© Photo Credit - Shuchi Kapoor
Divya Kumar is the author of ‘The Shrine of Death’, a thriller novel released in April 2018 by Bloomsbury India. She is also a freelance journalist. Her column, 'Toddler Talk' in the Metro plus has garnered many fans.
In her website, she describes herself as "Singer-songwriter and sometimes pianist. Movie geek. Netflix addict. Tennis nut. Mom of one little diva. Former physics student, computer scientist, web developer and media studies grad student among other things. Card-carrying member of the Happy to Have Been a Gulfie club."
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Divya: I was born in Chennai, but I actually grew up for most part in Muscat, Oman, and finished my schooling there. Then began what I think of as my wandering years – I was in Chennai studying physics for a couple of years before transferring to the U.S. to complete my undergraduate studies – a dual degree in Computer Science and in Journalism at Rutgers University. I worked there as a web-developer and coder briefly, before deciding conclusively that programming was not for me! I then did my masters coursework in Media Studies before once more returning to Chennai. It was then that I interviewed at The Hindu. A position had just opened up at the Metroplus and was offered to me – the rest, as they say, is history. I knew after just a few days on the job that there was nothing else I’d rather be doing.
Can you talk about your life as a journalist?
Divya: I began writing for The Hindu’s Metroplus supplement in Chennai after I returned from the U.S., where I was studying. It was, in all ways, a wonderful experience – we had a young, lively group of reporters and our editors were experienced and dynamic.
Books and art became my beat, so I had a chance to interview visiting authors – everyone from Amitav Ghosh to Jeffrey Archer – and leading artists in the city, and cover book launches and contemporary art shows.
I also got to explore Chennai, the city of my birth, and came to know it in a way I might never had been able to do otherwise. I think a lot that I learnt and experienced in the years I worked for The Hindu reflects in the setting and the themes of ‘The Shrine of Death’.
How does your normal day go by?
Divya: Like any mom, my day starts early, packing lunches, making breakfast, and sending the family off to school/office. I wrap up my chores by 10 a.m. and begin my day’s work. During my intense writing phases, I’ll jump directly into reading through/reworking the previous day’s writing, and then continuing where I left off. At other times, I might spend an hour or two responding to emails, messages, etc. before getting into editing/writing. At still other times, I might take a break from writing altogether and work on my music. Then my daughter comes home from school in the afternoon, and it’s time to make the evening meal, take her down for playtime, and then back home for the dinner, and the bedtime rush.
How do you manage your life as a journalist and a fiction writer?
Divya: Journalism has taken a bit of a backseat for me in the last two years. It was partly that I came away from Chennai to Dubai, where I’m currently based, and partly that I’ve been pretty focused on completing the book and getting it published, and starting work on my next book. But in the preceding years, I was juggling a weekly column, doing freelance writing, and working on the book as well, and that happened pretty organically – I worked on the book when I didn’t have looming deadlines, and put it on the backburner when I did!
It must be quite difficult being a journalist. How do you manage to get new ideas for your articles?
Divya: As a features journalist, I never found it difficult to find story ideas! People are an endless source of inspiration, their stories, their accomplishments. Not just the people you meet when you go out to cover an event or a story, but the people you meet in daily life as well. And when that fails, you can always look within your own experiences for the germ of an idea.
How did your column "Toddler Talk" came about?
Divya: The idea for the column really grew out of the writing I was doing on my blog, divyakumar.com, at that time. After the birth of my daughter, I took some time off from full-time reporting, and was freelancing for The Hindu. I began to write humorous posts on my daughter’s escapades on the blog, and found that people enjoyed them. When I was asked to do a column for the revamped Metroplus, I suggested ‘Toddler Talk’, a light-hearted look at raising this generation of high-maintenance, tech-savvy toddlers. My editor liked the idea, and the column was born. I loved writing it – it was such fun way of recording the memories of my daughter’s Terrible Twos and Threenager years, and also proved to be a wonderful way to bond with other moms going through the same experiences.
Can you talk about your experience as singer/song writer?
Divya: Music is an essential part of me. I almost always have a song running through my head, that I’m humming under my breath. I am a classically trained singer, having learnt Hindustani vocal music since childhood. I enjoy singing Indian semi-classical and light music, but my heart really lies in Western music, specifically classic rock/folk/pop music. I’m an alto and have performed in choirs through school, college and beyond. I also play a little piano (not as much as I’d like!) and have been writing my own songs for as long as I can remember. In the last couple of years, I’ve begun to record my covers of some old favorite Western songs, and hope to share more of my own original songs soon too! You can check out my covers at my Sound cloud account: (https://soundcloud.com/user-396816675.)
Available on Amazon.
How did you get the idea to write 'The Shrine of Death'?
Divya: It literally came to me in a dream! I woke up one morning with one of the main characters of the story, Jai, fully formed in my head – his tragic backstory, his struggles. At that time, The Hindu was doing a lot of coverage on idol theft in Tamil Nadu, and the bust of the international smuggling ring headed by Manhattan-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor, and I was following it closely. So, the two – Jai’s story, and the idol theft plot – sort of just came together in my head, almost as a complete whole.
What kind of research did you have to do when writing your novel?
Divya: I did as much reading as possible on the idol theft cases in the news, as well as from the TamilNadu Idol Wing’s website, which had considerable detail on the busts, and I ensured that my information on the Chola dynasty was historically accurate. Especially helpful was a talk I attended on Chola temples by historian Pradeep Chakravarthy, from where I got the final piece
of the plot puzzle – pallipadais, shrines built to honour dead Chola kings and queens. But all of that was just a jumping off point for the story – the bulk of it comes from my imagination.
Can you tell us about your writing regime and your approach of writing a novel?
Divya: When I started writing this novel, my daughter was just about a year old, so there was no regime to speak off! I wrote whenever I could, late into the nights after she slept, or on the weekends, when I left her with my husband for a few hours and sat at a cafe with my laptop. The result was that I wrote intensely in bursts, but then there would be long stretches in between when I barely wrote at all. It got easier as my daughter got older – now I set aside three to four hours every morning while she’s in school to focus on writing or editing.
But I still like to write late into the night on occasion – though I pay for it in the morning! I always have a basic plot outline, an overall idea of where the story must go, and basic character
arcs mapped out before I begin my novel. But, of course, as I get deeper into writing each part, the plot evolves and changes, and the character arcs get tweaked to so that it all works, and fits together as a cohesive whole.
Who is your favourite author and your favourite books?
Divya: I love reading fiction across all genres -- I enjoy Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Rice as much as I do Georgette Heyer and P. G. Wodehouse. I don't have a single favourite author, but there are elements of different authors' writing I love. For instance, crime writer Dick Francis is an old favourite of mine -- I've always loved the way he foregrounds his characters and their emotional lives, even in the midst of a fast-moving plot.
I love the dark and brooding atmosphere that Daphne Du Maurier conjures up at will on her novels and short stories. I recently re-discovered Ira Levin -- what a genius for plot the man had! And I love the gentle humanity and kindness in James Herriot's writing.
Can you suggest tips for aspiring writers on how to get their novel published by reputed firms?
Divya: Being just one book old, I don’t know how much gyan I can give, but I can try! I guess the main thing is to make sure your manuscript is ready before you send it out – clean it up, edit, and revise until you feel sure it’s good enough to be out there. You want to make sure the agent or editor is seeing the best possible version of your work.
Also, it’s worth putting some effort into how you package your submission – your query letter/email, your synopsis etc. Make sure you stick to the guidelines the agent or editor lists on their website. These are small things that can make a difference. A lot of writers in India approach publishing houses directly;
I chose to approach Delhi-based Kanishka Gupta, one of the country’s top literary agents. He believed in the book enough to take me on, and he made things happen at record speed thereafter. Based on my experience, I can safely say that there’s nothing like having a dedicated, hardworking agent in your corner to make your publishing dream come true!
Do you get writer's block? If yes, how do you handle it?
Divya: In my experience, if I’m feeling blocked and unable to write, it’s due to one of two things – fatigue or plot problems. Sometimes, if I’ve been writing intensely for a stretch, I hit a point of burnout, and start hating everything I’ve written. When that happens, I’ve found that just taking a step back and giving myself a break from the book helps a lot. Then I come back to it with fresh eyes, and find that hey, it’s not too bad after all, and the words start flowing again.
But sometimes, that doesn’t do it. And those times, I’ve realized that there’s often an issue with the story itself. Maybe I’ve written myself into an uninspiring corner, or some aspect of the characterisation is just not working. Then it’s worth reassessing/tweaking the original outline to try and fix the problem.
What principles do you live by?
Divya: I believe in kindness, in the old-fashioned concept of being nice. I always try to see the other person’s point of view, to be empathetic. But I also have very clear boundaries; I don’t stand for anyone disrespecting me or hurting the people I care for. I am extremely straightforward -- I don’t have the inclination or the patience to play games – and excessively honest, to the point where I put sometimes myself in a spot by being unable to lie. But this is who I am, and I take pride in the ethical code I live by. I’m a friendly person but also intensely inward-looking. I need my own space, and I think that can sometimes be off-putting to people. But those who are close to me know that I will be there for them, no matter what.