Last week, I was lucky enough to meet Priya Parmar, author of Exit the Actress and Vanessa and Her Sister. The latter has been by far the best book I have read in quite a long time, and it has received an incredible number of deservedly rave reviews. Vanessa and Her Sister tells the story of Vanessa Bell’s relationship with her sister, Virginia Woolf, unusually told through the eyes of the often overlooked Vanessa. Although a work of fiction, Parmar’s novel has been meticulously researched, and the picture she draws of Vanessa (as well as the rest of the distinguished characters of the Bloomsbury Group) is astonishingly vivid. You can read more of my thoughts on the book here, but I can’t wait any longer to dive into the interview!
I’ve slightly paraphrased Priya’s fabulous answers to the questions I posed her below. Priya shared such fascinating insights into the world of writing, and I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did!
On the start of her writing career:
MN: How did you get to this point? Have you always loved to write?
PP: I’ve always loved reading, and writing was always the medium where I felt most comfortable, but I’d always done critical writing before. When I left that behind I started writing for the theatre, working with Eve Ensler (of The Vagina Monologues). I found both academic and theatre writing to be wonderful crash courses for creative writing. And then I kept editing friends’ novels as a free-lance editor, and I thought ‘I should try this’, so I did. I fell madly in love with it the first time. Writing the end of a book is so much fun, and editing is so much fun. Writing is so solitary and editing is so collaborative; it’s an amazing process that I really love. But then you’re starting at the beginning again, with the blank paper – it’s easy to forget what that’s like!
MN: Did you find it scary at all, to start your first book?
PP: Yes. My first book, I couldn’t start. My friend said to me – ‘I’ll write a first page and you write a first page,’ and we’ll come back and discuss it together. And he wrote a first page, and I wrote a first page, and the page I wrote is the first page in the book [Exit the Actress – I am now reading the book, and it is a brilliant first page!].
On writing historical fiction and her fascination with Vanessa Bell:
MN: What first interested you in writing historical fiction?
PP: I love to read historical fiction. I like stories where there is a foothold in truth or in history or in some real life event; I always really enjoy that.
MN: Would you like to try different genres?
PP: Yes, I would like to incorporate a lot more fiction and not stick so strictly to historical writing.
MN: I know you are hugely interested in the Bloomsbury Group, but what sparked your interest in Vanessa in particular?
PP: What would it have been like to be Virginia Woolf’s sister? I was intrigued by the question. And Vanessa is always at the centre of the group, but she is the least articulated.
MN: You captured Vanessa incredibly well; it felt just like reading her own letters and diaries, had she written them. What, though, did you find were the main challenges behind writing fiction about real people and real events?
PP: People are very personal about this time in history and this group of people [the Bloomsbury Group], and you don’t want to get it wrong. You also don’t want to write someone else’s story of who they were; you want to write your own. I wrote a love letter to Vanessa Bell for Harper’s Bazaar India [you can view it on Priya’s facebook page here – do read it, it’s incredibly brilliant and touching], and it was about how, if you do all the research, and if you’re very very lucky, you set the table and this person comes to dinner. It’s an amazing thing – you do all of this work, and then a character comes, and a story presents itself. I don’t sit and plot it out or control it – a story simply arrives.
MN: And how, amidst all the research and all the primary resources at your disposal, did you find and stay true to your own perspective of Vanessa Bell?
PP: You have to be flexible. You can’t say ‘ok, she’s like this and not like this’. Or ‘she didn’t like this but she did like this’. I let her be contradictory, because of course people are. So I think the more flexible you are, the better.
MN: What type of books do you like to read?
PP: I will go through periods of reading books that seemingly don’t go together, but do share a similar theme. Right now, I’m fascinated by the end of the world, and I’ve been reading Station Eleven and Elizabeth is Missing. Station Eleven is about the global end of the world, but Elizabeth is Missing is about the personal apocalypse of one woman with dementia. But really I just like good writing! E. M. Forster and Evelyn Waugh are my favourite novelists.
MN: Both of your novels are written in the form of letters and journal entries. What draws you to this form of writing? Are you a copious letter writer yourself? Do you keep a journal?
PP [nods emphatically]: I love letters, but also, through a doctorate, you do so much primary research, and that has been my way into historical creative fiction writing. I think that, after reading so many letters, diaries and journals, that process shapes the way the novel arrives. I may try hard to nudge it into the third person, but it just isn’t interested.
On writing routines:
MN: I love learning about successful people’s routines. Do you have a set routine to your writing?
PP: I do. I have to open my computer first, before I do anything else in the mornings. I have to write 4 pages. I would find that after 4 pages the writing didn’t sound as good. For me, 4 pages was a sustainable formula, that still left something for the next day. But I stop at 4 pages. I also have to write all my ideas down. When something comes into your head, it’s a feeling, an actual sensory feeling, and it may seem as though the idea doesn’t make any sense, but you still have to write it down. And those notes have often turned into sentences that people have told me they loved. For me anyway, sentences don’t arrive packaged in the way you want them to be; when an idea comes and it’s got different pieces and you’re not sure how it fits, I still write it down, and it will come together, like a Rubik’s cube. If there’s something there, it will come together.
On being the best writer you can be:
MN: Through my blog, I write about my philosophy that having a ‘stylish life’ means striving to be the best you can be – the best version of yourself. How do you strive to be the best writer you can be?
PP: There are times when there’s very clearly a messy, difficult, tricky option, as well as an easy option, and you could just avoid the tricky path. But if you take the hard option, you’re always happier. So to me, it’s about taking the more difficult road – the bigger road, the bigger canvas, the bigger lens.
On inspirational women:
MN: I love the way your writing reflects fascinating, complex and extraordinary women. Who are the women that have been the most inspirational in your life?
PP: My Mum. Also, there are women in history who you read about, and it feels as though they jumped off the page and into your head. Women writers inspire me too. But my Mum is the big one. Someone who has absolute faith that you can do it – because there is so much that says you can’t – that’s wonderful.
On favourite London haunts:
MN: where are your favourite places to go in London?
PP: The National Portrait Gallery and St Martin in the Fields. I love the parks, and I love the bookstores – Hatchards, Daunt Books and Piccadilly Waterstones are favourites. In terms of restaurants, Ben’s Canteen in Clapham is a great place to go.
Thank you so much again to Priya for taking the time to meet with me and giving such thought provoking answers.
Have you read either of Priya Parmar’s novels? What did you find most interesting in the interview?
++ View also A Chat With: Sophie Knight ++