Meet a Grubbie: Shuchi Saraswat
GrubStreet runs on coffee, printer ink, and community. This series features just some of the Grubbies who make our community strong. In this edition, meet Grub instructor Shuchi Saraswat. Shuchi's writing and photographs have appeared in Ecotone, Quick Fiction, and Juked. Excerpts of her novel have won her the Gulliver Travel Research Grant from The Speculative Literature Foundation and fellowships and scholarships to Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Writers Omi at Ledig House, The Writers' Room of Boston, Tin House Summer Writers' Workshop and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. She currently works as a buyer at Brookline Booksmith, an independent bookstore right outside of the city. Catch Shuchi in action in 6 Weeks, 6 Stories, starting July 12th.
How do you beat a bout of writer's block?
I go back to longhand, to the physical page, and to finite spaces. A change of location always helps. My cure-all: I go to the Museum of Fine arts, buy a few postcards from the gift shop, and find a spot to sit--usually on the couch in front of the Sargeant painting ‘The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit’--and I’ll use the images around me or the image on the front of the postcard as a prompt. I’m very visual, and incredibly inspired by other art forms, and I usually leave the MFA more centered and less crippled by anxiety.
What are you reading?
At the moment, many at once. Next to my bed--Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This, a coming-of-age story that’s also an exploration of abandoned and decaying and destroyed places and what draws us to them. I’m working on a review of the latest essay collection by Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions. Solnit is one of the most brilliant and important minds writing nonfiction today, and I love introducing her work to new people. In my bag, an advanced copy of Paul Yoon’s short story collection The Mountain. I adore Paul’s fiction, his acute understanding of the dynamic between vast landscapes and vast interior spaces, and how he manages to make stories about introverted characters so endlessly compelling. After I read his stories, I’m not only moved to write, but I find that I possess a newfound respect for my own interiority. And finally, Durga Chew-Bose’s essay collection Too Much and Not the Mood, where the essays meander and plunge in very surprising yet satisfying ways.
What are you working on right now?
Last fall, I traveled to Palestine with a peace delegation for the olive harvest, and for two weeks we traveled around the West Bank by bus. I'm working on a photo essay about that trip, both what I learned and saw, but also about the limits of what we, as American tourists, are able to understand.
When do you feel most like a writer?
When the story I’m working on follows me into daily living. Suddenly images and sentences and plot solutions occur to me while I go through all the other mundane parts of my day--showering, riding my bike into work, behind the register at the bookstore. I can’t read for long without drifting back into the world I imagined. One evening at the bookstore, after I had spent the day writing physical descriptions of two characters, I started noticing the arrangement of people’s faces, the space between their facial features, the shape of their noses and eyes. When I've shifted the way I'm orienting myself to the world around me in this particular way--observing, noting, considering how I can reuse what I see in fiction or nonfiction--that's definitely when I feel most like a writer.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
I’m not sure that I have a go-to. I love music, but I suffer from mondegreen, this tragic syndrome where you mishear song lyrics. (I trace this back to growing up on Hindi music, never really understanding the words I was listening to so instead just focusing on sounds and rhythms.) So, often at karaoke parties you’ll find me in the corner mouthing along, puzzling over the actual words to songs. But there are some songs I memorized in my younger and more dedicated days that emerge during karaoke. To name two most embarrassing that I have karaok’ed to: the rap to TLC’s “Waterfalls” and Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.”
Do you have a favorite local, independent bookstore? Where and why?
This is an unfair question for me to answer because without a doubt I’d say Brookline Booksmith, my second home, a place that has been both a cradle and a diving board, where my coworkers endlessly inspire me and my managers have always encouraged my creativity.
But I think what’s more amazing is after all the time I’ve spent in a bookstore over the past six years, I still love going into them. If I’m traveling, bookstores are often my first stop. They are like a map to the soul of a community--who they are, who they aspire to be. And I often get homesick while traveling and being in a bookstore soothes that homesickness, seeing familiar books in a different place.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Boston’s bookstores and have some favorite spaces within them. In the Booksmith, it’s without a doubt the Used Book Cellar, a windowless, timeless place with a phenomenal selection of books. The wraparound bar at Trident, where I logged in many hours working on my novel, and where I’ve met up with writing groups and book clubs and spent many lazy weekend days browsing the magazines and bargain books. The science and nature nook at Papercuts, JP, with its twinkling lights and framed photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson and its wall devoted to staff favorites; and this one narrow shelf I remember from the last time I was at Newtonville Books, where I picked up a copy of John Berger’s Selected Essays, a book I’ll now never part with. Recently I found myself sitting on the floor in front of Harvard Book Store’s Sci-Fi section thumbing through all their books by Ursula Le Guin. And I don’t get out to Porter Square books as much as I’d like, but I’ve attended a number of readings there over the past ten years and so I always think of their reading space as the cozy living room of an old friend.
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