Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Take Five with Author Susan Oleksiw

Welcome to An Indie Adventure, Susan.  Tell us, what inspired you to write your book  For the Love of Parvati: An Anita Ray Mystery?

India seems exotic to those of us in the West, but the country has many of the same problems we have. This novel grew out of my discovery that India struggles with illegal immigrants just as the US does. Unlike the US, however, India doesn't believe it can force them back across the border, since most are war refugees (Tibetans, Bengalis, Muslims, and others). Many live in refugee camps, some spread out into the rest of the country, and some states have flare-ups between the locals and the newcomers. It's all very familiar.

What were your experiences as a child that contributed to you becoming a writer?

The home I grew up in was filled with books, and my father let me explore the shelves by his desk. I could pull out anything and read it. In addition, I loved making up stories, listening to others tell stories, and set up small plays with my toys. Then one day the mother of a friend talked about the book so-and-so wrote. I knew him! My friend baby-sat for his children, and I went with her. Real people wrote books, people I knew. I was fascinated.

The reason I write about India in the Anita Ray series also came from reading. At the age of ten or eleven I received a book of Asian fairy tales, and that began a lifelong love of India. I was fortunate enough to go to a progressive girls' school where I studied Asian history and then to a small college that introduced Asian art history while I was there. The stars aligned, and I went to graduate school, where I earned a PhD in Sanskrit, the classical language of India.

It would seem that the lesson of my life is expose me to books and I'll keep on going. I will follow an idea for as long as I can, and then write about it, with or without a murder.
The other experiences include photography. My mother was an avid amateur and my grandfather, her father, was an experienced semiprofessional (if there is such a thing). We always had cameras around, and when I met my husband he was just beginning to explore photography. I didn't do much with this till a few years ago, when I began taking photos seriously in India. I've done a couple of exhibits and been in two juried shows, but that's all.

When I cleaned out my parents' house I found boxes and boxes of old photographs. My husband insisted this was unusual. I've decided that some of what he do, some of what interests us, must be in our genes. I'm making Anita Ray a serious photographer, and learning an enormous amount as I do so. Her success means I have to learn a lot to keep up with her, but its loads of fun.

Do day-to-day life experiences influence your stories?

Absolutely. All day long I'm thinking about what I'm writing or what I'm going to write, and if I hear someone say something in an especially interesting or quirky manner, that's liable to end up in my writing. I see people walking along and there's something about them that has to go into my current WIP. Years ago my parents' dog was shot by a woman who lived on a remote farm. She told my father, "He was worrying my pigs." That line, and the woman who spoke it, stayed with me for years until I found the perfect place for it.

Here's another example. A few months ago I was in a coffee shop reading when I heard a woman's voice. She was talking to her friend about something and her voice was so distinctive, so riveting, that it stayed in my mind for days. And then I saw her whole life (or enough for a short story), wrote a story about her, and sold it to Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (it's in the October 2014 issue). This kind of thing happens all the time. I don't have to write down the incident because I know it will stay with me, fresh and ready, until I need it.

What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?

When I have an idea for a book that I am pretty confident will work I write a short paragraph, perhaps five or ten lines, describing the story, including the challenge to the main character. It's a short summary, with some detail. After that, I think in terms of scenes, a particular character who would fit, snatches of dialogue, a clue and how to deliver it. I make lists of these, checking things off as I write. Since I know how the person died (usually), I have a list of clues that I have to deliver as well as motivation and other aspects of the story. When I begin writing I have lots of notes, though they only take up two or three pages, and these guide me and keep me on track.

If you were a TV, film or book character, apart from one you've created, who would you be?  And why?

This is so hard for me because I go blank at such questions. I think perhaps I would be the detective on Midsomer Mysteries. He's down to earth, imaginative, and with a good sense of humor.

Give us a brief summary of For the Love of Parvati: An Anita Ray Mystery:

Anita accompanies her aunt on a visit to family in the hills of South India. The monsoon is raging, but even worse the military seems to be searching for someone. After being stopped and searched, Anita and her aunt drive on, picking up a relative at a temple and a friend he has promised a ride to. The family visit does not go as planned--everyone seems to be hiding something. Even worse, someone seems to be stalking the house. In a break in the rain, Anita sets out to photograph and take a walk. She comes across a body washed up by the river, but the corpse shows signs of having been tied up and then attacked.

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Susan Oleksiw writes the Anita Ray series featuring an Indian-American photographer living at her aunt's tourist hotel in South India (Under the Eye of Kali, 2010, The Wrath of Shiva, 2012, and For the Love of Parvati, 2014). She also writes the Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva (introduced in Murder in Mellingham, 1993, the first of six books). Susan is well known for her articles on crime fiction; her first publication in this area was A Reader's Guide to the Classic British Mystery. Her short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine and numerous anthologies. Susan lives and writes outside Boston, MA.

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  1. Hi, Susan,

    A very interesting interview! You're the only person I know who has a Ph.D. in something as exotic as Sanskrit. I hope you'll show lots of your photos on your blog and Author Expressions.

  2. Thanks, Jacquie. In graduate school I was in awe of the students studying Chinese. It's all in our perspective. I love the way photography is working into my stories. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Hi Susan, I'm back from R&R and read the blog "take five..." Very interesting, your love of India captured in a series. I admire you and wonder if we met at an Author Day" in Maine for Five Star authors? It was several years ago. Just curious,