I first encountered Simon Dillon after the publication of “First Love,” a romantic fantasy anthology released by Dragon Soul Press. My own story “The Rusalka of the Murashka,” to my mind, had scant chances of being accepted, I assumed initially. This wasn’t a book that would take horror authors…or would it? Well, yes, DSP was quite content to snag two of us.
Simon Dillon’s story, “Papercut,” I soon found, was one of my favorites in “First Love.” Original and bold, it brings to mind a teenage version of The Neverending Story. At the same time, it’s quirkiness repeatedly dissolves into something darker, which leaves readers with the impression that Carrie White’s mother might be dropping in on the main character at some point to say hello.
After “Papercut,” I discovered that, much as I suspected from his work’s general tone, Dillon is primarily a horror author and, at that, one of the best ones that I’ve had the pleasure to meet through social media and work with. His book “The Spectre of Springwell Forest” is a true page-turner with a shock ending that, if it ever winds up with a film adaption, I will not be surprised.
I figured an interview would only be fair and so, without further ado, here it goes….
- Introduction, please?: My name is Simon Dillon, and I’ve contributed a short story to a fantasy anthology. That sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous confession (the first step is admitting I am a writer, or something like that). Anyway, my short story is entitled Papercut and it concerns a lonely teenage boy living with his overbearing Jehovah’s Witness mother. A mysterious girl made entirely of paper then appears in his dreams, taking him on a journey which changes his life. Papercut is my second short story published with a traditional publisher. The first was Once in a Lifetime, an existential horror tale that appeared in the anthology All Dark Places. My publisher, Dragon Soul Press, has also published my ghost story mystery novel Spectre of Springwell Forest. Prior to that, I had other horror/thriller novels self-published, including The Thistlewood Curse and The Birds Began to Sing. Although they are my current focus, I haven’t just written horror novels. My most “personal” (and relatively speaking successful) novel to date is entitled Children of the Folded Valley, a dystopian memoir about a man looking back on his life growing up in a mysterious cult. I have also published a few children’s adventure novels, including Uncle Flynn and Echo and the White Howl. I don’t typically write romantic drama, but my novel Love vs Honour is my one and only foray into that arena. It involves a teenage boy and girl from strict Christian and Muslim backgrounds respectively. To placate each set of parents, one pretends to convert to Christianity and the other to Islam, leading to inevitable dramatic complications.
- Your story, “Papercut,” featured in the Dragon Soul Press anthology “First Love,” focuses largely on Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. What drew you to write about this particular religion?: I had heard from a few people who have been “disfellowshipped” by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their stories struck a chord with me. I don’t come from a Jehovah’s Witness background, but I did spend my formative years in a cult which had a number of similar ideas and principles. The claustrophobia and isolation associated with both their stories and my own memories proved an inspiration.
- There is not a great amount of representation of Jehovah’s Witnesses within the fantasy genre. What hurdles did you come up against mixing the two things?: There isn’t much out there about Jehovah’s Witnesses in any genre, although there is a very interesting recent film entitled Apostasy. That said, I didn’t really feel there were any hurdles as such, placing the Jehovah’s Witnesses in a fantasy tale. I am a big believer in “grounded fantasy”. It might sound counter-intuitive, but I believe fantasy often works best when it sits alongside dirt-under-the-fingernails realism. The film Pan’s Labyrinth is a good example, with the brutal realism of the Spanish Civil War contrasting with the girl’s encounters with the Faun. In my case, I tried to contrast the mundane and oppressive religious routine of my protagonist Gabriel with the (apparent) escapism that the Paper Girl brings. Of course, as in Pan’s Labyrinth, later in my story the two worlds collide.
- Personally, as a reader, I felt the story pointed towards encouraging young people to choose their own spiritual path in life; rather than necessarily accept what is prevalent in the household to which they are born. Was this your intention?: That’s a very good way to interpret the story, and it is certainly what I personally believe. However, I wouldn’t say I set out to write the story with that in mind. I was more interested in writing a successful genre piece which would tug at the heartstrings a little.
- Whether or not the story genuinely falls into the fantasy genre seemed vague up until the very ending, given that a sizable chunk of the story is set in a dream. When you were writing, were you always certain whether or not the dream would actually be a reality?: I never write any story without knowing the ending first. In fact, typically the ending is what occurs to me first, and I work backwards from that point. The shared dream idea, and the possible involvement of supernatural entities of ambiguous origin was foreseen from the outset. I enjoy writing stories that blur the line between dreams and reality. Some of this comes from personal experience. For example, a few years ago, my late father appeared to me in a recurring dream, trying to show me something that had happened to me in my past which I had forgotten. I didn’t want to see this incident, and when I refused, I would always wake up. Then one day I decided to go and see what he had to show me. I awoke the next day with what had been a repressed traumatic memory fully reinstated in my mind. I had perfect total recall of what I had repressed. It was extraordinary.
- Dream interpretation is a major theme to this story and you seemed very comfortable writing it. Have you done so before?: Have I interpreted dreams? Or have I used dream interpretation as a narrative device? Funnily enough, the answer to both questions is yes. I have on occasion suggested possible meanings to one or two friends when they have confided in me about their dreams, not that I am an expert by any means. I find the mental, psychological and spiritual implications in dreams fascinating, and so yes, I have also written about them a number of times. Papercut is the most obvious example, but there are key moments in The Birds Began to Sing, The Thistlewood Curse and in one or two of my upcoming novels that also delve into this area a little. I’ve actually written one as yet unpublished novel, entitled The Deviant Prophet, which was entirely inspired by the dreamscape of my closest friend.
- Given the ending, was the main characters’ transformation into paper symbolic of the loss of faith or purely coincidental?: That’s an interesting and clever interpretation, and a part of me is sorely tempted to say yes. Alas no, it was a coincidence (but a happy one). I have used symbolism in a number of other stories – for example in Uncle Flynn, where the panther is symbolic of fear.
- Are short stories your preferred way of expressing yourself as an author or do you more enjoy writing longer pieces?: I generally prefer novels, but short stories are fun. Because they take less time, I am often more inclined to take risks with them. This year I hope to finally tackle a series of seven science fiction novellas which I have had planned out for some time. The novella format is something I have never tried, being a kind of halfway house between short story and novel, so that should prove an interesting challenge. However, novels remain my preferred format.
- What makes “Papercut” unique from your other work?: I wrote Papercut to be quite sweet and innocent, whereas a lot of my other writing is about the death of innocence. There are a few dark edges, and yes it deals in themes of religious oppression, but I wanted it to be hopeful and optimistic.
- What’s next on the literary horizon for Simon Dillon?: This year I’m hoping to contribute a short story to Coffins and Dragons, a Dragon Soul Press anthology about dragons and vampires. I have to confess I am not particularly interested in writing about either, but when my publisher said it would be good for me to join in with this one, I had a think and came up with a concept that I think will surprise people. My story is more of a satire, with human characters that are symbolic of a dragon and vampire respectively. Of course, it might be too off-brief to be accepted. We’ll see. However, I definitely have two more novels being released this year: The Irresistible Summons in July and Phantom Audition in October (the latter is an exclusive title reveal for you). Both are ghost story mysteries in the same vein as Spectre of Springwell Forest. After that I have several other novels already written that I’d like to unleash on the world, including another children’s adventure, another horror novel, an epic Arthurian fantasy romance, and a dystopian future shock drama that satirizes both sides of the so-called culture wars in America. I’m keeping tight lipped on those for now.
Well, there you go. Tomorrow is the launch of Dillon’s “The Irresistible Summons.” I will be one of the authors introducing him, along with authors Kathryn St. John, Stephen Herczeg, Charles Reis, and Kevin J. Kennedy.
If it’s anything like the last book I won’t be able to put it down!
Follow Simon Dillon here:
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B00NVPO1PQ
I first encountered the author, Shree, when, alongside my two Romani rights short stories, she published her own piece in the number two best-selling short story anthology, “Flock: The Journey,” edited by Mahua Sen.
I long-promised Shree a review of her work there for this author feature, but when I found out that she had a book out, hey, I figured, let’s think big. So I opened up her novella, “Silent Invaders,” and, not knowing at all what the story was about, got to work.
I found her opening, urging compassion towards the mentally ill, very apt and touching, particularly because my maternal family has a history of mental illness and I’ve seen the devastation that prejudice and the lack of treatment can cause.
Soon enough, I found that there was a lot more than that in her book which I would identify with. In fact, there was a staggering lot there which rang personal bells—so much that I actually doubted whether or not I was going to be able to make good on my promise to her to give her an author feature. This had nothing to do with her quality as a writer, but the fact that her book revolves around a female with multiple personality disorder—a thing which precious few know much about, largely because it is so surrounded in misconceptions.
But I do know about it. In fact, I know a great deal about it because I’m the daughter of a psychiatrist who considered during the 1980s—the height of when MPD was being very popularly diagnosed in the United States—that the treatment of multiple personality disorder was his practice’s specialty. And it was my father’s belief that it would improve the therapy sessions for one MPD patient in particular to have her child “personalities,” (also called “alternates,”) play with an actual child. That actual child was me and these “play sessions” went on for years. Consequently, I’ve been up close and personal with this particular illness in ways which had an indie film director once ask to buy my story so that he could direct it. To which I said a resounding “no.”
Due to this familiarity with my father’s patients, one of my friends growing up was the daughter of a very kind woman who had MPD. On the other hand, for many years—in fact, up until she died, I was stalked by that same homicidal MPD patient of my father’s that, for years of my childhood, used to stay at our house overnight three nights a week for, among other things, “play sessions.”
So, honestly, it’s not easy for me to read books on MPD characters. From my personal experience, I’ve seen the MPD factor can so dazzle people that they begin to overlook who the person is underneath it. The one patient I referenced, for example, if she were fully cured, would have continued being a very lovely lady. The second one could have merged with all of her alternates and it would have made zero difference regarding whether or not she remained a cold-blooded psychopath.
Beyond this issue, there’s also the fact that a good many people, including serial killers, have falsely claimed this diagnosis trying to get themselves out of the hot seat regarding violent crimes.
And, even ignoring that, there are a good many people who were diagnosed with the illness, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s, whose cases were later disproven and attributed to pressure being applied on them by exploitative psychiatrists. One fine example of that is a colleague of my father’s would diagnose children as young as three years old with multiple personality disorder—something which would not be tolerated today, but during the MPD craze was actually not uncommon. (A perspective on this is that no one under the age of eighteen is allowed in the US to be diagnosed with being a psychopath, regardless of how much evidence supports such a diagnosis.)
I almost wrote Shree back, half-way through reading the book, and said, “You know, I’m really the wrong person to review this. It’s not about you. It’s not about your book. Because of my experience, I can’t maintain a proper degree of distance.”
But I took a deep breath and decided to attempt to use this experience to my advantage.
MPD is not a typical mental illness in many ways. Most likely, the most famous film to portray it would be Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Psycho is a well-done horror flick, sure. It’s entertaining. But, when the ending comes, the explanation behind the killer’s drive holds no water, psychiatrically-speaking, whatsoever. The one thing that all psychiatrists who believe in MPD—(yes, a growing number do not)—agree on is that an MPD patient is built. One doesn’t get it, like manic depression, via genetics—at least, certainly not exclusively. (As the illness’ existence is debated, obviously so too is a genetic component.) An MPD’s early childhood will be filled with extreme neglect and violence. Psycho’s myth denies both, but Shree’s portrayal does not—in fact, very far from it.
Shree’s description of child abuse and the failure of the system to prevent it until it has past the point of no return is not only saddeningly accurate, but also reads like a how-to manual on the creation of a long-term mental condition. The fact that a horribly abused child cannot be cured and their traumas erased by simple adoption into a good, loving family is also showcased. This epitomizes the need for government assistance to abused children—therapy, so that the real people like Shree’s main character, Sana, would have had the care they needed to prevent things from progressing to the level that, for Sana, they did.
Would Sana’s revelation as being MPD be a shock to her adoptive family? No, not at all likely. With an illness like this, there are so many obvious signs to outsiders that they would have had to take note that something was wrong. And those signs would be ongoing and extreme. On the other hand, that’s assuming that the adoptive family was not only versed in mental illness, but also attached no stigma to it, in the first place. To those who do not fit into this category, “denial” is a huge issue which has kept many who need help from seeking treatment for themselves or for their afflicted children. Shree focuses a good deal on Sana’s kind-hearted, protective adopted mother, correctly portraying her with a highly-tuned degree of naiveté—the only way that it is at all believable that such a woman would have missed all the warning signs of such an intense level of mental illness. The mother’s shimmering refusal to accept the full gravity of the situation, as well as how much treatment Sana truly needs and how much of a danger to the public Sana genuinely poses, holds up without fail to the very last page. Seeing it through the mother’s eyesight, the gravity also will not penetrate the psyche of the audience. This conveys, granted, a very unrealistic view of multiple personality disorder, but does so in a way which gives plausibility as to how no one noticed Sana’s plight and growing threat years earlier.
In short, if one is looking for an informed book on the realities of multiple personality disorder, from my experience, I don’t think that “Silent Invaders” is likely what you’re looking for. The condition is extremely complex and this is a fast-paced novella, with a great deal of focus on the thriller genre. But if you’re looking for a book which showcases societal failure towards child abuse victims, not only from a prosecution of perpetrator point of view, but also from a therapeutic one, Shree did a good job. She shows how the damage is inflicted. She shows how it is ignored. And she shows that there are major consequences to deliberate ignorance and determined indifference.
So, now, without further ado, her interview:
G: Kindly please introduce yourself to the readers.
S: First of all, thank you for this interview opportunity, Galina. After completing my Masters Degree in IT, I have worked as an IT professional in UK. But I was always fascinated by my mother’s writing skills and her storytelling talent. As a kid I tried my hand in essays and poems for school magazines. I really loved the experience when my teachers and classmates patted my back with appreciation of my job. That encouraged me to write more. I had been writing poems, articles and short stories in local magazines and newsletters regularly and finally when I moved to USA, I decided that this is what I really want to do in my life.
G: What prompted you to write about multiple personality disorder?
S: Good question! “Silent Invaders” is my debut novel (or novella, if you want to call it). And there is a real story behind the written story 🙂 . Writing about multiple personality disorder was not my first call. Actually, one of the very talented and critically acclaimed directors of the Indian Film Industry, Mr. Jaideep Chopra requested me to write a crime thriller with a female lead for his upcoming movie. He gave his own ideas on how he was visualizing his film on silver screen and then completely relied on me to shape up the story. I was honestly nervous as it was a huge responsibility to live up to his trust on me. During that time one of my very close family members was suffering from serious depression issues and I was trying to deal with it. Unfortunately or fortunately that situation had sparked my imagination to go wild and think about a plot based on mental illness, and eventually MPD cropped up in my mind.
G: What kind of research did you do in order to prepare for this book?
S: No doubt the topic was difficult and sensitive to handle, as I was playing with several layers in the same story. My main focus was on to make the narration and the characters as credible as possible. Hence I had to research not only on mental illness, but also on the various therapies, professions and procedures involved in the story. I did a few real life case studies while I was voluntarily working for children and elderly people in UK. I think those experiences have helped me to write more realistically about the incidents in the story.
G: There is great debate in the psychiatric community as to whether this condition does in fact exist at all, perhaps because females, (at least, in America,) are over nine times as likely as males to be diagnosed with it. Do you care to weigh in your personal opinion regarding this controversy…as well as why the numbers are so disproportionate regarding gender?
S: Honestly I would rather answer this question entirely from my point of view and the very little experience I have in dealing with mental illness. I cannot debate on whether the condition of MPD actually exist or not, but, I have personally known people who have hallucination problems. When they hallucinate, they do not shift from their personal being, although they talk about a completely unknown scenario in a very believable fashion which has in fact never happened or maybe happened with someone else. Their appearances transform completely when they go through this phase. This is seriously scary. And yes clinically several data exist that personality disorders are more common in women than men although the reasons are not clear. I personally opine that women are more vulnerable to depression due to numerous obvious reasons and if there is no awareness, acceptance or help at the initial stage, mental illness might take a threatening shape.
G: Does your book promote the concept that those suffering from multiple personality disorder are also violent? Why or why not?
S: My book is entirely a work of fiction and it does not promote anything other than a message that people with mental illness need empathy and help and it requires to be treated like any other known diseases.
G: Does your book promote the concept that urges towards homicidal violence can be cured via modern therapy? Why or why not?
S: As mentioned earlier this book is a work of fiction rather than a tool to promote any opinion. In my story the homicidal violence resulted as the domino effect of several incidents which happened in the past. Hence I considered modern therapy to be a major solution. In a nutshell, to me investigating the root cause behind any condition is very important before resolving the method of treating it.
G: The homicide victims in your book are mainly sex offenders/ child abusers. Did you write their killer’s character more as a vigilante or a compulsive killer? Why?
S: The killer’s character in story is more of a compulsive killer, again portrayed as horrid consequences of child abuse and molestation.
G: To you, what most sets your book apart from others which have used multiple personality disorder in murder mysteries/ thrillers? What gives yours that personal edge?
S: Ah! I like that question… 🙂 . I feel there are quite a few things which give my book a personal edge:
- i) Although the setting of the story is in England, the characters of the story belong to multi-cultural backgrounds, and their different lifestyles add extra shades of colour.
- ii) Despite of handling some dark topics like hate crimes, child abuse and mental illness in the story, it has a lot of informal family drama, which give the story a very natural flow and enable the readers relate themselves with the characters.
iii) I have also purposely chosen “easy to read” style of narration.
- iv) Even though the story is of crime thriller genre, this book is my humble endeavour to spread awareness to support and help people with mental health issues.
G: Is criminal psychology your preferred genre to write in?
S: This is the first time I tried to write this genre and I must say I have enjoyed.
G: What was hardest for you during the writing process?
S: As I mentioned earlier, the topic was not easy to handle. But the most difficult part was to create the plot realistically, combine and connect all the layers logically and of course weave the mystery intriguingly.
G: What are some positive messages that you would like for your book to convey to the general public regarding mental illness?
S: People suffering from mental illness are human beings like you and me. The illness is like any other known disease. All it requires are awareness and acceptance. The illness can be diagnosed and can be either cured or improved by accurate therapy, support and compassion.
G: What advice do you have for other authors who are trying to tackle forms of mental illness in their work?
S: I don’t consider myself qualified to advise other authors. But I can share a few pointers from my experience – e.g. put yourself in the sufferer’s shoes to fathom the depth of agony, be sensitive yet neutral and realistic while writing on such heavy topics.
G: What’s next on the publishing docket for Shree?
S: There are a few projects in the pipeline, but the ones worth mentioning are a collection of Bengali Poetry & Ghazals which will be released very soon and a collection of English short and micro stories. And the exciting thing is “Silent Invaders” is probably next in the queue to be filmed by Mr. Jaideep Chopra.
Some years back, I published a book about a 19th century Romani female slave in Eastern Europe.
At the time it came out, it was, to the best of my knowledge, the only work of historical fiction on this subject published in the English language. Some assumed that I would feel proud for breaking the glass ceiling, but, in actuality, I only wondered, when millions of Romani women, over the course of centuries and in so many different countries, were subjected to slavery…why weren’t other historical fiction writers tackling this issue? Wasn’t it dramatic enough? Heart-breaking enough? Interesting enough? Why were authors continuously ignoring it?
Last week, I came across the recently-published book “The Roma Road: A Gypsy Tale” by Kelli Pizarro and I found that the subject material was finally, at such long last, being addressed by someone else. The time period, country, and circumstances were different in many ways from my own book, but, as I read Pizarro’s work, I found myself continuously thinking that, if my slave character sat down to dinner with hers, the two would likely get on quite well.
Pizarro’s book starts during a largely-ignored period of ethnic cleansing, enforced by royal decree, in the UK. Though I am not Romanichal, as the majority of Romani people in the UK are, I was very familiar with the research used in this book due to the fact that I do have UK roots and also because I have previously written a screenplay specifically about the genocide inflicted upon the Romanichal population. As a result of my own extensive research, while reading, I repeatedly wondered just how much this non-Romani author was going to portray accurately.
I hoped for the best. I admit, after seeing so many other authors portray UK Roma in ridiculous fashions, I expected the worst. I was stunningly and very pleasantly surprised.
I will first mention some obvious sore spots…. There were several things in the book which do fit the “Gypsy” stereotype. There is fortune-telling, theft, spell-casting, and a seductive Romani dancer…. That said, what sets Pizarro’s book very apart from when these things are usually portrayed is that she consistently presents them in the context of force and violence.
As the Romani characters are continually, from the first to the last page, aware that they may be, at any point, grabbed and either killed or shipped overseas if the White population recognizes them for what they ethnically are, they are driven repeatedly to desperate actions which do not appeal to them, but there is no way that they can avoid. Does the Romani man want to steal food? No. He’d rather have a regular job, but that’s not on the docket when you can be hung for coming from the wrong race.
Romani women have never fit into the housewife mold at times like these. In order to put food on the table, an untold multitude have told fortunes. To fundamentalist Europe, fortune-telling was during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and, even by some people today, considered sacrilege. To our culture, ever since we left India, however it was not regarded as evil—instead, quite harmless. And if this harmless act could feed your children in a time when regular employment was not an option, all the better. How many Romani palm-readers wound up being branded as witches and subsequently murdered by European mobs? Impossible to say, but no doubt the numbers ran into the thousands. Consequently, to this day, while some Romani women in times of financial strain do on the side read a fortune here or there, there remains a great deal of anxiousness when Gadje (non-Romani) authors point this out. But Pizarro handles an authentic trade tastefully—showcasing it accurately a means of survival during bad times.
The spell-casting, to my mind, was the most uncomfortable bit in the book, but even that had to be put into the context of it taking place during the 16th century—the time when tomatoes where considered poisonous and leeches were placed inside a person’s nose to stop it from bleeding. The use of and total belief in magic, at that point, was in no way unique to any ethnic group. Had Pizarro’s book been set in the modern day, with Romani spell-casters, I would indeed agree that she was endorsing a stereotype. But, in all honesty, to have characters living four hundred years ago in your book that lack superstition is hardly realistic.
As to the last issue…the beautiful, sexy, “exotic” Romani dancer…here, I found the stereotype which has plagued Romani women worldwide put in the most truthful light. What is this girl—the one who all the White men are ogling and treating like a whore? She’s a victim of human trafficking—not even a woman, but just a teenage girl. She has no choice but to do what she does. When she tries to fight back, she is threatened with physical and sexual violence. When she continues to fight, those threats are made good on. Again and again, she is manipulated, humiliated, degraded, and violated without any legal recourse for the sole reason that she is Romani. To everyone around her, she is an object; a means for them to earn money. And, on the inside, she is desperately searching for some way to assert her status as a human being; as a child of God.
Does the book have some linguistic and cultural hiccups? Yes, it does. But overall, the fact that it highlights an enslavement and genocide which most Gadje readers will have had no previous knowledge ever took place at all is far more important than these minor errors. The fact that the myth of the hypersexualized Gypsy dancer is shown in reality to be an exploited, terrorized Romani victim of a racist sexual predator…to me, as a Romani woman, leaves me with a feeling of hope that perhaps the time has come when this issue of ethnic gender violence will start finally being portrayed with accuracy in the historical fiction market. The plight of our Romani ancestresses, of Romani women in general, deserves its fair amount of time on the page of modern fiction….
Pizarro’s readers, I doubt very strongly, will walk away from her book without a greater understanding of some of the horror inflicted upon our people.
Perhaps, to some, that is only my hope or naiveté.
Pizarro’s reviews will reveal whether or not I am right.
In the meantime, I will dissolve from review to interview and allow the audience to hear from her, in her own words, what she aimed to achieve by writing about the slavery of a Romani teen.
G: Welcome, Kelli. Please introduce yourself to the readers and give a brief summary of your past writing projects.
K: I am a thirty-something Christian fiction author, homeschooling mother of three, wife, and lover of warm drinks, and good books.
My books have all been set in England, due to the rich history—both the good and the bad—and the fact that both sides of my family come from there several generations back. It helps me to connect to a place, knowing that at the time my stories were set, I had family living in the same area that possibly could have taken part in whatever my books entailed, were they not fictional stories! I hope to one day travel to the places I have written about and see them modern day.
The last book I have completed is the topic of discussion today, The Roma Road: A Gypsy Tale.
G: Now let’s start off with the $64,000 dollar question: you are not Romani and you previously had no contact with the Roma, so what prompted you to write a book dedicated to showcasing the abuse of the UK Romani people?
K: This is an interesting question with a long(ish) answer. After finishing Awaiting the Reign, I was at a pause in my writing. A time of recuperation, if you will. I was up one night doing personal research on the history of the circus when I got the idea for a book. It began as a story of a circus performer who falls in love with the ringleader but is abused and eventually makes her escape. Many hours of research brought me to the question: What was the pre-circus like? Traveling freak shows with grotesque displays were popular in different areas and I decided to start from there. I wanted my protagonist to be a woman who was held against her will and mistreated, but also to be on display for something other than a physical abnormality, setting her apart. I found some sources stating that oftentimes, these freak shows had private tents for gentlemen to enter for a fee. This tent usually held an exotic dancer, and also items such as pickled fetuses and other things that women and children wouldn’t be allowed to look upon. My next question was: Who, during the 16th century in this area, would be a people that would be enslaved without question from the government? I found that slavery was quite popular in that time and location, but my next finding was a shock to me. The “gypsies” were often enslaved, and in many places forced to do manual labor, prostitution, or be shipped off. I, like many others, knew nothing of the history of the Roma people. I’m going to be honest with you—I didn’t even know that “gypsy” was a derogatory term! So there began my research into the history of the Romanichal people. I read countless articles, watched YouTube videos detailing the Romani Holocaust, and read papers written by members of the Roma community. I was heartbroken to learn that not only were these people persecuted terribly, in many ways they still are, and many people have no knowledge about any of this! I began to pray for the Roma community and to ask God to show me how I can craft a story that will expose how evil the freak shows were, how the Roma were lumped into the same category as disfigured people or other enslaved races, and show the gospel finding its way to my characters. My story unfolded from there.
G: The word “Gypsy” barely occurs in your book at all, yet it is in the book’s subtitle. Can you explain why?
K: There are terms that are “obviously” racial to some people, and to others they are just informal slurs. The term “Gypsy” was one I was guilty of using, and I was surprised to find that it caused quite a stir in the Roma community. Especially since many Roma people use the word themselves. But after researching, I found that the word’s use is similar to calling Native Americans “Indians.” It is a title based on a misconception and ignorance, but should have been dropped after the true origin of the people was recognized. It is a term that has been watered down by those who aren’t Roma and I do feel that most (now day) mean no disrespect when using it. It is used in ignorance. Due to this, many people interested in that culture search for movies, shows, books, and other points of interest using that as the search term. The key word. And if I had just written “The Roma Road” as the title, I guarantee many, many people would have no clue that this was a book about “Gypsies,” and would have passed it by—and missed an opportunity to learn something. The opportunity to hopefully come to the conclusion that they no longer wished to refer to the Roma people in that way. They could use the words “Roma” and “Romani” instead, and feel confident in doing so. I never intended the use of the word in the title to arouse anger from the Roma community. Conversely, I hoped any Roma who might come upon my book would read it and appreciate someone having had the strong desire to shine light on the oppression of the people. Unfortunately, it has been a split crowd. Having had two members of the Roma community read and offer me feedback on the book, I found that one was determined to be opposed to the book because it contained “stereotypes”, while the other had an appreciation for my delicate telling of the culture at the time, and my disclaimers stating that the people do not all thieve, work witchcraft, or live godless lives.
G: Given that you are portraying a culture not your own, I found the degree of authenticity quite striking. How long did it take you to research the material to achieve this and, afterward the studying process, how long did the book actually take to write?
K: Had I known I was to be asked this, I would have paid closer attention, but sadly, I have no sure answer for you. As for the research, it was a process of long (up to 8 hour) nights of study, five days a week, over a period of several months. When I say it was a full time job that did not pay, I am being truthful. Of course, the reward of knowledge was all the pay I desired.
The first few months of this work were strictly research. The other months were study done in between chapters, my aim being to take each scene written and dissect it for historical accuracy as much as possible. This is just the way I write. I research before, during, and after a book. I have an author friend aid me in my studies and research, then have her pick my books apart for errors.
G: “The Roma Road: A Gypsy Tale” centers on a 16th century Romani girl being subjected to human trafficking. Some readers unfamiliar with modern Romani history likely have the impression that the topics you portrayed are long-dead issues. However, in many countries throughout Europe, the rates of human trafficking are quite disproportionately in favor of Roma, rather than Whites, being forced into modern slavery. Did this current-day problem have anything to do with your decision to write a book on Romani slavery’s history?
K: No, it did not. I had no knowledge of these facts until I was well into writing my story. It was something that I was saddened to learn and hoped that many would read my book, learn of this history, then take up my suggestion to further their own research and find that many of these issues are still current.
G: Generally, when Romani slavery is discussed, those who are aware that it took place at all focus on Eastern Europe—Romania, in particular. What made you decide to highlight the history of persecution, ethnic cleansing, and enslavement of the Roma in the UK instead?
K: My book started out as a story with the background stage as the pre-circus. Much of that originated in the UK. A few years ago I traced my ancestry back to England and found that, on both sides of my family, my relatives lived for many generations in certain areas. I became fascinated with the culture and history, and like writing books that are set in the times when my family may have lived there. All of these are reasons that I chose the Roma of the UK for my story.
G: Often, when UK slavery is referenced, it is through euphemisms such as “indentured servitude.” At no point in the book do you once use any of these regular watered-down terms. You say, every time, “slave.” Was it especially important to you, as an author, to ensure that the audience understood that there really is no other way to adequately describe the situation?
K: Indentured servitude is a glamorous way of saying, “a person with no freedom who did unpaid labor”. That is a slave, plain and simple. As in every time in history where there have been oppressed people, there have been those who wished they were not treated so, but those were not the majority and the result was catastrophic for the Roma people. It was very important to me that my readers grasp what it meant to be a Roma slave, and that they don’t have any qualms about calling it for what it was after reading this book.
G: Repeatedly throughout the book, you reference how, when Roma are caught, if they are not killed, they are frequently put on ships and sent away. Was this data included to help American audiences understand that a significant portion of modern Romani-Americans, particularly in Southern States like your native Texas, descend from these brutal UK slave raids?
K: Yes. If the readers learned that the Roma people were shipped off, they would conclude on their own that they began lives in other places. This included the US, and the population here today came from much of this slave trafficking. The land of the free has not always been free for all and that is important to know as well.
G: Most mainstream individuals consider Queen Elizabeth I a great monarch, but you highlight very clearly that it was during her reign, on her personal orders, that anti-Romani ethnic cleansing was going on throughout the county she ruled. How important is it, do you think, that this fact regarding her time in power be brought to light for modern audiences, given that today’s UK Roma still endure a great deal of bigotry?
K: History belongs to no one in particular, which means it is shared. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the foundation that said bigotry was built on, and such policies at the time poured quite a firm foundation. What a pity, too. The opportunity to glean from a beautiful culture was missed, and was a loss for the UK. They stole what they wished from the Roma people, yet accused them of being the thieves. But just as I have stated previously, it is not the entire UK population that feels so strongly against the Roma people, and if one is to be fair, and careful not to mislead, they must offer disclaimers. Here is mine: I am in no position to speak for anyone but myself. I have seen injustice served, and have attempted to shine a light on it. Those who wish to search out truths should do so.
G: You deal with the topic of racially-based ongoing rape very poignantly, yet at the same time, with tremendous subtlety. Was this subtlety on your part designed to conform to the standards of the book’s genre, (Christian historical fiction,) or out of respect to Romani culture’s traditions regarding modesty as pertains to both sex and sexual violence?
K: Both. The Christian fiction genre in general is one that I find is best written with a careful pen. I find that my own writing of sexual sins is more blunt and detailed than many Christian authors, so for you to say that it is subtly and poignantly written, I take that as both compliment and a great relief. I have done my best to, while exposing wrongs, not do further harm to the hearts of the Roma people, and have attempted to keep my readers from shutting the book and saying, “This is too much! I can’t go on!”
G: For centuries untold, many Romani children, like your main character, Nadya, have been lied to by their family members, who deny Romani ethnic origins as a means of survival. These children, who faced the choice of being forced to be “White” or die, grow up with a loss of Romanes language, cultural traditions, and are frequently subjected to varying degrees of ostrazation by those traditionally raised. How do you hope that books like yours might influence this unfortunate vicious cycle, both for the non-Romani and Romani communities alike?
K: Until you have some level of love for a person, it is difficult to have a sympathy deep enough to provoke change. Books like mine make the non-Romani people form a bond with Romani characters. They see them as who they are—people, with strengths, weaknesses, and souls. They grow to love them, to feel for them. Then, they can no longer turn a blind eye when they see such things still happening. These books are not the entire fire with which you burn up racial profiling and injustices. However, they very well can be the tinder.
G: People of mixed Romani-Gadje origin often face double discrimination from both ethnicities, eventually are pressured by both to choose only one heritage which they will acknowledge. What made you decide that your main character should be of mixed origin, rather than full-blood?
K: Honestly, it just fit. My character needed to see both sides. She had a white father who loved Roma. She had a white grandfather who kidnapped and enslaved Roma. She was raised around Roma who loved her white father and her. She also saw the conflict between her anti-Roma stepmother and the Roma that lived on her land. She saw every facet of this conflict before she was ten years old and enslaved, and then suffered the trauma of being discriminated against herself. How could she not be open-minded and open-hearted to both sides? I believe this is the way to eliminate discrimination against any ethnicity: to learn why they feel the way they do and do offer healing to any who need it. But then also to not place blame on the parties who do not condone the discrimination. Many people are descendants of slave owners and are hated for their heritage. They didn’t ask to descend from such people. It is their own values and choices that should be judged.
Nadya experienced it all, and by the time she was an adult, she desperately needed healing.
G: I found your principal villain to be very well written. In particular, the emotional complexity he deals with regarding his status as a master was refreshing. Books typically portray the slave masters as having no belief whatsoever that their actions are immoral, but your villain seems to understand that the system, however beneficial to him personally, is ethically flawed. What was your inspiration for his internal conundrum?
K: We are born with a conscience. We can’t deny that. Some villains are able to numb theirs completely, and others just deal with it by putting it off. For this character to be as emotionally unstable as he was, he needed to have a conflict within him. He needed to struggle and to attempt to gain control of his situations by pride and power. And it just worked best that he refused to allow himself to feel remorse though he knew it was due.
G: As befits the 16th century setting, your book features some very old-school Romani traditions and beliefs which many modern Roma do not practice/ believe. Was it difficult to portray time period-accurate things, like the casting of love spells, while knowing that many non-Roma believe this is still par for the course among Roma people today?
K: It was not difficult because, like I said, history is shared. If I can, being no expert on the people, take some time in study and come to the conclusion that things have changed in most cultures over the last 500 years, then anyone can. If someone wants to believe that the Roma people are tarot-card reading, pick-pocketing, traveling musicians, they will. There is nothing that can be done for willful ignorance. The only way I can think to change the minds of people who won’t do their own research is to lure them in with a nicely-woven tale, include the things they “think a Gypsy” is, but show them that these stereotypes were era-specific, family-specific, and even specific to the individual. Disclaimers and clarifying statements then attempt to hit the mark and clear up any confusion that may still remain. The problem isn’t so much that the non-Romani community will read it and say, “See! There’s a palm reader!” or, “See! He stole a duck from a farmer!” Any character can do those things. It is that, after reading the book they will say, “I would have stolen to feed my family, too…” or “The white people who were bold enough to ask for one, seemed to enjoy a good fortune telling…” Even, “I hate that they were oppressed for being so different, when their culture was truly beautiful.” Those are the things that the non-Romani will walk away with. Sadly, due to the subject matter being sensitive, the Roma community may have difficulty seeing it as a “good book” that “does their people any good service.” But the book’s audience wasn’t specific to the Roma community. Instead, it was aimed at those who aren’t familiar with the culture. Each historical fiction book tends to have a message it wishes to convey, and an audience it is speaking to. This books audience is the non-Roma crowd, and the message is, “Do you know of Gypsies, or of the Roma people?”
G: The biggest flaw that I found in the book was that your racist characters referenced “dirty Roma,” “filthy Roma,” et cetera. To my mind the more accurate phrasing from a racist would be “dirty Gypsy,” “filthy Gyppo,” and other established anti-Romani slurs. How do you react to this particular criticism of your villains being too educated and politically correct?
K: When given permission by a Roma to use such phrases, I was more confident in going back and using them more freely from the lips of the discriminating characters. I was attempting to be extra sensitive to the Roma community, but after a better understanding, I believe it was better for me to use the slurs in order to have the full effect: showing how hurtful such racist phrases are.
G: Your book’s genre is Christian historical fiction. Across Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there were religious institutions from many different sects which exploited, kidnapped, discriminated against, enslaved, or even killed Roma. The main non-Romani religious figure that you portray does not partake in such behavior as, certainly, many decent clergy did not. What did you do to attempt to find literary balance and middle ground so that your main character, Nadya, can find peace and healing through genuine love of faith, while your book does not deny a history of church abuse which Christ would certainly not have endorsed to be perpetrated against any race?
K: Research, research, research. The stories of abuse within and without the church are horrifying, and Christ would not have us sweep such sins under a rug. There are evil people everywhere, just as there are good. Like in my other books, I go for a lesson learned. That is one of the key things I hope to convey in this story.
G: As pertains to the previous question, I will give one example that struck me. You wrote a scene involving one Romani girl covertly reading a cherry vendor’s palm in a market. Were the pains the characters took to not be noticed a reflection of the Catholic ruling that individuals whose fortunes were read by Roma would be forever excommunicate according to Papal law?
K: The scene was a picture of how careful both sides had to be in order to not find themselves on the wrong side of the law. English law did their part in keeping the cultures very separate. The pains taken to not be seen on both parts are best viewed separately. Papin, the Roma girl, has learned through experience which persons she can approach with her skills and attempt to trade said skills for goods. She risks exposure in order to gain food for her people. The cherry vendor is taken immediately by her good looks and cannot bring himself to step away from the opportunity to see what the Roma can tell him about his life by a quick glimpse at his hand. He risks being punished by church and law for doing such a thing, but calculates the risk and come to the personal conclusion that it was worth it.
G: Texas has a large Christian Romani population. Do you plan to promote your book to them?
K: Given the opportunity to have the Christian Romani population in Texas support my book would be an honor, and I certainly hope that it will be approved by many. As I stated, my target audience is non-Roma, as it is meant to educate those who have no knowledge of the Roma’s history. The Romani population, I think, needs no education on such things from a book written by a non-Romani from the perspective of a Roma girl. It may even seem ridiculous to them to read such a thing, as they may feel they could write a more accurate portrayal of the time themselves. This was the opinion of one Roma I had review my book. And I have no doubt that most could offer details that I am still not knowledgeable of. But this book is about more than just the Roma’s oppression, though that is the biggest part of the story. It is about the Protestant church being oppressed as well. It is about a trafficking victim’s struggle. It is about the abuse those with disfigurements suffered when put on display in the traveling shows. It is about love and loss. So these things woven together will reach an audience who wants to learn about those particular years in that certain area of the UK, and hear a moving story as well. If any in the Christian Romani population have those things in mind while searching for a read, they may find my book enjoyable. I certainly hope they do! But to answer your question specifically, I intend to promote my book to any who would enjoy historical fiction hitting on those key things, regardless of ethnicity. I just predict that those most interested would be non-Roma.
G: After the story has ended, you encourage non-Romani Christians at the back of the book to reach out and support their Romani brethren. What steps do you think churches today could take to make this happen? Have you considered speaking at churches in your state regarding this issue of greater racial tolerance and understanding on the basis of true Christian doctrine?
K: I think Christians as individuals, not just churches, should first educate themselves on the plight of the Roma people and then ask God specifically to show them what He would have them to do. Whether that would be financially supporting the ministries that aid Roma children in getting a proper education, or forming/aiding other outreaches that extend love and the gospel to the Roma community, there are plenty of ways to get involved. Speaking on any platform, be it social media or a stage at church, can result in having a great influence. I do not consider myself a speaker, nor do I look for opportunities to speak publically. I am a writer and feel my voice is best read, not heard from a platform. However, given the opportunity to speak to a group in the past, I have not declined and if the chance to speak came, I can’t stay that I would automatically decline it due to my stage fright. I do feel that this is an area in which more non-Roma people should speak, especially those with public speaking skills.
G: When I encountered the advertisement for your book, the tag line referenced something to the effect of, “What is a Gypsy soul?” When pointed out to you that this phrasing is a trigger for the Romani community and carries, for many of us, the implication of non-Roma being able to appropriate our culture/ become “Gypsies,” you changed your tag line to something else. You also expressed your desire to speak to actual people from the Romani community, halting publication of your book, until it could be scrutinized by them in order to weed out cultural inaccuracies and linguistic glitches. Why did you make this extreme gesture to wait for the approval of the minority that you are portraying?
K: Because my work was meant to help, not harm. I am not so naïve as to think that I will gain the approval of most Roma in writing this book. The majority is impossible to please in any crowd. My intent was to ensure that I got the facts as straight as possible, to make friends in the community, and to get insight into their hearts. I found that in doing so I bettered my book, but also expanded my own understanding of the modern Roma community. There is so much to be learned from them, and I hope to continue to learn how to better love and pray for them as a people.
All of my books are available at Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle form.
As NaNoWriMo drew to a close, I began to debate how to get back to into my blog, featuring both a weekly Romani rights article as well as an author interview…. Which person to choose first out of the plethora on my to-read list?
That so-simple question would wind up being answered by an epically nasty bit of online drama, the specifics of which, to a very large degree boil down to one simple question: when portraying a minority main character, do White authors have the same rights as the minority itself?
In this instance, a White author’s main character was Romani. And, in order to reach out to a broader audience, she used the word “Gypsy” in the book’s title. I was asked to weigh in on this, book unread, on her author’s page….
For me, this indeed presented a tricky situation. All who follow my activism at all know well that I have been protesting the use of the word “Gypsy” since long before many of my contemporaries. How great is my dedication to this cause? Great enough to nearly be arrested. Below I include the article detailing the specifics of that incident.
Why am I cemented to this word being put in its proper place? Because I am a three-time anti-Romani hate crime survivor and, with every incident, “Gypsy” was shoved in my face as a verbal excuse for everything that happened to me.
Rape was okay so long as my assailant called me a “Gypsy Princess” afterwards.
Trying to take my newborn son away was okay, so long as the hospital nurse told me, “Gypsies aren’t people.”
Trying to deny me my degree was okay, so long as the teacher told me that he didn’t know how “letting a Gypsy graduate would reflect on the school.”
I don’t need someone to tell me the gravity of what the slur word “Gypsy” can accomplish. I see it in my face when I look in the mirror—not because of my ethnicity, but because, when I was nineteen, it earned me a broken nose which, to this day, bends just slightly to one side. I’ve lived with that misshapen part of my face for so long that, usually, I don’t notice it anymore. But, at the times that I do, it only furthers my resolve that I will be doing battle with that word until my end.
Back when I started campaigning against the G word, nearly twenty years ago, there was a lot more wiggle-room that the Gadje (non-Roma) community had regarding it. “Roma” and “Romani” were not terms that most of them had much of a chance to ever hear or read without deliberately looking.
But that’s not the case today. Too many Romani activists throughout the world have put tremendous effort into getting the mainstream population to acknowledge that we, as a people, have the same linguistic right to self-definition as anyone else. Point of fact, some have even taken it further than I ever intended. They don’t want to be identified as “Roma” or “Romani,” but instead by their specific tribal identity within the Romani system, much like some Native Americans prefer to be called Pomo, Lakota, Cherokee; et cetera.
Either way, you can’t put “Gypsy” into Google now without the search engine soon enough spitting back the term “slur word” into your face.
So back to the original question: can a Gadjo/ Gadji author write a good book with a Romani main character? Sure. That depends mainly on the personal talent of the writer in question than anything else. But can they then use “Gypsy” in the title to help them sell copies? The answer here should be an easy “no.” Any way you slice it, that person is using a slur word for profit.
And yet…sadly…the answer is not so simple.
The fact of it is that, as the market currently stands, many authors know that their books will not find the audience that they are targeting and that they will not make money off the hard work that they have put into their book unless they do put the G word in the title. No, the authors that I’m referring to here aren’t Gadje. I’m talking about the majority of the authors who are considered some of the top dogs in Romani literary activism in the world….
So when the Romani author “elite” is consistently doing it, what position do they put those of us in who are trying to tell Whites to stop using this slur for profit?
Sure, sure, some people will inevitably pop up here and say, “Hey, we’re Roma, so it’s okay for us to make money off the slur. It’s horrible and racist for Gadje, but it’s okay for us.”
I’m sorry, folks, but this argument has a pretty huge flaw in that slur-embracing benefits only an extremely small number of Roma and the rest of us wind up getting screwed. It also leaves Gadje—especially Gadje authors—with a very mixed message. And so long as that message continues to be mixed, the status of “Gypsy” as a slur word will continue to be in question among many people who do not necessarily mean it to be harmful; people who do not realize the harm that it has historically caused and will continue to cause.
To my Romani brothers and sisters, I can only point out what a change it was when, in a courtroom, there could be consequences for employers to call their African-American employees by the N word. Now that victory didn’t come about easily. That happened specifically through the decades of hard work, organized activism, and consistency on the part of the African-American people.
Roma people will get there. We have made leaps and bounds in the last few decades towards improvement in social justice. So is the degree of compromise where “Gypsy” is put in a book title still necessary for Romani-Americans today to get their readers? The argument could be made for both yay and nay. But such compromise definitely would not be necessary if the Romani community took a firm stand and said “no” to the slur word unanimously; said “no” we will not use this word to make money.
We are worth more than a title with “Gypsy” in it. Our culture and our history are worth more than “Gypsy” will ever provide us with.
We deserve to be known for what we are. We deserve for our ancestral origins to not be inaccurately attributed to a different country than India. We deserve for our people to not be mistaken for other ethnic groups simply because they may share a few cultural traits with some of us.
To Gadje authors, I’ll say this: yours is a decision that is very largely based on personal morals. Is it fair? No. Not by a long shot. You’ve worked hard on a book. You want to get paid for that. But it’s a cold, hard fact that you won’t get nearly the paycheck for the job you’ve done if you don’t use the slur. However, if you use the slur, there will be a backlash for your doing so. If you don’t, there won’t be…yet likely neither the Gadje or Romani community will even notice your book exists. Welcome to the wonderful world of writing about the Romani experience. Either way, you can’t win.
To Roma, I say that if it offends you that a White author uses “Gypsy” in a book title, the best way that you can take a stand against this is to stop acting in a way which enables it. That means a lot more than ganging up on that particular author online without reading their book. It means that the people who you associate with yourself, your friends and family, who use “Gypsy” to make money, need to start being called out on the damage they are causing. Because, make no mistake about it, they are providing Gadje with the shining example of why the use of this word is actually “okay.”
The thought of Roma holding Roma accountable for their actions regarding this is not as radical as many might like to claim. There’s plenty of other ethnic minorities that have been in precisely the same shoes as us regarding this issue. Many have managed to pull themselves up by the bootstraps. We’re still not quite there. But tick tok, tick tok, we will get there….
Lastly, to the ones on both sides who claim this word is not as bad as I make out, I leave you with the 1828 Webster Dictionary’s definition of its meaning. How can you defend this? How can you “take it back” and turn it into a positive term? If the answer to that leaves you uncomfortable or you hesitate, you know very well whether or not you should be using it to promote your business.
“GIP’SEY, n. The Gipseys are a race of vagabonds which infest Europe, Africa and Asia, strolling about and subsisting mostly by theft, robbery and fortune-telling. The name is supposed to be corrupted from Egyptian, as they were thought to have come from Egypt. But their language indicates that they originated in Hindoostan.
- A reproachful name for a dark complexion.
- A name of slight reproach to a woman; sometimes implying artifice or cunning.
A slave I am to Clara’s eyes:
The gipsey knows her power and flies.
GIP’SEY, n. The language of the gipseys.”
Every once in a while, novice authors will ask those published for advice. You’ll hear tips about how to focus on your skills, but rarely how to focus on anything else. The proverbial “words of wisdom” that I would impart go as follows: when you undertake the writing profession, there is more that you may wind up being judged by than you might expect. Personally, when I encounter a colleague of the literary arts, I rate them not only by the plot of their work and the quality of the way which they bring that plot to life but also upon how they treat fellow authors. The arts are a rough business, no doubt about it. And, sadly, there are many out there that would happily cut off their own nose if it means spiting another writer’s sales. So when someone goes the extra mile to support their fellows, they can truly make themselves stand out. They say that nice guys finish last, but this cliché, like so many others, doesn’t have to be the case.
I met Karthik Lakshminarayanan, (who also writes under the names “Karthik L” and “T F Carthick,”) as I have met so many others like him, through the Facebook group “For Writers by Authors.” I did not know that he was himself an author, as not all there are. In addition to novelists, the group has many who have personal blogs and or review the stories of others.
When UnBound Emagazine Issue #2 was released, Karthik wrote a public review of my short story, “Lolo’s Daughter.”
At the release of Issue #3, Karthik once again gave a review for my new story, “The Last Escape from Auschwitz” without prompting.
Now, to those who haven’t been in the industry yet, you might take reviews for granted. Don’t. There’s a reason that people pay scam artists online just to put out a few words about their work. Without reviews, your career is going to very likely go just about nowhere. Reviews equal either sales or higher chances of submission success in the future. So, when someone goes out of their way to do it for free for you, respect that. When they make a habit of it, respect them.
I keep a list of everyone that I know that has ever taken the time to so much as give me a star click on amazon, regardless of what that rating was. Yes, true enough, it takes less than 30 seconds to click that star, but, once you’re published, believe me, you’ll be amazed by the vast number of people who will praise your work to your face, but refuse to take that microscopic amount of time to officially endorse it. So never underestimate the true value of the word “gratitude.”
When I my two stories, “Calo with Calo” and “The Proposal,” were published in “Flock: The Journey,” I contacted Karthik Lakshminarayanan and ask him if he would be willing to review these tales as well. Indeed, he was.
Karthik Lakshminarayanan: “I always like to learn about other countries and cultures. So I was very happy to discover Galina Trefil a few years back. Her stories give wonderful insights into the life of the Romanis in the modern world. Each story brings to life a different aspect of the problems the Romanis face in today’s world – struggles the individuals within the community face due to stifling regressive ancient customs that the Roma still hold on to and the struggles Roma as a community face from others who view them as thieving rascals and look for opportunities to hurt them. The two latest stories published as part of the anthology ‘Flock: The Journey’ touch upon these two aspects. The first story ‘The Proposal’ touches upon how the Western society persecutes the Roma and the second one ‘Calo with Calo’ talks about the young Roma’s struggle with the regressive customs and traditions.
‘The Proposal’ is a poignant tale of a young man who is faced with grave danger in the form of an attack on the Roma community to avenge the hurt ego of a local from the majority community. Despite the danger he faces, he manages to keep a cool head and tries to spend the time in hiding trying to cleverly orchestrate a few moments of happiness for the daughter of the family that has given him refuge. The story flows really well and in some ways reminds one of the movie ‘Life is beautiful.’
‘Calo with Calo’ is a tale of the complex caste system within the Roma. While Roma as a group are being castigated and persecuted by the rest of society, instead of rallying around, they seem to be intent on maintaining walls within the community. It is a Roma Romeo and Juliet tale set in modern twenty-first century USA. Only the romance never takes off even beyond the first meeting. So at least all the drama and grave tragedy is averted. But enough drama plays out even in the desire of two young people to get to know each other with romantic intent. This is also a beautifully written tale that takes the reader into the shoes of the protagonist.”
When he sent this lengthy reply, I naturally knew that it was only fair to put up any links to his own site that he wanted forwarded. Because, when someone takes this amount of time for your career, it should not be considered a courtesy to respond in some degree in turn, but instead an obligation.
It was at this point that I realized, much to my embarrassment that I had not noticed before, that Lakshminarayanan also had a book to his credits which I knew nothing about. And that, while he’d been reviewing me and many others at length, he was more than just a critic, but indeed a full-blown colleague. Modest, perhaps, to his own detriment, as a great many authors are.
Needless to say, I was on amazon a few minutes later, clicking the “buy” button for his anthology “Sirens Spells Danger.” (Yes, novices, this again is proper author etiquette if another writer ever purchases your own work.) Reading his, I knew that he needed to be the next featured author on my blog. His piece reminded me, though its plot was different, a great deal of 1985’s fantasy film, “Legend.” The theme, set in current times, was unusually good at the difficult trick of portraying the magical realm amidst I-pads, laptops, and an age of government bureaucracy. Full of real and imaginary psychological shadows, the writing style was incredibly fluid, gluing the reader in place to the last page.
Admittedly, I am biased, though not because of him reviewing my work. Horror has always been one of my favorite genres to read and, subsequently, give feedback on.
So, without further ado, my readers, here is the interview of dark fantasy/ horror author Karthik Lakshminarayanan:
G: To an unfamiliar audience, can you give some basic information about yourself?
K: I am an Engineer and a MBA, have worked for 14 years in areas of IT, Operations Consulting and Analytics. I started writing 9 years back. I started with a blog, then moved on to short stories and then bigger works. My favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy with a dash of humor.
G: You co-wrote the book, “Sirens Spell Danger,” with the blogger Radha Sawana and Suresh Chandrasekaran, the best-selling author of “A Dog Eat Dog-Food World.” For “Sirens Spell Danger,” each one of you came up with your own tale to tell. How did the three of you decide to undertake this enterprise together?
K: Actually we used to have a writer’s community where we used to set exercises for each other and practice. 6 of us from the group decided to get together and put together an anthology of novellas. We didn’t want to write romance. So we decided to go for crime as the next most popular genre. While the 3 of us love fantasy, the other 3 were not much into fantasy. So we chose a genre to which all of us could contribute. The other 3 could not stand the rigors of multiple edits and rewrites. So they dropped off along the way and we were the ones left standing.
G: Whose idea was it to write on the themes of sirens?
K: Actually the theme came after the stories were written. We realized that all our stories had charming female characters who lead male characters to their doom like the sirens of the Greek legend. So we decided to use that as the title.
G: Will you be joining up with Chandrasekaran and Sawana, or any other authors, for another collection in the future?
K: Collaboration is very difficult and requires lot of effort to make it work. It is also very difficult to find right synergies with people. The three of us have managed to find it – I am not sure if I will find the same with anyone else. But somehow not been able to come up with a suitable project to work together on. For long, we have been wanting to start a blog together to share our takes on mythologies of various cultures. But it seems to be keep getting delayed.
G: Your story, “Bellary,” uses mythology as the backdrop for a horror setting. Was the mythology authentic or did you create it?
K: Actually, I started with a story idea of an investigator getting caught in a paranormal events when he goes to investigate a regular crime. When I was writing the story, the town Bellary was gaining notoriety for the illegal mining activities and local mafia connected to powerful politicians. So I decided to set the story there. When I began to research the town, I came to know of local myth and the story behind the town’s name. So I decided to use that for my story.
G: One of the things which stood out to me as both quite charming and on the original side about “Bellary” was that, while it has a very ancient flavor, you manage to very smoothly adapt the belief systems regarding demonology into the modern-day. Is this type of theme, mixing the archaic into our now highly-technological world, something that you plan to write on again?
K: Yes. I always like to write stories that blend different worlds. I had written a story trying to connect the Stonehenge legends to alien visits, another one about Greek witch Circe visiting the modern world and a third one that involves Pandora’s box being opened in current times.
G: “Bellary” portrays a great deal of sexual harassment and violence against women in a small frame of time, as seen through a decent male character’s eyes. Was there any particular reason that you chose to showcase this issue so strongly?
K: I think most of the blogger and writer community on social media talk a lot about these issues. So that must have seeped into my sub-conscious. My objective as a writer is clear – to entertain. Any social message that might slip in is purely incidental.
G: Your story’s main character, in many ways, is very relatable to everyday people due to non-stereotypical traits—such as social awkwardness and easy irritability. Do you feel that the proverbial “guy next door” characters in current fictional trends are getting their due time in the spotlight or do you think that there is still a great deal of pressure for male characters in fantasy to be flawlessly and fearlessly heroic at all turns, as in the days when mythology was so popular?
K: I think these days fantasy fiction has gone past even “guy next door” characters. The characters currently in vogue are highly conflicted grey characters. I don’t think anyone writes heroic fantasy any more.
G: Your two female characters initially seem to portray stereotypes themselves in the beginning, but you went out of your way to knock the illusions to the side. Does this reflect your personal thoughts on the “good girl” vs. “bad girl” beliefs which are still quite rife in today’s society?
K: Yes. I have often felt appearances can be quite deceptive. So I thought it would be an interesting plot device to have stereotypes proven wrong. I personally am not judgmental and approach every person with an open mind without prejudices of gender, race, and lifestyle choices. In fact the more different a person is from me, the more interesting I find them.
G: The ending of “Bellary” left some questions for the audience, particularly regarding the two female characters and your main character’s potential oncoming adventures. Is this because you plan to write a sequel?
K: Generally, I like to leave my stories open for sequels. But I don’t know if I will get around to writing one for this.
G: “Bellary” was very dark. Is this your preferred type and genre of writing? Of reading?
K: Sometimes I get into a mood where I have this desire to write dark fiction. But I prefer to write humor or highly imaginative works. As far as reading goes, I don’t prefer to read too dark,
G: Besides “Bellary,” what other writing have you published in the past? Can readers find more of your fiction available on your blog?
K: I have written over 50 short stories, 4 of which have made their appearance in multi author anthologies. Also a couple have made it to online magazines. The rest I am in the process of putting up on my blog. Some are already there. The rest are yet to be put up. You can find the ones I have already put up here. http://www.karthikl.com/p/fiction.html
In conclusion, I suppose this particular article wound up having more than one point to it. This is very much a field in which nice guys can finish first. Taking five minutes of your time to do someone else the small favor might wind up going a lot further than you’d guess. It’s a process through which I, myself, have met many amazing, fascinating people, made many online friendships, and, in the blogging world, the so-called “Golden Rule” can lead to features which will increase your readership and sales.
Karthik’s reviews prompted others to read my work. He did not, a year later, ask me to interview him. He did not ask to be featured. He did not even ask me to read or buy his book. But that’s what can happen when you, as an author, take the time to review people. They keep it in mind. They are grateful. And if they realize that you have genuine talent, it’s true that some will go out of their way to not forward you—(almost as if giving your work the cold shoulder will increase their own sales.) But others will appreciate your work for what it is and they’ll say, “Hey, did you read what so-and-so just wrote? Good stuff! I recommend buying it.”
Common courtesy, young authors. It’s definitely food for thought.
I first encountered Saikumar Yerubandi when we both wound up published in the second issue of UnBound Emagazine, the creation of my favorite literary group—“For Writers by Authors” (FWBA.) A mutual love of paleontology, (for which the idea of a book anthology has been kicked around from time to time,) and interest in human rights sparked a pleasant online friendship. We would both later be published in the next UnBound issue…and, only a few days ago, the one after that as well.
The subject material of Yerubandi’s latest work “Mah Color, My Life” hit me on a very deep level and only half-way through reading it, rather than simply giving his piece a review, I knew that I wanted to do an actual feature. Simply put, the autobiographical story has more than writing appeal. There is a strong social and educational importance to the piece which needs to be shared for the greater good of both the international able-bodied and disabled community.
Without further ado, the interview:
G: To an audience who has never read you before, can you say a few words about yourself?
S: A dark balding South Indian who refuses to accept that I am on the wrong side of 50. A farmer who became a geologist by accident whose heart still beats for his village. I write short stories and flash fiction more as a hobby. (I just completed my flash fiction #48 last week “the chota peg series.”) God forbid someday I might seriously think of becoming a writer. Readers be warned.
G: What is your preferred genre and what type of writing format do you typically use in order to bring it to life?
S: The genre that comes naturally to me is humour. I love to write horror too. The topics I normally write are related to day to day social issues. What I can’t do is Romance, I mean, the genre.
G: In your short story, “Mah Color, Mah Life,” (which recently debuted in UnBound Emagazine Issue 4, and is being promoted by Kalaage,) you talk about various difficulties that you have had to overcome at different times in your life because you are color blind. Several times, you reference hardship in your early school years. Do you feel that teachers are properly educated about the different perception of color blind students?
S: Well, frankly in India, even to this day, probably half the teachers are not even aware of this handicap in the children. Probably the inability to differentiate shades of colours is attributed to the low IQ of the child. It is only in recent times the schools are appointing student counselors to understand issues like Dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, and so on. I hope that colour blindness is given equal importance.
G: What advice would you give a teacher who has a color blind student in their class for the first time?
S: The first thing the teacher needs to do is understand the trauma that the child goes thru vis-a-vis teasing and bulling by other students on his inability to differentiate colours, and guide and help the child to deal with it by learning to laugh at oneself. And sensitizing the other classmates.
G: By profession, you are a geologist. I would imagine that color blindness must make the identification of many rocks extremely difficult, yet you persevere nonetheless. What words would you have to skeptics regarding the capabilities of the color blind in the work force?
S: If early on in life if you identify your handicap, avoid jobs that require you to deal with colours. You’ll save yourself and others a lot of uncomfortable situations. But, having said that, take this disability as a challenge in your personal hobbies.
G: Regarding driving a vehicle, which presents issues as well, is there any advice that you have for color blind children as well as their parents as to what to expect?
S: Well since there not much a person afflicted with colour blindness can do about it, the onus lies on the state to make the signals more user friendly…like, instead of just the colours red, green, and yellow, the signals should have a pictorial display as well. (It is already in vogue in many countries.) Alternatively just follow a vehicle right in front of you and do what he does. This is of course fraught with the risk of following a bad driver who jumps signals, like it happened to me once.
G: Despite repeated publications by UnBound Emagazine in the past, when they announced the theme for this issue, (“A Riot of Colors,”) you almost did not enter. Do you feel that many other color blind people have this hesitation to talk about the impact of color in general, let alone actual color blindness, in their lives, even with respected friends and colleagues?
S: Yes. I am sure most colour blind people would rather push it under the carpet, rather than expose themselves to their handicap fearing ridicule. I guess most people in general try to hide those not so visible handicaps to friends and colleagues. Having said that, yes, the writers are a bold breed and they don’t hesitate.
G: In the past, you have written short stories whose fictional characters deal with gender violence, women’s equality, and animal rights. In the future, will your fiction have color blind characters also?
S: Hmm…that’s a good idea. My only dilemma would be whether to make it a serious social issue or a humorous one.
G: In fiction, have you encountered any positive, accurate portrayals by other authors of color blind characters that you can direct readers to?
S: Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any one writing on this subject. I am not even sure if there are any groups dealing with this. I would love to browse the net for the same.
G: If not, what effect does this have on you, both as a color blind person, and as a writer?
S: I am glad I wrote on this subject and happy to see people liked it, and hope that in future more writers affect by this handicap will feel free to do so. Not only colour blindness but on other invisible disabilities too.
G: Do you feel that the public in general has a large degree of misconceptions about the realities of being color blind? How do you feel the disability is generally portrayed?
S: Insensitive people will only find it as another subject to make fun of, for example lisping, squint etc. Like me, the person suffering from this disability will try to hide it and pretend that all is well.
G: Though not color blind, as a person with a disability, I identified a great deal with many of the emotional aspects described in your piece. Do you plan on promoting what you’ve written for UnBound Emagazine in disability groups online for the benefit of those who do not, as you do, have gifts with the written word?
S: I would like to see this piece being shared on as many disability groups as possible and let people know it is nothing to be ashamed of. I accept both the gifts of the Almighty—the ability to write and the colour blindness with equal grace.
G: Now that you have publicized your disability in a literary format, how does it make you feel?
S: I feel relieved. I no longer need to be ashamed of my disability and I also realized not all people are insensitive to a fact that people can’t differentiate between, say, red and brown and it is NOT because they are idiots.
G: Two questions that I ask all fellow people with a disability: is there anything that you consider a positive aspect of your physical difference? Are there any ways that it has helped influence your life for the better?
S: My own disability have made me more sensitive and appreciative to people with different disabilities and their resilience to overcome them, some of which are more serious, and we have inherited them and not out of choice.
G: What is next on the writing horizon for Saikumar Yerubandi?
S: For the next prompt for #UnBound magazine (theme: “The Shape of You”)…I plan to write something different. Probably a mythology explained through Science fiction. Hopefully, if I can block out Ed Sheeran’s tune from playing non-stop in my head while doing so.
G: In conclusion, speaking only for myself, I must admit that, prior to “Mah Color, Mah Life,” I was pretty ignorant about the condition. Now that I’ve learned a bit about it, I would really like to see color blind characters begin to take their rightful place in fiction—particularly when written by authors who are color blind themselves and therefore definitely know what they are talking about. There is no reason for color blindness, like so many other disabilities, to be shoved into the closet any longer. In an era when racism and skin colorism are both finally being highlighted for the full wrong that they are, disablism, however, still seems to find itself largely being ignored by warriors for social justice. Disabled authors have the ability to change that, even if it is one short story at a time. As Yerubandi can certainly prove.
“Mah Color, Mah Life” may be read here:
Yerubandi’s previous UnBound publication “Sri Rama Raksha” in issue #2 here:
Yerubandi’s two stories in Issue #3, “Eknath Lonekar,” and “Chicken Little,” maybe be found here:
And, Yerubandi’s blog, which might, in the future, feature other short stories and his flash fiction “Chota Peg” series here: