Name Sujata Massey
Where are you from I was born in Crawley, England but grew up mostly in the United States
A little about your self `ie your education Family life etc
My father was a graduate student who came from India to study at Cambridge. He met my mother, a young German woman, who was in the area studying to become a translator. They married in 1963 and I was the first of three daughters. Our family eventually emigrated to the United States where there were tremendous opportunities for my father, a professor of geophysics. We grew up as “faculty brats” near the University of Minnesota, but I went to the East Coast for college and have subsequently spent most of my years in Baltimore, Maryland.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I write mysteries and historical fiction set in Japan and India; my desire is to explore cultures that interest me and translate them into exciting stories. My next book, The Widows of Malabar Hill, is a historical mystery that explores what it was like to be an early woman lawyer in 1920s India.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I’ve been a storyteller all my life, but began writing fiction at the age of 13. I studied Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University, a major that exposed me to poetry, journalism, fiction, critical writing and, yes, mystery writing! I had two courses taught by a visiting faculty member, Martha Grimes, the bestselling author of many traditional mysteries, and that experience was formative for me. I had finally met a writer who was an actual storyteller and made a good living at it!
After graduating Hopkins, I worked as a features reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun newspaper for five years. I only started writing fiction when I left that job to marry and move to Japan with my husband, who had a two-year stint with the U.S. Navy department of medicine. We are still together 26 years later, although he’s become a civilian psychiatrist, and I’ve written a lot of books set in the places we’ve been: Japan, India, Hawaii, Washington DC and San Francisco.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I always felt like reporting was a specific job; so I called myself a “journalist” when I was on staff or “features writer” when I freelanced. I only considered myself a literary writer after my first novel, The Salaryman’s Wife, was published in 1997—although I’d been trying to write fiction since childhood. I guess I was hung up on the idea of having proof of succeeded at something before taking on a title.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
I was enjoying the remarkable experience of living in suburban Japan, which was so different from the chilling world of unkind people presented in thrillers. I wanted to share my cozier version of Japan with readers. The idea came to me to set a mystery in Japan featuring a fish-out-of-water heroine. Her name is Rei Shimura, and she has both American and Japanese ancestry. She’s a young woman who wants very much to fit into Japan, but keeps making mistakes. The mysteries she becomes involved in highlight the Japanese cultural arts, such as cooking, flower arranging, pottery, antiques and fashion.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I wrote first person for the Rei Shimura mystery series and for my standalone Indian historical novel, The Sleeping Dictionary. A lot of people relate very well to a story told in first person! But I chose to stretch my thinking and created my new Perveen Mistry series in a third person voice. It’s a protective measure. By writing this way, I don’t feel like I will accidentally stumble back into the voice of Rei Shimura or Kamala, The Sleeping Dictionary’s narrator.
Research is another hallmark of my writing. My novels are loaded with description of places, food, clothing. This surely comes from my background as a features reporter, and my desire to give you a consistent, believable depiction of a fictional world. To further that, I slip in many real locations, characters from history, and even brand names of cigarettes, soap and biscuits from past days.
Fiona: How did you come up with book titles?
I daydream a lot—sometimes for months. I’m drawn to creating titles that allude to a character—a daughter, or a wife, or a girl. There are men in my books, too–so I’m thinking hard about whether I want the word “prince” or “agent” in my next book title, which would be fitting. Very often my editor agrees with the title I want. If not, we go back to the drawing board and I keep suggesting titles until something takes. In some cultures, words that seem neutral can be considered downers. For instance, my next book is being published as The Widows of Malabar Hill in the United States, but my India editor titled it as The Malabar Hill Mystery.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
I think there are many messages, depending on the books. Also, what a reader takes from a book might be a considerably different message than I’d thought of.
In one of my most popular Japanese novels, The Bride’s Kimono, I wanted to explore the idea of what it meant to be a wife, and what it meant to be a girlfriend, in 19th century Japan as well as late 20th century America. Yet for some readers, this book might simply have been a light-hearted, romantic amateur mystery; or a story about the lives of young Japanese working women.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
My modern mystery series set in Japan, which begins with The Salaryman’s Wife does include some altered versions personal and friends’ experiences in Japan, although the characters are utterly fictional, and they have way more fun and danger than any of us expats ever did. My India books are very strongly linked to true historical events of the 1930s and 1940s, though the women narrators are also fictional. However, I was inspired to make some of these historic Indian women characters undercover freedom activists or lawyers because I know they did exist at the time. Their strength is not a fantasy.
Fiona: What books have most influenced your life most? a mentor?
I was always reading a book as a child, so I credit those books by historical authors such as Laura Ingalls Wilder and Maud Hart Lovelace and Frances Hodgson Burnett, Noel Streatfield and Rumer Godden as lighting the candle. I also read some terrific suspense as a child by Nina Baldwin, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken. I enjoyed Enid Blyton’s mysteries as well as Agatha Christie, who I maintain is utterly appropriate for a child reader! With regard to mentors, I consider the members of my local Sisters in Crime Chesapeake chapter as my encouraging champions.
Martha Grimes, who taught me at Hopkins, probably has no idea who I am, or that she impacted my decision to try mystery. However, her presence in my life for two semesters and kind critiques certainly drew me toward mystery writing rather than another genre.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest, and who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
New writers: I read too widely to have a favorite author, but a couple of the mystery writers I greatly admire from the past are Josephine Tey and P.D. James. I love the witting writing and period details of Kerry Greenwood, who does the Australian 1920s series of novels that turned into the television series, Miss Fisher’s Mysteries. Recently I’ve been impressed by a Scottish writer, Abir Mukherjee, who wrote A Rising Man, a 1920s mystery set in Calcutta narrated from the perspectives of a team of British and Indian police detectives. The book is loaded with very accurate police and government procedure, and he’s been masterful at showing the British protagonist slowly awaken to the notion of racial inequality.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
When I was a newspaper reporter striving to write my first novel, I had a good friend at the same paper who was also trying to write a first novel. Having a colleague to commiserate with and share encouraging news made it apparent that finishing a manuscript meant hard work, but could be done. That friend, Laura Lippman, got her first book contract just as I was beginning to send my own manuscript out to agents.
We wound up organizing joint signings and traveling together many times in the early years. We supported each other through the frustrating times and cheered every award won by the other. My friendship with Laura, which was based on both caring and a shared excitement about mystery fiction, put me in a good mental place to succeed as a writer.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Yes, I do. I’ve been at it for over twenty years and have reinvented the path I’m taking four times to date! First was a modern mystery series supported by a large, traditional publisher; next I wrote a historical saga, again at a large publisher; then came my own independent releases of two books; and finally, I’m very happy to be writing a new series with the support of a small publisher. I think that if you want to keep writing, you have to keep producing, and being brave enough to try various ways to bring your work to readers.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
So many changes have been made in the editing process that there is no need for any further fretting, I think! Inevitably though, readers will find an error. Nobody’s perfect.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
I was a passionate reader from first grade on. The curious thing is that through childhood I didn’t aspire to be a writer. Although I wrote all the time, it was just a personal pleasure. I had no interest in writing as a career until I took writing courses in college, and then I resolved to be a journalist so I’d earn money writing. I thought fiction might be a passion to explore again in middle age. Through the good luck of living abroad and having time for creativity in my late 20s, my fiction career began much earlier than I had expected.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
In The Widows of Malabar Hill, Perveen Mistry is a young Indian woman who has just returned to Bombay after studying law at Oxford University. She’s taken up working with her father, a well-known solicitor. She also has a tragic personal history that makes her especially drawn to protecting women’s rights. She becomes involved in executing the will of a successful Muslim mill owner and realizes his three widows and four children living in purdah are at risk.
I have a story anthology published in 2015, India Gray Historical Fiction, that includes a novelette about Perveen that is a prequel to the series. It shows her and her best friend Alice hampered by rules at St. Hilda’s College in Oxford, where they nevertheless must solve an academic mystery.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
I’m still learning how to tell a big story in not so many words. In the Widows of Malabar Hill, I take the reader from an opening in February 1921, when Perveen is working as a 23-year-old lawyer, to the past, when she is a teenager rebelling from her family. I’ve done my storytelling in alternating sections to reveal how unfinished business influences a modern-day mystery.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
Yes. I go to India almost every year, even though I also have collected material at great repositories including the British Library and the Ames Library of South Asia within the University of Minnesota. I was thrilled to find some of Indian law books from the early 20th century on the Internet.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Various publishers’ art departments drafted the covers, and my agent and I have always some input on guiding the artists to getting the covers right. Because I have Asian heroines, sometimes mistakes are made when a artist suggests an image of a woman with jewelry or dress or a hairstyle from the wrong country. All these things can be ironed out if a writer can provide images to the artist for help.
For the two paperbacks that I released independently, I used a company called DerangeDdrDesign and was pleased with the results.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Keeping going in the middle always is the hardest part for me. I just seem to flag and lose focus. I usually take a break and then return to the work. Elaborate details can always be added in the second or third draft.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I’ve learned that a book has succeeded if the characters feel like real people to me. The more I care about my characters, the more the readers will, and the more potential for them to come alive again in further series books.
Fiona: If any of your books was made into a film who would you like to play the lead?
I’m going to turn this around and talk about film-makers and studios, because these are people who really can translate the essence of a story. I would adore for my Rei Shimura series to go into the hands of Fuji Televison, a Japanese company that produced a wonderful original series for Netflix called Atelier. For my Indian work. I would be thrilled to have someone like the Parsi filmwriter/director Sooni Taraporevala involved. Among her many accomplishments, she was the screenwriter for Salaam Bombay and Namesake and also wrote and directed a Hindi language comedy about Parsi people, Little Zizou. Sooni has a great eye for detail, and is herself part of the culture I write about in The Widows of Malabar Hill.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Read widely: not just in your favorite genre, but across history. I suggest studying the accomplishments writers who many have been published in different countries and in years past. If you have scant time for book reading, borrow audiobooks from the library or get an audio book service subscription, so you can soak up great writing while you’re gardening, driving, and doing mundane tasks.
The second part is the advice addresses the mission of regular writing. I recommend a writing habit of at least five days a week. I’d start with 30 minutes a day, moving on to 45 minutes or an hour. Also, you may be inspired to write better and faster if you have someone waiting for your next chapter. Get others to read that book and offer suggestions; take yourself to a writing class; join writers’ organizations that meet in person or online.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I want to thank many of them sticking with me for over 20 years, and to also credit the new readers for being curious enough to read a series that started at the time when mobile phones were just being invented, and Echo and the Bunnymen were a popular band! I also want to share that the Rei Shimura series is on pause, but that doesn’t mean it’s ended for good. I am very much intrigued and busy with the India books, and simply can’t write two series at the same time.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
A Front Page Affair by Radha Vatsal, Murder Leaves Its Mark by Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, and Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West. Two historical mystery novels and a gardening book!
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
My parents read to me since birth, so it’s hard to determine exactly when I shifted from being able to recite stories that I’d memorized to actually decode words. However, it was probably Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
I love comedy movies, especially with silly slapstick situations. Also my friends’ jokes. I also like to play the buffoon for my children. The last time I cried was after the US presidential election. Enough said.
Fiona: Is there one person past or present you would meet and why?
Our last US president, Barack Obama, who handles very difficult situations with such grace and has a gift of listening.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why ?
Nevertheless, she persisted. It’s a phrase that’s getting a lot of use these days during difficult times. But for any woman or man to build a life as a writer while having tremendous family and often other working responsibilities, the phrase fits, too.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies ?
Writing, gardening, cooking for friends, traveling, art and fashion. All the fluff that makes life more beautiful.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I like a lot of paid TV historical programming. Call The Midwife, Crown, Bletchley Circle, Miss Fisher’s Mysteries, Man in A High Castle are some favorites.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors/ Music
I like to cook Indian, Chinese and Mediterranean food. I wear a lot of red, purple and pink. Prince will always rule my soundtrack.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I fantasize about being a librarian or bookseller!
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?