A former journalist and current pediatrician, Bindu Suresh studied literature at Columbia University and medicine at McGill University. Born in Wales, she grew up in Canada and has spent equal parts of her life in Saskatchewan, Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec. She currently lives in Montreal. Bindu Suresh's fiction, “The Moment Before You Reached Me,” was one of the first short stories she'd ever written, and it was first published in Room's issue 26.3 “Before and After” (the issue is now sold out!).
Room editorial board member Tamara Jong spoke to Bindu Suresh about her novel 26 Knots and getting that first line just right, early writing influences, and which actors she'd like to see play her characters if her book became a movie.
This interview was conducted over email.
ROOM: Congratulations on your debut novel, Bindu! CBC listed 26 Knots (Invisible Publishing) as one of the 28 books of fiction to watch for in Spring 2019. It was on CBC's summer reading list, and you were listed as one of the CBC’s 19 Canadian writers to watch in 2019. The Gazette called it “one of the most striking Canadian literary debuts of the year.” You said that the idea for 26 Knots began when you covered a fire assignment for the Montreal Gazette, where you worked as a reporter. Did the characters come to you right away as well as the plot for the novel?
BS: I had three foundational plot points—a man who raises the child his ex had with someone else, another man’s search for his father, and a woman who was left but continues to love anyway. And the plot wove itself together gradually from there. The scene you mention (where the journalists Adrien and Araceli meet covering a fire, on the first page of the novel) did come to me while I was working on a similar article for the Gazette. I’d thought it would make a great first meeting scene for those characters, as well as a good place to start the book.
ROOM: Michael Ondaatje said that “The first sentence of every novel should be: 'Trust me, this will take time, but there is order here, very faint, very human.’” When I was a new writer, I didn't pay much attention to the opening line. Your first line drew me in. How long did it take you to get the first line just right and your opening paragraph?
BS: It was important to me to get the first line right. I’m pretty obsessed with good ones; my ultimate role model in this regard would be Gabriel García Márquez, who in my opinion hasn’t written a first line that wasn’t brilliant. I spent a long time working over the first line and paragraph in my early drafts, and it settled into its final form pretty early.
ROOM: There's so much going on in this wonderful novel and it was hard for me to put down. I could see this as a series or a movie. What actors could you see playing your characters?
BS: I could see Marion Cotillard playing Pénélope, and Adam Driver playing Gabriel. I think the late Heath Ledger would have made an excellent Adrien, and I would want Alicia Vikander to play Araceli, mostly because I think Alicia Vikander can do anything.
ROOM: The use of space, the language, and words in 26 Knots made me pause between pages, or I'd go back to read previous passages or fold the pages to save those spots. Who were some of your favorite poets and early writing influences?
BS: My favourite poet was and is Philip Larkin. Among my early writing influences were Virginia Woolf, who I think masterfully grasped and portrayed the subtle emotionality and motivations of her characters. I also read a lot of William Faulkner, who I think perfectly executed the ratio of how much you tell the reader in terms of plot and characterization and how much you leave for them to figure out for themselves. Another favourite of mine was Jorge Luís Borges, who taught me that verisimilitude isn’t in what you say, it’s in how you say it.
ROOM: In your interview with Open Book , you said, “I very intentionally chose—and showcased, even—Montreal as the setting of the novel. I had just moved to the city in the summertime at the age of 20 (both ideal conditions in which to fall in love with Montreal!) and immediately adored the place, so I resolved early on that Montreal would figure prominently in the telling of this story.” Can you talk about the parts you love about Montreal and how they ended up being in your novel?
BS: I love Montreal’s bilingualism; I find that having English and French co-exist and be spoken with varying degrees of fluency adds a richness to day-to-day interactions and to relationships, both superficial and intimate. It also creates awkwardness, and complexity, and misunderstanding, but also somehow facilitates a deeper understanding that transcends words, almost as if wielding language as an imperfect tool allows one to realize that it is just a tool. I think there is a lot of beauty in how those interactions play out, and tried to include this in the novel. There is Adrien’s statement early on, for example, of how when Araceli speaks French—his first language, her third—he “liked her most, but knew her least, in his mother tongue.” I also love the physical look of Montreal, particularly of the Plateau, where much of the book takes place, as well as the urbanity and energy of the city, and tried to portray these too.
ROOM: I came across an article talking about original title choices and I was surprised to know that Pride and Prejudice was originally called “First Impressions,” To Kill a Mockingbird was called “Atticus” and Dracula was called “The Dead-Un-Dead”. 26 Knots is a great title. What's the inspiration behind choosing it?
BS: The title 26 Knots was a joint venture between my publisher and editor at Invisible, Leigh Nash, and I, as neither of us was completely happy with the working title of my initial draft. The book has twenty-six chapters, and the idea of a knot—as a complication in the thread of a character’s life—is a recurrent one in the novel, so 26 Knots struck us as ideal.
ROOM: Are you an early morning writer, day, or night writer? When you were writing 26 Knots, and did you plan out your time and writing routine?
BS: This has changed a lot for me over the years. For 26 Knots, I wrote mostly in the late afternoons and at night. I was definitely not a morning person! I would plan out my writing time for early in the day but would rarely stick to it, instead reading and writing whenever the inclination struck me. Over time, I learned to think of writing less as the making of art—with all of the received ideas from the Romantics that go with that, of the writer creating his work while mournful, miserable, and under a spark of creative inspiration over which he had no control—and more as work. Now I write in the mornings and afternoons to ensure it gets done, alternating two hours of reading with two hours of writing until I’ve put in a solid day’s work or other commitments intervene. It sounds much less romantic, but it definitely results in more books actually being written!
ROOM: What advice would you give to writers tackling their first novel?
BS: In addition to suggesting that they read as much as they write, if not more, I would tell them to write as if they were only writing for themselves. You have to write as if no one will read it but you, because that is the only way you will take the sufficient number of risks required to produce beautiful writing. That, and to not let anyone read your work until you have a first draft you are happy with, lest you end up with too many cooks in the kitchen.
ROOM: What are you reading right now?
BS: I am reading 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, translated into English by Natasha Wimmer. I read a number of his short stories in Spanish and thought they were incredible, and this novel of his came highly recommended by a former literature professor of mine.
ROOM: What's your next writing project?
BS: I am working on a second novel, but as per my aforementioned advice to writers I am not saying anything else about it until I have a first draft!
Are you a writer of short stories? Check out our annual fiction contest that's open until March, 2020.
Tamara Jong is a Montreal-born writer of Chinese and European ancestry. Her work has appeared in Ricepaper, Room, carte blanche, The New Quarterly, Invisible Publishing, and Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers and forthcoming in The Nasiona. She is a graduate of The Writer’s Studio and had her piece “Thanks for All the Lice, Pharaoh” longlisted in The New Quarterly’s 2019 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. She is working on a CNF memoir of collected short stories. You can find her on Twitter @bokchoygurl.