Charles Dickens, Katherine Mansfield, and Writing About What You Know
Rupa is a New Zealand born Bengali who juggles music, writing and pathology in Wellington, leaving her primary school aged children to run wild. Her work has previously appeared in takahē, Turbine and The Dominion Post summer fiction series. In 2014, Rupa completed an MA in Creative Writing at the Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University.
I’m a bit nutty about Charles Dickens. I’m probably not alone in that. I have read his books several times, mostly so that I can run into his characters all over again and get drawn back into their lives. Although Dickens wrote some fantastic storylines, it’s the people who I miss when I get to the end of a Dickens novel. For weeks, I inhabit their world and begin to believe I have an aunt like Betsey Trotwood bossing me about; I feel the excitement and fear of knowing someone like Magwitch, and cry at his bedside as he dies. I shall always be a bit haunted by the spirits of Nancy, Ham and Smike. I am the young stranger holding hands with Sydney Carton as he is taken to the guillotine. I have known at least one Pumblechook, Pecksniff, Jenny Wren and Mrs Gamp in real life but none nearly as colourful as the ones in the books. The evil characters are chilling, but I feel a guilty pleasure in the thrill of standing so close to Bill Sikes, Tulkinghorn, Jonas and Ralph Nickleby.
Reading short stories gives me a very different experience. I have always loved the musicality and emotional power of Katherine Mansfield’s writing. More recently, I have been reading contemporary NZ short stories. It took me a while to get used to the sparse and abrupt nature of some of the writing. Instead of only hearing the story in my ears as I read it, I see it on the page. I wonder if it is the clarity and crispness of the prose that makes the words so visible, adding another layer to my reading experience.
I usually write about what I know; it feels like a good point to start from. Classical music and children, and to a lesser extent, pathology and my Bengali heritage, feature in my stories, mostly as a backdrop rather than the central theme. I like writing about people, about how they behave and what that tells us about them. I like how objects become associated with certain characters or feelings, sometimes in an unexpected way. I often don’t make the connection until I reach the end of the story, which is often when I start to figure out what the story is actually about. Although the characters’ actions guide the storyline, ultimately I am the boss of my story. Sometimes I decide to change what happens in a story and do a major rewrite. That can feel liberating. Writing about what I don’t know is an interesting challenge. I’ve only done it in a small way, like giving characters jobs or hobbies that I know nothing about. I enjoy doing the research. I’m not sure about setting a story in a country I’ve never been to or writing about groups in society that I have no experience of, for example religious cults or violent gangs. I’m not sure if my voice would sound genuine or that I could really get inside the characters’ heads.
Read more about Issue 2 here