For my Friday Read this week is The Giants Look Down, by Sonja Price, published by Robert Hale. “The Giants Look Down” has been shortlisted by the Romantic Novelists’ Association for this year’s Joan Hessayon New Writers' Scheme Award.
Isn't the cover beautiful?
Jaya is a Kashmiri girl torn between her dream of becoming a doctor just like her father and her mother’s traditional expectations of her. In the late 1960s her family enjoys an idyllic life in the Vale of Kashmir, despite the area being riddled with conflict and poverty. After a devastating earthquake wipes out her entire family, Jaya is in the care of relatives in Delhi, who attempt to marry her off and keep the possibility that her youngest brother, Tahir, has survived the earthquake from her. After escaping her arranged marriage thanks to her father’s generous friends, Jaya is put through school and medical training in Scotland as she always dreamed of. But as she negotiates a different culture from her own, where women are allowed opportunities, she also negotiates the realms of her own heart as she develops feelings for her foster family’s older son, Alastair, who happens to be engaged to someone else.
Can she return to Kashmir and fulfil her dream of building a clinic in the mountains and be truly happy?
When I was ten, I found out what I wanted to be. In fact, I can remember the very day I decided to become a healer. On that late summer’s morning, I could still see my breath when I climbed up into our battered old Land Rover. You know what those kinds of vehicles are like. I was up high and I felt so much bigger anyway, because I was in the front next to Pa. If I shut my eyes and concentrate, I can still smell his pipe smoke lingering on the leather seats. The radio was on that morning because Pa, being such a huge cricket fan, had started listening to the Ashes long before the sun cut the peaks of the Nun Kun. In India you hear talk of three things on every village corner: cricket, movies and politics and the Vale of Kashmir was no exception.
The tiny red figure of Lord Vishnu, the protector, bobbed about under the rear view mirror as I scanned the skies for golden eagles. We had a good chance of seeing them at that time of the year when they had hungry chicks to feed. I spotted one, riding the winds, soaring and circling before dropping hundreds of feet to pluck a groundhog from the mountain slopes. All around us, tiny mauve and yellow flowers danced in the breeze as the snowy summits of Pir Panjal meditated in the early morning sun. Beneath them, rocks gave way to forests, emerald green valleys and the glint of the Jhelum River. In the far distance Wular Lake slumbered peacefully under its blanket of mist. Above us the Thajiwas glacier sparkled ice blue beside the cone-like peak of Gwash Brari where settlements hugged its foothills. All Pa’s territory, because he was the only doctor for miles.
The crowd roared and the man on the radio was getting terribly excited when a posh voice cut in: ‘News has just reached us that a suicide attack in Indian-administered Kashmir has killed three people, including the bomber, and injured more than seventeen. The explosion occurred in the Nowgam area on the outskirts of Srinagar, the region's summer capital. A Pakistan-based Islamic militant group has claimed responsibility for the explosion in a telephone call to local news agency Current News Service.’
Pa switched off the radio. ‘Madmen! Outsiders! Trying to turn us against each other! Sufi, Hindu, Sikh, what does it matter? We’ve been smoking beedi together in the teahouses of Dal Lake for centuries. Long before the British came. Long before Partition. Now they make us play the Great Game and fight like cockerels. Should I not attend to Mrs Durrani simply because she is a Muslim? And what about Kaliq? Should we throw our beloved servant out? How could the gods tolerate bloodshed in our beautiful vale?’
I certainly didn’t understand. How could grown-ups fight and kill each other when we children were always being told to be nice to each other? Diwali, our festival of light, includes their Muslim god Ali, and Ramadan includes our Lord Ram, so how were we so different? It didn’t make any sense.
Sonja commutes between Glastonbury and Weimar Germany, where she teaches English at University. Sonja thinks that writing is such a wonder because you can have fun wherever you put pen to paper!
I asked Sonja to tell us a bit more about herself
Do you have a special place for writing?
I need a study, a room to take myself and my writing seriously- which doesn’t mean that I don’t grab my laptop and write elsewhere when the mood takes me. But usually a calm descends on me when I sit down at my desk that tells me it’s writing time! When I wrote my Kashmiri saga, I put an Indian cloth over my desk, which seemed to do the trick.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
It was something deep inside me that I didn’t recognise for a long time. That’s probably why I went on to study English literature - as if I didn’t dare, unless I had a solid background, which is so ridiculous. It did let me do the other thing I love though: reading. Anyway, as soon as that was in the bag together with a job, I started writing whatever I wanted. I can remember being at a party and telling an artist my guilty secret. She asked me if anyone had ever read my work and when I shook my head, she said, ‘Why ever not?’ I think I’ll be eternally grateful to her for getting me thinking. So I sent my short stories out and they got published. My ambition though, was always to write a novel. I’m so happy I did!
Are you a pantster or a plotter?
To my dismay, I’m a pantster. I try to plot beforehand but it just doesn’t work for me- it kills all inspiration. Perhaps it’s because in my day job where I do a lot of academic writing, I need to plan and keep to a prescribed formula. So I sit there and stare at my screen, which is basically like crawling up a rock face without a safety rope, feeling for the next scene or event with my one free hand. It’s such a silly way to go about writing but the only way forward for me.
Is your writing ever inspired by your family or real life incidents?
Yes, The Giants Look Down was inspired by the Great Earthquake of 2005 in Kashmir.
What are you writing at the moment?
A story about a widow trying to solve the mystery surrounding her husband’s death in the Alaskan wilderness.
What inspired you to write this book?
The landscape caught my inner eye. My stories are almost always set in unfamiliar places where I let my imagination loose. Like a lot of writers I just pen my daydreams, but I have got a picture book open at a breath-taking photo of a snow-covered mountain next to my keyboard right now…
What time of the day do you write best?
Mornings, but I also need my sleep so I don’t get up at the crack of dawn. I find it good to go for a run or swim beforehand - nothing too strenuous: I swam in the local outdoor pool for half an hour today to banish restlessness and help me concentrate better.
What advice would you give to other writers?
Whatever works for you is good. All that matters is getting those words on paper.
Twitter handle: @PriceSonja
Goodreads: Sonja Price
Thanks for dropping by, Sonja.