Tigers, elephants and aliens at BookPeople: The strange, magical love stories ofauthor Rajesh Parameswaran
A tiger in love with his zoo keeper, a newlywed executioner whose wife despises him, an elephant writing her memoir, and a sentient insect creature in the Andromeda Galaxy trying to raise a rebellious daughter . . . these are some of the minds and lives explored in the short story collection I Am an Executioner: Love Stories by the India-born, Texas-raised writer Rajesh Parameswaran.
On Monday, Parameswaran makes a visit to Austin for a reading at BookPeople.
Though many contemporary writers find their training ground in graduate creative writing, MFA programs, Parameswaran took a slightly different path to becoming a writer — law school. Yet he thinks he found some of the tools creative writing programs can give another way.
“I saw that there were other people around me in law school or in that world who were also writing fiction," he says. "It felt very compatible."
“I had good friends from college who were excellent readers. I felt like I had a community of people from whom I could get feedback, so I really didn’t feel like I was missing something and I didn’t feel the need to get an MFA,” he tells CultureMap.
While he was interested in writing before entering law school, it was there that he became more serious about writing fiction. When I ask him if it was a strange jump from the law to writing stories, Parameswaran gives an intriguing peek into what might be a hidden American subculture, story-writing lawyers.
“I saw that there were other people around me in law school or in that world who were also writing fiction," he says. "It felt very compatible. It didn’t feel like they were necessarily contradictory. After law school I clerked for a judge in (New York), and I was doing law related freelance writing while also writing fiction.”
Elaborating on the connection between fiction writing and studying and practicing law, Parameswaran says, “It seems in way natural because they are both very writing intensive endeavors and a lot of people who are good writers, when they are trying to find a useful path in life, will naturally gravitate to law school because there’s so much writing involved.”
He continues, “If I take a step back, I can see some of the same themes I was interested in as a law student are some of the themes I see cropping up in my fiction, so there is a continuity in that way.” And what are those themes and issues that stayed with him from law school into fiction writing? “Identity, community, and race.”
He also feels law school taught him to be a very precise, meticulous, and thoughtful writer. Yet, to be a good fiction writer “you have to let go of that restraint, you have to let go of that control, if you want to write creatively.”
Tales That Count
The stories in I Am an Executioner illustrate that use of precision and the control of the language to produce worlds of unrestrained creativity. The first story in the book, “The Infamous Bengal Ming,” is narrated by a tiger who manages to transcend his zoo captivity both spiritually, and then literally, because of his love for his human keeper.
In the last story, “On the Banks of the Table River (Planet Lucina, Andromeda Galaxy, AD 2319)” a loving but bewildered insectoid undertaker attempts to understand his sullen teen daughter. These two stories provide a frame for a collection that explores the dark and comic nature of relationships and the power love has to both destroy and create.
"I just started with the premise what would happen if a tiger fell in love with a zoo keeper? And then it was just a matter of following the logic of that premise step by step."
Parameswaran wrote the stories over several years and at the time didn’t have one, coherent theme or idea in mind. “I was trying to approach each story on its own terms . . ." he says. "I was more interested in exploring and trying new things and finding out what I could do with fiction.”
Later, when placed together, he found the stories did have some similar thematic “threads” running through them. They all are in one way or another about different kinds of love or relationships. He believes the juxtaposition of the book’s title, I Am an Executioner and its subtitle Love Stories capture both the darker side of some of the stories along with the “irony and humor found in the collection.”
“The Infamous Bengal Ming” is again a good illustration of how all these varying themes of love and the variety of tones work together in the book. The story is both very dark and yet very funny, and Parameswaran’s description of how he went about creating the mind of a philosophical, smitten tiger is almost as amusing. He says, “I feel like in many ways it’s a very straight forward story . . .
"I just started with the premise what would happen if a tiger fell in love with a zoo keeper? And then it was just a matter of following the logic of that premise step by step. Logically what would follow from that? Well, he would want to express his love and then how would he do that?
"It felt like a very logical story in some ways.”
Recently Parameswaran has simplified his life so he can devote more time to writing. He has also moved from short stories to a new novel. Though he is a little superstitious about giving many details of a work in progress, he does say the novel will tell the story of “a community of outcasts who process a city’s garbage.”
If the worlds of I Am an Executioner are any indication, this Texan has many stories yet to tell readers.