Leela Devi Panikar

Author Interview
with Laura Besley

Laura Besley


I am extremely excited to welcome Leela Devi Panikar to my blog today. I read, and was impressed with Floating Petals, so impressed in fact that I approached Leela with some interview questions and she very kindly answered them for me. I hope you enjoy learning more about this fascinating author.

Tell us a little bit about yourself
I am a fiction writer and author of two published short story collections: Floating Petals and Bathing Elephants. After twelve years of writing it is still a surprise to me that I am a writer. I come from a business background and have owned and operated businesses in several countries and in Hong Kong: boutiques, antique shops, and pub/restaurants. I have travelled a great deal and have lived in Penang, Malaysia; Wales; and Vietnam. Hong Kong is my home now.

Can you give us some background information about the stories within the collection Floating Petals?
Floating Petals was fun to write. I was like a child to writing. The collection is simple and is an easy read, but the stories are thought provoking. The first story, "A Piece of Bread," is about a child's longing to attend school so she can read but her first day proves a disappointment. The inspiration for "Homeless Sparrow" came to me when a very large tree near a Kowloon car park was cut down to make way for an MTR extension. It tells of a bird's search for a new home. We carelessly destroy the homes of millions of birds to make space for humans. "My Gods" shows the beauty of tolerance in a simple and cosmopolitan village. "Green" is absolute fear due to misunderstanding. "At the Railway" holds an amusing memory: it was inspired by the interesting contrast of me travelling with Gucci suitcases and a very efficient barefooted porter in a smartly pressed khaki uniform carrying my heavy cases on his head at a train station in Madras.

Why do you favour short story writing over novel writing?
Short stories give me a feeling of accomplishment in a very short time. To me a short story is like a postcard, and a certain jewel-like perfection is required to tell a story within such a confined framework. It's a work of distillation and I like the challenge that it poses. Before Floating Petals was published I had already written two novels, both yet to be published, and I was writing one of the novels at the same time I was writing the stories in Floating Petals. Short stories were a break for me they energise me, enhance my creativity. Ideas come bounding up and they require special care to develop smoothly and I enjoy the discipline of restraint. There is no time to ramble, to bring in many characters and scenes, to use a lot of adjectives and adverbs. Depth, knowledge and feeling are condensed.

Your book Floating Petals takes its name from the title of the second story about a Chinese woman who is suffering from the consequences of bound feet. Is there a particular reason for choosing that to be the title?
Small feet in delicately embroidered silk shoes were called floating petals in ancient China. This admiration for small feet gave rise to the custom of bound feet. I enjoy writing love stories: love not just between man and woman but among different people and in different relationships, and even amongst animals, as in the "The Homeless Sparrow" where the old male sparrow gives the young sparrow a home. When visiting someone in hospital I saw an elderly lady with very small exposed feet and I was inspired by the serene look on her face. I imagined her past and the pain she endured as a child to fulfil her hopes for love in the future. So it was for love and for the smallness of short stories in general that I chose this title to represent the entire collection.

The introductory story, "Penang," won the 'BBC World "My Hometown" 200-word writing competition.' Tell us about that.
It was the first time I had the courage to enter a contest. As it was to be only 200 words I was comfortable writing it. I did not know I was selected as a winner until a friend in Australia, from whom I had not heard in more than 6 years called me. She was listening to BBC radio while cleaning her bathroom. She said she heard I had won the BBC international short story competition. I was more than shocked. Soon after, when it was noon in Hong Kong, the BBC called me to stand by for a short radio interview.

Your stories are extremely varied. Has moving around the world enhanced your creative writing?
Yes, travelling does enhance writing. I have travelled a great deal, lived in four different countries, and in particular I love village life. This has widened my knowledge and given me the ability to see my characters in different situations.

Moving on from Floating Petals, what are you working on at the moment?
I am working on my third collection A Phantom Visitor and just about completing a novel, White Hibiscus, about a young girl growing up in a traditional Indian home in Malaysia and yearning to be independent. She leaves her home and goes overseas only to realise that everything she sought existed at home, she did not have to go overseas for it. I have been working on this novel off and on for a long time. I also write travel essays and blog about random slices of life.

How do you write?
I write in waves that match my moods. I do weeks of frantic writing, and then I drop off and pursue other interests. I enjoy reading and photography. I used to paint and I mention it here in the hope that it may get me to go back to it. I seldom watch TV except for news. Coffee-shop writing has currently become chic since JK Rowling first wrote in one, but then her alternative was a small heatless room. I enjoy absolute quiet at home, sometimes with quiet sitar music in the background.

What or who influences your writing or inspires you to write?
No one person or author or writing influences me but I do get a lot of encouragement from my partner Don (which sometimes borders on nagging, which I need). I also get much encouragement from my friends, and some people who have bought my books ask me when they can read the next one. That is a good feeling. Inspiration can strike me at any time an image, a word, a place or a piece of music. I am never short of inspiration but only of time. I do have to try and squeeze 48 hours into 24.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
I do, indeed. I know several writer friends who worry about what market they should write for. I don't believe in "writing what sells." I don't ask Who am I writing for? but Why am I writing? What is it that affects me passionately?

The best work comes from your heart, writing about something you want to share. And you use that emotion to just start. I am always amazed at how little I begin with and how, as I write, my pen and my keyboard take over. So much I did not know I knew flows out of me.

Often research is needed once you start writing. When you're writing about something you think you already know, you'll find questions arise about the details. Even with short stories I spend a great deal of time doing research, looking for accuracy of facts and those small rough diamonds worth cutting and polishing to enhance the story.

Start writing, don't just talk about it, do it.

9 December 2013

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