An Interview with C.G.Menon



Susmita Bhattacharya

C. G. Menon is the author of Subjunctive Moods, published by Dahlia Publishing. She’s won or been placed in a number of competitions, including the Fish, Bridport, Bare Fiction and Short Fiction Journal awards. Her work has been broadcast on radio, and she’s been a judge for several international short fiction competitions. She has a PhD in pure mathematics and an MA in creative writing from City University. She is currently working on her first novel.Susmita Bhattacharya: What inspires you to write?

C. G. Menon: I sometimes read a story or novel that I wish I’d written, or one where I wish it had been written differently. It’s that urge to create – to tell a story that hasn’t been told, or hasn’t been told quite right. I love the act of creation and first-draft inspiration, but the phase of writing I love most is editing. Going back and fixing up all your mistakes – how wonderful is it to be able to do that?

You have won quite a few prestigious short story competitions and also judged a few. What have you learned about the craft of writing short stories – from both angles?

The most important thing I’ve learnt is to practise! Like everything else, from painting to plumbing, the only way to become a better writer is to keep on trying. There are certainly pieces of advice that get handed out – “use a strong first line”, “show not tell” etc. – but of course it isn’t as easy as all that. When I’m judging competitions, I’m not using a checklist to determine which stories should progress through. Instead, I want to feel in safe, secure hands; I want to feel as though the author knows what they’re doing and is absolutely in control. Speaking from the author’s perspective, that really only comes with experience and a consequent increase in confidence.

What advice would you give to a writer submitting to short story competitions?

The most important thing is to learn about the competition. Buy the anthology, if there’s one from previous years. Look up the winning entries, or the shortlisted authors, and certainly find out who the judge is. Different competitions will naturally favour different types of short story, and you need to make sure that you tailor your submission accordingly.

In terms of the piece itself, do try and avoid longer pieces that are cut down to fit or short ones that are padded out. It’s very easy to tell these as a judge, and it’s such a pity – the original piece would usually have been far better! Finally, make sure that the story is as good as it can possibly be. If that means holding off and submitting somewhere else after you’ve done some more edits, then that’s fine. There will always be more competitions!

Your stories are inspired by folklore and myths, particularly those of Malaysia. What attracted you to these themes? I’m curious about the stories you listened to as a child.

A lot of folklore, myths and legends! As a very small child we had illustrated copies of a lot of different folk tales, and something about their nature has definitely stuck. What I really like is trying to unearth the “real” under the folktale. How have we translated it into our language and shared experience? When you start looking for modern echoes of folk tales, it’s amazing how present they still are.

The stories in your collection, Subjunctive Moods, is peopled with ghostly beings, spirits and the supernatural – was this a theme you considered for your collection while writing the stories?

This is a really good question, and one to which I’m going to give a rather unsatisfactory answer. When I was writing the stories I had no thought whatsoever of putting a collection together. As everybody says, short story collections from debut authors are very hard to sell, and I’d decided that was too much of a mountain to climb. When Dahlia Publishing approached me to suggest that we work towards a collection, I had to go back and select the stories that fit best together. The final themes that emerged were a surprise to me, too!

Who are your favourite short story writers? And if there was one short story you wished you had written, which one would it be?

I love stories by Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie, R.K. Narayan, Mavis Gallant and Jhumpa Lahiri. My favourite story, and one which I keep coming back to and finding something new in, is Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Third and Final Continent”.

I love the lyrical quality of your writing. It’s sumptuous and sensuous and so rich in language. Does this style of writing come naturally to you or did you develop it over the years?

Thank you – that’s lovely to hear, especially considering your own poetic style! Writing more lyrically does feel natural to me. There are writers I really admire who are much more concise and sparse – like Hemingway – but that wouldn’t be a style that came naturally to me. I do enjoy reading poetry, and I’m sure that some of that richness in my reading finds its way into the stories I write. I’d love to be a better poet myself: perhaps in another lifetime.

I’d love to know your writing routine. I know you’re not a full-time writer, so how and where do you manage to write. Draw us an image of your writing table.

I write in the very early mornings, before I deal with any emails or research and teaching matters (I’m a university lecturer, so early mornings tend to be a great time for quiet thinking!). I find that after work is best for doing something less creative, like admin associated with writing. It’s also a great time to read for any competitions I’m judging, as all my analytical faculties are switched on after a day of work. I must admit that my writing table is decidedly non-romantic: it’s a battered kitchen table that I’ve repurposed into a writing desk. It’s covered with half-finished drafts, research books, notes on stories and comments from my writing groups.

How important is belonging to a writing group to you? How does it help being in a writing group?

I find the feedback from writing groups incredibly helpful. The few times when I’ve submitted stories to competitions before sharing them with my writing group are notable for a complete lack of success! Being in a writing group also helps your critical faculties. Identifying ways in which other people’s stories can be improved develops your eye for your own work. And of course, there’s a huge psychological boost. Writing can be a fairly lonely business and having a group to share it with is very heartening. In my writing groups, each person’s success really means something to the group as a whole.

You are a mathematician. Do you consider mathematics a creative form? Has it in any way informed the way you write?

Definitely! Mathematical proofs feel, in some way, as though they exercise the same part of my brain as writing. There’s the same need to be absolutely precise, and yet the same reliance on moments of sheer inspiration. I do feel that writing is a mathematical process, to a certain extent. Good writing, like a good proof, has to be elegant.

What advice would you give young writers who would like to consider taking up writing seriously in the future?

Firstly, I’d say absolutely go for it! Especially for young writers, there really isn’t any such thing as writing a bad story. You’re learning, growing, exploring new ideas and styles. Don’t be too over-critical of yourself, either. Finishing a story is a pretty amazing thing. Let criticism come later.