By Jancie Creaney
What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you want? What are you all about? Why are you in my head?
These are some of the questions Gotham teacher Divya Sood asks her characters when she begins a new project. It’s an interview, she says. “At the end of it, [the character] is a person I know. From there, I go on to constructing a story.”
Her characters will provide answers: this is where I want to go; this is what I want to do. But the characters aren’t always in charge of their fate. “I’ll say, ‘Let’s put you through hell and back and see how you do.’ That’s what you want to do with every main character.”
When Divya moves through the creation of a first draft, she remains flexible, following the natural course of her imagination. “I write whatever comes to me—whether it’s three chapters down the line or towards the end—whatever it is, I’ll write that. I don’t go in order,” she says. “And I don’t edit as I go. Nothing is good enough while you’re writing.”
Divya carves out an hour and a half of time a day to write. No editing. No outlining. Just writing. “You’ll get at least a sentence,” she says. “You learn to cherish and value that sentence because it’s coming from within.”
When the writing is tough, Divya says she changes medium. “If I’ve been typing, I’ll hand write... If I’ve been writing with a fountain pen, I’ll write with a crayon… Seriously. Be silly about it.”
“I have always known that I wanted to write,” says Divya who moved to New Jersey from India at the age of six. “I was a very shy kid. I was always looking at my shoes, I wasn’t talking much. [The school teachers] were like, ‘This kid’s got a problem.’” But Divya scored high on writing assignments and found comfort in books. “Even as a child, I thought… one day I want someone to find solace in my book.”
After self-publishing her first novel Maya, Divya decided to pursue an MA in English at NYU. “I didn’t want to stay in Jersey. One of my friends was like, ‘Why don’t you pursue a graduate degree or like change your whole life?’” she laughs. After graduate school, Divya published two more novels, Find Someone to Love and Nights Like This, and began teaching.
When her students fret about whether or not their stories are boring, she is firm: “Always remember: We want to read other people’s lives. We are at heart voyeurs.”
This is true not only of memoir writing, Divya points out. “There’s a veneer of fabrication in fiction. But the emotions in fiction are real. That’s what we relate to. Authenticity and heart—that’s what captures your audience.”
Her students often worry about how their families’ might react to their writing. Divya quells their anxieties by reminding them of the bigger picture. It takes years to finish a novel, years to edit it, years to find an agent, and often years to publish it. During that time, “your family has been listening to you say, ‘I’m a writer, I’m a writer, I’m writing,’ and nothing happens! So if you get your book published, they will be so happy that you’re successful, they’re not going to care what’s in the book!”