With thirteen novels, two novellas and numerous short stories to her credit, Sujata Massey began her career as a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun before writing her first novel while living in Japan. After winning a contest that led to the publication of her first novel, the Salaryman’s Wife, she’s been the recipient of the Agatha and Macavity awards and a finalist for the Edgar, Anthony, and Mary Higgins Clark prizes. Her latest novel, The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018, Soho Crime) was published in January and immediately received rave reviews, The Washington Post describing it as “marvelously plotted, richly detailed.” Thoughtful Dog talked with Sujata about researching her books, writing a series and her newest book.
TD: With the Rei Shimura mysteries, I’m always struck by the attention to detail you have about Japanese culture. I’ve read that you like to hang the story on truth as much as possible, like how much it costs for your characters to take a tram or a bus or that Japanese women remove the hair from their arms. This type of attention to detail—food, clothing, neighborhoods—makes your writing really leap off the page. It’s a very different Japan that you portray. How do you find these details? Any advice to other writers on doing a better job of observing?
SM: Thanks for bringing up these tiny details, because when I write them, I sometimes feel like I might be the only one who notices or cares. I guess I don’t like vague, lack of detail settings and language; it feels to me like a synopsis, rather than a story. So I dig in and look around cities and at people when I’m traveling. I used to record details like that as a journalist writing newspaper stories, so it felt like part of the job for fiction, too. I also read a lot to learn how things are cooked or made or otherwise built, and that kind of information can be added gracefully, in a small amount.
TD: Just to continue with the theme of research, you’ve traveled great distances to conduct research whether it be Hawaii, Japan, India or London. Is the type of research you do on location different than the research you conduct at a library or on the Internet?
SM: I usually start with research reading books, as many as I can buy, and the others from libraries. That usually has more meat than any articles I find online. And then, I travel to fill in the missing details. Right now, I’m working on a second mystery novel about my lawyer character, Perveen Mistry, traveling to a princely kingdom in 1920s India. I found a memoir about living with and working for a maharaja by E.M. Forster; another memoir about being a princess by the late Maharani of Cooch Behar, Princess Sunity Devi; a thoughtful nonfiction book titled Maharanis by Lucy Moore, and a scholarly book called Princely India and the British by Caroline Keen. Next week I’m going to India and am thrilled to be meeting with Mahatma Gandhi’s great-granddaughter, a sociologist and writer who hosts a popular television program where she meets with Indian royalty in their homes! I’ve already walked through a great Indian palace in Udaipur that’s open to the public, but that type of experience is not very important compared to the heavy lifting of all the reading and personal interviews. Probably, personal interviews are the most important tool in my writing kit: but they are the hardest to obtain, especially if one’s venue is historical fiction set in another country.
TD: You have eleven Rei Shimura mysteries under your belt, but the origin of the series was interesting. After a career in journalism, you married a Naval medical officer and moved to Japan for a two-year tour and the Salaryman’s Wife came from that experience of living in a new country. Would you elaborate on what drew you to write a novel? Why a mystery?
SM: I wanted to start the process of becoming a writer, and I believed it would take writing a number of books before getting one’s first book published many years later. I was paying my dues. I started writing fiction in Japan because I didn’t have a day job, and I was entranced by my environment and wanted to record it. I made the first book a mystery because I enjoy reading the genre and am more geared to writing stories that are plot-driven. I’d also heard it was easier to be published in mystery than literary fiction. While getting published in mystery is not easy, I do believe it’s even harder for literary fiction. And the problem with literary novels is they usually aren’t in a series, and writing a series is a great way to keep your readers coming back.
TD: Can you talk about the process you went through to find agent and then your first publisher?
SM: It took four long, stressful years to write my first book, and I had several skilled readers who commented on it, which led to rewriting. The number one comment was that the book was too long, and at 800 pages, I admitted I had a problem. It was very much a beginner’s book, with everything that came into mind going in, like a pot of minestrone soup. It was The Salaryman’s Wife, so make that Japanese minestrone! I scooped out as much as I could and submitted the first few chapters and an outline to the Malice Domestic organization’s unpublished writers grant contest (it runs every year—check out malicedomestic.org).
I’m not usually a winner, but I won the contest, and that small victory gave me the confidence to write query letters to agents. Everyone I queried was interested, and I wound up signing with the first agent who offered to represent me. She also found an editor pretty quickly at HarperCollins. The book was published as a paperback original with a small advance, and I found that humble start was no bar to success. Coming out in paperback made it more likely people would try a book by an unknown writer.
TD: What is your typical daily writing process?
SM: I try to write as long in the morning as I possibly can get away with, but I often drive my son to school and take a couple of breaks to walk the puppy. I might write again in the afternoon, although if I had a good streak in the morning, I don’t feel it’s necessary.
TD: Do you have a favorite place to write?
SM: Yes. I live in a 3 story Victorian house. Up on the third floor, one of the little rooms with a slanted roof fills with encouraging sunshine every morning. That became my study and is the best place for me to write. That said—if I’m having trouble focusing—I take my laptop to a public library or the one at Johns Hopkins University. Hopkins is where I used to go to college, and I get a happy feeling sitting and working with all that intense, quiet student energy around me. I also like to imagine the young me sitting in the same space, never knowing that I would one day come back to write real novels instead of academic papers.
TD: You’re quite prolific, completing about one book a year. What is your secret? (For example, do you push yourself for daily word counts?)
SM: In the 1990s and early 2000s, when I wrote the Rei series for HarperCollins, I did a book a year. The mysteries I write now for Soho Press are much more time consuming because of the historical research, and while I aim to have a book out every year, I’m not on a twelve-month cycle. I also don’t strive for daily word counts anymore because I believe it can take more time to write thoughtful prose you don’t need to revise as much. I strive to write or edit two to three hours a day, longer if a deadline is approaching.
TD: What inspires you? Do you read differently when you’re writing a book?
SM: I am inspired by real people in the past such as the British Empire’s very first woman lawyer, a woman called Cornelia Sorabji who worked as a solicitor in the 1890s through the 1920s. I read Cornelia’s memoirs and a lot of books about India’s Parsi (Zoroastrian) community while I was working on the book that was just released, The Widows of Malabar Hill. I also cook differently when I’m working on a book. I cook the things my characters are eating. Right now, that means all kinds of Indian food, especially related to the region I’m writing about. There’s poison going into an Indian breakfast dish called pohe mentioned in my next book, so of course I had to cook it…but now I don’t quite have an appetite for it.
TD: With The Sleeping Dictionary and India Gray and now with your new book, you’ve been working on historical fiction based in India. Was it tough to switch from a mystery series where you know the characters fairly well as well as the genre, to a story set in another country and time?
SM: I think writers tend to switch to a new thing when they’re getting too familiar with their world. I did not have to struggle to create the Rei books, except for the need to travel and spot Japanese details. Then I began shifting my travel to India, which is tied to my family heritage. Potential stories set in India seemed to bubble up everywhere. It’s like when you boil a pot of basmati rice, and you’ve thrown in a few cloves and cardamom pods, and maybe a bay leaf. You put a lid on and steam cook it and at the very end, all of those tiny spices have made it to the top and are lying on top saying, take me out! That’s how it was with story ideas for me in India. They couldn’t be ignored. The fact these were historical stories was not stressful—just all the more exciting to dig up. There’s also a lot of enthusiasm within India for such stories to be told. I have an Indian publisher, which is a great feeling. In the past, Western writers have typically exoticized Indian culture in their writing, but the approach I’m taking honors it, and shows the surprisingly powerful roles of women in India’s past.
TD: What’s next for you? You have a new book that just came out in January. Can you tell us about it?
SM: The Widows of Malabar Hill is the first book in my new mystery series from Soho Press. So far, I’ve committed to doing two more books with them. It’s a feminist mystery set in 1920s Bombay featuring a young woman who is known throughout town as “Bombay’s First Woman Lawyer.” Perveen Mistry is inspired by India’s first two women lawyers, Cornelia Sorabji and Mithan Tata Lam. This book about Perveen is a combination of a domestic historical novel about a woman’s life with a traditional crime story. While it takes place in British India, the starring characters are Indian. I’m over the moon that The Widows of Malabar Hill got starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist, and was also reviewed very positively in the Los Angeles Times, The Toronto Globe and Mail, and The Wall Street Journal. It was selected by Amazon as an Editor’s Pick for January and also was an IndieNext pick, an honor that is awarded by independent booksellers based on reviews by people in their stores. I am sharing this part because it felt kind of like a giant lightening strike for one’s book that very rarely happens. I certainly have never before had such a huge blast of good publicity. It was very likely due to the fabulous PR push from Soho, and the fact that our world is now hungering for stories about women standing up for each other. I think the motto is not to be afraid to write about what you want, rather than to follow trends.