Avni Doshi studied in New York and London, but it wasn’t until she moved to India, where she worked as an art curator, that she began writing fiction. The idea behind her debut novel, Burnt Sugar, was sparked as she was writing an essay about food and memory that provided her with the entry point into the book’s main character.
The novel traces the slow decline of Tara. Once a bold and brash youth who wantonly dragged her only daughter through street life and beggardom, Tara’s mind is beginning to let her down – leaving her daughter responsible for a woman who was never responsible with her. A story of love and betrayal between a mother and daughter, the novel “took seven years to write, and went through eight drafts”, according to Doshi.
First published in India last year, where it was longlisted for the Tata First Novel Award, Burnt Sugar has already accumulated a sizeable buzz ahead of its UK publication later this month. We asked Doshi a few questions about herself in advance of its release, and she opened up about Jane Austen, peony season, and the discomfort of hawking posh pens from a velvet tray.
Which writer do you most admire and why?
I admire Rachel Cusk. She’s written about topics like divorce and postpartum depression in a way that is bold and unflinching while being beautiful at a sentence level. She has a way of distilling ideas that are convincing and captivating. And her trilogy is remarkable in the way it has pushed the form of the novel.
What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?
I worked in retail once, convincing people they needed to buy very expensive pens. There was a lot of pomp and show around how I had to present the pens: using white gloves, placing everything carefully on a velvet tray. It was uncomfortable, I felt I was always holding my breath.
Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times.
I don’t get a chance to reread many books anymore but when I was younger I read all of Jane Austen’s novels again and again. Also The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. My copy of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation is definitely battered – I’ve revisited sections of that novel on many occasions.
What the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?
Don’t keep digging where the soil is hard. In other words, when you’re revising or rewriting your work, avoid exploring characters or scenes in the same way again and again. The repetition can pull the life out of your work. There are countless ways to enter a specific moment in a book, and it’s important to remain open to different options.
What makes you most happy?
Good food. Beautiful weather. Empty beaches. Aesthetically-pleasing art objects. Inviting table decor. Peony season. A fresh blow-dry. Interesting stationery. Antique jewellery.
What’s your biggest regret?
I regret not studying more when I was younger. I wish I had done a PhD or another masters degree, or become a Jungian analyst. I suppose I can still do all these things, but time contracts with two children.
What’s your ideal writing scenario?
I did a writing fellowship at the University of East Anglia and I felt like I was in a gothic novel. It was romantic and eerie being there, particularly in the winter. The brutalist architecture, the spare apartment I lived in, the dark woods and the bottles of wine I consumed made it a magical place to get lost in a writing project.
...and your ideal reading one?
I love spending the day in my bed with a book. This only really happens when I’m home alone – which is very rare these days. Ideally I have snacks and something to drink on the nightstand.
What’s your favourite book you’ve read this year?
SS Proleterka by Fleur Jaeggy. What an incredible book! She’s done so much in such a slim volume. Her writing completely transported me. I was resentful when I finished reading it, but of no one in particular, as though someone had kept this delicious secret from me all these years that I had just discovered.
What inspired you to write your book?
Burnt Sugar took seven years to write, and went through eight drafts – each of the drafts was very different. The earlier drafts of the novel were inspired by my mother’s family, particularly their connection to the Osho Ashram in Pune, India (where the novel is set). Later drafts of the book were more focused on the theme of memory, which I explored in depth through the lens of Alzheimer’s disease, which my grandmother has been diagnosed with.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi is out 30 July