Shreya Sen-Handley on writing Strange

Toni Morrison said that if the book you want to read isn’t out there, write it yourself. So I did. I wrote it over a year-and-a-half and called it Strange.

Growing up, I read voraciously, and short stories were a particular favourite. I especially enjoyed the ones with cleverly constructed plots that culminated in deliciously disconcerting denouements. The delectable shocks delivered by master storytellers like Roald Dahl, O Henry, Maupassant, MR James and Edgar Allen Poe, were perfect accompaniments to those hasty half-hour lunches we snatched in school or those packed bus trips to and from college in Calcutta.

But then, the kind of short story that allowed you to exercise your deductive powers alongside empathy, the kind that gave you a jolt at the end that dissolved into surprised laugher, seemed to disappear, vanishing like one of its own characters. So, after thirty years of wondering why they weren’t being written anymore, I decided to write a few of my own.

And I have so enjoyed writing this collection; letting loose with my imagination, my arsenal of words and mischievously twisted ideas. Every story is a world unto itself in this book, tied together only by their unpredictability. I have revelled in writing stories from completely different genres, like horror, science fiction, fantasy, crime, the supernatural, romance and even comedy, and then packing it into the same slim volume.

In fact, there’s plenty of humour in these stories, but there is also the exploration of themes that affect us all – grief, trauma, crime, betrayal, discrimination, mental health issues, and more. The settings are equally diverse, ranging from Corfu to Bristol to Delhi, and even places spawned in my mind. And like my short story heroes, I haven’t skimped on the chills and thrills. I have also imbued it with music, which thespian Jayant Kripalani pointed out when reading aloud from my book to a Calcutta audience. An unconscious addition I reckon, as rhythm is something I incorporate naturally, but a feature of this book also because I wrote a libretto for the Welsh National Opera at the same time. That’s not to say that working on the opera and the short stories have been at all alike, or that the final product in each case have anything in common but their cadence and comedy, yet both have been challenging in their own way, and a complete delight to write.

And that is why I wrote Strange. To craft the kind of story I loved growing up and missed today, to share my pleasure in our weird and wonderful world, and because short stories are an exacting form that invariably raise your game in exhilarating ways. But also because Toni Morrison told me to.

Shreya Sen-Handley is an author, journalist, illustrator and librettist. After years of writing and filming for international media organisations, National Geographic, the Guardian, the Times of India, MTV and BBC among them, she has embarked on a book- and opera-writing adventurecollaborating with the Welsh National Opera on a production that will tour the UK in 2020, and HarperCollins on several books, including the award-winning ‘Memoirs of My Body’. Shreya has also illustrated for HarperCollins, Hachette, and a British children’s anthology ‘Where We Call Home’ out this October. She teaches creative writing for a range of British institutions, including the Universities of Nottingham and Cambridge.