are autobiographical, but I think for all of us, like I know your novel is science fiction basically. I mean, would you, would you call it science fiction or—

Laura Maylene Walter (14:22):
Maybe speculative literary fiction?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (14:25):
Probably there's some part of you in there even though it's a fantasy world.

Laura Maylene Walter (14:29):
Oh, sure. We all draw on our emotional truth. Yeah.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (14:32):
Right. Yeah. So there's part of all of it, you know, whenever we write something. So because I was grappling with all the cultural identities and trying to figure that out, I guess I just naturally started writing about that. And the very first story in the book, which is about a new immigrant mom giving birth to her American daughter. I mean, that's basically the germ of that story was my mom telling me the story of my birth. And there really was a mirror in it like that part of it was actually totally true. And at first my mom was like, no, I don't want to, I don't want the mirror. No, yes, I do want, but what I did was I tried to delve more deeply into the mind of the woman who was giving birth and what that was like for her, all of that stuff about, you know, who she was and whether she was beautiful or not, my mother didn't say those things to me, but I think those kind of things came through.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (15:20):
Because my mom, when I look back at pictures of my mom and even now she's a beautiful woman and she never thought she was, you know, but I look back at these pictures and I'm like, you are gorgeous. You know? And unfortunately I did not inherit that <laugh> I looked like somebody else. And even the story, there's a story in which there's, uh, the main character is a teenage boy. Who's half Indian. So that's clearly not autobiographical, but the part where he desperately wants his grandfather to have participated in the Indian independence movement so that he can kind of feel proud of that. And that part was true for me too. Like I wanted my relatives to have done that. And they were like, well, no, actually we didn't

Laura Maylene Walter (15:59):
<laugh> That was such an endearing moment. I hope listeners will go out and read all these stories. But when he is trying to make this connection with his grandfather and you could tell his grasp of the history is shaky, to put it politely. <laugh> He's trying, he's trying so hard. I'm sure your work as a teacher also probably helped create that character. Um, well, can you talk about the collection as a whole? Like how long did you spend writing these stories? Did you always know you were working on a collection versus individual stories? How did it all come together for you?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (16:31):
I didn't have any thought of a collection. Actually. I've been working on writing short stories for like 20 years. And before that I didn't want to write short stories. I thought, nobody reads short stories. I'm writing novels. I am writing novels. And I went to, this was the first time that I went to the Sewanee conference 20 years ago. And I was like, oh, these people read short stories. All of these people in this room read short stories and there were literary magazine editors there who loved short stories. And I'm like, you know what, maybe I should try writing some short stories. I just thought, well, at least it will be a way for me to practice in a short form, all of those fictional, you know, skills that I need, you know, characterization plot setting, how to create a story, how to create a believable character, all of that.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (17:12):
I thought, well, at least I can practice this way. So I didn't really think of it that seriously. I started writing the stories. I had a writer's group and they would critique it and I would keep, you know, revising them and started to send them out to literary magazines. And so after a while I was like, well, I have a number of these. Maybe I should try to put them together in a collection and had to figure out which stories to put in how to organize it. That was a whole thing. I would like do one version and send it out to different small publishers, get rejected, try again, put a different title. <laugh> so it was like a whole process. And finally this small publisher, Minerva Rising Press in Florida, they picked it up, they loved it. It's a small publisher, woman-owned, and they focus on women's writing.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (17:53):
And the editor, her edits, I think really kind of took everything just to the next level, helped me deepen the characters and deepen kind of the emotion almost because that's something that I really like to do is to help the reader connect emotionally with the character. I didn't tell her that. I just noticed that the suggestions that she was giving me was really helping me to go there, to go where I wanted to go. And I loved the cover that they did. One of the pictures is of a woman in a sorry, holding her baby. And that was basically a picture of my mom holding me. Like it was taken right from a picture of my mom holding

Laura Maylene Walter (18:26):
Me. Oh really? Oh, that's wonderful. I'm looking at it right now.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (18:30):
Yeah. <laugh> and then the other picture is the idea is that that baby grown up she's in more westernized dress and she's also holding her baby. So it's kind of the generations. So I really loved how I was able to work with them on the cover. And I loved how it came out. All really I did was I said, how about these pictures? I sent them a bunch of pictures and then the artist and the cover designer took it from there.

Laura Maylene Walter (18:51):
Oh, that's fantastic. Wow. I really enjoy how this collection. There's definitely the unifying theme, but the stories are very distinct and you show some great range. I'm thinking of this story, "Crystal Vase Snapshots," which really plays with time. Can you talk about that a bit, maybe explain without giving the story away, like how did you come to work on that from a craft level? How did you make those decisions about how to arrange the story?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (19:17):
The story is, I guess she's middle aged. She's probably in her thirties. Maybe that's not middle-aged anymore. An old friend of hers from elementary school is coming to visit. They were like best friends. It was an Indian American woman and a white American girl that girl helped the Indian American child kind of to become American. So they were super close. And now she's coming to visit. It's like snapshots, like the visit of the two women is not told in a chronological way. The sections are kind of mixed up and how I came to that was a very long process. I started writing it long time ago and it was just a straight story. It was very long. I would have people critique it and they would say what they liked and didn't like about it. And I would work on it some more and I would send it out to magazines and get rejected.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (20:04):
And I mean, it was just the whole process. And finally I was looking at it one day and I was like, you know, there's just too much connecting material here. There was too much like, "and then they did this and then she said this" and I thought, what if I take out all the connecting material and just keep the scenes that were the most emotionally resonant. So I took out all the in between stuff. So I was left with these distinct scenes and then I thought, well, what if I mix 'em up? And so I mixed it up and I thought, no, one's gonna be able to understand this now. But I had some people read it and it seemed like it was working. I kind of tweaked which section went where and took sections in and out. And finally somebody picked it up and it got published. Have you heard this thing where writing is never finished? You just stop working on it at some point? Have you heard that?

Laura Maylene Walter (20:49):
<laugh> definitely. I live it all the time.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (20:52):
<laugh> sometimes I will still think about stories or my novel AND LAUGHTER FELL FROM THE SKY be like, oh, well I should do this. Wait a minute. I can't do that because it's already out there.

Laura Maylene Walter (21:02):
Right. It's already published.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (21:04):
Yeah. So I'll think, oh, I should have. Or what if I do it's too late for that one? I'm on to the next one. <laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (21:10):
However, if you are reading from part of it at an event, you can still edit for the reading.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (21:16):
<laugh> well, that's true. I certainly do that. I definitely do that. Yeah. So

Laura Maylene Walter (21:20):
So you never truly have to stop writers. Just keep that in mind. It never ends. Yeah.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (21:25):

Laura Maylene Walter (21:26):
Constant revision and second guessing. But yeah. Well you had talked about earlier that basically you arranged your writing life so you don't feel a lot of pressure. It's not dependent on your job or anything like that. I was curious, you know, you're writing as a second generation Indian American writer. If you ever feel any kind of pressure or expectations about what you write about, I read in an interview that you express sometimes feeling maybe alienated from writing that you think might be created for a Western audience for what they would expect an Indian American writer would write about. I was wondering if you could talk about that a bit and how you might navigate that in your own work and what's important to you in terms of being authentic when you're writing.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (22:10):
Oh, this is such a big question. Yeah. So when I'm writing something, I guess I try to think, well, does this sound real to me? And then I try to think about what if my mom read it? Which what would she think? Or what would you know, somebody in my community think the funny thing is that I'm not super part of an Indian community or an Indian American community. Like I'm not going to the Hindu temple or I'm not like really part of a community, but I guess it's just in me already. One of the things that I've noticed, there are books that come out with Asian Americans, like from a big press, lots of publicity, and it's about Asian Americans committing crimes or doing bad things, which is the opposite. The stereotype that we think of Asian Americans as being like goody two shoes and always follow the rules.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (22:54):
But these Asian Americans who are lying, cheating and stealing that doesn't ring true to me either. <laugh>, you know, like we want to break the stereotypes, but like, why are there so many books about Asian Americans being published who are like doing these criminal things? And so I'm puzzled about that. One of the things that I could talk about is the whole idea of how you render the English that people are speaking. So that's something that I've thought a lot about because sometimes I've seen in books, Indian Americans are made to sound very silly and funny because, oh, don't, they have this silly accent look at how they're saying things, you know? And in my novel AND LAUGHTER FELL FROM THE SKY. I was asked, I'm not gonna say who asked me, but I was asked to do that with my characters. So I've even seen Indian American authors do that.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (23:41):
So I'm like, well, why, why are they doing that? Why are they making Indians sound so silly? And especially when a character is thinking in their own head and to have them speaking in a broken English or an odd English in their own head, like they would be thinking in their native language, you know, things like that. Like what language is this person speaking? Are they comfortable in that language? If they're not comfortable in that language, maybe to say, maybe they're thinking in their mind, I'm really uncomfortable speaking this language. And then they say it and it sounds odd. So what I did with AND LAUGHTER FELL FROM THE SKY is I created one particular character who did have trouble speaking in kind of grammatical English, but her husband would criticize her about it. So like, so not all of the Indians spoke this broken English, it was kind of her character trait.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (24:21):
And the thing about her is that she could get by in like seven different languages and her husband criticized her. Well, you'd never learned any of them properly, but she could get by in seven of them, you know, <laugh>. So I was like, well, this is just part of her character. It's not that all Indians speak this way. So how you speak English, how you speak in your native language and how are you gonna translate that? And how are you thinking in your own head? What language is that? And you're not gonna sound stupid in your own head. You know what I mean? So I think that is something that I think about in terms of trying to make it authentic.

Laura Maylene Walter (24:52):
I think that's a great point for writers to focus on too, when they're writing characters to really think about the character as a whole person, including their internal life when they're maybe alone and they're not acting or talking with anyone else that they still exist as a real functioning person. And that they're not just a caricature on the page, kind of a disembodied voice. So I think that's really important. Oh, I did want to ask about your novella HAWK because in the acknowledgements of the book, you mentioned that HAWK was previously a novel and that is what earned you, the finalist designation from the PEN Bellwether Prize. And so can you talk about that? How did it go from being a novel to a novella and, you know, give us a behind the scenes look of how you put that novella together?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (25:35):
Yeah, so it was a novel, the character of Bagda, who is the elderly woman physician, the immigrant physician. So that character was in the novel and in the novella, I collapsed a couple of other characters in the novel. The novel was not bad because they did obviously Jews as a finalist. It just wasn't working for me as a novel. It wasn't working for my agent. I think there were just too many different strands going on. There was the daughter of the physician. And then there was also a separate Indian American character who was a ghostwriter, helping her write her life. And then the ghostwriters family and her kids. I mean, it was just all over the place and I just didn't know what to do with it. <laugh> and so I put it aside and then I guess some years later, I don't know how many years later I've been fascinated with novellas for a while.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (26:19):
And then I also had some life experiences that I thought, well, I wonder if this could work into that novel. And then I thought, whoa, what if I try to make it into a novella? It was just one of those, you know, how, as a writer, you just try something and may work and it may not work <laugh>. So it was just one of the, oh, let me try it as a novella. And so I collapsed the two characters, the daughter and the ghost writer into one character. I took out one of the daughter's kids. I took out everything about her marriage almost, except for just the bare minimum and just focused on that mother-daughter relationship and focused on bag's career and the daughter's career and how they were similar and different. And it seemed to work. People seemed to feel like it was working and just tightening it up and intensifying the emotions, I think rather than kind of having them dissipated. I think the novella formed helped me to tighten it and make it all a little more intense.

Laura Maylene Walter (27:07):
Well, I think you said that you just wanted to try it as a novella, you know, let me try this, which I think that kind of spirit is so important for writers, but it's actually a lot harder than it sounds. I think it's so important that you are willing to play with the form and change it and cut things because sometimes I think writers are afraid, especially if they write a whole novel, we know how difficult it is just to write a first draft of a novel, much less polishing it, much less publishing it. So to take a form and to reduce it and to transform it into something else I think actually takes, I want to say courage. I don't mean to be so dramatic. I know we're not, you know, fighting on a battlefield here, but it is, it's hard. It's hard because at the end of the day, none of us, we never know if our work is going to end up anywhere. There's no guarantees.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (27:53):
We don't. We don't know that when you're first working on something, you're just so attached to it and you want every word and you don't want to get rid of anything. And so I think I was far enough away from that project that I could be like, yeah, I don't really care. Get rid of this, get rid of this <laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (28:07):
Yeah. Time and distance helps you, you know, I mean, I've let go of full novel projects before.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (28:13):
Me, too. Absolutely.

Laura Maylene Walter (28:14):
Yeah. After enough time passes, you just, you can kind of move on, but in the moment when you're really in it, it would be heartbreaking to even consider it.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (28:22):
Right. Yeah. Right.

Laura Maylene Walter (28:23):
Well, so you are a novelist as well. Can you describe the experience of working on a novel versus working on stories? You know, do you view those two forms in different ways in terms of your process? Just tell us about your experience of working in both.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (28:37):
Yeah. Like I said, I wanted to, you know, write novels first and I was like, I'm not gonna bother with short stories, but the short stories have just really, I mean, it's just shorter. You can write a story in less time, you know, and you can experiment with things and not commit yourself to years and years and years of whatever that experiment is. So I think they cross fertilize. And also I think the short stories have helped me to learn and become better writer. That's helped me write novels, but also the opposite. Like I had a novel that I abandoned many years ago, and then just recently I've been kind of extracting parts of it and putting them together as short stories and trying to send those around. And so I think it can go both ways, maybe with a novel, I would jot more notes down in terms of like, well, where is it going? You know, like what's the arc here and who are these characters and do a little bit, maybe more pre-writing about the characters. And then maybe with a short story might just jump in a little bit more, but each piece of writing is different as you know, so you might approach each particular piece of writing in a different way.

Laura Maylene Walter (29:35):
I'm also curious in terms of publishing. So you have worked with a big five publisher for your novel. You've worked with a small press for the story collection. What have you learned by working with different types of publishers and also over time because the publishing industry does definitely change over time. So what have you picked up from those experiences?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (29:54):
Well, I'm not an expert at all in the publishing industry, so I don't know how it's changed, but I can just tell you my two experiences. So my novel AND LAUGHTER FELL FROM THE SKY, that was published 10 years ago this year. So that was 10 years ago and it was a big five publisher, but I got a very small advance. So I think my agent and my editor, they're so nice. I'm still, you know, friends with like Facebook friends with my agent. She's not my agent anymore going forward, but they were very young and I think we all just didn't totally know what we were doing. We were just all like, okay, let's see how this goes. And in my experience, I didn't have as much control over like the cover. Like they just came up with the cover. They were like, here's the cover?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (30:33):
Don't you love it? I'm like, yeah, I love it. <laugh> And also at the time that that novel came out, I didn't mean this to happen, but I was separating from my husband and moving across the country back to Ohio and getting a new job. And so like, I didn't have as much time or bandwidth to think about like, how am I gonna promote this? And also I thought, well, they know how to promote it. You know, they're a big publisher. They know how to promote this thing. Well, they did what they did and then they moved on, you know? And so I didn't really know what to do and I didn't really have the time or the bandwidth to even worry about it. So with this one, it's a small publisher. I worked much more closely on the cover.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (31:08):
Just the presentation of it. Oh, the other thing is with the novel, I went into it thinking that it was literary fiction <laugh> and they marketed as a beach read. I didn't really know what to do with that. Because I was like, oh, I'm gonna tell professors about this. You know, I had a certain view of what that novel was all about. I was like, it's second generation literature and it's literary fiction. It does happen to have a good plot, but when they market it as chick lit and a beach read and put a kind of a beach read cover on it, I just didn't even know what to do with it. I was like, it's not being marketed as literary fiction anymore. You know what I mean? So it was like, I wasn't really part of that process of how they decided to do that. Whereas I guess I'm just much more comfortable with how my short story collection is being presented. It's kind of being presented in the same way that I thought of it. And so I'm like, yeah, I'm reaching out to professors and I'm reaching out to all the places that I thought I would reach out to also I've learned something. I think I've learned things, but at the same time, since it is a small publisher, there's not that kind of, you know, money or recognition behind it. So it's all been very interesting.

Laura Maylene Walter (32:06):
Yeah. It is funny with publishing, how much comes down to marketing decisions and as writers, we probably don't go into it thinking about that at all, because we're so focused on the editorial side and on our words. Right. Yeah. Well you run the website as we had mentioned earlier. I was wondering if there's another second generation writer that you would like to highlight or call out their book.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (32:31):
One of the books that I recently reviewed is Barack Obama's first memoir before he was a senator, like before he started his political career. I don't know if he would consider himself second generation, but just the things that he went through as a child were so similar because of his name and because of his brown skin, people would make assumptions about what he knew and what he should be interested in. Like he had a fifth grade teacher who was like, oh, I've been to Kenya and what tribe are you from? And he's like just wanting to sink into the floor because he had no connection to his father, hardly any. And he talks about trying to figure out where he can fit into American culture and what it even meant to be American and what his place was and how he could bring people together. And I think that all of those thoughts propelled him to a career in politics and to the presidency because he wanted to create the kind of America that I think would accept someone like him. And you know, maybe I'm putting words into his mouth, but I think his first memoir is wonderful, really worth reading

Laura Maylene Walter (33:29):
That reminds me, I'll have to try to look it up and put it in the show notes. But I read years ago that when his first book came out, I mean he wasn't the Barack Obama that we all know. I read that he would do a bookstore reading with like five or 10 people. Isn't that amazing to think about?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (33:46):
Yeah, I know.

Laura Maylene Walter (33:46):
Know who knows, writers. You might have no one showing up to your bookstore reading right now, but just wait, you'll be selling out stadiums.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (33:54):
<laugh> You, too, can be President. <Laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (33:57):
You, too, can be Obama. That's the takeaway. <Laugh> Is there anything you can share about what you're working on now? Or are you working on a novel, more stories? What are you writing?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (34:07):
I'm working on some historical fiction. I don't want to say too much about it, but I think I'm making progress. It's interesting because you know, it's historical fiction. It's about people a long time ago, who are not me, but still there are parts of me that are in there. That autobiographical part is still in there, but obviously hidden, not front and center.

Laura Maylene Walter (34:26):
Fiction. It's where we hide all of ourselves. <laugh>

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (34:31):
Exactly exactly.

Laura Maylene Walter (34:32):
Well, is there anything I didn't ask you that you'd like to share either about this book or anything else?

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (34:37):
I really wanted more people in Ohio to know about this book because I feel like I'm an Ohioana. I am an Ohioana, and I want to connect with other readers and writers in Ohio.

Laura Maylene Walter (34:48):
Well, everyone, make sure you go out and read THESE AMERICANS. Jyotsna, thank you so much for being here with us today. This was a delight.

Jyotsna Sreenivasan (34:55):
Oh, thank you. Thank you for asking me.

Laura Maylene Walter (34:59):
Thank you so much to Jyotsna Sreenivasan. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter. I'll put the links in the show notes and be sure to buy her story collection, THESE AMERICANS.

Laura Maylene Walter (35:12):
Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center of the Book at Cleveland Public Library. Learn more online at Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.


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