Interview with Aparna Ananthuni
Book talk! It's been a while since I've made a blog post but I'd love to introduce you to my friend and fellow writer, Aparna Ananthuni.
Aparna Ananthuni is an author of YA fantasy fiction, working and living in Melbourne, Australia, on the lands of the Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri peoples. She has recently released her debut novel 'Unbound', a book I absolutely loved. To be completely honest, this book really excited me - I loved its originality, its lush and vibrant descriptions, and of course the kick-arse female protagonist, Chhaya. There's a lot to love in Aparna's writing and I can't wait to see where this book goes - and to follow her literary career!
Aparna Ananthuni in her home studio
I had a chat with Aparna about the creation of the novel, some of her processes, and writing inspirations. Please find our our chat below!
Unbound is a book that is hard to characterise. It plays with genre and sits somewhere between fantasy, steam punk and gaslamp. What were some of the inspirations for it and how did you get started?
Aparna: It is hard to characterise! But I think that’s because of the way I ended up translating my inspirations for the story; rather than consciously deciding it would be steampunk, or gaslamp or myth-based, etc, I let my head fill with images of what the characters looked like, what they wore, and the colours and aesthetics of their homes and cities.
In terms of inspiration, the major starting point and understructure of the story, if you like, is the ancient South Asian epic Ramayana. It was such a part of my imagination growing up in a South Indian-Hindu household; it’s in films, tv, classical music and dance, even comic books. But as an adult what stayed with me were the central female characters, especially the heroine, Sita, who has this fierce power and courage but has to largely keep them hidden and subservient to her husband and patriarchal, misogynistic codes of honour. So she was my starting character, and I wanted to kind of pull her out from that restrictive myth-world and into a world of my own. But my novel also draws on bits of Ancient Egyptian mythology and history, Victorian-esque dress and manners, Sanskrit planetary deities, nineteenth-century gothic fiction…yeah, my imagination is a strange place!
What does a writing session look like for you? Do you have a set routine or process that you follow?
Aparna: I think my process is constantly in flux, because I’m not a person who thrives on routine at all. But with Unbound, I actually started writing it by hand in Moleskine cahier notebooks when I lost a new, expensive laptop I had just bought myself and was very reluctant to buy another right away. I basically scribbled out the world of the novel, bits of the story, profiles of characters and institutions – it really helped me find my character’s voice and sink into the aesthetics and colours of the world. But I did return eventually to working on a laptop (a cheaper one!), and most of my writing is still done via computer. Before Covid, my consistent routine with writing was to go to a library or a café in the morning, when my brain is freshest, and write for a few hours. Now, it’s all kind of scrambled, and I write at different times and perhaps in a more fragmented way…but I guess I should try and embrace it given I hate routine!
Unbound reimagines South Asian myth and tells a story that has never told before, what made you want to write this story?
Aparna: Actually, South Asian myth has always been retold and recreated and even reimagined; there are multiple versions of the same stories across different communities, and that goes double for the Ramayana – there are hundreds of versions and interpretations. And now, excitingly, more and more contemporary South Asian women are exploring the feminist potential in our myths through writing and performance. For me though, writing solely into that myth-space didn’t really work. I think it’s because I needed pull the myths apart, deconstruct them almost, so I could make them my own. I could then feel free to twist the original myths (if there’s such a thing) almost out of recognition, to ‘punk’ them, if you will. In fact, I haven’t stuck to the dominant versions of the story of the Ramayana at all - I’ve left out some characters, switched some roles around, and added new characters too.
What made me want to draw on the Ramayana in the first place…well, as I said earlier, it has just stayed with me, through childhood and teenagerhood and young adulthood to millennial-hood! In particular, I just can’t shake the women of the story from my imagination. I think they have so much creative potential for all kinds of stories, and Unbound is my attempt to write one that perhaps they haven’t been a part of before.
"I think it’s important for South Asian women to reclaim our complex cultural and historical worlds, and that’s an ongoing thing for me."
There is a lot of suspense in Unbound and it makes for a really exciting read - was this something you thought about as you wrote? Did you have a clear idea where it was going or were you surprised by the way the plot emerged?
Aparna: Thank you, I’m really glad that the suspense and tension came through! I am what’s known in the trade as a ‘pantser’ – I don’t plan before I start writing! I do sometimes give myself some notes in between writing sessions and for Unbound I did some rough worldbuilding as I wrote. But no, I didn’t have a clear idea of where I was headed, just a vague sense of where the character needed to go and what she needed to face. In fact, I changed the ending of the book a few times during the rewrites – it became a process of layering and refining and rethinking with each rewrite. It was a surprise the way it turned out, and that’s actually why I ‘pants’ – the unexpected things your characters end up doing!
Chhaya is a fascinating character and the way she plays the Game is thrilling. The idea of the Game is such an unique one - was this always something you had in mind?
Aparna: No, it came in as I started writing! And at first it was very vague and I wasn’t sure what it actually was and why my heroine needed to play it– but as I wrote it slowly became clearer. I mentioned earlier that I was also inspired by Ancient Egyptian mythology; one of the common images found on the walls of elite tombs is of the deceased sitting at a gameboard in a kind of pavilion, but with no opponent seated across from them. The idea is that they are playing with Death itself. That image gave me a thrill, and sparked my desire to write about a Game that was a connector to an otherworld, although of course, in Unbound, the otherworld isn’t Death!
How long did it take you to write Unbound?
Aparna: I started those first rough notes in 2018 – so three years, including periods when I lost confidence with it and put it aside, or lost steam and needed a break. I’ve realised that writing a novel involves more than just sitting at a desk writing and figuring out how to write – it also involves a mental and emotional journey that has detours and challenges of its own.
You write strong feminist fantasy worlds and often blend history and mythology in your writing: is this something you’ve always been interested in?
Aparna: My first writing love was historical fiction, and I still harbour an ambition to write historical fiction at some point! But writing fantasy worlds that draw on mythology and bits of history was a place I kind of ended up in, a crossroads where I discovered that my imagination became the most fertile. It took some years to get there! But feminism and intersectional feminism have been a compelling and growing interest since I was a young adult. I think it’s important for South Asian women to reclaim our complex cultural and historical worlds, and that’s an ongoing thing for me. Again, it was finding the right fictional medium to express that interest, and express it in a way that’s my own, that took some time to find.
I understand you painted and designed the front cover for Unbound. It’s a beautiful cover! Does painting (or any other art) inform your writing practice at all?
Absolutely – and thank you! I did digitally paint and design the cover, with the help of my talented friend Emma Macey-Storch. I’ve always loved drawing, and a few years ago I started trying to teach myself to paint and draw characters and stories and portraits, and it’s developed from there into a major part of my life. I’m also a visual person, and I ‘see’ fantasy worlds I want to write about as soon as or even before I begin writing about them. With Unbound, I actually ‘saw’ my two main characters, Chhaya and Sa, before I knew who they were. And as I said, building the fantasy world/s of the book was an aesthetic process as much as a written one.
What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
Aparna: Well, Unbound is the first book in a trilogy, The Mistress of Shadows series, so I’m planning the second book and will get onto writing that very soon! I also have a younger, middle-grade age fantasy novel on the go, and some illustrated stories from the world of Unbound bubbling away in my brain too. Good thing I hate routine!
'Unbound' is available to purchase on Amazon - don't forget to leave a honest review on Amazon or Goodreads! Reviews really help writers get their work out there and are always so appreciated!