I’m so pleased to introduce mystery author Susan Oleksiw as my guest today. Before turning to crime fiction, Susan received a Ph.D. in Sanskrit from the University of Pennsylvania, and lived and traveled extensively in India as part of her studies. She was the editor for a collection of scholarly articles on communications in Asia in the early 1980s; she has published several articles on Indian literature and art as well.
Her short stories and essays about India appear in other literary journals. The Mellingham Mystery series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva includes six novels so far.
Anita Ray, an Indian American photographer living in India, was first introduced in “A Murder Made in India,” a short story in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. She is the amateur sleuth in Susan’s 2010 release from Five Star/Gage, Under the Eye of Kali.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas? by Susan Oleksiw
Any writer who has ever admitted publicly that she writes fiction has been confronted with the standard set of questions from those who don’t write. For me the answers are pretty easy. Are you famous? (No.) Are you published? (Yes.) Where do you get your ideas? (Same place you get yours, probably.) I stopped being annoyed by these and similar questions a long time ago because they remind me of how fortunate I am, and also because once in a while someone really does want to know where I get my ideas.
Trying to explain where ideas come from is, for me, a dangerous exercise because I don’t want anyone to feel self-conscious or uncomfortable after we’re through talking. Only once have I ever met anyone who divined how things worked. At a neighborhood cookout a woman standing next to me said, “I suppose you look at the people around you and listen to them talking and then go home and make a story out of it.” Obviously annoyed with me, she stalked off. I was so surprised that I couldn’t think of anything to say, and I didn’t want to say, “You’re right, lady, and you are begging to go into a story.”
Yes, writers get their ideas by looking at the people around them and then wondering, what if? A woman arrives late at a party, explains that her husband is parking the car, and accepts a glass of wine. The evening progresses, but . . . what if he never comes into the house? Where is he? A hotel offers home-style dining, with all the guests sitting around a large table. Thrown together, the guests must be cordial, but . . . what if one insists on something more, probing the others for information about their lives? What if this guest returns to her room after breakfast to find her clothing torn and tossed around on the floor?
This is how I began the first Anita Ray novel, UNDER THE EYE OF KALI. Anita Ray, an Indian-American woman living in India at her aunt’s hotel, has appeared in a number of short stories, but this is her first book-length adventure. I picked the setting of a hotel in a tourist area, Hotel Delite, because I want Anita to be able to move through the many worlds that now converge in India—the traditional culture of South India, and especially Kerala, the westernizing middle class, and the ever-changing community of foreigners who come to work, relax, or visit friends.
Anita knows that the death of a hotel guest, even though it looks like an accident, could easily doom her aunt’s hotel, and she feels compelled to figure out what happened. Why would a foreign woman suddenly go off to explore a neglected part of the resort late at night? Was it mere coincidence that her traveling companion fell ill at the same time?
Questions keep me going when I’m writing, and I don’t expect to know the answers to all of them until I get to the end. I’m finding things out by following Anita during her investigations, listening to what the workers in the resort tell her, watching while she goes through a suitcase and papers, listening to the gossip of the hotel guests, and telling her worries to one of the fruit-sellers, who offers good advice.
I often tell students or other writers just starting out that writing a novel is a journey, a lived experience for the reader because it was a lived experience for the writer while she was writing it. I want to make discoveries as I go along, to explore and learn and be surprised. Anita lives and works in the resort, so this is richly described as she goes out to dinner with a friend, opens her photography studio for business, chats with the tailor next door. The reader, I hope, will know this foreign landscape as well as Anita, and at the end of the story feel she has lived briefly in another world.
Thanks so much, Susan, for being here today and sharing your thoughts about turning ideas into stories. I like the idea behind the Anita Ray series and look forward to reading Under the Eye of Kali.