Meet Shiva Kumar
Debut novelist, Shiva Kumar, a Manhasset resident, grew up in a traditional Tamil family, where the epics, mythologies, and fables of Hindu life enveloped him like the humid dawn of a steamy Madras day. As a teenager in America, Kumar absorbed the sci-fi classics of Le Guin, Herbert, Heinlein, Asimov, Zelazny, Donaldson, and Tolkien but it took four decades before he would revisit the stories of his childhood from a science fiction perspective. Kumar has been a filmmaker for over three decades and his work has been broadcast on PBS, ABC, BBC, Canal Plus and other networks worldwide. As an actor, Kumar has appeared on numerous TV shows including Quantico, Madame Secretary, Law & Order, SVU, All the Queen’s Men, Uncoupled, Billions and Succession.
You have an extensive career in film and television both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. What prompted you to take those talents to the next level and become an author?
If I have to be honest, I think writing chose me. Unlike making films or even acting in one, writing is a solo effort. To some it seems daunting and lonely, and that it sure is, but it’s also incredibly empowering. You can create entire worlds, characters, stories, and move the chess pieces as you see fit. In 2015 I was diagnosed with an illness that had the potential of being quite serious. Recognizing the possibility of my demise made me take stock of my life and ask if there was something that I needed to do before it was too late. From childhood I had loved the great epics of India and I knew I wanted to find a way to make it relevant and exciting for a new generation of people who often viewed these stories as musty old tomes steeped in traditional values, forgotten rituals and fraught with religious mumbo-jumbo.
What inspired you to write in the fantasy/sci-fi genre?
I came from India to America when I was 14 yrs. old. I devoured comics, pulp fiction and fantastic stories. I saw a natural progression from those old epics of India to the Lord of the Rings, Tarzan of the Apes, John Carter of Mars, Conan the Cimmerian, Elric of Melnibone and countless other fantasy stories I absorbed in my teenage years. Thor and Wonder Woman are popular comic characters that originated in Norse and Greek mythology. Neil Gaiman with his Sandman comics and American Gods explored ways to make ancient gods and aspects of our subconscious relevant to our lives today. I am hoping to tread similar ground with my Lanka Chronicles trilogy. For me science fiction and fantasy are ideal vehicles to explore the human condition. And in the end, regardless of genre trappings, a story that explores human experiences will always connect with an audience.
The Ramayana - Via The British Library
Your debut novel, An Awakening – Book 1 – The Lanka Chronicles, is a retelling of the ancient story, The Ramayana. Where did the motivation come from to reimagine this particular story?
Many of the ancient legends across all our many cultures are filled with great (almost exclusively male) heroes who go on fantastic quests, face incredible odds, and perform superhuman feats but the collateral damage they leave behind is often staggering. Countless thousands die on the battlefield, pining wives wait in vain, daughters are sacrificed to the gods, unearthly demigoddesses are bedded and so on. I wondered, if those heroes lived to become older men, would not the guilt of what they did haunt them? Would they not want to atone for their many misdeeds? As I was navigating my own illness, I realized I wanted to tell the story of The Ramayana from the point of view of the hero as an older man who wants to atone for his sins.
Please share a brief synopsis of An Awakening.
An Awakening- book 1 of The Lanka Chronicles -starts in the year 2294 A.D. with our protagonist Dharma in his sixties, haunted, weary, and sick with a terminal disease he refuses to treat. Dharma is the Prime Minister of the New India Federation of Planets, the leading federation in the Galactic Union and his brother Loki is his defense minister. Amid several political insurgencies and rebellions, Dharma receives a secret coded message from an apparently dead planet depicting an epic battle he fought against demon hordes on a planet called Lanka over 30 years ago. It was also the place he lost his wife, Arya those many years ago.
While he has no waking memory of this time, he is disturbed by bad dreams and haunted by fragmented memories of the things he had done during that war. Dharma recognizes the message as a sign. To the Galactic Union’s shock, he resigns as Prime Minister of New India and with his brother Loki, embarks on an epic journey, on a sentient spaceship Maya 1, back to the cloaked planet, Lanka where he will finally confront his past.
Maya 1, the sentient spaceship is aware that somehow, her future is inextricably linked with Dharma’s and sees this voyage as a revelation of her own destiny. During the flight, Maya, looking for a way to plot a course to the uncharted planet, probes Dharma’s dreams and realizes that his memory has been blocked. She slowly unravels the seal, learning about his childhood, his youth, his first meeting with the beautiful and capable Arya, their subsequent romance, and the fateful political machinations by his stepmother, sentencing him to exile for 5 years to the outer uncharted planets of the Union. Dharma’s locked memories reveal that 30 years earlier, accompanied by Loki and Arya, he had journeyed out of Union airspace, following cryptic clues left by his grandfather, Aja. The clues reveal a similar passage, a century earlier, of an eccentric and brilliant geneticist, Farhad Iraivan and 200 of his followers who had stolen a spaceship and disappeared without a trace. Dharma, Arya, and Loki, following the clues, pass through peculiar space doors and crash onto a mysterious planet in an unknown galaxy that looks very much like old Earth.
How did the idea to set your story in space, with a futuristic twist, evolve?
You used the right word, - Evolve. It evolved. Given where we are as a species today, I tried to extrapolate as to where we might be if we continue in the same manner as we have for so long. Our resources are dwindling, our climate is becoming unpredictable, our food sources are disappearing, and our population is growing. Soon we will have nowhere to go except up and out. The low-lying areas of the world, including all South Asia are particularly susceptible to climate change and may very well be under water in the next few decades. Also, India is known as a hub of AI development, computer technology and an efficient and low-cost space program. If there was any country that needs to find a way to develop space craft that could colonize the Moon or Mars, India would be a major contender. Once I had worked that out, I needed to chart out the multi-generational saga timeline starting with our hero’s grandfather and working to our hero. Our hero’s grandfather, Aja Raghav, the founder of the Indian space program successfully launches the first rockets to colonize planets around 2167 A.D. The bulk of the story takes place around 2294 A.D.
Readers will undoubtedly connect with your hero, Dharma, who looks back on his life with regrets. What other aspects of your story do you hope readers will relate to?
There is a powerful spiritual component to the story. Our hero Dharma represents the empirical, scientific, and rational 23rd century man of reason. He sees colonizing and terraforming planets as a logical way to help mankind expand beyond the confines of a depleted Earth. His wife Arya believes that the universe in not an accident, but a purposeful creation and that colonizing and terraforming planets is essentially raping and pillaging them, repeating the cycle of violence mankind has perpetuated on Earth and on their own kind. But until they crash on the planet Lanka, this discussion is largely theoretical. Once on Lanka they discover celestial forces far beyond their understanding. But that is a discussion for Book 2.
An Awakening is told from the POV of Maya 1, who isn’t a traditional humanoid character or creature, but a sentient starship. That’s intriguing and different. How did this character develop and what made you decide to stray from the classic character trope?
The Ramayana is a very long epic poem. It is told from an omniscient point of view. In keeping with modern storytelling conventions, I needed to tell the saga from a very close 1st person point of view. But there was so much background information that needed to be conveyed. Maya being A.I., has the ability to go into Dharma’s and Loki’s dreams, piece together missing bits of information from her data banks and present a fuller picture than any one character could provide. But Maya is not just a convention to propel the narrative. Her own destiny is a significant part of the story. She is aware that her quest is tied to Dharma’s journey for atonement. Maya 1 is the first of her kind, a sentient spaceship who wants to understand her ultimate purpose.
An Awakening is part 1 of a planned trilogy. Have you drafted books two and three or outlined them, at least in your head? Do the subsequent books in the series have titles yet, and if so, can you share them here?
All three are written. Books 2 and 3 are in draft form. Starting in 2015 I had laid out the entire arc of the three books. Book one is called ‘An Awakening’. Book two is called ‘A New Reality’, and book three is called “Path of Destiny’.
The Awakening blends mythology with advanced technology and quantum physics. What amount of research did you engage in to bring an air of authenticity to the new adaptation and characters, while keeping The Ramayana as an anchor for The Awakening? Did you slip in any features of the original?
I have great love and reverence for the original text and its many variations. I wanted to pay homage to the Ramayana while approaching it from a 21st century perspective. Archetypal mythologies continue to resonate because each time they're told, the politics, economics, culture, and spirituality at the time of their dissemination, informs the re-telling. I hope those who are familiar with the original text will recognize all the major beats of the story that I have kept intact but approached it from a modern psychological perspective. I am attempting to find the place where science and spirituality meet, and quantum physics can be interpreted from both a scientific and a spiritual perspective. I tried to find plausible explanations for events and occurrences that might otherwise seem like magic. Dharma and his brother Loki are men of reason and science and do not accept spiritual explanations. Arya on the other hand believes there is more to the universe than science can explain and as time passes, she becomes a conduit for some of these unexplained occurrences.
For any writer, Google is our friend, but did you seek out any other research to interpose modern technology and physics into the story? If so, how did you determine which technological jargon to include and which to mention with a quick weave into the story?
I went back to many different versions of The Ramayana. There is the Valmiki version, which as far as we know is the original and written around 1500 BC. Another popular version, The Tulsidas Ramayana was written around the 15th century. What changed from the original version is the divinity of the main characters. Valmiki’s Ramayana considered the characters human beings. By the time you get to Tulsidas they were seen as divine beings. There are also many regional versions of the story. Depending on the region and their specific culture, the characters morphed to represent those traditions. I tried to take all of that into account and imagined the story in a 23rd century, galaxy spanning, technologically advanced human civilization.
As far back as we can go with our stories, there have been countless depictions of other worlds, advanced civilizations, strange weapons, and alien beings. I read a wide range of sci-fi and fantasy stories but took the bulk of my inspiration from Frank Herbert’s Dune. I wanted the technology of my world to feel widely accepted, used, and integrated into everyday life. We don’t comment too much on the TV’s we watch, the cars we drive or the planes we fly. But despite all our technology, we are, by and large, a religious or spiritual race seeking answers to all the big questions. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we the only ones? Is there a god?
Debut authors often struggle with how to reach an audience and get their book out there. Becoming a successful indie author is a daunting process, but it also comes with many rewards and freedoms. What made you decide to take the indie author path as opposed to the traditional publishing route?
The reality of the publishing industry is sobering. There is so much being written by so many people every day that trying to find an agent, and then an editor, then a publishing house is quite daunting, especially if you are a debut author with an unfamiliar title. Also, most agents want reasonable certainty that they can sell your book to a publishing house. They all want the next whatever is the flavor of the month because they can sell that. Going indie is tough but it is organic and slow, and you build an audience who connect with your specific work. And who knows, if the first book is a success, agents will find you.
Did you hire a professional editor or company to assist? Did you seek out beta readers to get feedback about what was working or what wasn’t, ahead of publication?
I was so new to the world of writing that I knew very little about how to get a book properly written. I just wrote from a stream of consciousness till I had all three books written in one big tome. Then I separated them into 3 volumes and took a few online seminars on writing. I reworked my first book about a dozen times till it started taking some shape. I had a few friends read early drafts and make comments. I joined a writing group, and we reviewed each other’s works. Then I did hire an editor, which by the way I whole-heartedly recommend. We are too close to our work to edit it properly. An editor can see blind spots, personal biases, repetitions, sensitivity issues and so many other things we are blind to as we read our own work. After that, I reworked the book another 3 or 4 times and finally before it went to print, I hired a proofreader for small grammar, punctuation, and syntax issues.
Please tell us about your upcoming book signing.
I am having my first book launch at The Dolphin Bookshop in Port Washington on October 13th at 6:30pm. I will read one chapter from my book, take a bunch of questions, and sign a few books. There will be some wine and light refreshments. Should be lots of fun and I’m looking forward to it.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Any creative endeavor we undertake requires discipline. Making films is an all-consuming, creative, technical, and financial undertaking. Being an actor takes tremendous commitment, confidence, resilience, and humility. But being a writer is the hardest because unlike the other two, until you are ready to show your work and get feedback, you are toiling all alone. It is isolating and terrifying but as I said before also tremendously gratifying. You get to play God in your small world. You fall in love with your characters and after a while, it seems like they are writing themselves. Once you find their voice, they tell you what they want to be. There have been some 14-hour days where I have felt like a conduit for some divine energy that is pouring out through me and filling the screen with words. I can’t seem to write fast enough. That is what makes writing such a passionate art. But do it because you want to write, not to become famous or to make money, though if that happens, awesome! Write because it gives you joy.
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***Hope to see you at Shiva Kumar's book signing tomorrow evening, October 13th, 6:30 PM at The Dolphin Bookshop (See above for details)