“Teaches Me Empathy”: An Interview with Eshani Surya

by Megan Giddings See all Guest Readers

One of the things I really admire about your essay, “It Tastes of Dust,” is the strong, evocative details. Lines like, “The burnt sienna of Moghul architecture, the blinding red of marriage markers, the dusty red of blood, the silken red of chiffon wedding clothes and rose petals.” are stunning, but they also help create environment and mood so quickly.  What advice would you give writers who struggle with creating settings in their prose? And what do you think a well-drawn setting can add to fiction and essays?

“It Tastes of Dust” was an essay where setting needed to be at the forefront of the writing. The essay deals with my fifteen-year-old self leaving her home in Connecticut to visit India. I wanted to juxtapose two settings: the India that version of me imagined vs. the India that version of me encountered. The essay compounds scenes from the trip to both create mood and expose the narrator’s emotional state–by describing what the narrator observes, her true feelings are explained. Actually, in the revision process, I spent a lot of time cutting sentences that didn’t relate directly to the setting, because I wanted to focus the language.

I am a huge proponent of using setting to propel the story forward. If a writer just describes a generic field or ocean or mountain, the story will probably contain pretty language, but it also might slow down the story’s pace. I think big blocks of description only work in a few circumstances. Instead, atmosphere can be created with little details mixed in with a character’s actions and observations. And in this way, the reader comes to understand the world as they delve further into the work. The character continues to be shaped by the world that they exist in, just as the reader becomes more integrated in that same world.

If you’re looking for a good rule of thumb, I suggest asking yourself: what makes this setting unique? What makes it important? Why is my character even noticing or being affected by the setting? Write about those details.

In “It Tastes of Dust” I emphasize the Taj Mahal in one of the scenes. This is actually a setting that most readers are familiar with, either through visiting or through pictures. One might even go so far as to call it a cliche when writing about India. However, I included what readers might not have known–the black, smaller Taj meant to be built behind the white one everyone knows. The black Taj would have been for Shah Jaan, while the white Taj was built for his wife. That is an interesting aspect of the site! That detail makes including such a famous site less expected. Plus, the narrator fixates on what distance and separation from a lover means. Indirectly, she is actually discussing her own loneliness.

Setting is another tool for a writer–deploy it!

Which short story are you currently in love with? Why?

My newest favorite short story is “Cold Pastoral” by Marina Keegan (http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/cold-pastoral). Keegan died tragically in 2012, right after she graduated from Yale University. She was in a car crash. Her work is so poignant–it’s hard to believe that such a talent was lost in such a menial way. I think her work also touches me because I can see all the places she might have grown.

“Cold Pastoral” looks at how we deal with grieving people we were almost emotionally intimate with. When the main character’s hook-up buddy dies, she is forced to confront the truth about her relationship with him, along with her personal grief. Keegan touches upon loss honestly. She gives us characters that are imperfect and selfish when they look back on the person they knew, and that honesty is often missing from stories about death. It’s easy to hate everyone and also feel for them in “Cold Pastoral,” and it’s a fabulous encapsulation of college narcissism too.

Keegan really can describe the college experience with great dexterity in general.  When the narrator talks about seeing a woman play ukulele underneath lights shaped like little red peppers, I can envision the experience perfectly. Each time someone walks through campus or goes to a party, Keegan shows the microcosm of university life with unflinching clarity. Since the story takes place in the 2000s, sometimes this college world includes social media. There are mentions of Facebook, email, G-chat, and each time the use of social media is not just too add realism, but also to show the weight of being able to communicate without meeting face-to-face. I love how Keegan seamlessly uses technology in her writing, and reminds her readers how warped our personal relationships have become even in the face of tragedy just because you can click a few buttons instead of ring a doorbell.

If you haven’t read this one, do it now.

What are you working on?

I have actually just committed to trying to write a full-length manuscript based on a short story that I first drafted in 2012. Since the first iteration, I wrote a few more versions, each time changing the focus of the piece slightly. The manuscript is still forming in my mind, let alone the page, so I won’t describe it fully, but I am very excited. Essentially I envision the story asking a couple of questions: How are versions of people created through memories and fantasies? How does female friendship toe the lines between adoration, obsession, and hatred? Who does art belong to?

In a more practical sense, I also find myself working on building a community in the NYC literary scene. I graduated from NYU in May 2015, and since then I’ve been adjusting to living outside of school. I’m lucky to work in publishing, so the people I’m around still care about reading and writing. But I have found myself struggling to figure out how to make connections at times. Do you walk up to someone whose writing you love and fawn over them? Or should you play it cool? Is it better to go to to that reading or stay home and finish the edits on a short story? Is Twitter really the best way to get at other artists in the city? I’m finding my place as a writer in the city, and part of that is cultivating new writing habits too.

What songs are on your current writing playlist? 

In all honesty, I’m a person who can’t listen to music without trying to sing along. This is often very helpful–I’ll be writing, will hear a song I like, jam out for four minutes, and then return to writing. The break is refreshing. So I pretty much only listen to music that I sound good singing to. Otherwise I’ll get cranky, minimize my Word document, and spend an hour and a half singing karaoke to YouTube videos. This limits me to show tunes or indie-esque albums (often sung by men using their falsettos). Currently I’m pretty into the Spring Awakening soundtrack, which is awakening feelings of nostalgia for my high school theatre days, and, unsurprisingly, the Hamilton soundtrack. On the indie side it’s Vance Joy, Of Monsters and Men, Daughter, Passion Pit, and Bombay Bicycle Club. Also, if I need a dance break I’ll put on anything Chainsmokers.

And what’s your ten words or less definition of flash fiction:

The story teaches me empathy in the least space

About the Reader:

Eshani Surya is SmokeLong Quarterly's associate editor for social media and marketing. She is based in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment, Publishing Trendsetter, Minetta Review, and First Class Lit. She also works in publishing at Bloomsbury USA, marketing both children’s and adult trade books. Her Twitter handle is @__eshani.

About the Interviewer:

Megan Giddings was a former executive editor at SmokeLong Quarterly  and a winner of the Kathy Fish Fellowship. Her chapbooks, Arcade Seventeen (TAR) and The Most Dangerous Game (The Lettered Streets Press) will be released Fall 2016.  She has been anthologized in Best of the Net 2014 and in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Her stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in Arts & Letters, Passages North, The Offing, Pleiades, and Black Warrior Review. You can learn more about her at www.megangiddings.com.