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Interview for the Rayaan Writer blog

Really enjoyed doing this thorough, in-depth interview with the talented Mohammed Rayaan over at http://www.rayaanwriter.com
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Photo credit: Shuchi Kapoor

Divya Kumar is the author of ‘The Shrine of Death’, a thriller novel released in April 2018 by Bloomsbury India. She is also a freelance journalist. Her column, ‘Toddler Talk’ in the Metro plus has garnered many fans.

In her website, she describes herself as “Singer-songwriter and sometimes pianist. Movie geek. Netflix addict. Tennis nut. Mom of one little diva. Former physics student, computer scientist, web developer and media studies grad student among other things. Card-carrying member of the Happy to Have Been a Gulfie club.”


 
The Interview
 

 
How did you get the idea to write ‘The Shrine of Death’?

Divya: It literally came to me in a dream! I woke up one morning with one of the main characters of the story, Jai, fully formed in my head – his tragic backstory, his struggles. At that time, The Hindu was doing a lot of coverage on idol theft in Tamil Nadu, and the bust of the international smuggling ring headed by Manhattan-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor, and I was following it closely. So, the two – Jai’s story, and the idol theft plot – sort of just came together in my head, almost as a complete whole.

What kind of research did you have to do when writing your novel?

Divya: I did as much reading as possible on the idol theft cases in the news, as well as from the TamilNadu Idol Wing’s website, which had considerable detail on the busts, and I ensured that my information on the Chola dynasty was historically accurate. Especially helpful was a talk I attended on Chola temples by historian Pradeep Chakravarthy, from where I got the final piece
of the plot puzzle – pallipadais, shrines built to honour dead Chola kings and queens. But all of that was just a jumping off point for the story – the bulk of it comes from my imagination.

Can you tell us about your writing regime and your approach of writing a novel?

Divya: When I started writing this novel, my daughter was just about a year old, so there was no regime to speak off! I wrote whenever I could, late into the nights after she slept, or on the weekends, when I left her with my husband for a few hours and sat at a cafe with my laptop. The result was that I wrote intensely in bursts, but then there would be long stretches in between when I barely wrote at all. It got easier as my daughter got older – now I set aside three to four hours every morning while she’s in school to focus on writing or editing.

But I still like to write late into the night on occasion – though I pay for it in the morning! I always have a basic plot outline, an overall idea of where the story must go, and basic character
arcs mapped out before I begin my novel. But, of course, as I get deeper into writing each part, the plot evolves and changes, and the character arcs get tweaked to so that it all works, and fits together as a cohesive whole.

Can you tell us about your life as a journalist?

Divya: I began writing for The Hindu’s Metroplus supplement in Chennai after I returned from the U.S., where I was studying. It was, in all ways, a wonderful experience – we had a young, lively group of reporters and our editors were experienced and dynamic.

Books and art became my beat, so I had a chance to interview visiting authors – everyone from Amitav Ghosh to Jeffrey Archer – and leading artists in the city, and cover book launches and contemporary art shows.

I also got to explore Chennai, the city of my birth, and came to know it in a way I might never had been able to do otherwise. I think a lot that I learnt and experienced in the years I worked for The Hindu reflects in the setting and the themes of ‘The Shrine of Death’.

Who is your favourite author and your favourite books?

Divya: I love reading fiction across all genres — I enjoy Edgar Allan Poe and Anne Rice as much as I do Georgette Heyer and P. G. Wodehouse. I don’t have a single favourite author, but there are elements of different authors’ writing I love. For instance, crime writer Dick Francis is an old favourite of mine — I’ve always loved the way he foregrounds his characters and their emotional lives, even in the midst of a fast-moving plot.

I love the dark and brooding atmosphere that Daphne Du Maurier conjures up at will on her novels and short stories. I recently re-discovered Ira Levin — what a genius for plot the man had! And I love the gentle humanity and kindness in James Herriot’s writing.

Can you suggest tips for aspiring writers on how to get their novel published by reputed firms?

Divya: Being just one book old, I don’t know how much gyan I can give, but I can try! I guess the main thing is to make sure your manuscript is ready before you send it out – clean it up, edit, and revise until you feel sure it’s good enough to be out there. You want to make sure the agent or editor is seeing the best possible version of your work.

Also, it’s worth putting some effort into how you package your submission – your query letter/email, your synopsis etc. Make sure you stick to the guidelines the agent or editor lists on their website. These are small things that can make a difference. A lot of writers in India approach publishing houses directly;

I chose to approach Delhi-based Kanishka Gupta, one of the country’s top literary agents. He believed in the book enough to take me on, and he made things happen at record speed thereafter. Based on my experience, I can safely say that there’s nothing like having a dedicated, hardworking agent in your corner to make your publishing dream come true!

It must be quite difficult being a journalist. How do you manage to get new ideas for your articles?

Divya: As a features journalist, I never found it difficult to find story ideas! People are an endless source of inspiration, their stories, their accomplishments. Not just the people you meet when you go out to cover an event or a story, but the people you meet in daily life as well. And when that fails, you can always look within your own experiences for the germ of an idea.

 
How do you manage your life as a journalist and a fiction writer?

Divya: Journalism has taken a bit of a backseat for me in the last two years. It was partly that I came away from Chennai to Dubai, where I’m currently based, and partly that I’ve been pretty focused on completing the book and getting it published, and starting work on my next book. But in the preceding years, I was juggling a weekly column, doing freelance writing, and working on the book as well, and that happened pretty organically – I worked on the book when I didn’t have looming deadlines, and put it on the backburner when I did!
 
Do you get writer’s block? If yes, how do you handle it?

Divya: In my experience, if I’m feeling blocked and unable to write, it’s due to one of two things – fatigue or plot problems. Sometimes, if I’ve been writing intensely for a stretch, I hit a point of burnout, and start hating everything I’ve written. When that happens, I’ve found that just taking a step back and giving myself a break from the book helps a lot. Then I come back to it with fresh eyes, and find that hey, it’s not too bad after all, and the words start flowing again.
 
But sometimes, that doesn’t do it. And those times, I’ve realized that there’s often an issue with the story itself. Maybe I’ve written myself into an uninspiring corner, or some aspect of the characterisation is just not working. Then it’s worth reassessing/tweaking the original outline to try and fix the problem.
 
What principles do you live by?

Divya: I believe in kindness, in the old-fashioned concept of being nice. I always try to see the other person’s point of view, to be empathetic. But I also have very clear boundaries; I don’t stand for anyone disrespecting me or hurting the people I care for. I am extremely straightforward — I don’t have the inclination or the patience to play games – and excessively honest, to the point where I put sometimes myself in a spot by being unable to lie. But this is who I am, and I take pride in the ethical code I live by. I’m a friendly person but also intensely inward-looking. I need my own space, and I think that can sometimes be off-putting to people. But those who are close to me know that I will be there for them, no matter what.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Divya: I was born in Chennai, but I actually grew up for most part in Muscat, Oman, and finished my schooling there. Then began what I think of as my wandering years – I was in Chennai studying physics for a couple of years before transferring to the U.S. to complete my undergraduate studies – a dual degree in Computer Science and in Journalism at Rutgers University. I worked there as a web-developer and coder briefly, before deciding conclusively that programming was not for me! I then did my masters coursework in Media Studies before once more returning to Chennai. It was then that I interviewed at The Hindu. A position had just opened up at the Metroplus and was offered to me – the rest, as they say, is history. I knew after just a few days on the job that there was nothing else I’d rather be doing.  
 
Can you tell how your normal day goes by?
 
Divya: Like any mom, my day starts early, packing lunches, making breakfast, and sending the family off to school/office. I wrap up my chores by 10 a.m. and begin my day’s work. During my intense writing phases, I’ll jump directly into reading through/reworking the previous day’s writing, and then continuing where I left off. At other times, I might spend an hour or two responding to emails, messages, etc. before getting into editing/writing. At still other times, I might take a break from writing altogether and work on my music. Then my daughter comes home from school in the afternoon, and it’s time to make the evening meal, take her down for playtime, and then back home for the dinner, and the bedtime rush…
 
Can you talk about your experience as singer/song writer?

Divya: Music is an essential part of me. I almost always have a song running through my head, that I’m humming under my breath. I am a classically trained singer, having learnt Hindustani vocal music since childhood. I enjoy singing Indian semi-classical and light music, but my heart really lies in Western music, specifically classic rock/folk/pop music. I’m an alto and have performed in choirs through school, college and beyond. I also play a little piano (not as much as I’d like!) and have been writing my own songs for as long as I can remember. In the last couple of years, I’ve begun to record my covers of some old favorite Western songs, and hope to share more of my own original songs soon too! You can check out my covers at my Sound cloud account: (https://soundcloud.com/user-396816675.)
 
How did your column “Toddler Talk” came about? 

Divya: The idea for the column really grew out of the writing I was doing on my blog, divyakumar.com, at that time. After the birth of my daughter, I took some time off from full-time reporting, and was freelancing for The Hindu. I began to write humorous posts on my daughter’s escapades on the blog, and found that people enjoyed them. When I was asked to do a column for the revamped Metroplus, I suggested ‘Toddler Talk’, a light-hearted look at raising this generation of high-maintenance, tech-savvy toddlers. My editor liked the idea, and the column was born. I loved writing it – it was such fun way of recording the memories of my daughter’s Terrible Twos and Threenager years, and also proved to be a wonderful way to bond with other moms going through the same experiences. 

The original interview can be found here
 
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‘The Shrine of Death’ – An excerpt

A brief reading from ‘The Shrine of Death’ at the launch:

An April 2018 release from Bloomsbury India, ‘The Shrine of Death’ is a fast-paced thriller with a heady mix of crime, mystery, romance and the paranormal. Set in the murky of world of idol-theft, it takes you from Chennai’s newsrooms and universities to the sepulchral shrine of a Chola queen in the heartland of Tamil Nadu, and nothing and no one is what they seem…

 

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Article: Tamil Nadu idol thefts give author creative spark

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Photo credit: Deccan Chronicle

The journalist and author Divya Kumar has come out with a thriller ‘The Shrine of Death’. The book had a vibrant launch on Friday in the city.

The protagonist is a young woman, Prabha Sinha who is an IT professional in Chennai who is plunged into the netherworld of idol theft, murder and betrayal. Things start happening after she receives a mysterious phone call one night from her old friend Sneha Pillai. She seeks the help of Jai Vadehra, a troubled young man with a tragic past. She also seeks the help of the gorgeous DSP Gerard Ratnaraj of the Idol Wing, CID to whom she is irretrievably drawn towards. As the story unravels, she keeps on finding answers. Their search takes them from Chennai’s newsrooms and universities to the abandoned sepulchral shrine of a Chola queen in the heartland of Tamil Nadu.

The author took almost three and half years to finish the story. And since idol thefts had become common, especially after the robbery of 2008 by an international ring of idol thieves, she finds a cool focus point for the book.

“The story is purely an out and out entertainer with some romance, some paranormal elements”, said the author while explaining the subject matter of the book on the occasion of its launch. She hopes that people would enjoy the book picking it up on the airport or reading on a journey or while curling up by the poolside in the summer. A sequel to ‘The Shrine of Death’ is already in the process, according to the debut author.

The original article appeared here in the Deccan Chronicle.

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Book signing at Odyssey Bookstore, Adyar, Chennai!

Look! It’s finally on the shelves . Was so happy to see my book stacked up in one of my favorite bookstores in the city yesterday — couldn’t leave without signing a few copies! Doubly excited to be on the Chennai authors rack 

 

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Article: Of Chennai, idol theft and a crime-thriller

A journalist becomes a debutante author with the launch of the novel The Shrine of Death

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My book and I… at the launch 🙂 Photo credit: Shuchi Kapoor @girlinthegalli

A few years ago, reportage of the Chennai police department exposing a series of idol thefts planted an idea in the mind of journalist Divya Kumar. That transformed her into a debutante author with The Shrine of Death, a racy crime-thriller novel on the idol theft theme, set in Chennai.

At the launch of her book on Friday, Ms. Kumar, spoke of how much she enjoyed writing about places like Kamarajar Salai and T. Nagar.

“I grew up in the Middle East and went on to study in the U.S. But during my stint as a journalist with The Hindu for six years, I got to know the city well. Chennai is not getting featured enough [in mainstream popular fiction]. There is too much of Mumbai and Delhi; we need more of Chennai,” she said.

Best laboratory

In conversation with novelist and playwright Shreekumar Varma, she reminisced about her time with The Hindu and said the job was a fascinating one indeed, giving her opportunities to meet different people and taking her several places.

“It was like learning from the best laboratory. It helped me go from I-want-to-be-a-writer to being a writer,” she added.

Mukund Padmanabhan, Editor, The Hindu, who launched the book, said, Ms. Kumar lent a certain positivity when she had worked in the paper.

The original article appeared here in The Hindu.

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Article: The curse of empathy

Debutante author Divya Kumar discusses The Shrine of Death on the eve of the book’s launch

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Picture credit: R. Ravindran, The Hindu

Divya Kumar wrote her first story at the age of five, about a fish and a tortoise who were friends. “I think my mother still has it saved somewhere,” she smiles in reminiscence, before moving on to discuss her first published crime thriller, soon to be turned into a trilogy.

The process of writing The Shrine of Death, she says, began in 2012. “I woke up one morning, and the character of Jai, the empath, was just fully formed in my head,” she says, “I didn’t even connect it to the term ‘empath’ back them: I just knew that this was a character who could feel what other people felt.”

“I started reading up online, and found that there are other such cases, and such stories, and it’s clearly something difficult and traumatising. Of course, it’s a bit in the realm of clairvoyance and telepathy – more pseudo-science, really — but it gave the character an interesting psychological profile.” It intrigued her, she says, how such a person would respond in everyday life and how they would be misunderstood by others.

As important as her characters were for this author, the plot went hand in hand, sometimes jostling for equal space along the way. “It started with this character, but was also equally driven by my interest in idol thefts and smuggling rings. Around that time, The Hindu was covering a lot of these idol thefts extensively,” she recalls, “I came across this case of two 800-year-old Nataraja idols that were stolen around 2008: the theft was discovered, and that triggered a series of events which led to the busting of an international smuggling ring. My whole story became a sort of prequel to that. Of course, it’s highly fictionalised.”

The balancing act between the plot and the interplay of characters’ relationships kept her on her toes, she says. It wasn’t even remotely a seamless process when she first sat to write, “There are three key characters: at points, I would be intensely driven by them and I’d write and rewrite their interactions. At other points, I would work very intensely on the plot. That was very different, because the plot was like writing code. You know, when you hit a bug, and you have to rework that…,”the former Computer Science students breaks off with a frustrated shrug.

The first novel has barely been released — and is still going through the initial hiccoughs of logistics and online supply — but Kumar has already moved on to the second book in the series. She’s halfway through, in fact. “The story won’t let me be, I need to finish the trajectory of the characters. I’ve been working on that for the last year.”

The trilogy was not something she had intended, or even seen coming. Kumar had originally begun writing The Shrine of Death purely for pleasure, as a much-needed “me time” exercise in the midst of a busy life. She didn’t even consider getting it published till rave reviews came pouring in from friends and family.

“The process of writing took three and a half years, because it wasn’t something I was doing continuously. When I started, my daughter was just a little over a year old, and I was a full-time mom. I was still writing freelance fairly regularly. So, this was something I would do for myself. The story was in my head, so I would often write late in the night after my daughter fell asleep. On weekends, I would leave her with my husband and go write in a coffee shop. It was just something to enjoy creatively,” she smiles.

The original article appeared here in The Hindu Metroplus.

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Review of ‘The Shrine of Death’

The Hindu’s Literary Review supplement carried the first review of The Shrine of Death!

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Thrillers spun around Indian mythology are a dime a dozen. Pluck out whispered legends about temples or idols and weave them into tales of intrigue and you have a thriller in hand. In this saturated milieu, this book by Divya Kumar manages to stand a tad apart.

Generic title aside, The Shrine of Death does what many of the author’s competitors in the genre either fail to do or just don’t care to do. Divya Kumar pushes her research into the background and focuses instead on the characters, and not just her two protagonists.

She paints a world of journalists, art-mongers, academics and disillusioned IT professionals, and the grand descriptions of nature, architecture and warriors’ physique that usually define this genre give way to observed mannerisms, sensibilities and one-on-one interactions. Superlatives are kept to a minimum. It makes all the difference.

Working women curl up on the couch with their flatmates, swapping ghost stories during powercuts. An old woman going through emotional hell takes the trouble to check in on a troubled youngster. Cousins discuss bikes and careers, and exchange surreptitious glares when being scolded.

None of these moments is essential to the plot. But they do the job of keeping the reader invested — and better ensuring that the page will be turned — than any cliffhanger can. The story seems more real because the people and the situations are relatable, even with the occasional supernatural oddity thrown in.

That’s not to say that The Shrine of Death doesn’t deliver the usual dose of history: it’s just that every single page isn’t dripping with information overload. Kumar gives her readers plenty of space to rack their brains, to try and get ahead of the plot.

The plot revolves around an idol theft, and the hunt for a missing researcher who might have discovered something invaluable. Her colleague and old friend begin searching for her and the mystery soon widens enough to encompass the police and the CBI. Throughout The Shrine of Death, Kumar keeps her ambitions simple and delivers what she promises.

The Shrine of Death; Divya Kumar, Bloomsbury, ₹399

(The original article appeared here.)

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