Tashan Mehta was awarded the Sangam House Writer’s Residency in 2015, and has been longlisted for the TFA prize for fiction for two years. Her writing has appeared in literary journals such as OUT OF PRINT and NOTES, an Oxbridge publication. The Liar’s Weave is her first novel.
Give us the origin story of The Liar’s Weave. Which of the strands came to you first?
I first thought of a character who could change reality with his lies in Warwick University, when trying desperately to meet an assignment deadline. It was a short story then and the character wasn’t Zahan. When I thought of expanding it into a novel, it made sense to place it in 1920s Bombay, which was the city of my grandfather’s childhood and which always fascinated me. The surrounding context of birth charts only formed when I had to think of a reason as to why he had this power—and then the world was so fun to build, I just went where it took me. Vidroha, the forest of outcasts, was developed from cues from the writing. I would plan a chapter, begin writing it and then a character would say something about the world (a reference to a power structure or a ritual that they did) and I knew I had to go back and work it into the world properly because it belonged there.
What kind of research did you have to do?
Astrology, for one. I read a translation of the Lal Kitab and tried to understand as much as I could about the process, form and science behind birth charts. Once I had a basic grasp of the foundation of the world, I focused most of my research on the time period—what was the politics like, what was the city like and how did the people navigate their lives? The Gazetteer of Bombay City and Island was incredibly helpful for both atmosphere and logistics. The rest of the research was just what cropped up in the writing—medical properties of mangrove forests, flora and fauna, acrobatic instruments, transport, maps of Bombay and so on.
What is your writing process?
The creative process for this book seemed mostly chaos, but there is a pattern in retrospect. There is an idea, a concept I want to play with or explore. This stays in my head and is matched at some point by an image: a character sitting in a certain place or a scene playing out between two characters. It adds an emotional anchor to the concept. Then I research. This stage is the most fun, where anything and everything is possible and you’re constantly learning. I read a non-fiction story by Hilary Mantel, called Growing a Tale, where she talks about keeping a novel file. She stores snippets of the novel as they come to her, in no particular order—the file format then gives her the freedom to move the scenes around and find a structure. It’s never worked completely smoothly for me, of course, but I love my novel file. I fill it with research notes and paragraphs that appear fully formed in my head, novel threads and character sketches. It holds the chaos together. After that, it’s a question of putting it down into a first draft and taking cues from that to write a second draft and so on.
Did you drop characters and storylines and/or add them as the drafts piled up? Give us an example?
Oh, so many. There was originally a political strand with Porthos’ family that then got dropped. Vidroha (and all the characters in it) were meant to appear for one chapter only and they didn’t have any real background story to them—they were just supposed to serve as a contrast to the orderliness of the world. Niyat, the main antagonist of sorts, changed in all three drafts and then changed again in the draft I did with Indrapramit Das, my editor. The very first concept of the novel only focused on Zahan’s family and didn’t include almost any of the characters you see in the book. And the style of the whole book kept evolving. As the focus of the story changed, the way it was told changed as well so I ended up rewriting chapters to keep them in tone with the rest of the novel even though the content of the chapters didn’t change.
When did you write it, where and for how long?
Writing this book was haphazard. Early morning or late night worked best, when Mumbai grew relatively silent. I usually wrote at home, at a desk set up in my room. That being said, I only completed the draft I sent out to publishers in the three months I travelled around India, writing in cafés with masala chai or balancing my laptop on my knees.
It took me four years to write three drafts, and the third draft is what I sent out to publishers.
Read Tashan’s debut novel, The Liar’s Weave here