Thursday, June 11, 2020

Mamta Chaudhry

Mamta Chaudhry lives with her husband in Coral Gables, Florida, and they spend part of each year in India and in France. Much of her professional career was in television and classical radio at stations in Calcutta, Gainesville, Dallas, and Miami. Chaudry has studied with Marilynne Robinson and has also taught literature and creative writing at the University of Miami. Her early fiction, poetry, and feature articles have been published in newspapers and magazines in the States and in India. She is currently working on a second novel.

My Q&A with the author about her debut novel, Haunting Paris:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Of all the thousands of words I wrote and rewrote, the only two that survived the long publishing journey intact were the words Haunting Paris. I think it’s because everyone (including my editor, the legendary Nan Talese) felt that the title perfectly evoked both the subject and the atmosphere of the novel.

Paris is not just the setting, but also very much a character in the story; the City of Light is at once hauntingly beautiful and haunted by the ghosts of the past. One of the ghosts is the narrator, who returns to the place he called home, summoned by the woman he loved and by unfinished business while he was alive.

What's in a name?

That’s another thing that didn't change along the way—the names of the main characters: Julien and the women he loved: Clara, Isabelle, and Sylvie. I wanted names that were very French, yet had a slightly old-world flavor.

Julien’s name has a particular resonance: a substantial portion of the book’s drafts dealt with the Roman occupation of Paris, when Julianus was crowned emperor. That whole part of the story was completely excised from the finished version; all that remains, like a shard of pottery from an archeological dig, is the name.

As for Isabelle and Sylvie, I thought I picked the names for the sound, but a Frenchwoman pointed out that they were a perfect marker of their different classes as well, so that was probably there in my subconscious, where we make so many of our important writerly choices.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Oh, definitely beginnings. I wish I were the kind of writer who has the whole story outlined from the first line to the last. I set out on a journey of discovery with no roadmap in hand, and only a few flares set off in the dark. But however many detours and digressions the path takes, I see when I reach the end that it has been leading me ineluctably to this destination.

When Sylvie accidentally dislodges a hidden letter from Julien’s desk and sets out on a quest to discover the secrets of his past, I am writing to find out what she discovers. If I knew all along, I don’t think I would be as impelled to write the story.

And then, looking back, I can see exactly how the book should begin, in order to end where it does. It’s not the most efficient way of writing, but for me it’s part of the excitement of telling the story.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Well, unlike my narrator, I’m not French, not Jewish, neither man nor ghost. So it would seem that he and I are worlds apart in every possible way. But writing is such an act of imaginative empathy that you not only see yourself in the character, you become the character. I could hear Julien's voice so clearly in my head, it was as if I myself were speaking when I wrote his words on the page. That is the best kind of haunting, a literary haunting.

I love all the characters I create, whether it is Sylvie, whom it is easy to ignore until she reveals herself through her music, or Isabelle, whom it is easy to admire, but hard to like.

There are stray fragments of myself dispersed across all the characters—a love of music, a love of Shakespeare, the sense of being an outsider—but not one of them is autobiographical in any meaningful way. Except in that most meaningful of ways, that we all partake of love, loss, and yearning. It is our essential human condition.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Without question, music. More specifically, classical music. I used to be an announcer and music director at various classical music stations and if I had a shred of musical talent, I would have wanted to be a concert pianist. But I don’t. So instead, I have a main character who is a gifted pianist and music permeates the book, creating a soundtrack for the city of Paris.

My instrument is language, so I am very attentive to rhythm and tone and cadence. I want to tell a compelling story, but I want to tell it in a way that continues to resonate for readers long after they have finished the book.
Visit Mamta Chaudhry's website.

--Marshal Zeringue