How I Write: “The work itself provides the inspiration”

Originally appeared as an interview with Jeff Tamarkin in The Writer Magazine

“The work itself provides the inspiration.”
By Jeff Tamarkin | Published: December 2, 2014

That Tanuja Desai Hidier’s novels are imbued with an undeniable sense of rhythm and melody is not a surprise: Hidier is also a singer-songwriter. Her new album “Bombay Spleen” is in fact based on her newest book Bombay Blues, which updates the story of Dimple Lala, the now-19 Indian-American protagonist of Hidier’s earlier YA work Born Confused.

On the CD sleeve, Hidier refers to each song not as a track but as a chapter. “Music is a huge part of both of my books,” says the U.S.-born, London-based author. “With Bombay Blues, I wanted the book to have the feel of a piece of music on every level, right up to the concluding double codas. And with “Bombay Spleen,” my aim was for the album to have the feel of the arc of a novel. For me, the book and album are one project, thoroughly intertwined in process and execution.”

Research: Born Confused is set in New York City, where I lived for many years. Bombay Blues is set in Bombay, a city that I didn’t know very well at all before embarking on this project. I’d only lived in Bombay for about a year shortly after birth; I’d visited a few times in my childhood. So very little research went into Born Confused. Bombay Blues was an entirely different process: a living of the questions. Diving so fully into the unknown it became a part of me. Although in my headspace and imagination, I inhabited Bombay for the entire three to four years of the writing and research process, I actually spent six weeks there over the course of a year to research.

Style: I just love language: playing with it, pushing it, pulling it close, closer. I’m in love with the musicality of it – how rhythm and melody can be created not only through word choice, but by the perfectly apt punctuation mark. Em-dash or colon? Comma or ellipsis? That’s the question. Something about quote marks, especially at the end of spoken phrases, feels untrue to me, at least for the books I’ve written so far. Em-dashes – of which I’m a big fan – feel more accurate to me: indicating the moment one begins speaking, but running those words right into the speaker’s headspace. They’re a bit more dreamlike, usher a gentle sliding in and floating into the character’s zone.

Inspiration: I believe it’s always there; you just have to be aware of it. The work itself provides the inspiration. You don’t need it to write; rather, you often need to write to experience it. I’ve learned
I can’t really have a bad day when I write, only when I don’t. Once I’m in, I’m in; the trouble is, in fact, exiting that state. Two huge catalysts that help me find it (and remain in a state of perpetual perspire-ual inspiration): a deadline – which, although they kept shifting during the process, I had [deadlines] both times from the get-go as I sold both books based on proposals – and the ultimate lifeline, motherhood. In the decade between books, I became a mother to two little girls. Morning person? Night person? You become a “whenever you can” person – and as parenthood keeps you in a kind of permanent state of jetlag, the a.m./p.m. distinction requires a thorough suspension of disbelief, anyway. You learn to dive right in during the time you do have to yourself.

Focus: I never write with the audience in mind, only the characters and story (which, come to think of it, is possibly more respectful to the reader). The foremost duty is to be true to them and, in so doing, fall upon some kind of “truth” that resonates with people of any age and background. With Born Confused, I never set out to write a specifically YA novel, but for years I had been wanting to express a South Asian American coming-of-age kind of story. Bombay Blues is in a bit of an out-of-the-box position, as it’s a much more of an adult/crossover story, if one has to put it in those terms, but is the sequel to that of a younger character.

Jeff Tamarkin is associate editor of JazzTimes. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with his wife, novelist Caroline Leavitt.