By Susanne Marie Poulette
When I attended the Breakout Novel Intensive workshop last April, I had the pleasure of meeting Vanitha Sankaran, author of Watermark: A Novel of the Middle Ages (Harper Collins/Avon, 2010), I must admit that once I started reading her book, I couldn’t put it down. I was captivated by the protagonist and the beautiful flow of language in her story. Vanitha kindly agreed to this interview, which I believe will demonstrate the depth and richness of Watermark.
- Your protagonist is such a strong, resilient, free-thinking woman, set in the Middle Ages. What inspired the development of Auda’s character?
To be honest, the character concept came about in a very strange way. When I started what was then a short story, I was not a serious writer, per se. Writing had been a passion of mine since I was very young, but I had set it aside for a more practical career as a biomedical scientist. This story popped out when I was writing my dissertation, and was actually about a very ugly girl (who was the daughter of a papermaker) who had captured the attention of an aspiring artist. He wanted to draw the unusual turn of her lips, the mismatched slant of her eyes, the strange way she looked at the world and didn’t notice other people making fun of her. He used her father’s paper for his early sketches and made a good sum off them, and of course left her behind and he moved onwards and upwards.
That story didn’t work out, possibly because I didn’t want to write about a girl taken advantage of. I wanted to write about an unusual girl who didn’t fit in, but because she was so far ahead of her peers. Thus was Auda born.
- What was the significance in choosing mutism for Auda?
As a historical fiction author and a scientist, realism is never far from my writing. Books and films have seen a surge over the past two decades in terms of having strong capable women as protagonists, and that’s a great thing for literature. I have no doubt strong women have always existed, but perception of what strength means has obviously changed through the years. In this book, Auda’s strength was her thirst for her knowledge, her interest and ability in reading. But I had to need a good reason why the daughter of craftsman would know how to read—again, the realism. Mutism gave me a way for Auda to be that intelligent girl who wrote as a way to find her true voice.
- You did extensive research on medieval France, including daily life amid widespread Church corruption, as well as the role of papermaking in those times. Were there any particular challenges you met in writing this historical novel?
It’s funny you mention Church corruption because this very well-trodden truth was one facet of my novel that was the hardest for me. It has become fashionable to malign the Catholic Church and especially in the Middle Ages, that reputation is well deserved. But at the same time, I was interested in exploring other nuances behind the Church’s actions. For me, that involved searching for the whys of someone who truly believed burning heretics was saving their souls from a much worse fate. Drawing out that personality was, for me, much harder than researching the ways of medieval life in south France (especially since I have enough of a background in French that I could decipher the much serendipitous books I found about Narbonne in that era).
- In reading Watermark, many themes resonated for me. I was particularly struck by the human suffering and gender injustices bred by religious fervor, still rampant in today’s world. Was your intention to make a connection to these present day issues?
Yes, and not just in the human condition, but also in how we develop new ways of communication each other, and how that new communication changes things. As with the advent of paper, the Internet and social media have changed the way we communicate profoundly. A girl who cannot read, has no value as determined by her religion except as property to a man, and who suffers terrible abuse can reach to others like her or those who can help much easier with the Internet. Or, at least, her plight can see the light of day. In its time, paper was also a way for regular people to hear truths they were blind to before. The issues I wrote about in Watermark are still true to today, and sadly, will be true for a long time. But how we overcome injustices and suffering, and how our response continues to change and grow is the connection I really wanted to make.
- Your book cover is rich and inviting, and the elegant simplicity of your title is intriguing. How did you decide on a one-word title? Was it your own idea to imbed Martin’s watermark in the cover design?
I had a great cover designer, for certain! I’m not sure whose idea it was to incorporate the watermark in the design but the watermark is something I made out of wire and played with as I explored homemade papermaking using medieval recipes. The title, which I think fits the novel on many different levels, was suggested to me by a writer colleague, Ejner Fulsang.
- How long did it take to write Watermark? Did it take longer to write it or revise it?
Start to finish the whole process took 8 years. Of course in that time, I had to learn the writing process, or rather my process, finish up my Ph.D., complete an MFA in writing, and hold down a job. J But I think that type of schedule is true for most writers—how many of us can make a living off of our books alone? That said, it was definitely the revising that took longer for me. I knew the start and end of my novel when I began it in earnest, and some of the major highlights. Writing the first draft was painful, but reading it was even more so because I knew how much work it needed to be ready to submit to an agent. But others are lot smarter, quicker, more talented than I am, so no one should take 8 years as any sort of standard!
- Do you have a particular writing routine that works best for you?
The morning are most productive for me, partly because my attention is focused and partly because I have come to understand that if I don’t make time for my novel, no one else is going to do it for me. Writing my freelance articles and grants, cleaning the house, doing laundry—all of that is important to do but after I get in some good writing hours. Leaving the home from time to time is also a good thing. Not only is it a change of scenery (and research for new character nuances), but it trains you not to be tied to one routine. Have 20 min at the bank? Write some notes to yourself. An hour at the doctor’s? Sketch out a scene. It’s the writing that is important—now when or where or even hw you do it.
- Are you currently working on another writing project?
Yes. I am working on another historical novel, this time about how printed propaganda sways an election in Renaissance Venice, and also a young adult novel that explores how the existence of other worlds has affected our mythologies and beliefs.
- What advice would you give to budding novelists like me, who never seem to be finished revising their manuscripts?
Keep writing. Write more. If your current story isn’t working, put it aside and work on something else. Analyze books that you love. Learn why they work. Then come back to your project and look at what you are missing. Writing Watermark took me 8 years. Writing the second book is almost taking me as long, because I am working on a different project from a different point of view. That’s okay with me (most days). I want to keep learning, and I think that learning process bears out in every author’s writing.
But most of all, don’t lose faith in yourself. There’s plenty of other writers who won’t believe in you. Believe in yourself, and when you feel the book is done, send it out and listen to the feedback you get. No one said this was easy. But it is worth it.
- Is there anything that you would like to add for our readers?
If you love a book that you read, tell someone about it. It could be loaning a copy to a best friend, telling your community librarian, or sharing why you loved it online. The thing that absolutely connects writers and readers is our love for a good story. And if you’re a writer who loves someone else’s work, that goes double! Good books propagates more good books, and there are never enough.
Thank you! I am so honored you wanted me to be a part of your blog! – Vanitha
Thank YOU, Vanitha Sankaran
To learn more about Vanitha Sankaran, visit her website: http://www.vanithasankaran.com/