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Of interrupted ghosts and Hrithik Roshan

By Arthur J Pais in New York
January 31, 2007 17:32 IST
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Scott Wilder, the founder of The Cold Spot, a ghost-hunting firm in San Francisco, knows that running away from ghosts and tripping and breaking necks kills people, says Sonia Singh, the Indian-American writer of the novel Ghost, Interrupted.

And then there is the reluctant psychic whose good karma brings Scott and Anjali together on a ghost-hunting expedition. And then there is Coulter Marshall, who the novelist says can move objects with his mind and ladies with his good looks. 'He has an angel's face that hides the devil's agenda,' Singh added.

Recipient of a bachelor's degree in history and political science from California State University in Fullerton, Singh turned to writing after doing several jobs including teaching.

She spoke to Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais about writing, Bollywood, Brad Pitt and other heavenly bodies:

When did you think of writing this book?

I actually came up with the idea for this book well before my debut novel Goddess For Hire was published two years ago. I've always been fascinated with ghost hunting and paranormal activity. The field is far more scientific than people think and doesn't just involve a group of people walking around old houses with flashlights waiting for ghosts to jump out at them.

How did the idea for the novel come to you?

It started with the female protagonist in the book, Anjali Kumar. I sort of based Anjali on the character, Carrie, from the Stephen King novel. I wondered what would happen if Carrie, instead of setting fire to her high school gym and dying at the end of the film, ended up going to work for a ghost-hunting agency.

What were the first few characters that appeared in your mind?

Actually, the three main characters -- Scott, Anjali and Coulter -- appeared in my mind around the same time, along with the 'villain' of the story, Vivica Bates. You could say the four of them kind of popped into my head fully formed.

What was your publishers' reaction when you told them about the book?

I think they were kind of expecting another chick-lit tale involving an Indian-American heroine. To my editor's credit, she gave me the green light with a minimum of questions asked. Also, since my first book had supernatural elements in it, a book about ghost hunting didn't completely take her by surprise.

Did you have more fun writing this book than your previous books?

In a way, this book was harder to write than my previous two books because of the number of characters involved. I have three main characters with three very different points of view. I'm looking forward to going back to first person with my new book. That way I only have to get inside one character's head.

You mentioned in a previous interview how much you enjoy working on your book at the coffee shop near your home. Do you work at ungodly hours in the coffee shop?

I really don't care to write at coffee shops at ungodly hours because that's when all the weirdoes show up. Instead, I prefer to write in the afternoon at Starbucks because then I'm the only weirdo there and I don't have to fight for a table in the corner.

You have talked about your experiences of writing for Bollywood soaps. What do you remember most from those days?

What I remember most from my Bollywood days? The hectic pace! The frenetic activity! The Frankie rolls! Well, I worked on a music video called Soorma and a television show called Ek Main Aur Ek Tu. I also spent a lot of time in autorickshaws, taking meetings with directors and producers that didn't amount to much.

One time I had to walk to an Internet cafe during a monsoon, with water up to my knees, because I needed to e-mail my latest script and the place where I was staying didn't have Internet. God, I was so disciplined then. I have it so easy now!

Have you given up on trying to be a Bollywood writer?

Yes! What a relief! Still, I'd love to work on an international project with Shah Rukh Khan or Aishwarya Rai. Something along the lines of Bride And Prejudice where you have an international cast and crew.

Has your family started taking you seriously as a writer or are they telling you that you should get married or look for another profession?

My parents have accepted the fact that I'm a writer for life and they're quite supportive. My mom is still wondering when I'm going to get married -- but that's all mothers, not just Indian -- and, like I tell her, 'I do plan to get married one day. I'm just not in a hurry to do so.'

Do you read out the chapters from your work in progress to your family?

I don't like to show my work in progress to anyone. I did show my brother the manuscript of Ghost, Interrupted once I was completely finished with my third or fourth draft and he gave me some great input.

Normally, though, I don't like to show my work to anyone -- other than my editor and agent -- because I feel too many opinions cloud my judgment. It's the whole too many cooks spoil the broth syndrome. I will try out a few book titles on my mother and brother at times, because they read a lot of fiction and can usually tell if a title is catchy or not.

What kind of books have you enjoyed most recently and why?

I'm a Harry Potter fanatic. I also enjoyed The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. I loved the gothic feel of the book and the blend of history and the supernatural. The book was about Dracula. Who couldn't love it?

Do you think you can ever write a serious, serious book? And what would it be?

I'm sure I could but I have no desire to do so. I love to laugh and I love to make people laugh. I think some people tend to thumb their noses at comedy and that annoys me, as if I'm biding my time with funny novels until I settle down and write the next War and Peace. I do see myself playing around with different genres like mystery and horror but all my novels will have comedic elements. That's how I write.

Was Ghost, Interrupted the first choice as a title?

I had a list of 20 or so titles I was preparing to send my editor when a writer friend suggested Ghoul, Interrupted. I changed it to Ghost, Interrupted and tacked it onto the list as a joke. That was the one they chose!

People will surely ask you if you believe in ghosts and witchcraft, won't they? What do you tell them?

I believe in it all! Regarding witchcraft, I believe in the power of suggestion and I know there are people out there who think they've been the victim of spells and curses but that's all bunk. Witchcraft or Wicca is actually a very peaceful religion centered around nature and the seasons and I have no judgments about people who practice it. Regarding ghosts, I do believe!

Have you seen a ghost?

Of course I've never seen a ghost but that doesn't mean they don't exist. I believe the spirit lives on long after death.

Imagine you are a movie director and you are casting for the film based on your novel. Who would be your dream stars?

I don't know the names of too many Indian-American actresses but I modeled Maya in Goddess for Hire after Salma Hayek so any actresses who look like her and speak Hindi with an American accent, please apply. I think Naveen Andrews would be great as Tahir, the love interest in the same book. I modeled the love interest in Bollywood Confidential after Hrithik Roshan, so he's my dream actor.

In Ghost, Interrupted I'd love to see Brad Pitt play Coulter, Clive Owen play Scott, Nicole Kidman would play Vivica Bates, the villain, and for Anjali... hmm, I know there are gorgeous and talented Indian-American actresses out there, I just don't know their names.

I really like Indira Verma from Kama Sutra and Bride And Prejudice. I know she's English but I'm sure she could do a great American accent. Can't they all?

How has your lifestyle changed since your first book was published?

I'm doing what I love for a living and getting paid for it! I can write full-time and that is such a blessing. I get to do what I love all day, every day. I also love seeing my name come up on Google. I've met so many authors and book lovers at events and signings.

How do you react to negative criticism?

I try to find out the address and phone number of the critic so I can scream and yell and sue them. Just kidding. In the beginning, negative criticism used to really hurt and I'd be upset for days. By the second book, I became pretty immune to it.

Finally, I realised there was no reason for me to be hurt and no reason for me to develop a thick skin. I just stopped reading the negative stuff. I don't read reviews on Amazon and I don't care what critics have to say -- well, I like the good stuff. All I care about are the fans who e-mail to tell me how much they loved the book.

What will you work on next?

My latest project is still in the development stage so I don't like to talk about it. Remember the cooks spoiling the broth? I will say that it is supernatural in theme and it's a comedy. Big surprise! Oh wait!

The main character won't be Indian American. I'd like to get in the head of someone who isn't desi. There's no cultural angst in this book.

If you decided to give up writing some day, what would you do?

I'd be a critic! I never plan to give up writing. I'll write for the rest of my life. I think it might be fun to act though. That way I don't have to just write characters modeled after Hrithik Roshan and Brad Pitt. I could co-star with them! Sigh.

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