Sources and Methods #9: Rohini Mohan


Rohini Mohan 101:

Author site / blog

Rohini on Twitter / Instagram

The Seasons of Trouble ( / goodreads / google books)

Book excerpt - "The Abduction"

Interview with Guernica magazine - "Prachanai" (Trouble) in Sri Lanka, Past and Present

Show Notes:

Section read can be found here:

9:04 - Covering the 2004 Indian Ocean Earthquake was an awakening point for my journalism, when I realized there was an entire other world out there and I knew nothing about it.

11:21 - At the time (2004), it was 1,000 or 2,000 words tops, not longform - that idea that people will not read a long piece that has changed a lot since then. People will read it if it is well written and engaging.

12:44 - I was interested in Sri Lanka first, not necessarily a book. I was in NY at Columbia getting a MA degree, and I graduated in 2009 after it was over… extended interest in the effects of the conflict and also as the numbers started coming out... made me start thinking I had material to tell a larger story.

17:46 - The first thing to do was to write down the history, because I found it the hardest thing to explain to someone who might not know anything. The history is various, it’s not one, as conflict history is, and that’s what I felt most insecure about, so that’s what I started writing about. And then I had to decide how many people to write about, and what the structure of the story would be.

19:40 - I also started looking for gaps [in information] and trying to fill those gaps.

24:40 - In Sri Lanka, there’s no doubt that knowing the language was helpful in building trust. People are very when they know you know the language - not that it’s always inviting or welcoming, it can be more responsibility if you know the language. When people knew I knew Tamil, some people wanted ideological agreement [with what they were saying]. Some of the people wanted me to take sides.

31:15 [On routines for interviews] - I do as much reading up on the person - even people I’m meeting for drinks - as possible. It’s become a routine. If I’m meeting people in power, I do develop a list of questions (as well as how many ways I can ask the same thing) because I expect them to evade the questions. And one habit is to be quiet after the interview - I don’t feel the need to fill the silence. The person will usually go back to something they said earlier or ask me a question, and that gives me a small glimpse into their personality or what’s on their mind. The other routine is to end the interview and then begin it again. I mean, it’s always at the door that people say the most interesting things.

36:20 - The way [government] intimidation works is that they put as many barriers in front of you and it’s not clear until later what the consequences will be. They are almost waiting for you to break the rules. As a foreign journalist, you can be easily controlled through visas, so that was always on top of my mind.

41:40 - [On morning routines] As a journalist, I mainly just reacted to deadlines. But this was a longer project mainly just working for myself. The first thing I would do is turn off the wifi and try to read something. If I did anything else, it would kill the calm with which I wake up. So I would read something when I woke up, even if it wasn’t related to the book, that would put me in a calm place. Once I started understanding that the day was gone, it was gone. It’s mind games with yourself. I also went away, to a place where there would be no network, no friends you want to meet, just get work done and do nothing else. If I wasn’t doing anything else, I would just read. I always try to read in the morning. Have your coffee and read something.

45:46 - One trick that helped me finish the first draft of the book: think of the book as a collection of scenes. That helped a lot. Just go from scene to scene (of course you have to choose the right ones). And you can always move the scenes around. It helps because when you wake up, you can know that you’re going to write two scenes, which can help quantify your work in a way.

48:18 - I used Scrivener to write the book. But I did most of my planning by hand. I used flowcharts, which changed around a lot. I tried to intertwine stories with history.

52:02 - Single most useful tool for creating structure: creating flowcharts [by hand]. In the end, it was flowcharts I had written on long plain sheets and laid them all around me until I felt I was drowning in them.

56:30 - Editors were very helpful in the writing process. I studied UK English, consume all kinds of English, speak Indian English, and so when I wrote, it was a mix of everything. Editors help me fix that.

1:03:30 - [On writing] In the end, you are just left with a feeling, but there are so many parts to it. There’s the part where you just lose yourself, where it’s instrumentation, and there are parts where suddenly you hear the lyrics, and you wonder what the song is about, where this comes from. I thought about that whenever I started to get confused or wonder where to go in my writing. Also, I have these very real people who had spent so much time with me, telling me real things, taking risks - if I had to say one thing about writing it, it would be a sense of responsibility to those people.

1:05:34 - Influences on her writing, that helped as she structured her own book:

Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families by Anthony by J. Anthony Lukas

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

I also tried to read as many non-Western books as possible, books set in places outside of those areas.

Picks of the Week:

Rohini’s Books:

Traitor by Shobasakthi (written about here in Granta as ‘one of the best untranslated writers.’)

A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Muhammad Hanif

Rohini’s Film:  Katiyabaaz (a documentary)

Rohini’s Song:  Ith Naheen by Sanam Marvi