Interview with Santanu Bhattacharya, winner of the Life Writing Prize 2021


Santanu Bhattacharya won the Life Writing Prize 2021 for The Nicer One, a piece about a chance encounter with a childhood classmate that sets off a series of difficult memories. Prize judge Frances Wilson said: “Understated and novelistic, this superb piece is a masterclass in the exploration of trauma.” 

In this interview, Santanu shares his thoughts about writing across different genres, how he waited a year after originally writing The Nicer One to come back to it, and how his writing journey began. 

How does it feel to win the Life Writing Prize?

Winning this prize has been such a shot in the arm. Earlier this year, I won a London Writers’ Award in the literary fiction category, and both wins have not only given me the confidence to think of myself as a writer, but also as someone who can attempt to write across different genres and subject matters. It’s important to me, as a writer, to know that I am able to tell the multitudes of stories that reside within me, and can find the right language for each of them.

Can you tell us a little about your winning piece, The Nicer One, how you came to write it, what the challenges were in writing it and why you chose to enter it into the Prize?

The Nicer One was a very impulsively written piece. I sat down on a Sunday afternoon and I was done with the first draft in less than an hour. A few days ago, I’d run into a schoolmate of mine. I was seeing him after two decades, and I found it difficult to reconcile between the person I am now and the person he knew. It was like we were both referring to a third person who’d ceased to exist. It brought back a lot of difficult memories from childhood, but also made me reflect on my journey from then until now. These weren’t things I didn’t know or hadn’t thought about, but writing about something helps to go into the depths of vulnerability that one otherwise doesn’t in everyday life. I felt relatively at peace while writing it. It was afterwards that I was hit by a wave of emotion that manifested itself in many ways. I had to put the piece aside and forget about it for over a year.

When I got to know about the Life Writing Prize, I thought of The Nicer One immediately. The Life Writing Prize is a rare platform that celebrates writing of personal experiences in a way that neither fiction nor essays allow for. It was the perfect fit for The Nicer One. But I had to edit first. What I’d written was angry and low on craft, and I had to tease out every strand of what I was trying to tell from a place of calm and reflection. I’m so happy it paid off.

Tell us about your writing; how long have you been writing for, why do you write?

I’ve been writing since childhood. I used to write essays. Then I had a blog in the early 2000s. That turned to short stories later. There was also a phase when I was journaling my travels. As you can see, it’s been the most trusted form in which I express myself. I’m an extrovert, but I still find it difficult to say verbally what I can say in writing. It opens up a whole different space. It makes me think in ways I otherwise wouldn’t. That’s also why I’m not a huge believer in social media as a form of expression. It’s too clipped. It doesn’t allow for nuance and craft.

Are you working on anything at the minute?

I’m deep into my literary fiction novel. I started writing it four years ago, though the idea was seeded a decade ago! I hope it will be a published book in bookstores some day!

Who are your writing inspirations?

So many! I grew up reading English and Bengali classics – Rabindranath Tagore, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay. There was also quite a bit of Tolstoy and Chekhov. Then in my early twenties, I turned to contemporary fiction, and a whole new world opened up. It was liberating to read modern day stories told with such finesse yet directness. Arundhati Roy, Chimamanda Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Mohsin Hamid, Teju Cole, Mohammed Hanif – these authors showed my generation that it was possible to tell stories of coloured people in the global south to a worldwide readership, that our lives and tales and cultures mattered, that we didn’t have to be so apologetic and over-compensatory for who we are and how we live. They’ve been my north star ever since.

Do you have any tips for budding life writers out there?

Oh dear, what do I know! I’d just say that you are your biggest cheerleader and worst critic. Believe that what you’re writing matters. Even if it’s been told a million times, only you can say it with your unique flair, language, structure, inflexions, humour. At the same time, push yourself to find your originality, mine feelings no one else has gone into before (and this includes joy and kindness and love, there’s a pressure on writers to only talk about the grim stuff).

And of course, writing is very hard work. It means finding yourself a routine and keeping to it, being brave enough to tear everything up and start afresh, work on endless drafts of the same piece. Don’t be scared to share your work, in whatever stage it might be. Submit to literary magazines, enter for competitions, send to friends. If you’re writing to be read, the sooner you can see what your writing does for others, the more empowered you will feel.

Santanu Bhattacharya grew up in India. He started his writing life with short stories. In 2012, he won the Chapter One Promotions Short Story Prize. In 2021, he won the London Writers Award and was selected for the Tin House Writers’ Workshop in Portland, USA. His work-in-progress novel was longlisted for the BPA First Novel Award 2020. His non-fiction essays have appeared in The Oxford Student, Feminism in India, and the book Revealing Indian Philanthropy (published by London School of Economics). Santanu has degrees in public policy from Oxford University and in engineering from National University of Singapore. He works as an education consultant and has previously worked with the United Nations, British Civil Service and Teach For India. After having lived in eight cities across three countries, Santanu now lives in north London. 

You can read The Nicer One in the Life Writing Prize 2021 booklet here