Q. Where did Esha Ex come from?
I wish I knew – I think the creative process is mysterious even to creators. I hadn’t published a novel since 2000, although I had brought out a couple of short stories in the last few years (namely Dust in 2011 and The Comforting of Children in 2013, both in anthologies). The stories were received very well and I somehow caught the fiction bug again, after feeling incredibly burned out and unattracted by that whole world for a decade and a half. I wanted to work on a large scale, novel-length project that would absorb my energy for several months; this was very different from my other work in broadcasting and journalism, which tends to be more medium-term and dynamic. With fiction you work long and you travel deeply, while appearing not to do very much at all. I was inspired by a certain classic trajectory, that of a young person fighting to survive in a sometimes harsh world. I was thinking of Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, Moll Flanders, David Copperfield. These are complex and different works, but they hang together through the character, heart and adventures of their central protagonists and are powered by these people’s experiences. I knew I wanted to write about a young woman who wants to survive. I also love fully realised settings in fiction (whether that be novels, plays, films or dance pieces) and somehow wanted to pour in my passion for international affairs and for travel. There was absolutely no temptation to write a book about an affair that goes wrong in London; I wanted the story to be truly global, universal and large-scale.
Q. How did you find the right voice for an orphan girl? How did you get into her mind, her thoughts?
Esha came to me fully-formed and it was easy to find her voice. I think it helped that the book is not autobiographical as Esha’s life, circumstances, prospects and experiences are so different from my own; there was no chance of a bleed-through of my own voice and no event or character is taken from my own life. Esha lives in a massive city, but she is not metropolitan. Nor is she punky, or sexy, or any of those things. I saw her as skinny and raw, damaged and mistrustful, not particularly streetwise – and yet layered, vulnerable, and full of energy. She is an active character, not a passive or reactive one – and her movements, even if they’re mistaken or dangerous or misguided, are what drives the narrative. In the novel, what gets Esha into the most trouble is constantly sticking up for the people around her, fighting with authority figures, speaking out against injustice. Yet there is a playfulness to her, mixed with a sincerity and ardour, so other characters (particularly older women) warm to her and want to help her.
Q. If I hadn’t read your introductory piece, I wouldn’t have necessarily picked up on the location as being the Middle East – we could have been in any part of the world from India to Pakistan. Was that a conscious decision you made?
The novel is set in a large state called Miriadh whose capital city is Binar. In my mind it was a mixture of Cairo, Mexico City, Tehran and Calcutta: old, vibrant, very contradictory places with young populations, great energy but also great inequality. So you are exactly right not to have picked up a specific Middle Eastern vibe from the novel. Instead I wanted to reflect what I truly believe and indeed know from my journalistic work: that we do not live in a world which is culturally or politically dominated by Anglo-American values or even by Western European societies. I’m more interested in what is happening in Latin America, in India, in southern African countries and in the Middle East North Africa region, as well as in China, than in London, New York or Paris. The cultural energy is coming from the former places, not the latter. For better or for worse, they’re exciting.
Q. Why did you decide to publish this novel in a series of posts online?
I am extremely critical of self-publishing and do not endorse or recommend it. I’d initially written Esha Ex as quite a conventional novel. It was solid, it hung together and it had a traditional, 19th Century feel to it, in tune with many of the novels which had inspired it. And yet, somehow, it didn’t work; and nobody, not even expert novelists, will be able to pinpoint exactly what does make a novel work. It’s a delicate, accidental, unsayable thing. It’s like trying to work out what makes a human being beautiful, or charismatic; isolating and analysing the various parts won’t lead you any closer to the answer. I submitted the novel to my wonderful agent Kelly Falconer, with a little stone pebble of instinct sitting in my stomach, knowing I hadn’t acquitted myself well. She totally agreed, and in a memorable (and completely correct) phrase commented that “the characters do not even approach two dimensions.” She said I could work on the novel for years, line by line, fleshing out every aspect, or junk it. I immediately junked it – I knew, somehow, I had been on the wrong track all along. However, I think my critic’s or journalist’s instinct saved the project. I printed out, marked up and re-read the manuscript, thought about it for a long while and realised that it would work perfectly in instalments. It’s also that I am an editor, not a hoarder (I tend to believe people are one or the other) and hate having stuff clogging up my hard drive, especially when it’s salvageable.
Q. It’s a fast paced novel with just 41 chapters most of which take less than ten minutes to read. Did you write specifically for online readers or did you re-work to fit that model once you decided to publish online?
I reworked the text very heavily over a period of months, making sure that each instalment was bite-sized and moved the story on significantly. Somehow, the character of Esha herself as the driver of this story came out much more strongly than when it had been presented as a fuller book, and the fast-paced plot seemed dynamic without feeling thin.
Q. What was the difference for you in publishing it this way as opposed to publishing in book form. Did it change the author-reader relationship in any way? Did you ever feel like changing something in light of any feedback you received?
The book was already completed when I scheduled the instalments and I didn’t rework any parts once the initial edit was complete. However, the fact that the story came out in snappy little chunks gave the whole project a feeling of currency and immediacy, which I really liked. I love the idea of creating a phenomenal project, of building momentum and leaving readers with a cliffhanger. If I were to do anything differently, I think I would leave a longer gap between instalments. They were daily – I’d make them weekly or monthly if I were to do something like this again. I can tell by the stats that people have a backlog of chapters they meant to read and are now catching up. The upside to this is that the momentum around the project continues to grow.
There was no feedback, except from friends, and I’m not sure that reacting to feedback (whether positive or negative) partway through a project really works; by the time I put Esha Ex online it was already fully formed on the page as well as in my mind. Altering bits to fit the expectations or preferences wouldn’t quite work for me, although perhaps that is how long-term TV series are sometimes crafted. Speaking of which, I could see Esha Ex as a TV series…
Q. Esha is a strong female character that isn’t afraid to hold back and fight for justice. There’s an urgency in the writing which exemplifies her inner struggle to make sense of the world she’s in. She’s a young person trying to find out where she fits in a world where nothing is what it seems. It reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. I read it as YA. Did you have a readership in mind when you wrote it?
I like the Alice in Wonderland comparison as I do love all things fantastical and speculative although I was very strict with myself to make sure this novel stayed in the real world and contains no fantasy elements. I did think about readership, because having a young heroine inevitably means that there’s a conflict about how to pitch it: at readers who are older than the heroine, or at those who might be the same age. My general take on this is that Esha Ex is for all readers, from very late teens upwards – but that generally I don’t have the ability to write for young readers. It’s a question of tone and a natural gift for pitching the voice of a narrative exactly right, which sadly I lack. So I wrote it for adults, but with the idea that it could be read by anyone. An example of a series which does this incredibly well is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy which I absolutely believe is right for a fully adult audience as well as younger readers, because of its beautiful language and bruised, haunted atmosphere. It has real grit.
Q. The novel explores many themes and issues, from the suffocating forces of capitalism, commerce, gender inequality to caste discrimination amongst many others. What did you hope by highlighting these issues?
I don’t think that ‘issues based dramas’ ever work when the issues are foregrounded over and above the struggles, thoughts, feelings and experiences of the characters. Novels are human, psychological dramas first and foremost. But we live in a world which is absolutely defined by its inequalities, its abuses, its prejudices and its small-p political features (sexism, racism, homophobia, class exploitation, corruption); the only people who are insulated from such things are usually the perpetrators, by which I mean the elites and the power-holders whose behaviour, laws and institutions create and reinforce such power differences. Everyone else, especially someone on the lowest rung of society, like Esha herself, will knock against and frequently be knocked back by multiple obstacles, and I wanted to show this without romanticising it or without giving into despair, and certainly without preaching. The fact is that all the issues you describe are daily realities to be fought against and dealt with, not just by my fictional heroine but by you and me and everyone reading this. That’s the reality of the world and it would be strange for me to ignore that both as a novelist and as a human rights journalist whose actual job is to stare the world’s hardest realities in the face without flinching. And yet, still, I see this as a human story first and foremost. That’s why I named the book in tribute to its protagonist.
Q. Tell us more about the Family.
Ah – the Family was one of my most enjoyable creations. I was thinking of royal families in the Gulf states as well as despotic dynasties, caliphates and other similar clan-rules states all over the world. The Family rule Miriadh and represent a certain vision of the Middle East that the rest of the world’s media seems to find very compelling: unbelievably wealthy, glossy, Western-educated, multi-lingual, highly sophisticated on the surface, but living a life of such extreme privilege that they are totally divorced from the rest of society and particularly uncaring of it. The Family operate a kind of benign dictatorship in Miriadh, oblivious to its extreme poverty and inequality, benefiting from its corruption and very controlling of its own image through state media channels. The Family leave people alone to strive (or, more frequently, suffer) unbothered – but comes down hard on anyone it perceives to be criticising it or who is in danger of exposing it. Esha herself has a couple of memorable interactions with the Family in the course of the book.
Q. What lessons have you learnt from writing and publishing Esha Ex and where do you go from here?
Despite my success as a novelist in my teens and beyond (my second novel Too Fast To Live came out when I was 21) I always felt very uncomfortable in that world. I found the success itself quite harrowing and violating and I still don’t understand why anyone would want to be famous in that way. But writing Esha Ex taught me that some stories just demand to be written and that, if I steel myself, I can withstand the sense of exposure that comes from releasing new fictional work. I still don’t ‘believe in’ self-publishing but I am having an awful lot of fun watching the story’s chapter stats go up and I hope the buzz continues to build. My fifth book, Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London, a non-fiction work based on my outreach work with asylum seekers and refugees, is out on 15th January. I’m very much looking forward to that; I’ll be spending the whole of 2015 and 2016 touring around, speaking about the issues.
Fiction-wise I’m working on a major speculative fiction series which has been on my mind for a full decade. So I can say Esha Ex gave me the confidence to return to long form fiction and commence the one major project I feel I was destined to write.
Bidisha is a British writer and BBC broadcaster specialising in human rights, international affairs and the arts and culture. She does outreach work in UK prisons and detention centres and was recently an International Reporting Project 2013 Fellow, working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to raise awareness of global health and development issues. Her most recent book, her fourth, is Beyond the Wall: Writing a Path Through Palestine. As of spring 2013 she is a trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation. Her fifth book, Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices of London, will be published on January 15th 2015.
Esha Ex is now offline. We can’t say more.