Ramola D was born in Madras, trained as a
journalist and moved to America to study creative writing. Currently
living in Virginia, she teaches creative writing part-time at The
George Washington University and The Writer's Center,
Bethesda. Her previous collection of poetry Invisible Season,
won the Washington Writers’ Publishing Prize.
with Ramola D
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Ramola D: I think the stories that ended up
in this collection were written across about twelve years. They were
not all written at the same time. I wrote some not long after I
finished my MFA in poetry at George Mason over a four year period, the
others during but mostly after I completed a novel, when I started to
write short fiction again. I worked on a few for years after I wrote
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
RD: No, none of the stories was
intended for a particular collection. When I first started some of the
stories that ended up here in Temporary
Lives - such as Room
Enough for the Sky or In
Another World, I was experimenting with fabulist fiction
and magic realism and flash fiction. I grew up reading the Brontes,
Jane Austen, Twain, Hawthorne, Dickens, the English and American
classics - after my MFA I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo
Calvino and Milan Kundera, also Janet Frame, whom I’ve long loved, and
really experimenting with form. I was also exploring the surreal and
language poets and writing poetry. I’ve always been drawn to the lyric
in language, whether poetry or prose, and so I found myself playing
with language and form a good deal.
My first version of this collection had a lot of pieces which were
experimental in that way, not classically plotted. That version was
briefly represented by an agent in New York who showed it around to
various editors at Doubleday and Knopf and some other places who said
some lovely things about it ("radiant and lyrical", etc.) but
essentially said - to my eternal astonishment - it was "too literary."
It was my first encounter with mainstream publishing’s bias toward the
classical and minimalist.
I worked closely with one editor on one of my
stories, but she ultimately said the stories were too unfinished - she
was looking at experimental work through a classic filter, and of
course those stories were different. I did send the manuscript out for
a while to contests after that, but not much happened. I kind of put it
on a back shelf while I wrote my novel, it felt like I could not
publish it. Eventually though I did go back to it, and I made some
changes - I literally pulled out the most experimental pieces and began
to include some of the newer stories I was writing - like The Next Corpse Collector
and What the Watchman
I have to say that lately I’m as drawn to the challenges of classic
form as to experimental writing, I haven’t by any means dropped the
latter, but I’ve been exploring the former. I’ve been teaching short
fiction too, and re-reading the classics in short fiction - Joyce’s
Dubliners, Chekhov, Hemingway, Cheever, Malamud, Katherine Anne Porter,
Flannery O’Connor - and exploring POV, and finding I like exploring
different styles or ways of writing a story, so I was also writing
stories that might be considered more classic in form. So I
built a new version of the collection then, putting in some of these
Again, I spent years sending out this collection - but I felt
it was stronger now, a cohesive manuscript, so I persisted - it made
finalist in the 2004 Nebraska Book Series and was finally selected in
the AWP Grace Paley Short Fiction contest in 2008, which was great, unexpected.
Maybe I should say unanticipated - you send out to the literary
contests because that is what you are supposed to do, try the contests
or find a trade publisher. When the manuscript was selected by Jewell
Parker Rhodes, I felt very fortunate, just relieved and glad the
manuscript would be published at last.
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
RD: I felt I knew early on what the
title would be - Temporary
Lives is also the name of a story, one of the
early-written ones - and I tried to listen for echoes to this center in
the other stories I had. Rose Ammal, the main character in Temporary Lives,
modelled on my grandmother’s generation, and privy to all sorts of
oppression and repression by way of being female, as well as some
rather extraordinary betrayal - comes to something of an understanding
of her hardships as temporary, in her struggle to find meaning and
reclaim her life.
My fascination early was with characters in India - based on people I
have encountered through journalism or observed, whom I’ve had much
curiosity about - perceived to live on the margins of the more
privileged, middle-class world I myself inhabited - mostly women (and I
was drawn to the stories of middle-class women too, whose privilege did
not protect them after all), also children, and older men in situations
of oppression and impoverishment whose desire for self and freedom
somehow broke through - I believe in the essential desire for self in
all beings, I wanted to explore and attempt to give voice to those
kinds of experiences. So I had quite a few stories with characters
grappling with difficult situations and striving to change their
I also ended up choosing to include only the stories situated
completely in India. I did include one story set in the US, but only
because it was part of that early-written set and because the
protagonist there spoke strongly out of her Indian (rather than
I’ve been in the States now for twenty years, and over this time my
writing interests have expanded—in addition to stories set in India,
which I continue to write, I have a second collection of stories I call
bicultural, because the characters in there, whether first or
second-generation Indian-American, speak out of the bicultural
experience of being Indian and encountering America - or being American
and encountering India. The characters in Temporary Lives are
more distinctly situated in India. Given that earlier experience, I
also included stories that seemed more obviously "finished."
For order, I listened to the voices in each story. I read each story
through, paying attention to the endings and beginnings, and trying to
see if the place where one story ended felt like a place another story,
another voice could begin. It was a trial and error sort of thing. I
listened for some kind of consonance, coherence.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
RD: I think to me a story is
a movement into another space, its own dimension. Stories create their
own worlds. The more a story can draw me into its space, into someone’s
experience - through whatever means it chooses, language or event or
sensibility - the more power it has to affect me, to impact, to
Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?
I’m all wrapped up in those first magic childhood meanings of story -
as fairytale and fable - the secret garden, the enchanted forest, the
distant quest. I’m drawn to stories with that quality of world to them
- where the moments of intensity in them are felt through that voiced,
personal experience of a particular, created world.
That’s sort of a complex question. I think the easy answer is no,
straight off, I am not thinking of a reader at the actual point of
writing, I’m writing for myself, and I’m writing for the story. But
anyone who tangles with craft is thinking of audience, intrinsically -
whether it’s editors/publishers or readers -we’re writing within a
common space of awareness. I write to explore and understand but I also
write to be comprehensible, to be read and readable. It would be
disingenuous to say definitively I write for no-one but myself. It may
be more honest to say that though my allegiance is to the story, I
write for myself and for people like me, and, especially in my more
lyric work, when I let myself get all wrapped up in language and run
where it goes, possibly also for that one particular reader or editor
who will "get" me.
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection,
anything at all?
RD: It’s strange to imagine someone
reading my work, at the end of it all. I guess I would be curious about
the experience, for the reader. What spoke to you? What do you come
away with? Were the stories evocative in some way, for your own life?
Stuff like that.
it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
RD: I don’t know - are they? I hope
they are! I’m happy the book is a book and is out there. My hope, like
any other writer’s, is that Temporary
Lives finds readers - here in the US, in the UK, and in
India, in particular. It was released only recently, I am just
beginning to do readings. As you know, as writers we’re all readers
first. As a reader, I can recall the tremendous impact certain books
have had on me, the books I return to, to read over and over. And the
feeling of discovery when you come upon writing, or a writer who speaks
to your own sensibility, your love for language—for me Kate Braverman
comes to mind, or Carole Maso, or Sandra Cisneros, Michael Ondaatje,
Toni Morrison, Susan Minot, Merce Rodoreda. I hope in some small way my
book finds a reader or readers who may be looking for it, or something
What are you working on now?
RD: I’m working on more bicultural
short fiction, a new novel drawn from my maternal grandparents’ lives
in the Christian deep south of 1910s and ‘20s British-ruled India when
the Independence movement was heating up, a play about Gaza, pieces of
creative non-fiction, and poems on famines in India during the later
years of the British Raj, an NEA-funded project I am striving to
complete this spring. I’m trying to ease into the novel, really, while
finishing up the poetry project. I’ve been teaching drama for a few
years now and have become fascinated with plays, they teach me so much
about writing fiction. And I can’t seem to stop writing short fiction -
there’s always a story brewing, that I’m working on. I feel I am
writing for two new collections currently, each with its own centre.
And I’m striving to find publishers for my first novel, a rather
feminist novel of awakening set in India, and my second collection of
fiction - the bicultural short fiction of women and men in relationship
set in the US and India.
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
RD: The Girl in Hyacinth Blue,
by Susan Vreeland - just extraordinary, a tremendous collection of
stories linked around a fictional painting by Vermeer and spanning
centuries and continents; The Road of Five Churches,
a brilliant collection by Stephanie Dickinson, just a gorgeous and
lyric writer whose work I love, who truly deserves major recognition; Love Begins in Winter,
by Simon van Booy - such mysterious, meandering, meditative stories.