Stephen P. Huyler Author Interview
Is Porter Lee based on you?
Yes. I’ve often been told to write what I know best. In many ways, Porter is my character– although many of his adventures in India and the mystery itself are fiction. Evelyn, Porter’s wife, is clearly based upon Helene.
How did you fall in love with India?
Even as a child I was fascinated with the lore of India, with its mystique. Much of my life has been spent learning its reality, the truth behind the legend. When I was just 18 years old, I was invited to travel to India by well-known American artist Beatrice Wood, the so-called ‘Mama of Dada’. I began preparing for that trip by taking university courses from a variety of departments. I was immediately spellbound by the subject and my desire to learn about India transformed me from a mediocre to a straight-A student. I traveled there with Beatrice when I was 20. Her close friendships with remarkable Indian women opened doors for me that might otherwise have taken me years to develop. Through these connections I traveled by myself over a nine-month period and stayed in homes wherever I chose to visit throughout the Indian subcontinent. The warm generosity of my Indian hosts instilled my first love affair with India. Helene joined me for part of that first trip in 1971 and we were engaged there in Madras (now Chennai.)
Do you have any favorite part of India that you enjoy more than the rest? Do you call one city or region home there?
No. I can honestly say that I like different regions and communities in India equally, but for different reasons. I am fascinated by the geographical and cultural diversity of South Asia and I chose when I was just 20 years old to travel there by profession – to spend my life conducting a cross-cultural survey. At this time I honestly believe I have traveled in India more extensively than any other foreigner: several months of travel each year for 44 years. Although I have spent months in many different cities and villages in India, none has ever been “home.” I am a born traveler.
The regions that I know best are Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, although I have also traveled extensively in eight other Indian states.
What can you tell us about the next Masala Mystery?
In each Masala Mystery, Porter Lee and his cohorts Carrie and Babu will lead a tour of a different region of India. Each will be themed and in each an intriguing mystery will drive the plot. “A Question of Hue,” the first Masala Mystery, is based on an arts and crafts tour of Rajasthan in which Porter and his friends uncover a crime syndicate of art forgeries. Abductions, injuries and murders ensue.
The second Masala Mystery will be set in a textile tour of Gujarat focusing on women’s crafts cooperatives and creative sustainability. The plot contrasts NGO’s and non-profits that truly encourage women’s self-empowerment to corrupt organizations whose motives are self-serving. The book will enable us to discuss the powerful women we have known in India, some who have succeeded against all odds and others who have been destroyed because of their challenge to male authority.
How do you work with your wife, Helene?
Helene has a remarkably creative mind and is a superb storyteller. We have traveled together extensively in India for 44 years. Her eye for detail and character is unexcelled. We have had so much fun inventing our plots and the characters of this first novel together. In the early months of the project, we would flesh out a chapter verbally and then I would go to my office and write several pages, bringing them back for her to edit and transform. But then she began joining me at my computer, sitting alongside me while together we wrote each sentence and paragraph. It amazes us, but we can honestly say that in the two years of writing this first book, we never had any serious arguments about it, no squabbles, crabbiness, ego-posturing, or sulks. We thoroughly enjoyed writing it together and are excited about continuing the process in upcoming novels.
What made you switch to fiction writing?
I’ve always wanted to write fiction. I began writing when I was in 2nd grade and have always loved the process. When I first traveled to India, I wanted to document the cultures I was seeing. I found that much of the published material available in the West about India was inaccurate and misleading. I decided to spend my life trying to build a bridge of understanding between India and the outside world and it was natural for me to use writing as a primary platform. For decades I immersed myself in the cultures of India and attempted to convey through my writing the viewpoint of the people I was meeting: how they wanted their country portrayed.
Two years ago I had an epiphany: I realized that good fiction might enable me to reach a completely different demographic. Helene and I have always enjoyed reading good fiction and good mysteries. It was natural to ask her to join me in this endeavor.
Does the vivid detail in your writing come from your photography?
Helene and I have always been very visual and observant. I began my travels in India as a writer and field researcher, but the more I traveled, the more I realized that there was no visual record of what I was seeing. So I began to take a camera and to photograph everything I saw. I have an artistic eye and with practice became a good photographer. In consequence my non-fiction books and my many museum exhibitions were richly illustrated with my images. By this time I have more than 250,000 edited photographs of India, many of them entirely unique. But the world has entered a digital age when tens (perhaps hundreds) of millions of Indians have smart phones and are taking photographs of everything. In consequence, there is no longer any need for me to make a visual archive.
Our writing is by nature very visual. It has been said that God is in the details. Helene and I love building the characters of individuals and environments through very specific descriptions. We hope that our writing will evoke compelling images of India.
Do you have a writing ritual? Describe your writing process.
We discuss plot and character development almost all the time. It is great fun! We write in spurts or in series of dedicated days. When writing, I get up early and read through the previous day’s pages over my morning tea, making notes and alterations. If the chapter requires research or reference to notes, I put that together myself and flesh it out. Early in the afternoon, I begin plugging in those changes and show the new work to Helene. She then joins me at the computer, sitting alongside me as I type up the next section of our collaborative manuscript, both of us offering up ideas and phrasing. Sometimes one of us will take the lead and suggest an entire paragraph. At other times we literally write each sentence together. We usually work until 7:30 or 8pm when we break to make dinner.
Stephen P. Huyler Bio
Stephen P. Huyler is an art historian, cultural anthropologist, photographer and author conducting a lifelong survey of the India’s sacred art and crafts and their meanings within rural societies. He has spent an average of four months each year during the last forty-four years traveling in Indian villages documenting craftsmanship and contemporary traditions.
Huyler has served as a consultant and/or guest curator for more than twenty-five museum exhibitions of Indian art, including shows at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, the American Museum of Natural History, the Museum of International Folk Art (Santa Fe), the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Mingei International Museum (San Diego).
Huyler is acknowledged as one of the leading documentary photographers of India and his image archive is recognized as one of the most extensive and valuable in existence. He has had many solo exhibitions of his images at such venues as the Smithsonian, the Asian Art Museum (San Francisco), the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the Kodak Center for Creative Imaging.
A prolific author, he has published six books: Village India Abrams (1984), Painted Prayers: Women’s Art in Village India Rizzoli (1994), Gifts of Earth: Terracottas and Clay Sculptures of India Mapin (1996) and Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion Yale University Press, (1999). Daughters of India: Art and Identity Abbeville (2008), and Sonabai: Another Way of Seeing Mapin (2009).
Dr. Huyler lives in Camden, Maine, although he spends several months each winter in India and during the rest of the year frequently travels to lecture in universities and museums in the U.S. and the U.K.