Something True: Rebeca Dunn-Krahn interviews Deepa Rajagopalan

Deepa Rajagopalan

Volunteer Rebeca Dunn-Krahn talks with Deepa Rajagopalan, this year's Open Season Awards fiction judge. They discuss getting through a first draft of a novel, how writing poetry helps you build precision, and the maddening and exciting process of crafting a short story.


Deepa Rajagopalan won the 2021 PEN Canada New Voices Award for her short story “Peacocks of Instagram.” Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in literary magazines or anthologies such as The Bristol Short Story Prize anthology, Room Magazine, The Malahat Review, Arc Poetry and EVENT magazine. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Born to Indian parents in Saudi Arabia, she has lived in many cities across India, the US, and Canada. Deepa works in the tech industry in Toronto.

Her first book of short fiction, Peacocks of Instagram, is forthcoming from Astoria/House of Anansi in 2024. She is now working on her first novel, We Have Come Empty Handed, about a disparate group of Indian workers in Saudi Arabia, whose lives become entangled, caught in the exigencies of war, deception, and intolerance.

You are having an awesome year. You won The Malahat Review’s Open Season Fiction Award, your first short story collection Peacocks of Instagram was acquired by House of Anansi, and your story "Parasite" is set to be published later this year as it was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize. You're also currently working on a novel. What can we expect from your new work?

I think it was James Baldwin who said, “When you are writing, you’re trying to find out something you don’t know.” It’s easier to talk about my short story collection because it is complete, and I now know what it is about. Peacocks of Instagram is a collection of fourteen stories loosely linked by characters and places. The stories span decades and continents and follow these characters at various points in their lives when I felt I could articulate some essential truths. These are ordinary people—people of Indian origin who are not doctors or lawyers—who live interesting lives and who are not ashamed of themselves. There is a playwright, a housekeeper, a potter, a coffee store employee, a singer, a couple of engineers, and a handful of children who appear in the book, their lives intersecting due to their circumstances or their desires. What these characters have in common is that they’re all navigating some kind of othering, and I’m trying to subvert expectations of the typical kind of othering readers would expect them to encounter.

With the novel, it is a different story. I know that it follows three characters—a teacher, a tailor, and a child—whose lives are forever linked by a tragic event. I know that it is set in India, Saudi Arabia, and the US. And I know that all three characters have secrets they want to take to their graves. Everything else will continue to evolve.

In your interview with Anne Hung as 2023’s Open Season Fiction Award winner, you mentioned that reading Alice Munro is like a free masterclass in short story writing. My writing teacher says that Munro typically works through around 80 drafts of a story. How many drafts did the pieces in your forthcoming collection go through? What does your editing process usually look like?

Isn’t that fascinating? Munro also says she doesn’t show anything in progress to anybody. Going through 80 drafts without showing it to anybody, that requires a lot of confidence in your ability to critique your own writing.

Some stories in my collection went through more drafts than others. A few of them went through probably 30 to 40 drafts while others came out more developed. I love the editing process. For me, the first draft is the scariest, and once I have it down, I am more at ease. It feels like having a block of clay and an understanding of what it wants to be. In some ways, it is akin to giving yourself constraints either of form or point of view or even an entry and an exit to the story, which I find liberating.

When I have a story idea in mind, I go into a frenzied state for a few weeks when I try to get that first draft on paper. Once I have that first draft and feel surer about where the story wants to go, I work on fleshing out the characters, understanding why they do what they do, making sure I have the right point of view, things like that. Then I’d probably work on getting the tone coherent, removing things about character that no longer need to be in the story because I now know them better, and trying to find ways to say familiar things differently to surprise or delight the reader. Each story is different, and the process is so maddening and exciting.

Short fiction is, to me, one of the most difficult forms. When do you know that a story is working? What will impress you as you judge the Open Season Awards fiction category?

I think a short story works when you feel like it has revealed something true. When the story haunts you after you’ve read it, by what it has revealed, and what it hasn’t. I’m looking for the story that is sure of itself, that doesn’t apologize for existing, that holds back on what the character feels so the reader can feel all of it. In the way Yiyun Li’s stories leave you with a visceral feeling or the way Chekov’s stories make ordinary moments extraordinary, or the way Murakami makes you believe in a talking monkey, the story that seeps into your consciousness and becomes a little part of your worldview. One that, after having read it, you simply can’t go on with your day without thinking about it, or without telling someone about it.

You write poetry as well as fiction. Your poem "What We Want" captures succinctly what so many of us thought and felt during the pandemic, whereas "Gifts from the Arabian Sea" reads like a micro-story, almost like a sequel to your story "Good Genes." How does writing poetry influence the way you read and write short stories and vice versa?

Thank you for your attentive research! I was always intimidated by poetry because I had this notion that a poem should come to you fully formed. I took a poetry workshop with Dionne Brand at the University of Guelph, where she said that was nonsense and poetry came from thinking and like any other kind of writing, it was work. She also said that we should question each word in our poems. That is fantastic advice for the short story too. You must make every word count. Writing poetry helps you build that muscle of precision. Sometimes, I obsess about a word for hours. I will go on walks, letting a sentence or a story marinate so the right word comes to me. I suppose writing short stories helps give your poems a narrative structure, though I think my short stories benefit more from my poetry than vice versa.

You’re currently writing a novel, We Have Come Empty Handed, "about a disparate group of Indian workers in Saudi Arabia, whose lives become entangled, caught in the exigencies of war, deception, and intolerance." How are you enjoying working in this format as opposed to short fiction?

In some ways, writing a novel should be easier than a story collection because there’s just one story you’re following, instead of, say a dozen. What I am enjoying about writing the novel is that there is more space for meandering, more room to explore and follow your characters. What I am finding difficult is the lack of constraints, in terms of word count or structure or even a writing contest deadline! That thought of anything can happen on the page makes me anxious. An anxiety of possibility, or of choice. I also have the habit of revising my sentences as I write so a first draft takes a while, which makes sense for a short story but for a novel, it can be gruelling to polish your sentences as you try to get through that first draft.

On a recent literary panel, the novelist Tsering Yangzom Lama was asked if the diversity of authors in the Giller Prize shortlist for 2022 was an indication that lack of diversity in Canadian publishing is no longer a problem. She responded that it was "premature" to make this claim. If you feel comfortable talking about it, what are your own experiences when it comes to the Canadian publishing industry and diversity in publishing?

I think we can say a lack of diversity is no longer a problem in Canadian publishing when we see as many books from racialized writers about relationships or beauty or something weird and specific, or anything else that is not related to trauma arising directly or indirectly from colonialism, as there are from white writers. I am an optimist and I believe we are headed in the right direction, but I agree with Tsering that we are not there yet. Until then, let’s continue to write what we want to write!

P.S. Did you know that the University of Victoria has a campus peacock? And that he has his own Instagram?

I did! George is such a diva.


Rebeca Dunn-Krahn

Rebeca Dunn-Krahn

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