Thursday, September 15, 2011

Moni Mohsin talks about Duty Free, Pakistan, out-to-lunch heroines and satire

Moni Mohsin is hilarious and whip smart. Called a modern-day Jane Austen she's crafted a novel that's as funny as is it thought-provoking. I'm honored to have her here on my blog. Thank you so much, Moni!

I deeply admired the multi-layered structure of the book, especially the way you put headlines at the beginning of every chapter, which throw the heroine's plight into satiric relief. How did this all come about?

Duty Free's origins can be traced back to a column called The Diary of a Social Butterfly which I wrote in The Friday Times, a national Pakistani paper. The column's primary purpose was to gently mock the foibles of Pakistan's disassociated wealthy elites, but since it was in a diary format and appeared in a weekly newspaper, it was always linked in some way to the news of the week. So for instance if there had been heavy rains and floods, the column would be about my fictitious Social Butterfly's response to the floods. When I first conceived of a novel centred around the characters from the column, I wanted to retain the idea of situating it in real time because it enabled me to highlight the disconnect between their lives and events unfolding in the country but I didn't know quite how to do that without weighing the book down with tedious explanatory notes. It was my editors who came up with the idea of using national headlines -- one serious and one comic -- to achieve that purpose. 

Was it fun to write such a basically out-to-lunch heroine or did you have moments when you wanted to throttle her?

Actually I found it bracing to write her. My challenge was to filter some serious reflections on an unravelling society and a collapsing state through the prism of this frivolous, self absorbed narrator without stepping out of character. In the beginning I had to constantly question her every utterance; 'would she say that? would she think that?' but as I wrote on and gradually I began to inhabit her character, I found it alarmingly easy to think and feel like her.  

You've been compared to Jane Austen, both because of the plot of "finding a suitable husband" and truly because of your witty, smart sense of social satire. But it seems to me you're more tongue-in-cheek than Austen--do you agree?

While I am deeply flattered to be compared to my literary heroine, I must leave that particular assessment to my readers.

What's your writing process like? Do you outline? Do you work a set amount of hours every day and in one place?

Since it is my abiding belief that a lot of writing happens subconsciously, I tend not to make rigid outlines. I have a vague idea in my head about a character or a story when I start but once I enter into the writing process I allow myself to be led by the process itself. (I hope that doesn't sound too precious!) To give you an example, when I set out to write Duty Free I knew that my heroine could not blunder her way through to the end without understanding a thing or two about herself but I had no idea how to bring about that change in an unforced natural way. It was not until I was almost three quarters of the way through the book that I suddenly saw how it could be done. I work, on an ideal day, between 10 am and 3.30 pm, that is between dropping my kids to school, exercising, showering and collecting them from school, with a short break for lunch and a few phone calls stuffed in here and there. I wrote Duty Free in my husband's office, where he gave me a glass cubicle, because I found it difficult to discipline myself at home. I don't know where I will write the next book since he's now taken on a new colleague who sits in that cubicle...

What's obsessing you now?

As always, Pakistan.

What question didn't I ask that I should have? 
How come Janoo hasn't divorced her yet?

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