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Mandira Pattnaik: 'I did not expect the book to travel this far and wide'

A chat with Mandira Pattnaik about her book Where We Set Our Easel

'Where We Set Our Easel' is a micro collection of 11 prose pieces. The narrative follows the journey of working-class protagonists starting off as young people dreamy as in a Van Gogh painting, through economic odds, hardships, children and a battlefield accident which resulted in limb loss, trials in love, commitment phobia and regained bonding.

Firstly, what an awesome cover! How did the design come about?

Thank you so much, Sam! Happy to share a very interesting story behind how the design came about. The opening story of Where We Set Our Easel was written at a Flash Fiction Festival UK online workshop, for which I had won a free place. The prompt for a particular segment, and later a mini-contest, was the painting Café Terrace at Night by the Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. I’ve been an artist in my school years, and one of my better oil paintings was a sunflower field under bright sunshine. I remember it was drawn after I discovered van Gogh’s “Sunflower” series. It is still framed in my parent’s house. I was immediately enthralled by the prompt at the Flash Fiction Festival, particularly the midnight blue shade—rich, royal, glorious. My story, written in a rush with all the bareness expected of first drafts, did not win the contest. But after one round of edits, it found placement in the very next place it was submitted. It appeared in the Canadian publication Commuter Lit titled “Where We Set Our Easel” on April 8, 2022. The idea of a couple walking into a painting had already germinated, and it was just a matter of time that I’d take it further. When the publisher (Jeff) asked me if I had any particular preference for the cover design, I told him the same sequence of events as I have recounted here. I am glad for the design that followed, Jeff personally creating the cover art! Jeff was absolutely spot-on on what I wished for.

Photo credit: Tommy Dean

Similarly, how the title come about?

As I just stated, the idea of placing a gorgeous, but intriguing, painting on an easel and allowing for a dreamy couple to walk into it, was fascinating to me because of the possibilities it generated. The seed story was already published in Commuter lit a year before. I later decided to rename the opening story and use the title for the entire novella. I believe it is evocative of a starting point full of potentialities. To me, this title, combined with the reading of the opening story, will suggest a lot many different paths, each with a range of outcomes, akin to what walking into a frame will possibly generate. Readers have pointed out they felt exactly the same, curious enough to learn what transpires beyond the framework where I’ve set the easel!

How would you describe the form of ‘Where We Set Our Easel’? A short story collection or a novella-in-flash? Some of the stories also seem like prose poems, although there’s a definite link between them. Or perhaps you prefer not to define it at all?

I do not envy the publisher’s position to be compelled to categorize a book to the nearest it belongs to and I am glad I did not have to choose. It is delicious to know that a book could belong to the shelf of short-story collections, novellas-in-flash, and even a hybrid genre. In fact, it is honestly flattering. Novella-in-Flash seemed to be the easiest category at that time because after the title story, I already had the outline of how this book would progress, the guiding force was to have the arc and timeline of a novel. Where We Set Our Easel was to follow the characters through a lifetime’s journey and satisfy the reader in its resolution, and yet shrink itself to within thirty pages. I definitely wanted readers to have window enough just to peep into the characters’ lives and yet to know a lot about them and their choices.

On the subject of form, did you ever consider writing ‘Where We Set Our Easel’ as a novel?

Thanks, that is such a kind proposition, but I am afraid I never thought of Where We Set Our Easel as a novel and think it is best as it is. The characters have lived in my mind, told me their stories and moved on. A year on, they tell me they are good where they are, and that I should not pull and push them anymore or draw from their lives any further!

Photo credit: Jenny Wong

Some of the pieces have been published separately. Would they all work as separate pieces or do you think some of them rely on juxtaposition? In a similar vein, I’m also interested in how you decided on the structure of the pieces in the book?

Yes, four of its eleven pieces appeared elsewhere before being part of the novella. Before I embarked on this project, I had the opportunity to read a few novellas-in-flash. Again, that was due to the generosity of Jude Higgins who sent me a few books learning of my desire to study the form. To my understanding, the novella-in-nlash form does rely on juxtaposition, but again, as individual pieces they stand equally well, given the flash form itself relies on several things left unsaid within the narrative. I believe the beauty of flash fiction originates from that very source. As for the structure of the individual pieces, I did not have a preconceived idea about how they should look like. I aimed to play with the form and make things as innovative as possible.

The short format book is very much in vogue at the moment – novellas-in-flash, flash collections, etc. I wonder if you have a view on why this is, and if this will continue as the future of fiction?

You’re right that the short format chapter-book is in vogue, and to my understanding, small presses will continue to support them, as will readers. They are pocket-friendly and allows for a short one-sitting reading pleasure. However, the charm of the long form books still continues. Novels and novellas will co-exist.

How long did it take to write the collection? When were the first and final pieces written?

It took me about a month. I started writing the novella after I discovered Stanchion’s open call and had to submit it before the call ended so it was less than a month. The first piece was already there though, and the narrative arc was brewing in my mind for some time.

How did you choose your publisher – or did they choose you?

Stanchion Books is the publisher of Where We Set Our Easel. Jeff had been publishing beautiful print magazines, and for some time, they had plans to start a press. Around the same time, I was looking to transition from publishing in literary magazines to having a book of my own. I had had a digital poetry chapbook published, but print is quite different, and when I found that Stanchion was asking for submissions, I jumped at the idea. This manuscript was a start-to-finish project, and luckily, I completed the manuscript before the open call ended and received an acceptance soon after.

Photo credit: M.R. Mandell

Can you imagine the book working in a televised or movie format, and who can you envisage in the main roles if so? Would you be interested in writing the script if this was a possibility?

Oh, even the thought is so exciting! Thank you! Not a full-length movie perhaps, but the book might definitely work as a short-film. Indeed, when I now think of it, because of its time jumps and pointed focus, it might also work as a series, but does it have enough drama? I am unsure of that! Therefore, a short film, or a ‘festival’ film. I’d love for it to spread the underlying message, and its issue-and-theme-based offering --- that can be my best bet. If such a possibility arose, I would love a professional scriptwriter to do justice to my vision, and engage actors the directors find promise with.

How is Where We Set Our Easel different or similar to what you’ve written before?

Where We Set Our Easel is different from my earlier chap-length books because it is my debut novella. If one discounts its brevity, one will discover a whole narrative arc that bridges the lifespans of the couple at the centre of the story. So, in that sense, it was an ambitious idea to take up. Secondly, it is the only one I wrote start to finish, treating it as a writing project (the others are collections of poems/stories, with several of them previously published in various literary magazines).

The first story meditates on a van Gogh painting. I’ve just finished reading Fiona Benson’s poetry collection ‘Bright Travellers’ that has several poems about van Gogh, and obviously he and his work appear in many other texts! What is about van Gogh, do you think, that continues to make him so fascinating to other artists?

I am not sure I can add anything to this. I am hardly equipped to comment! The paintings are certainly timeless and have a quality about them that inspires other art forms, and I am sure will continue to do so for many centuries yet.

van Gogh's 'Starry Night'

There are a lot of birds in the book. Can you say anything about how you use birds as a symbol in your work? I wondered if they are a symbol for the themes of displacement and leaving (children and lovers)?

I live in a place that was once a wetland reclaimed into a residential independent township. Thankfully, some of the waterbodies and most of the trees were spared in the development of the housing, which were later converted into parks and public spaces. What emerged out of this is that even forty-or fifty years post the reclamation, there are lots and lots of birds, both local and migratory around our homes. I should think waking up to bird calls and cohabitating with avians has much to do with my use of birds in many of stories. Birds symbolize hope and freedom, and of course, a flight could mean a new beginning; a nest is often compared to a home (empty nest, and so on). Less commonly, they also symbolize prosperity, peace, and joy. As you point out, some bird species, because of their habits and migratory nature, also stand for displacement and detachment. Some others can also symbolize traits such as intelligence, strength, and courage. Birds, I reckon, are pretty versatile symbols.

‘They were distinct from their parents’ the narrator says in ‘How to Play Hide and Seek with Fledglings’. I was struck by the theme, not quite of loss but more of recognising yourself as unique from your parents and equally of their uniqueness from you, that seems to unite many of the stories. Could you some any more about this?

Thank you so much for your close reading, Sam. I am glad you unearthed the theme accurately. A quote attributed to the late anthropologist Margaret Mead says, “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else,” and another by the same thinker is, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.” To me, they both are reminders of who we are born as and who we become, in many ways distinct from our parents and in many ways similar to them. The contrast and similarity can be traced back not just to parents but to our grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even to our cousins. This thought line is both intriguing and fascinating to me. You’ll hear things said within the family like: “There’re no actors in our lineage, yet so-and-so can mimic really well and he tells such great new jokes at our family gatherings.” Or something like, “your daughter paints just like my late mother-in-law.” It is a thought-provoking reminder of our individuality, which is an amalgamation of both our uniqueness and our genes. I believe the analogy drawing upon the bird/bird feathers, tries to capture the paradoxical nature of being both unique and similar to others.

Photo credit: Andrea Lawler

What has been your favourite reaction to the book?

I have a photo gallery made at my author website which is composed of photographs shared by readers placing Where We Set Our Easel in their homes around the world. In that gallery, there are photographs of the book in a park in the USA, in a neighbourhood café in Canada, against the sun-washed brick lined walls of a house in Italy, on someone’s doorstep in New Zealand and so on. Those photographs are my favourite reaction to the book because I did not expect the book to travel this far and wide. Even now, when it is around ten months since publication, friends alert me to new outlets that are stocking the book and shipping to all parts of the world, even in China and Japan. It has been a dream!

Have any of the reactions to the book surprised you? Perhaps people have seen things in it that you hadn’t seen yourself?

Oh, that’s such an interesting question, Sam. Thank you! In fact, the majority of the reactions to the book have surprised me. For example, many readers are describing the book as a book of love or romance, and I am intrigued, because though at the core there’s the story of a couple, I did not intend to present the book as a typical ‘love story,’ more so because there’s bitterness and divorce, and no happy ending per se. I thought it was a book of working-class struggles and the joys of small things! Also, people have seen the book as ‘metaphorical’ and ‘lyrical’, which again has surpassed my expectations and I am glad they chose to highlight that aspect because it is my natural writing style.

What are you working on now?

Literary flash fiction has occupied the majority of my work so far, though I have also published poetry and short stories, besides essays and speculative work. I made a conscious decision to work on longer fiction in 2024 as a diversion and that’s what I am doing now. I am discovering, to my endless pleasure, that one can do almost anything when not constrained by the tight, distilled format of flash fiction.

Buy Where We Set Our Easel here:

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