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How I wrote it

Padma Viswanathan: How I Wrote The Ever After of Ashwin Rao

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It was a BBC documentary about the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba that inspired Padma Viswanathan’s latest novel. The life story of Sai Baba got her thinking about his followers and the traumas in life that cause people to become so devout. These thoughts brought her to the 1985 Air India bombing and helped her bring the book’s protagonist, the psychologist Ashwin Rao.

In her own words, Padma gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how she wrote The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, shortlisted for the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize—from the lofty attic where she hid from her kids to the Elizabeth Bishop poem that was her morning mantra.


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THE SECRET STUDY
“I have the nicest study on the continent possibly. We live in Fayetteville, Arkansas—which is not a place I ever expected to end up. We moved there because my husband got a job at the very fine university in this relatively very small college town. And we bought this funky sprawling house. We were exploring it and my husband noticed that there was an unfinished attic, and he said, “This will be your study!" So we built this little secret hideaway for me. It’s on the third storey and it looks out to the mountains that surround our town. I can actually see his office on the campus from my office window! 

WHERE'S MOMMY?
“(The study) has a solid-core door with a very high doorknob because our son, at that time, was one-and-a-half years old; and one-and-a-half years later we had a daughter and neither child was permitted to know the location of the study. My parents live with us and they opted to retire when our son was born and we relocated them to the States. So then my mother would let me say ‘goodbye’ to my son in the morning. She would distract him and I would run to my office and he would never know where I was. Then, when our daughter was born, it was still secret from him. He found out shortly after that. I said for many years that I wasn’t scared about him asking me about sex, but I was worried about how I was going to tell him where I worked!”

POETIC INSPIRATION
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The working title—until very late in the process—was Losing Farther, Losing Faster. This is a line from a beautiful Elizabeth Bishop poem, 'One Art', that I would recite every morning before I got started. It begins: ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent’—you get the idea. It is a poem by this mid-century American poet where the ideas, the cadences, the vocabulary—everything that she’s talking about, was exactly what I needed to think about for this book. And when she says “then practice losing farther, losing faster” I thought, “Okay this is it, that’s the title: Losing Farther, Losing Faster. It rhymes with disaster. Everybody calls the Air India bombing, the “Air India disaster” mostly because of the tragedy itself, but also because all the disastrous circumstances that surrounds it in terms of the investigation and the trial… But I’m happy with the title, I feel the title does now perhaps more directly represent the book. 

THERE'S A DOC FOR THAT
“I do all my composition on computer. And I usually have multiple files open because I write my books out of sequence. I don’t write by starting at the beginning. I don’t know how to do that... I will also have open a file that I call ‘Notes on Process’ where I’m documenting my reactions to what I’m doing… what’s going through my head, my insecurities, my questions about the writing process. 

I have another document called ‘Notes on Story’ where I entertain various possibilities or follow through with what might happen with different plot points… And then, depending on what I need to work on in the moment, I will have multiple files for each of my characters. Ashwin has a file within which are multiple files: Ashwin and love, Ashwin and work, Ashwin and travel, Ashwin in school, Ashwin in therapy. The more central a character is, the more files like that I’ll have…. And then, of course, my research files are huge. So any novel I write—this novel has about close to 400 pages—I’m sure I have at least five times that many pages of notes.

These quotes are condensed from a longer interview.

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Padma Viswanathan’s debut novel, The Toss of a Lemon, was published in eight countries, a bestseller in three, and a finalist for the Commonwealth (Regional) First Book Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Prize and the Pen Center USA Fiction Prize. The Ever After of Ashwin Rao is her second novel.

Photo credit: Johnathon Williams (portrait)

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