Aatif & Devi
Aatif Rashid and Devi S. Laskar talked about Devi’s excerpt “Second Midnight” from her debut novel The Atlas of Reds and Blues over WhatsApp.
Aatif: Hi! Ready to get started?
Devi: Yes sir
Devi: Can I ask you a few questions too? About also being a debut author?
Aatif: Yeah of course! Why don't I start and we can go back and forth a bit?
Aatif: So, to start, I wanted to say first of all that your book, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, is incredible—so powerful and tragic. I read it in two days and couldn’t really put it down once I started. I’ll try to keep the questions here focused the excerpt as much as possible, but I was wondering if can you talk about your process writing the novel? When did you start and how long did it take?
Devi: Thank you so much! So this story was first started in 2004. I was accepted into a writing conference and I needed to turn in a 5000 word short story. I hold The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros as the gold standard of books; she’s a poet who wrote a short novel. I wrote a story like hers, with super short chapters. It was mostly a family story - It was well received and I started to expand it.
Fast forward to 2010, by then, I had set the story aside to write a different novel. Then in May 2010, my husband was racially targeted by his former employer in Georgia and the state police raided my house at gunpoint; they seized many things, including my computer. Although the matter was eventually dismissed by a state judge in 2016, we have yet to get most of our belongings returned—including my laptop.
In short, I lost most of my work. I restarted the book in 2014 and it took two years to write; I kept the short chapters that I loved but this time around I added the raid as contextual glue — was very interested in exploring how the character arrived at that moment in time (I was not shot in real life but I gave that to my narrator so she could explore how she got there)
Aatif: Wow—so the incident described in the book is in some ways based on a real event. I remember reading that in other interviews you'd done. How did it feel adapting something from life? Did you find it hard making decisions about what to fictionalize and what not to?
Devi: The raid is based on the real raid, but I wasn’t shot. There are some autobiographical moments in the book- but that narrator is not me. I gave her some of my things (like my dog) to start from a place of familiarity and explore the unknown.
Devi: Grace Paley once said, “You really write from what you don’t know. You write from what you know, but you write into what you don’t know.” I tried to do that.
Aatif: That's a great way to put it—yeah I think I understand the idea of starting from something familiar and then going in a different direction, so the work becomes inspired by real life but not based on real life. I loved the dog by the way—I'm a cat person not a dog person, but that relationship she has with her pet felt so emotional and moving.
Devi: Thanks! I used to be a reporter and when I first wrote this piece in 2004 I was very concerned about accuracy and dates and times. When I came back to the story in 2014, I let all the accuracy go so I could find the truth of each of the pieces.
Aatif: I was going to ask about your background as a reporter—it's interesting that you have experience as both a reporter and as a poet, which feel to me like two very different forms of writing that each provide something different to a novel. How do you feel like having a background in both of those helped you approach the style of the book?
Devi: Well as a poet and as a reporter I’ve been told many times over the years to keep it short and cut things — so I’m a writer who is interested in compression and having those two backgrounds helped me when I went back and reshaped the book. I took out everything that wasn’t directly coming from the narrator’s POV.
Aatif: Yeah I can definitely see that, and it works really well—the book becomes this very impressionistic series of moments that together give us a full picture of this woman's life.
Devi: Thank you! What about you? Your first novel was recently released. How long did it take to write? In real life did you go on a road trip?
Aatif: I started mine back in 2011, just after college and it was on and off for a few years before I came back to it more seriously in 2015 and decided to rewrite it from the beginning—though thankfully I didn't lose any earlier versions, so I had those to draw on. And yeah, the short story is based somewhat on a real trip after grad school in Europe, but like you said, the character is heavily fictionalized.
Devi: Excellent, I’m looking forward to reading it! How long did it take you to find a publisher? I looked at the press website and I recently read with Melissa DuClos—author of Besotted.
Aatif: For me it took a while—there was a long agent search that got me some full requests but no representation, which all took about a year, and the another six months of submitting to various publishers. Oh yeah! Melissa published with the same press I did, 7.13 Books. How about you—what was your road like from finishing it to publication?
Devi: I finished at the end of 2016 and I tried to get an agent and I tried submitting to small presses and I got nowhere. At the end of 2017, a friend asked to read the book, and she loved it. She passed it on to someone who passed it on to Counterpoint. So I got a contract in Feb 2018 and one year later the book was published.
Aatif: Oh that's great! So you also experienced the struggles of trying to get an agent. Do you feel like the process has taught you anything about the publishing industry and getting a book out there?
Devi: Oh yes—many times. I have an MFA from the 1990s and my thesis was a novel, and that book was rejected no less than 75 times by agents and presses. Also I’m a poet. I get rejected twice a week 😉
Aatif: Haha. So what advice would you give to an emerging trying to get something published?
Devi: The publishing industry is super subjective. There’s a bit of luck involved. I will give the great advice I got in 2015: keep writing and keep sending out your work. The people who persist eventually get publication.
Aatif: Yeah, I think that's great advice--a teacher of mine once described success as "the quality of lasting."
Devi: That’s great. It should be on a T-shirt.
Aatif: Haha! Let's talk about your excerpt a little bit. How did you decide which section of the book to choose for this issue?
Devi: Well I wanted a section that spoke to an actual “road trip” and the one I picked is one of my favorite passages in the book.
Aatif: Oh, of course yeah, the road trips theme.
Aatif: And yeah, I felt in reading the book that it was one of the more emotionally uplifting moments of the book. At least, the first part.
Devi: Yes I really wanted to include moments of beauty in her recollections. Yeah—and it contrasts well with the second scene, which gives us a sense of the darker tension throughout the book. I wanted to include pieces so the reader comes away with a sense that she had moments of beauty amid the pain.
Aatif: Was it difficult to get into the emotional space to write about the pain? The book has some really heart-wrenching, tragic moments.
Devi: Robert Frost once said: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” There were moments while I was writing the book where I was hopping mad (as in angry) and crying and I think it got translated onto the page. But I don’t really believe in catharsis. I didn’t feel better writing the book. I have changed as a person and a writer and I am glad I was able to communicate the change in the book.
Aatif: Interesting—yeah, I think sometimes people oversimplify writing as a form of therapy, and while it can feel important to depict certain emotional experiences in fiction, it doesn't always feel cathartic to do so. On that note, what has the experience of having a book out been like? It's been about 2 months since release, right?
Devi: Yes. I think that if you’re doing a moment by moment re-enactment then you’re going to get hung up on dates and times and risk losing a chance to excavate the truth of a particular situation. It’s been strange and wonderful. I’m a 52-year-old debut novelist. I have zero expectations - and it has been amazing to see the response; counterpoint released it in the US in February and Hachette India released it in India in March and Little, Brown is releasing it in the U.K. on June 6.
Aatif: I'm curious—do you feel like the reception has differed between US and Indian audiences?
Devi: I don’t really know. I know the critics have been warm and welcoming in both countries. I haven’t been to India since the release but my extended family still lives there and they are seeing it on the bookstore shelves. In the US, I’m stunned and grateful at the level of support. Racism and misogyny and invisibility are hard topics—especially in America these days. It’s wonderful to see people read the book and have candid conversations about uncomfortable subjects.
Aatif: Yeah—I think it’s a really important book, and I'm glad it's getting the attention. So let's talk about the artwork associated with your story. What was the process like working with the artist and how do you feel about how they interpreted your work?
Devi: Oh, Nazish’s work was beautiful and surprising—I loved seeing the final work, I really felt like she captured what was in my imagination!
Aatif: Let's conclude with one last question then?
Devi: Certainly. I want to ask you, what’s next for you?
Aatif: Well, I finished a collection of short stories that I'm querying agents with, and I'm working on a second novel that's another literary comedy, set in LA, kind of a satire of rich people here and race relations and stuff. But I'm taking that one slowly for now--after all the debut stuff it's nice to just sit back and write.
Devi: It is nice to get back to the writing.
Aatif: What about you? Any future projects planned?
Devi: Yes, I’ve returned to the book I lost on the day of the raid, the novel I was six weeks from finishing. It’s called Shadow Gardens and it’s an ethnic retelling of Mrs Dalloway.
Aatif: Oh interesting. Has it been difficult going back to something you lost like that?
Devi: It was very difficult for a long time. Then I had to put it aside and finish Atlas. Now that Atlas is out, I can go back to it.
Aatif: Well, that's quite something to come back from—I can't imagine losing a project like that. Big congratulations on The Atlas of Reds and Blues though! And thanks so much for a great conversation!
Devi: Thank you so much Aatif—it was such a pleasure! Feel free to email me if you need anything.
Aatif: Sounds good--I'll go ahead and send the interview to Kamil. I'm really excited to see this come together. Take care!
Devi: Take care!