After having had such fun chatting about Miss Timmins’ School for Girls, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to ask author Nayana Currimbhoy some questions about herself. Here’s what she had to say about her inspiration for the book, her fave authors and what her own school experiences were like.
Q: You’ve written a number of non-fiction books; why make the switch to fiction?
A: I have written books on different subjects, including a biography of Indira Gandhi. But the truth is, that all I ever wanted to do was to write a novel. I just did not get down to it until a few years ago.
Q: What inspired you to write this book in particular?
A: I would say the inspiration was turning 50! I looked at myself in the mirror, and said, it’s now or never. And so I started writing at nights, for myself. And then the characters began to pop out of the box, and I knew they would never go back.
Q: What was your school experience like?
A: I was put into a boarding school (very much like Miss Timmins’ School for Girls) at the age of seven. I had grown up until then in a very warm joint family situation and was, by all accounts, a spoiled, neurotic little girl. Being thrust into the cold hard world of a British boarding school at that age was very difficult. All through life, every time something terrible happened, I gave myself courage by saying, “it can’t be worse than that.” I was in the school until I graduated. Of course, it got better after that. But still, I would not send my daughter to boarding school.
Q: Did your teachers encourage/inspire your writing?
A: Yes, they did encourage my writing. I would say, throughout my school career, I always remember topping the class, and remember my essays and stories being read aloud in class. So it was quite a natural progression for me to decide that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up.
Q: Which characters would you say are the most true to life?
A: None of the characters are true to life. But in some way, since they all come out of my mind, they are all a synapse away, I suppose. Especially for the teachers, I started with characters as I remembered them. We did, for example, have a principal who always carried a purse and said things like “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” to a class full of little brown girls. But, as the story progressed, they took on a life of their own.
Q: Which character do you most identify with?
A: I suppose I would say the trio of schoolgirls. The girls show you the inside workings and the private folkways of the school, and I could see myself walking down that road with them. On the other hand, I could say the hippies too, because growing up in the ’70s, we all became deeply influenced by rock ‘n’ roll music, and the optimistic euphoria of being young in that decade.
Q: Why set the story specifically in Panchgani?
A Panchgani is this little village in the mountains of Western India, founded by the British, for women and children of civil servants to escape the heat of the plains. It is surrounded by cliffs and volcanoes, and has points of interest named Devil’s Kitchen, Witches’ Needle, and Baby Point, and old rambling houses with names like Aoelia and Dingly Dell. In the monsoons, it rains constantly and the mountaintop is shrouded in mist. What could be a better setting for a murder mystery? And to add to that, I actually went to a boarding school in that town!
Q: What’s the back story on Raswani? She’s still a mystery to us.
A: Raswani must remain a mystery, I am afraid. I think revealing details could take away from the fierceness and mystery of her character.
Q: What writers have influenced you?
A: I have always been a bookworm, and every good book you read percolates in your mind, and becomes a part, I would say, of what you write, whether consciously or subconsciously, so it’s a difficult question for me to answer. But, since I wrote an atmospheric murder mystery set in a school, in a fairly remote town, I will go with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I am reading Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and having a smashing time with it. Funny, I always thought I had read it actually, until I saw a friend reading it.
Q: What book do you wish you had written?
A: I love novels that give you a sense of place, a window into another world. I tried to do that in my Miss Timmins’ but then, writing a novel is about facing your own shortcomings. As soon as you finish it, you wish you had written something else! Today, I am wishing I had written My Antonia by Willa Cather.