Lanternfish Press

Independent publishing in Philadelphia. Artisanal books for omnivorous readers.

Catching up with Vikram Paralkar, Author of The Afflictions

InterviewsAmanda Thomas

It has been two years since we published The Afflictions (time flies!), so we decided it was a good time to catch up with the author, Vikram Paralkar. 

For our readers who haven't met you yet, tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in Mumbai, and lived there until the age of 24. I moved to Philadelphia in 2005, and am currently a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Literature has been a passion for me since my teenage years, when the works of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov introduced me to the power of words and ideas. The Afflictions is my first book, and it was wonderful to publish it with Lanternfish Press back in 2014.

It's been two years since The Afflictions was published, what's new in your writing life since then?

I have completed a novel The Wounds of the Dead, the protagonist of which is a misanthropic surgeon in rural India who is asked to operate on the dead to return them to life. My literary agent is currently looking for a publisher for the novel. I have also written some short stories during this time, one of which features a series of episodes in which the Hindu deity Vishnu appears at various scenes of inequity in modern-day Mumbai.

We hear that The Afflictions is being translated into both Spanish and Italian! Tell us more about that.

Soon after The Afflictions was published by Lanternfish Press, it caught the attention (through an blog entry) of Diego D’Onofrio, the editor of La Bestia Equilatera, a fantastic publishing house in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They got a translator (Laura Wittner) to translate it into Spanish, and it was released in July 2016. Though my literary agent, I have also signed a contact with Bompiani, a prominent Italian press that has been the publisher of the late, great Umberto Eco. That manuscript will be released sometime within the next year.

Readers are always curious about how writers do their work. Tell us more about how you write. What's your process? Where do you get your inspiration?

The ‘Process’ question is easier to answer - I compose all my writing on my iMac, at my desk (No romance-of-pen-and-paper-in-a-pastoral-field for me!). Music plays a very important role in my editing process. I might pick a particular piece that (in my imagination) matches the literary “texture” that I’m trying to convey through my writing at that moment, and then I “weigh” the words against the music, and sculpt them accordingly.

The "Inspiration” question is much more difficult - both Calvino and Borges are obvious influences for The Afflictions, but, beyond that, what I write is a complicated amalgam of sources that I couldn’t tease out if I tried.

We've heard that you recently put out a scientific paper too (congrats!). Tell us more about your day job. How does your career intersect with your writing?

In my day job, I am a physician-scientist - a specialist in leukemia. I treat patients with acute and chronic leukemia, and I conduct research into the way in which normal blood cells develop, and how they sometimes turn cancerous. In April 2016, I published a research paper in the journal Molecular Cell dissecting how a class of RNAs known as “long noncoding RNAs” regulate genes. I find my research immensely enriching, because it involves asking fundamental questions about biology. In school, I used to be the kid who spent my summer vacations doing scientific experiments with the tools available to me - magnets, baking soda, potato batteries. Now, as an adult, a career in science allows me to ask questions about the world that no other human may ever have asked. It’s an immense privilege to have that opportunity. So far, my writing career has clearly been influenced by my medical training. For instance, ‘The Afflictions’ harnessed the idiom of the medical vignette to explore questions about identity, exile, language and desire. ‘The Wounds of the Dead’ is heavy with medical language and surgical detail. In some ways, literature has as its main subject the same thing as medicine - the human animal. The tools and approaches are different, but they seek to dissect the same beast.

Introducing Saul Rosembaum, illustrator for Other Worlds

InterviewsAmanda Thomas

Introducing Saul Rosenbaum, the artist behind our new coloring book Other Worlds.

Hi, Saul! You drew a super-fun coloring book, and we’d love to hear more about the inspirations behind it. First, what kind of stuff did you decide to draw for Other Worlds, and why?

Hi, everyone! The book has a space exploration theme. It also definitely slants towards a few of my other interests—like archaeology and the pulpy science fiction of the 1950s to the 1970s. Technically, the illustrations in Other Worlds had to be designed with coloring in mind: lots of repetition and simple patterns that weave in and out of each other. In one regard, it’s very easy coloring; in another, it’s almost like a puzzle, because things stop and start as they pass behind and through other things.

The inspirations for individual illustrations just developed during the mindless sketching stage. I like to draw rockets. I’d been drawing a lot of simple space scenes for Instagram around the time I started discussing the possibility of a book with Lanternfish Press. I wanted to make a book that adults could color by themselves or with their kids. Thematically, the book is a pretty good mix of silly kid stuff, silly adult stuff (not the rude kind—get your minds out of the gutter!), and mesmerizingly repetitive patterns.

What is your creative process like?

A. Everything starts with doodling and music. I look for some background music that sets a mood, and then I start roughly drawing every idea I can think of as fast as possible. (I use a Sharpie—you can’t get too fussy when you’re drawing in permanent ink!) At this stage it’s not about anything but capturing the idea, maybe some suggestions of big shapes. I think for Other Worlds I initially ended up with 87 separate ideas.

Once I’ve worn a few Sharpies down to nubs, I do some self-editing and mix and match my favorite bits of each piece to get a bit closer to composed illustrations. They’re still very rough, but shaping up into something like an idea.

I’ll usually clean up those roughs in magic blue pencil so I can show sketches to people (like my publisher). Experience has taught me that showing anything before the magic blue sketches is counterproductive. Then, all that’s left to do is everything. I usually like to work in ink, but I decided on day one of Other Worlds production that I wanted to work digitally.

How do you set up your workspace? What tools do you use? Tell us about your crazy new software and favorite media!

Well, I usually scan my approved pencil sketches and basically work on top of them. At some point after I block in the big shapes I discard the sketches and just keep working.

As I mentioned, I decided to do the Other Worlds artwork digitally—I wanted maximum flexibility to tweak, mash up, and repurpose as many of the bits and pieces as possible. I also really wanted the line weight to match on everything.

As far as hardware, I’m pretty happy drawing on my old (wired) Wacom tablet, but it took me a while to decide what software I wanted to draw in. Photoshop didn’t offer the flexibility I was looking for. Your lines there are only as smooth as you’re capable of pulling the pen. I knew that by the end of the book my linework would have improved, making the result disjointed. Illustrator was more flexible, but had the same potential issue with the quality of hand-drawn lines.

I briefly considered an app called Concepts for the iPad Pro but wasn’t sure I wanted to hang the whole project on a piece of hardware I’d just gotten, only a few days previously.

Ultimately, a little serendipity intervened. I was sitting at Indy Hall when I got a marketing email from Wacom, part of their Create More campaign. It was a series of profiles of happy, productive Wacom tablet users, one of whom was Brooke A. Allen. She drew a monster and created an animated gif that was fantastic. At the time, I didn’t recognize the software she was using, but I soon discovered it was Clip Studio Paint, designed by a Japanese company for creators of manga and other animation. It offered a lot of what the Adobe products offered, plus amazing stroke stabilization! I bought it the next morning, without even a trial run, and had finished the first illustration for the book by the end of the next day.

When I’m not working digitally, I like to use pens—markers, paint pens, pencils. I’m much more a pen-and-pencil kind of artist than a brush artist, though I do occasionally use some toothbrush spatter in my work. (There’s none of that in Other Worlds.)

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What did you keep in mind when creating illustrations specifically for other people to color?

We made a conscious decision to combine smaller and larger shapes in each piece. I tried to balance each piece so it would be visually interesting, and neither too simple nor too difficult. I’m aware that at least a few of the pages fall into the very difficult range. I’m pleased that a coloring book could be considered “difficult”! I also focused on making every inch of the book colorable, as much as possible.

Do you have a favorite illustration in Other Worlds?

I have two favorites: the ray guns (who doesn't love ray guns?) and the alien lab with the giant syringe. Both were fun to draw, and are even more fun to color!

Who are your influences?

I like so much! Cubist art, graffiti, calligraphy, single-panel comic strips. I would probably be an accountant if it weren’t for Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, Keith Haring, and Pablo Picasso.

I really just like shapes. I like how shape and color interact with each other, and I like how different people can look at the same shapes and colors and see vastly different things!

A Guinea Pig Special: Jeff Bridges's Sleeping Tapes

Katarina KapetanakisComment

Last Friday night I was a little under the weather. I had a very bad cold and I couldn’t sleep because I couldn’t breathe out of my nose. It was all kinds of awful.

So despite my best attempts at sleep, I was up until about 2:45 in the morning. I knew I wouldn’t be able to cover the bags I was certainly developing under my eyes with makeup the next morning. I prayed and bargained that, if I was made well within the next fifteen minutes, there was absolutely no way I would take the ability to breathe through my nose for granted ever again. (Even as I write this, I savor every breath of fresh air.)

It was around this point that I decided to try listening to Jeff Bridges’s sleep tapes. He’s currently hosting them on Squarespace, at a website aptly titled “Dreaming with Jeff,” which has the CD available for download: pay as you like, all proceeds to No Kid Hungry. It also allows you to stream the entire thing.  I was sick and sleep-deprived. I figured, why not? He’s knowledgeable about relaxation. He must be, it’s the Dude we’re talking about!  So I listened to the sleep tapes. And, for the fun of it, I turned on my phone’s recorder to record my reactions to the tapes.

What follows are my real-time, (mostly) unedited reactions to the tracks, one by one.

As usual, I’m not sorry.

Intro:

  • Alright, off to a good start. Very new-age.
  • Wait, what? He’s laughing. Why is he laughing?
  • Jeff Bridges is talking to me. How am I supposed to sleep if the great Jeff Bridges is addressing me?
  • “Everything implies everything else.” That is deeeep.
  • “I hope [the sleep tapes] inspire you to do some cool sleepin’.” Me too, Jeff. Me too.

Sleep Dream Wake Up:

  • Ok, what’s happening now? Murmuring I think?
  • Oh what–what the–what is going on?
  • “You need to sleep so you can dream.” I KNOW. I KNOW.
  • Is this a fever dream?
  • THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF JEFFS AROUND ME TELLING ME TO SLEEP. HELP ME.
  • JEFF IS THROAT SINGING “WAKE UP SLEEP” THIS IS HOW I DIE
  • Okay. Okay. Maybe this is getting . . . NO, NOPE, NOW THERE’S LAVA SOMEHOW???
  • Jeff Bridges is in my room and he’s probably going to kill me. I’m going to be Freddy Kruegered by the Dude.

Chimes for Dreams:

  • Oh, thank God. Calm. No more guttural noises or creepy chants.
  • This is nice, actually. I can get behind this. Can I sleep? Am I finally sleeping?
  • Am I . . .
  • No. No, I just sneezed and now I’m up and everything hurts.
  • My whole body hurts. Why. What did I do to deserve this.

Hummmmm:

  • He’s talking again. But it’s sweet. It’s the sweet, sweet voice of Jeff Bridges.
  • Oh, I’m in Egypt. I’m on the Nile. I’m on the Nile and I’m humming. No wait, Jeff Bridges is the one humming and we’re on the Nile.*
  • It’s not creepy after about ten seconds.
  • Wait. Are we at a playground now? Did you record this at a playground? Those are child noises. I can’t sleep to the sound of children yelling.

*I listened to this track again in the morning. It had nothing to do with the Nile. I don’t know why I said any of that.

Good Morning, Sweetheart:

  • Am I Jeff’s sweetheart now?  Yes, of course I’ll hum with–oh. Oh, it’s your wife, you weren’t talking to me.
  • I feel like I’m intruding on a private moment.
  • Jeff is talking about me. I’m the one trying to sleep.
  • Jeff’s wife is humming now.

See You at the Dreaming Tree:

  • Oh, it’s the kids again. I can’t believe you recorded playing children. Why. Babies are shrill.
  • I want to sleep I just want to sleep oh God why can’t I breathe?
  • “There’s a ghost in there, come see it.”  How about NO.
  • Jeff is playing with random school children now. I too am a children.
  • “I’ll see you in my dreams” strikes me as a creepy thing to say to a child.
  • I want to fly around the dream tree too.
  • What’s happening. Church bells? Kids are gone? The Ghost of Christmas Future is approaching. I’m scared. I don’t want to die. I can change. I won’t forget the lessons that the spirits have taught me and I will keep Christmas in my heart.

A Glass of Water:

  • Yes, I’m comfy. Thanks for caring, Jeff, old bean.
  • Thanks, I’d love some water. You’re my main man.
  • Oh, he’s gonna tell me a story now, isn’t he the greatest?

The Raven:

  • This is actually terrifying yet hypnotic. I read Poe’s poem earlier today; this is pretty trippy.
  • There was no plot in this bedtime story.

The Hen:

  • This entire track was just me laughing to myself.

Ikea:

  • “When I die . . .” No, Jeff, you can never die. You’re a national treasure.
  • Don’t spread your ashes in Ikea, Jeff.

The Sea:

  • This is nice.
  • “The sea is under the sky.” Correct. It is indeed under the sky.
  • “The door is red. I will be in the blue chair.” I’m waiting for Jeff to come to my sea cottage.
  • I just sneezed so bad, the Dude must be displeased with me.
  • Sniffle sniffle.

Temescal Canyon:

  • I’m finally staring at the pictures on the website. The scarab is staring into my soul. I am afraid.
  • I’m in the woods, walking with Jeff. I’m actually visualizing this, it’s working. I CAN SMELL THE WOODS DESPITE MY LACK OF NOSE.
  • It’s all so real.
  • Another hiker? No, Jeff, don’t wave to him. Ugh. I don’t care if his name is Neil.
  • There’s a puppy? Can we keep him?
  • Wait. Why is there an office chair in the middle of the woods? Don’t go check it out. It’s obviously a trap.
  • You kept the chair and lost the dog.
  • What a fever dream, best time ever. I want to pretend everything you want.
  • I am sitting in an office chair by a stream. Bless you.
  • Wait there’s a copter? Why is there a helicopter in the woods, is that the president?
  • Thanks, Obama.
  • What if this is “Deliverance”?
  • Jeff, I can’t hang-glide, I’m not physically fit enough. Please.
  • I’m not going to wave to Neil if you made me get on a hang-glider.

Feeling Good:

  • I’m so exhausted, that was quite a hike.
  • I feel so beautiful but also so ugly.
  • Jeff Bridges likes my haircut and thinks I’m intelligent. I matter to many people. I am accepted.
  • I have what hands? Strong hands? What?
  • I can carve a wood table yeah that’s right
  • I am a positive addition to the world.
  • Damn right I smell nice.
  • I order well at restaurants.
  • Obviously everyone wants to hear me sing happy birthday, I have golden pipes
  • I feel oddly tingly and happy. Jeff Bridges may not know me but he’s helping me love myself and for that I love Jeff Bridges.

Seeing with My Eyes Closed:

  • I’m on an emotional high. I’m also exhausted.
  • ——
  • I was almost ASLEEP UGH
  • Are we witnessing a close encounter?
  • Jeff is a philosopher of the highest caliber.
  • What is happening, Jeff? Is this flatland? I swear to God.

Goodnight:

I actually fell asleep at this point.

So I suppose these sleeping tapes actually work. I did indeed dream excellent dreams, and although I awoke the next day with a sore throat and a stuffy nose, I nevertheless felt rested. Thanks, Jeff Bridges. Thanks.

Don't miss WHYY's interview with Vikram Paralkar!

Christine NeuliebComment

Recently Vikram Paralkar, author of The Afflictions, visited The Pulse to chat with Peter Crimmins about the inspirations behind his strange and haunting fictional encyclopedia of medicine:

In his day job as an oncologist, Paralkar, the scientist, realizes that disease does not make ethical sense, nor theological, nor moral sense.

“It’s intrinsic to people that we find a moral purpose to things,” said Paralkar. “Especially with cancer, people ask – why did this happen to me? The answer is because cells divide and sometimes they make mistakes. That answer is immensely unsatisfying. It’s just the way we are programmed, we try to find reasons and patterns.”

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Head over to WHYY public radio and give it a listen!

Mistletoe, Holly, and Holiday Reads: Childhood Nostalgia Edition

Katarina KapetanakisComment

It’s the most wonderful time of the year again! Decorative lights illuminate the glowing shop windows, the air is sharp and cold, and there is so much peppermint in your food and holiday beverages that you might as well inject it intravenously. Houses start to smell like pine trees (or potato pancakes), people singing on street corners becomes pleasant instead of unsettling, and small children come to your house and beg for candy. I mean presents.

In all seriousness, this is one of my favorite times of the year, and along with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, my favorite thing about this season is that beloved books from childhood once again make their way off the shelf and into my arms. To read, of course. Not to cuddle. (Well . . . I mean, sometimes it’s nice to cuddle . . . never mind.)

I’ve compiled my list of some favorites, and by that I mean I had Donny do some shopping at the bookstore for me and I picked the ones I liked best. Thanks Donny, I’ll reimburse you later. (He’s not getting reimbursed.)

1. The Tailor of Gloucester (Beatrix Potter)

The author of “Peter Rabbit” never disappoints. An elderly tailor is commissioned to finish a waistcoat for a man of great importance, and it has to be ready by Christmas, which is the next day. The tailor sends his faithful cat, Simpkin, to go buy the twist of cherry-colored silk needed for the trimming, as well as some dinner. While Simpkin the cat goes off into the streets of Gloucester to buy the twist, the Tailor finds some mice under a tea cup that the cat had captured earlier, as cats do, and he releases them. When Simpkin returns and finds his mice have escaped with help from the Tailor, he hides the twist. For revenge. (Speaking from experience, this is pretty realistic. My cat hides my stuff all the time when she’s miffed.)

I won’t tell you the rest. (Spoilers!) But it’s a charming story that has entertained me for years, and the fact that it’s written for children shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this beautifully told and illustrated story. What are the holidays for, if not nostalgia?

2. Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King (William Joyce)

This is the first book in the Guardians of Childhood series, written by William Joyce, who’s also the man behind a few of your favorite animated movies. This series inspired the Dreamworks film Rise of the Guardians, although the movie differs from the book in several ways.

In this first book, Nicholas St. North, a young rogue with a heavy Russian accent and two very kick-ass swords, is called upon to defend a secret and magical colony of children from the Nightmare King. That’s not a detailed summary, I know, but this is a great book and I want you all to go out and read it. Your kids will love it. Don’t have kids? Pretend you do when you buy the book, then read it at home in your favorite armchair with some milk and cookies. Because you’re an adult and it’s Christmas, dammit.

3. The Latke Who Couldn’t Stop Screaming (Lemony Snicket)

I’ll read anything written by Lemony Snicket, and this book is the best Christmas-Hanukkah mashup story ever written. The story begins with the birth of a latke (“a word which here means, ‘potato pancake’”). This latke, who comes into the world screaming, jumps out of the frying pan and runs from the house, encountering Christmas decorations along the way who simply don’t understand the significance of the latke or Hanukkah. Understandably, the poor misunderstood potato pancake screams in frustration after each encounter, until finally he is taken in by a Jewish family who reheat him:

It is very frustrating not to be understood in this world. If you say one thing, and keep being told that you mean something else, it can make you want to scream. But somewhere in the world there is a place for all of us, whether you are an electric form of decoration, a peppermint scented sweet, a source of timber, or a potato pancake. On a cold, snowy night, everyone and everything should be welcome somewhere. And the Latke was welcome into a home full of people who understood what a latke is and how it fits into its particular holiday.

And then they ate it.

4. Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (Eric Kimmel)

I’m not Jewish, but this book was read to me throughout my childhood, and it’s one of my favorites. Hershel, a popular figure from Jewish folklore, stumbles upon a town whose people haven’t lighted their menorahs on the first night of Hanukkah. When he inquires as to why, the town tells him that goblins who haunt the synagogue prevent them from doing so. They break their dreidels and terrorize the people. So Hershel, a trickster, decides to outwit the goblins and break their curse. Through a series of fantastical encounters that I will not spoil, including a rather scary encounter with the Goblin King, Hershel is able to break the power of the goblins on the town. (There’s also some great art in this book.)

5. A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)

Of course, how can I make a list about holiday children’s stories and not talk about my all-time favorite, A Christmas Carol? Written because Dickens was short on cash and needed some (quick), A Christmas Carol tells the story of a miserly old man who no longer recognizes the joys of Christmas and only values, well, money. The irony. He’s then visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who is chained and forced to wander the earth because he put profit over people or something. In a last-ditch effort to save Scrooge’s soul, three spirits appear to him over the course of three nights. The story both thrills and chills its readers, and has stood the test of time for a very good reason, but it’s often abridged or shortened for kids because of the complexity. If you have kids, please don’t do that to them! They’re smarter than you think, and will cherish this book for years.

Donny tells me that I’ve run out of time. Donny is a Grinch. What are your favorite books to read this time of year?