Wednesday, January 28, 2015

On Writing: Dinika Amaral (GSAS '11, '13)

No Good Deed Unpunished is a new story by Dinika Amaral (GSAS '11, '13) which appears in the current issue of The Iowa Review. We had a chance to interview Dinika to find out about her writing process.

What did you study at NYU? Did you always want to be a writer? 

I got an M.A. at the Draper Interdisciplinary Master's Program and an M.F.A from the Creative Writing Program.

My parents still relate stories about my writerly aspirations since the third grade. I think I also wrote terrible poetry for our school magazine – Pigtails. In undergraduate school I was all set to be a journalist and became Editor-in-Chief of our college newspaper, but that was instrumental in showing me I wasn’t a journalist. After that I putzed around in advertising and marketing before living the dream in New York City as a banker. One day, a client and I were waiting on lawyers in a conference room and on hearing I wrote stories for fun and reviewed plays for these online magazines, he told me how his dream had always been to become a filmmaker. After we closed, I researched small competitions, part-time programs and emailed him. “You can still pursue your dream.” Yes, he wrote back, but the money is too good and I can’t live without it now.

After that I knew I had to do something that involved my passion for literature before the ka-ching of the banking world got me, so I applied to NYU and Draper took me in. After that it was like I’d swallowed the blue pill. But, I became a writer, a serious and real committed to it no matter what writer, during my M.F.A.

In addition to being an alumna, you have also taught classes at NYU. What is one of the most important pieces of advice you would give to aspiring writers? 

I did not go to teaching with any hope of enjoying it. I felt I didn't have the authority. Who was I when I had studied in a program with truly great minds like E.L. Doctorow, Rick Moody, Aleksandar (Sasha) Hemon, Zadie Smith and Darin Strauss. Nothing, no one, insipid like boiled milk without any chocolate or sugar or anything to mitigate the boring-ness. But the thing that happened for me in the classroom was I had to evaluate my positions on literature in order to articulate to NYU’s eager young minds. I had to fence, their questions, their doubts. It got me out of my head and made me aware of how things are perceived on the outside. It was grand.

As for the other part of your question, here’s a fun quote. "Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth." Given my belief in this quote, the only thing I can dispense to my fellow aspiring writers is -- chin up as you face that white page! And, most importantly, face it everyday.

(I realized, subsequently, that I was being pithy and in that pithiness I was being dismissive and refusing to engage with something that I felt too big for me to handle in the space of this interview. Accordingly, this parenthetical was added on later.

It is cowardice not to try and answer a serious question seriously, so here goes . . . there are many things aspiring writers should be doing. They should be reading 1,000 pages for every 1 page they writer. They should be revising and polishing for years. They should be evaluating everything with their writerly eyes, ears and tongues. I could go on and on and on and . . . on. However, that’s just it, there’s advice and ideas, but in the end only you can figure it out for yourself. Maybe you’ll be one of those writers that spits out first drafts that are perfect and defy Hemingway’s opinion that all first drafts are shit. Maybe you’ll be one of those writers that needn’t read a thing. Maybe you’ll be one of those writers that has natural cadence and command of punctuation. I don’t know. Likely you don’t know. But, one thing’s for sure, and I’m sorry to get all Biblically preachy on you -- but it can’t be helped since I am a Christian -- seek and ye will find.)

You published a short story entitled "Ozzy's Leap" in Heavenly Tails, an anthology of stories about "everyday people whose lives were forever changed...simply by the presence of a cat." Can you tell us about how the idea for this story came about? 

My friend had a cat in college that drove me nuts, until I saw the world through Ozzy's eyes. However, my views on animals have changed since then. I took this class at NYU that helped with the change because I realized, since Ozzy, that animals are just a step above things -- I mean in literature. When you write about them or have them as characters they’re mostly dumb and so, their only agency is through personification or facts like their environment, behavior etc., you can’t really get into their heads. We read some weird stuff in class like this novel Bear which is by a Canadian author Marian Engel that really tries to penetrate that wall. That’s another thing I encourage aspiring writers to do -- read weird stuff.

Can you explain your writing process? How have your life experiences shaped your writing? 

As a writer, I am a redrafter. I write the first draft over a week at the longest, a weekend usually. I’ve heard this echoed by other writers, so I’m not all that special.

Once the first draft is in, I revise and revise and revise. Some stories are done in three drafts and some in ten. I'm working on one that I've been working on for three years this December and I'm on draft sixteen. Jury's still out on whether the story or I will emerge the victor. That mixed metaphor ought to enlighten you as to whose winning right now.

Oh, I borrow from my life all the time. It can't be helped. Things, people, just bleed in and take over. Gary Shteyngart once said that he put this huge neighbor in his book and once it came out he walked the corridors in constant fear, waiting to get beat up. Gary’s a fairly slight guy, so I imagine the neighbor could just sit on him and crush him. Anyhow, the guy didn't recognize himself and told Gary he thought the character, "was a douche." Then Vikram Chandra, whose work I adore, tells another story of how he was interviewing this detective (or policeman, I forget) and the guy had the nicest shoes. That detail found its way into Sacred Games. You just borrow from what’s around and what’s around is your life.

Do you have a favorite piece that you've written? If so, which one and why? 

So much of writing is revising, so the favorite piece has to be the one I'm working on at the present time. Otherwise, given how painful redrafting can be, I just couldn't do it.

What are you currently working on? 

This question made me smile because it anticipated my previous answer! I'm currently revising four stories, after which I will have an entire collection ready. I'm also working my novel, which is set in Goa, India. I just got back from the most charming visit there and am madly in love with it.

What are you currently reading? 

I just finished re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird and was amazed at how much she gets away with. Then, I’m trying to branch out a little and read The Left Hand of Darkness, a masterpiece that makes me upset that Sci-fi is not considered literary because this book is so literary! Oh, I’m also trying to expand my horizons and have picked up The Polyester Prince and The White Castle. TPP has been banned in India because of the incredible power of the Ambanis and I only managed to get it because the street presses print these books and sell them to cars at stoplights. The print is shaky, but it’s a fascinating read and if I ever get to meet the author, Hamish McDonald, I will give him the $15.00 he would have made from the sale of his book to me.

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