ShortBookandScribes #QandA with Damyanti Biswas, Author of You Beneath Your Skin #YouBeneathYourSkin
I’m so pleased to be welcoming Damyanti Biswas to Short Book and Scribes today. I asked Damyanti some questions about her writing and you can read her answers further down this post.
LIES. AMBITION. FAMILY.
It’s a dark, smog-choked new Delhi winter. Indian American single mother Anjali Morgan juggles her job as a psychiatrist with caring for her autistic teenage son. She is in a long-standing affair with ambitious police commissioner Jatin Bhatt – an irresistible attraction that could destroy both their lives.
Jatin’s home life is falling apart: his handsome and charming son is not all he appears to be, and his wife has too much on her plate to pay attention to either husband or son. But Jatin refuses to listen to anyone, not even the sister to whom he is deeply attached.
Across the city there is a crime spree: slum women found stuffed in trash bags, faces and bodies disfigured by acid. And as events spiral out of control Anjali is horrifyingly at the centre of it all …
In a sordid world of poverty, misogyny, and political corruption, Jatin must make some hard choices. But what he unearths is only the tip of the iceberg. Together with Anjali he must confront old wounds and uncover long-held secrets before it is too late.
You can get an e-copy for free on Amazon Kindle in all markets from the 7th-11th August.
You Beneath Your Skin is a crime novel about the investigation of an acid attack on a woman from Delhi’s upper class, set against the backdrop of crimes against underprivileged women. They are assaulted, disfigured with acid, and murdered.
It is a whodunit, but also a whydunit, because violent crime unravels those affected: the people, the relationships, the very fabric of society, and we get a glimpse of what lies beneath. That’s why the title, You Beneath Your Skin.
You Beneath Your Skin has been optioned for TV screens by Endemol Shine, as announced by Hollywood Deadline.
1. First of all, can you tell me where the idea came from for You Beneath Your Skin?
You Beneath Your Skin started with Anjali Morgan, an Indian-American obsessed with perfection, who has an autistic teenaged son, and a long-standing affair with Jatin Bhatt, a corrupt Police Commissioner. The other characters all came from asking questions about her, as did the story.
2. Did you have to do much research for the book or did you write what you know?
It was a bit of both. I’ve spent long years in New Delhi, where the story is set, and in my past life of being a part of the fashion industry, I’d seen an entire spectrum of Delhi life. Add to that my experience volunteering in a New Delhi non-profit, I had enough material to start with. Then, as the story developed, I researched the locations, the police force, acid attacks, hospitals, and so on.
3. The proceeds of sale of the book go to two charities: Stop Acid Attacks and
Project WHY. Why did you make the decision to do this and why did you choose those particular charities?
I’ve been volunteering with Project WHY for a decade, and a lot of the settings of You Beneath Your Skin came from the alleyways where the education centres of this non-profit is located. The narratives of acid attack in the book are a result of my interaction with acid attack survivors from Stop Acid Attacks. So it felt natural that the proceeds from the books should go to them. In my conversations with the children of Project WHY, I realised that they needed the funds far more than I do, and it seemed like the appropriate use of my privilege to give it all away.
4. Can you tell me more about how you became a writer? If you weren’t a writer what do you think you would be doing now?
I never thought I’d be a writer, nor did I want to be one. After my marriage I moved to Malaysia, where I could not work without a permit. My husband encouraged me to take up writing freelance, instead, and the rest is history. My previous career was in fashion, and then I briefly worked at editing books (go figure!) but it is in writing that I’ve found my calling. If writing is ever taken away from me, I’d like to find a job as a librarian at a not-very-busy library where they wouldn’t frown upon me poring over books most of the time.
5. Do you plot your stories meticulously or do you just write and see where it takes you?
I began as a complete pantser. But after a few drafts of You beneath Your Skin I realised I was writing a very complex crime novel, and needed some sort of structure. I started using index cards to analyse the narrative, figured out the plot points that way. Nowadays I do a loose outline with index cards with events and characters, then write based off that, and go back to doing more detailed index cards.
6. Could you tell me about your writing day? Where do you write and do you have a daily routine?
I wish I had a routine. I try to get in a walk each morning, and write as much as I can before I get stuck with social media, or my gazettes (check them out here—I send out two a month—one with writing tips and the other with reading recommendations!) or anything else. I used to write at food courts earlier, because funnily enough the noise and buzz helped me focus. With the onset of Covid, I mostly write at home these days, and seem to be more productive in my bed than at my desk. Writing while nestled in pillows seems less intimidating!
7. Do you have time to read yourself and if so what kind of books do you enjoy?
I get very cranky if I don’t read, so I make sure I read every day, even if it is just a few pages. When there’s no time to do that, I go for audiobooks—lately I’ve been listening to Where the Crawdads Sing, and am enjoying myself. Other books on my shelf are Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee, Love and Longing in Mumbai by Vikram Chandra, and I’ve recently loved The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. As you can see, I’m a bit all over the place, and like books of all kinds as long as they hold my attention.
8. Do you have any interesting writing quirks?
I don’t know if it counts as interesting, but I’ve developed weird snacking habits this year. I’m scraping butter off the block regularly, and I find myself spooning milk powder into my mouth between writing bouts. (I know, don’t ask. Maybe I’m going prematurely senile.)
9. What are you planning to write next and where will it take us?
I’m working on a crime novel set in Mumbai about a police man and a bar dancer who is sent on mysterious assignments.
Thank you, Damyanti. Those snacking habits are definitely unusual!
Damyanti Biswas lives in Singapore, and supports Delhi’s underprivileged women and children, volunteering with organisations who work for this cause. Her short stories have been published in magazines in the US, UK, and Asia, and she helps edit the Forge Literary Magazine. You can find her on her blog.
She also sends out monthly newsletters with book recommendations and writing resources, which you can grab here.
AUDIENCE FOR YOU BENEATH YOUR SKIN:
Bookclubs, because of the discussion questions: Within the framework of a thriller the novel tackles various social issues: crimes against women and why they occur, the nexus between political corruption, police and big money; the abuse of the underprivileged, be it adults or children, and the scourge of acid attacks.
Parents, because of the issues tackled: How do you bring up a good human being in today’s troubled times? If you’re the parent of a special child, what challenges do you face and what sort of support can you expect?