Interview With Shreya Sen Handley, Author of Memoirs of My Body
This time last year, I was in the middle of a course about Writing Your Way Into the Media at Nottingham Writers’ Studio.
It’s thanks to that course, Janet Murray, and the sales guy at my day job that I’ve had work published in The Huffington Post, Thrive Global, and more.
That course was taught by Shreya Sen Handley, a former broadcast journalist and television producer for international channels such as CNBC and MTV.
She’s written for The Guardian, The National Geographic, The Hindu, Times of India, Scroll, The Wire, Daily Mail, The Wall Street Journal/Livemint, and more.
She’s had short fiction and illustrations published in Five Leaves UK, Lucifer Press UK, Australia’s Transportation Press, LeftLion UK, HarperCollins, and Hachette India.
She was part of the bid team that helped Nottingham to win its coveted City of Literature status in 2015.
And, she regularly teaches creative writing at Cambridge and Nottingham universities.
Despite all this, her children and dog remain unimpressed.
Her first book, Memoirs of My Body, is based on a popular CNN-IBN column. It was published by HarperCollins in August 2017.
I spoke to her to find out more about Memoirs of My Body, her writing process, and what she’s working on next.
What inspired you to write Memoirs of My Body?
‘Memoirs of My Body sprang from a successful column that I began to write for CNN India (later moved to Times of India) in early 2013.
It was about gender politics and female sexuality and was quite a departure at the time, especially in that it dealt with these subjects with provocative humour. This led to a book deal with HarperCollins.
Of course the book would have to be so much more than the column, that’s when the idea of knitting it together with the story of my body, my gender-related and sexual experiences, came into being.
There is a clear story that runs through it all and it is mine, but it is also everyone else’s story backed up by stats, facts, and historical evidence.
I like to think of it as the story a well-informed stand-up comic would tell her audience, but with style and fluency, engaging with their stories too, as she went.
Behind the column that led to the book was the need for open discourse on these topics that don’t get discussed enough. And that if I started talking, with humour and warmth, I might open some minds and eyes, tap into a sense of empathy and solidarity, and get others talking too.’
What was most challenging about writing it?
‘Well, on the one hand it deals with things I am passionate about, so writing about those came naturally. And the humour, the storytelling, and even the research were second nature too.
What did make me uncomfortable was how much of myself I had to put out there to make this story work.
I have gone into explicit detail to tell my story, not because I’m an exhibitionist, nor because it comes naturally to me, but because I believed the book required it. If the book’s mission was to make women comfortable with their bodily experiences, then I needed to demonstrate that I was too.
It would generate empathy I felt and also give them that little bit of courage to do the same.
So, it wasn’t easy, nor has it been easy to deal with the censure that has come in its wake, but I pushed myself to do it because it felt necessary.’
Were there any parts in the book that you were worried about the reaction to? What was the reaction in the end?
‘As I’ve said, I was worried about people reacting negatively and conservatively to its subject matter of sex, sexuality, women’s body parts.
I was also worried that, as it’s a memoir, I would have to lay myself bare, literally, and open myself up to criticism in a very personal way.
It would also be published in India first and while progressive in parts, sections of India are also quite uncomfortable with such things still, especially when openly discussed by a woman.
Having said that, I have been told that it is a very brave book in the British context too.
As it happens, I have not had quite the reaction I expected.
Amidst quite a lot of heartwarming praise, I have received censure too, but from unexpected quarters, and the avalanche of criticism I expected has not happened yet.
Perhaps, only four months into it, it is yet to come!’
What’s been the funniest review/comment about it so far?
‘Some strange things have been said to me, including messages/comments from men wishing to engage in conversations about women’s bodies and sexuality, but for the wrong reasons.
In a few cases, I have felt that the reader has completely misunderstood the purpose of the book.
But my favourite comment of all is from an editor (though not my own) who was overheard urging others to read the book because it was “filthy but fabulous”.
There have been many other wonderful comments too. [Screenwriter] William Ivory, for example, has called it, ‘A big, bold book…rude, ballsy, thought-provoking, heartfelt and witty!’
They have both done a better job of describing my many-things-in-one book than I can!’
How do you deal with negative comments about your writing?
‘I am just learning to deal with negative comments about my writing, because I have for so long been comfortably working on things I have grown very good at.
I am a very able columnist. I write for a range of international publications like the National Geographic and get a fair amount of praise for my distinctive storytelling style.
I began writing short stories in 2013 too, and found that the format suited me, and the few I have written have been very well-received.
With this book, I have stepped outside my comfort zone, and attempted a marathon rather than my usual, mostly successful sprints.
The response so far would suggest I’ve done a fair job of the marathon too.
But there have been odd bits of criticism that have been wounding because I have been misunderstood or it has come from an unexpected quarter, someone you expected to be rooting for you.
When you have a book out there however, you can’t really respond to the reactions, either good or bad, but you can take on the bits you think valid (and I have), and try to cope with the smidgeons that are not. And hopefully, there won’t ever be too much!’When you have a book out there, you can’t respond to the reactions, either good or bad, but you can take on the bits you think valid and try to cope with the smidgeons that are not. Click To Tweet
How does your writing process differ when writing articles compared to when you write a book?
‘It does and it doesn’t.
It requires a great deal more stamina and staying power, which is why I equate it with a marathon compared to the sprint that is article or short story writing. So I have to pace myself better.
I also need a longer term work plan in mind.
I have more things to keep track of too, as there is much more happening in it. So most of this is about planning and not actually about writing style which I believe should be based on subject and the voice you want to project for each.
So my voice and style are dependent on subject (I write on a range of issues not just gender-based ones) rather than whether its long-form or not.
A seamless continuity, I would say, is the one stylistic feature to be kept in mind when crafting a book that is not required for shorter pieces.A seamless continuity is the one stylistic feature to be kept in mind when crafting a book that is not required for shorter pieces. Click To Tweet
But the process itself in terms of my daily routine doesn’t change very much at all because I have young children and now a pup who demand as much of me as my writing.’
If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
‘I don’t consider myself particularly wise.
I am still learning and still making mistakes.
I am in fact still in need of advice from my future self, so I’m not sure that I could even today give my younger self advice to live by.
All I would tell her is not to give up on writing even in the darkest days.
I did nearly stop writing for a few years when I was in a violent marriage.
But before my personal circumstances ground me down I was a broadcast journalist and television producer for international channels such CNBC and MTV, writing for a huge audience.
I did get back into it again after my four-year blip and in the last five years, I have done a number of things I have always wanted to do with it, e.g. written a book, but perhaps I could have done it sooner without that break and I think if I had carried on writing then, I may have got away from that horrific relationship sooner too.’
What’s one book that changed your life? Why did it have such an effect on you?
‘This is a tough question because there have been so many books that have meant so much to me at various times.
The likes of Enid Blyton and the Nancy Drew series got me into writing at a very young age.
My first poem was published at the age of five.
Further down the road, To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye made a great impression on me, as did the writing of John Steinbeck, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse and so many more, who taught me about life and writing, and provided me with hours and hours of enjoyment.
Amitav Ghosh’s Shadow Lines helped me re-adjust to life in India after having spent a lot of my childhood abroad.
The gentle humour of Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency helped me through the dark days of my first marriage, as did the many other books I voraciously read my way through at the time.
In recent years the authors who have moved or entertained me most include Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel and CJ Sansom (when it comes to pure entertainment).
The list is really too long for me to be able to pick out a single book.’
What are you working on now?
‘I am working on my first book of pure fiction (though is anything either pure fiction or pure fact?), a collection of short stories. It has, like my current one, found a well-known publisher I’m pleased to say, and will be out in late 2018/early 2019.’Is anything either pure fiction or pure fact? Click To Tweet
Memoirs of My Body is out now
You can grab your copy of Memoirs of My Body on Amazon.
It’s also available from independent bookshops Five Leaves and Rough Trade.