William Kelley Woolfitt, who runs Speaking of Marvels, a forum for interviews about chapbooks, novellas, and other short form literature, recently sat down to interview Rita Banerjee, the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop Executive Creative Director, about her novella, A Night with Kali (Brooklyn Art House Co-op, 2011). In the interview, Woolfit asked Rita a series of questions from which were her favorite chapbooks and novellas, to questions on her current writing projects, and her advice to writers working on new projects and book manuscripts. You can read the full interview here. Here is a selection of questions from the interview:
What’s your novella about?
A Night with Kali is at its core a coming-of-age ghost story. The novella is about a taxi-driver, Tamal-da, who explains why he left his fishing village near Krishnapur, West Bengal, to work on the dirty and crooked streets of Kolkata. Against an oddly purple mid-day sky, the narration opens on the rain-clogged streets of Kolkata, where Tamal’s car gets stuck in a flood. To pass the time and wait for help, he begins to tell his passenger of how he came to this city and his past, which is filled inexplicably with undead things.
What are some of your favorite novellas? How did they influence your writing or your desire to make a novella of your own?
Novellas seem to capture a magical middle ground between the poignancy and sharp edginess of the short story and the more decadent, sprawling ruminations available to novelists. Some of my favorite novellas include Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Leo Tolstoy’s Family Happiness, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness, and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. In Dostoevsky’s novella, the singular psychosis and at times, irredeemable actions of the narrator, an extremely likeable anti-hero, propel the narration forward. In Tolstoy and Goethe’s novellas, both authors emphasize and exploit the desires and emotional uncertainties of their central characters to hook in the reader. And Conrad and Pynchon excel at exploring how objects, symbols, and terrain can reflect and provide commentary on the psychology and motives of characters.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring novella author?
First, read as much as you can, and don’t be ashamed to read those texts others may not consider “literature.” Look back at the stories, essays, films, poems, speeches, etc., that inspired you the most. Figure out what made them so effective. Did it have something to do with the structure of the story? The emotional authenticity and dynamism of certain characters? The comedy and turn of events? The ability of language to capture a lyrical moment persuasively and succinctly? Figure out why you are drawn to certain narrative and lyrical works, analyze these texts for elements of their style, structure, and content, and from what you’ve learned, see if you can do it. Go ahead and experiment, grab some coffee or brandy if you need it, and write, write, write until you get it right.
excerpt from A Night with Kali
“By the time I reached the old Kali Mandir in the woods, I had lost sight of the shadowy white figure completely. Walking by the main gate to the temple, I stopped in front of the arched entrance way. The priest had not gotten up yet and had not opened the doors this early in the morning. But through the grilled gates, I could see into the main temple hall, which rose majestically in the middle of the forest canopy. Looking in, I saw the figure of Kali standing there, in the middle of the hall, with her wide and sinister grin. Her tongue was hanging out and in her hands, she carried a variety of weapons including a machete in one and a knot of severed heads in another. Across her lithe, blue naked body a garland of skulls draped lightly over her breasts. A short chain-mail skirt with links in the shape of human hands hiked up one of her hips as she stood with her legs parted wide on the body of her husband, Shiva. Her tongue, thus, rolled down of its own accord. Bracketed against the moonlight, she made a ferocious figure. But there was something protective and eternal about her, too. There was an air of mischief in her smile and the way her body posed provocatively for the spectator…
Watching the stationary figure watch me, I gave her a quick morning prayer… In the moonlight, the statue’s eyes glittered back at me.”
Full interview available at Speaking of Marvels: Rita Banerjee’s A Night with Kali
Rita Banerjee received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard. Her writing has been published in Poets for Living Waters, The New Renaissance, The Fiction Project, Catamaran, The Crab Creek Review, and Amethyst Arsenic. Her first collection of poems, Cracklers at Night, received First Honorable Mention for Best Poetry Book of 2011-2012 at the Los Angeles Book Festival and her novella, A Night with Kali, was digitized by the Brooklyn Art-house Co-op. She is Executive Creative Director of the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop, and her writing has been featured on VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and on KBOO Radio’s APA Compass. You can follow her work at ritabanerjee.com or on Twitter @Rita_Banerjee