Author Interview: Talking Cats, Dolphins on Drugs and the Biopeculiar with Gigi Ganguly

We had the great pleasure of talking to Gigi Ganguly, the author of Biopeculiar, her second book and the first title on Westland’s speculative fiction list IF. Kidnapped under the guise of a short conversation, Gigi chatted with Kunzum about all things cats, speculation and the value of the creatively peculiar. Tune in:)

Sashrika: Before anything else, can we talk about your cats?! 

Gigi: We’ve had dogs at our house since I was born, so I’ve basically grown up with them. And then I moved to Ireland, where the cats were much friendlier. The cats here just run away from you, which makes sense. They should run away. But there they live with their family but are also often outside, roaming around. So I met a couple of them and realised that cats were actually really friendly. Why would there ever be a misconception about them being cold or indifferent? As if nothing mattered to them? They’re really friendly. It just takes time for them to relax around humans. 

So when I came back to India I decided that we have to keep cats. And when it came to choosing their names I sort of paid homage to the Irish cats I’ve met. That’s why I’ve given them Irish names: Bren and Orla. Bren means ‘Dark Prince’ and Orla is the ‘Red Princess’. It matches their fur colour:) 

Sashrika: Tell us about your journey as a writer and your relationship with creative writing. 

Gigi: My first job was at the India Today group. I worked there as a journalist at the newspaper arm. I used to work in the features department so I would basically write about anything. I would do food reviews, I used to go to concerts, I’d interview authors and musicians. I’d even do trend stories. And that’s when I realised that I loved writing more than anything. Because even when you write feature-ish articles, there is some liberty. It’s not like a proper news article, for example if it’s a Crime Story then it’ll begin in a certain way and end in a certain way. But with features there is an element of a short story in it, like the way the entire thing is framed. 

And while I was working at India Today I decided to go on a solo trip to Scotland and Ireland. Just like that. And while in Ireland I just loved their vibe, their literary vibe. Especially in Dublin! That’s where I was for three or four days. And that’s when I decided that I wanted to study creative writing in Ireland. Once I got through University of Limerick, I realised that, apart from me, only one or two other people were writing Fantasy Literature. Most of them were poets, or were writing novels or some sort of realist fiction. But even so, I found so much encouragement there. 

They taught me that one should write what one wants to write. That was their main thing. Don’t try to follow market trends or what the audience might want. I also learned how to take feedback. How to recognize which feedback makes sense and which one doesn’t. And that’s where I wrote my first book, which was the novella One Arm Shorter Than The Other

I used to watch a TV show there, which was about a repair shop. And I loved the idea of people just bringing their broken things… Sometimes there’d be really old people who’d come with, for example, their childhood cycle or something, and you’d see it get repaired and transformed. You’d see them cry and be so emotional. I loved that part of the show. That inspired me to write that novella. 

And after that novella I came back to India. We were living in the Himalayas, we have a small cottage there. So I was surrounded by nature all around. And although I’ve never seen a leopard there, there have been sightings. There used to be tigers there as well. That’s where I started writing Biopeculiar, that’s where it all took form.  And I didn’t really have this in my mind, that I’d be writing a nature collection. I sort of realised at a certain point that there is a theme. That’s when I started to focus my ideas, limiting it to 22 story ideas. And that’s how this took place. 

Sashrika: What were the coolest experiences from your time as a features writer? 

Gigi: The coolest experiences? The concerts! Those were amazing. I saw “Guns and Roses”. I even saw Snoop Dogg back when he was “Snoop Lion” for a bit. And then there was this Australian band called “Wolf Mother”. I was really into them for a time. Oh! Also the guy who sang “Somebody That I Used To Know”? Gotye! Their songs are actually good, even though I can only remember that one song!

The concerts were amazing. I would type out stuff on my phone to cover what the atmosphere was like. I’d even go up to people to ask them how they felt. It was fun. 

Another exciting aspect was travelling. We’d get to go to hotels to review them, along with certain other places. So yeah, those things were great.  

Sashrika: Your collection of short stories, Biopeculiar, is said to contain stories of “an uncertain world.” Could you speak to that? 

Gigi: I mean, we do live in uncertain times. There is violence. And I’m not talking about what’s happening in the Middle East, but even in everyday life there is violence. And then there is climate change. There are some climate change deniers, but climate change is something we can see happening right now. And so there is uncertainty in the world. There is also all this research that’s been coming out, not just the news, about how the world is getting hotter. I can’t remember the exact stats, but 20-30 years from now India is set to experience scalding heat. And these things are cause for anxiety. How are you supposed to just do your job when the world is like this? 

Sashrika: In one of your stories, dolphins get high together. In another clouds are your main characters, like cumulus and cumulonimbus. So there’s a mix of whimsy while addressing vital themes of climate change. Can you talk about the discourses your books attempt to initiate and the importance of creating “biopeculiar” characters that require empathetic reading? 

Gigi: So the dolphins story was actually based on facts. All the things that happen in these stories are actually based on facts. They are weird things that actually do happen. And I thought, here I am thinking of weird things, but these are things that actually happen in real life. 

And ever since I read Beckett’s Waiting for Godot I’ve wanted to do a narrative that is structured like a back and forth dialogue between two characters. So that was how that story came up. 

With the clouds… So, I did my Bachelors in Geography from Miranda House. And over there, my absolute favourite subject was climatology. I loved clouds! And I am someone who daydreams a lot:) So if you’re a day-dreamer, then you end up spending a lot of time staring and doing nothing. Absolutely just spaced out. So that was the thing. And I just really wanted to do a story about clouds. But I couldn’t figure out how to create a plot with that. That’s when I thought ‘what if clouds could be herded like sheep or cattle.’ And that’s how that began. 

With empathetic characters– I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve grown up with animals all my life. So I’ve always thought of them as they are. Like my cats are named ‘Bren’ and ‘Orla’, so I think of them as Bren and Orla, not just cats. I think that helps me in writing from a non-human perspective. I try to imagine what they’d be thinking and how they’d be feeling. 

Sashrika: What was your writing process with this book? You started writing a bunch of short stories when you were in the Himalayas, and then you realised that there was a theme and you focused on it. But from ideation to publication, what is the process like? 

Gigi: So in the beginning I just focused on writing these stories. I edited them, looked at the word count and all that technical stuff, and decided that 22 was a good number. I also wanted a longer story in the middle of the collection, sort of like a buffer, but also a good way to divide the book. People could take a break over there. That’s how I decided on the “Corvid Inspector.”

So once I was done with the collection I started submitting it to agents and publishers. When I got the email from Westland, from Karthik, that they wanted a full manuscript, I think I knew right there and then that this was going to happen. So I didn’t even try emailing anyone else! It was like a Sixth Sense thing. And when I hopped on to a call with Kartik and Ajita, who’s the editor, the way they described the book and what they said about the book was exactly what I thought of it. So I knew that we were in sync and I was really happy that this happened. 

Sashrika: If you had to describe your book to someone, how would you talk about it?  

Gigi: I would describe it as “odd stories about the natural world,” but that’s my tagline. That was in the pitch document as well. That is how I feel about it. 

It’s both serious and not. Even though the topics can be serious, like climate change or rising sea levels, I tried bringing in a certain element of hope into these stories. That even though things seem uncertain right now, there is hope. That something or someone, maybe a movement of some sort, will bring people together and lead to a definite change for the better. 

Sashrika: What are some fun ideas that you’ve thrown on the book? Something that, after writing it, made you say, ‘Oh man, that was good.’ 

Gigi: Oh, I’d say the dolphin story. For a moment I questioned putting it in the collection. Because it’s very weird. And there is no real message. It’s just what it is. But it’s also right at the end of the collection. So I thought there should be…not a shocking thing… but a story at the end that makes the reader question what is happening. They should think about that. And the fact that they are based on real stories is another reason why I wanted the story to be in the collection. 

Sashrika: What advice would you offer to aspiring authors? 

Gigi: It would be the thing that I learned in Limerick, which is that you should write what you want to read. And I wouldn’t say don’t look at the trends or what subject is in vogue. Look at stuff that is happening. That will help you with the pitch of the book. But make sure that you write what you want to read, so that your own soul is in the manuscript. Otherwise it will feel hollow. 

Sashrika: Since this is a bookstore, what are some exciting things that you’ve read lately? 

Gigi: Right now I’m really into Japanese fiction. I recently read What You’re Looking For Is In The Library. It’s such a good book because all these characters are in a sort of limbo.They’re in different situations but can’t figure out what to do with their life. And then they go to a library and the librarian gives them this felt figure, it can be an animal or some rocket or something like that, and then these characters themselves try to figure out what the librarian wants them to understand from the books she’d recommend or the figures she’d offer. In the end they aren’t 100% happy, but know that this is a path that they shouldn’t follow. So that’s what I love about that. 

Pick up Gigi Ganguly “Biopeculiar” from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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