An interview with
A note from Katherine Watterson, editor in chief
My Introduction to Creative Writing professor, a delightful poet and person named Melissa Crowe, invited Sayantani Dasgupta to speak with my class about nonfiction during my first semester at The University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her list essay, “Valentine's Day: A 14-Point Meditation on Love & Other Fiery Monsters" changed how I view the relationship between form and subject. I highly recommend any writing she does; her voice is witty and her observations are often as genuinely insightful as they are humorous. When I had the opportunity to create Grimsy, what I intended to be a community for fans of the grim and whimsical, I knew I wanted to include content from talented writers I admired. I was so fortunate one the best writers I’ve read was gracious enough to agree to be interviewed for our inaugural issue. Thank you for making me a better writer and many other people, Sayantani.
Katherine: On your blog is a lot of excellent flash nonfiction written by your students; I thought the idea of disgust as an instrument for creating horror was fascinating because often, when I think of horror, I forget there are a lot of emotional facets to that genre besides jump scares. What are some other feelings people may not usually relate to horror that are very relevant to the genre?
Sayantani: Thank you! Sadly, the course is only a semester long. If it were a year-long, we would have probably been able to study a few more genres and subgenres than the three we are able to right now: fairy tales, personal horror, and environmental horror.
To answer your question, I think one aspect of horror that does not receive enough attention is Comedy. There is something to be said about situations that invoke laughter but also dread because you cannot ignore the awfulness at the heart of it. Two fairly recent, fabulous movies I can think of are Ready or Not and What We Do in the Shadows.
Katherine: What are the essential ingredients for creating spellbinding horror?
Sayantani: The same ingredients that make for great writing in every genre—well-developed characters, a strong narrative arc, lots of anchoring details of Time and Place, good pacing, relevant details. After having read it, I should learn something new about the main character (and myself) that I didn’t know before.
Katherine: I had no idea that nonfiction could be frightening until I read Bella Wick’s personal experience with a tornado in “Damage Behind”. Are there any other misconceptions about horror that you could dispel—like my misconception that horror must be by necessity fictional—that could inspire other writers?
Sayantani: We are living through the most horrifying thing that could happen to any civilization—a pandemic, that too on a global scale. So, of course, nonfiction is and can be horrifying. Even without the pandemic, everyone has lived through a horror or two in their lives: bullies, teachers out for revenge, public shaming, dysfunctional families, the loss of a loved one, accidents, illnesses, the list is endless. I think there is great beauty in reading, writing, and studying horror. It offers the kind of catharsis (and escapism) that may not be provided by other mediums.
Katherine: What advice do you have for individuals who are considering writing a frightening nonfiction story?
Sayantani: Read and reread your favorite frightening story, be it a fairy tale or the crime that rocked your hometown 100 years ago. Pay attention to the details. Research so you can build a convincing world. Most importantly, focus on the characters and their motives.
Katherine: Is there a good way to determine which life experiences might create a thrilling experience for readers?
Sayantani: If you have experienced something harrowing, your reader will experience it too, and no experience is too small to write about. It’s all in your treatment. So, whether you are writing about your nemesis when you were nine-years-old, or how you lost your way in an unfamiliar city, write it with authenticity. Describe what the event meant to you then, and what it means to you now. The reader will get it.
Katherine: One aspect of your writing I admire is how fearlessly you write about your own personal life. I’m always worried about how other people will perceive me writing about them, and I know a lot of other writers may have a similar fear. How do you overcome the fear of others’ reaction to your writing that can inhibit the honesty that’s necessary for vulnerable, powerful nonfiction?
Sayantani: When I was growing up, my mother always told me, “What others think of you is none of your business.” I live my life like that. Writing is merely an extension of that same sentiment. I also subscribe to Anne Lamott’s advice, which she gives in her fabulous book Bird by Bird. “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Katherine: Are there any horror authors you would recommend?
Sayantani: The next book on my reading list is Tananarive Due’s The Good House. So, that’s who I would recommend for now.
Thanks again for your time and excellent advice!
Born in Calcutta and raised in New Delhi, Sayantani Dasgupta is the author of Fire Girl: Essays on India, America, & the In-Between—a Finalist for the Foreword Indies Awards for Creative Nonfiction—and the chapbook The House of Nails: Memories of a New Delhi Childhood. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Bellingham Review, The Southern Humanities Review, The Hindu, and others. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, and has also taught in India, Italy, and Mexico. Sayantani is also the winner of the recently-concluded Season 3 of Write India, organized by the books division of The Times of India. Contact her at www.sdasgupta.com or on Twitter.