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Award-winning Baltimore crime novelist Sujata Massey turns to historical fiction

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Sujata Massey opened the door of her refrigerator and pulled out a curry made from pink potatoes and zucchini. It was the best way she could think of to demonstrate what's going on inside her head when she sits down to write a novel.

"I'm an odd person," says Massey, who recently returned with her family to Baltimore after a six-year hiatus. "This is the kind of thing I make, and my kids are not excited by the look of it. If I make a hamburger, I make it with Indian spices. There will never be a tuna casserole in this house. The way I think and the things that appeal to me are just a little bit different."

It's no coincidence that recipes for chingri bhapey (or mustard shrimp), rice made with cardamom and cinnamon and Independence trifle are included in an appendix to "The Sleeping Dictionary," Massey's newly released 11th novel.

The 49-year-old author doesn't so much write a novel as cook one, blending together a quarter teaspoon of this and a cup of that to create a stew that pays homage to its ingredients while simultaneously transforming them.

As she puts it: "Every book has a unique set of circumstances. I have sort of made myself my own world."

"The Sleeping Dictionary," Massey's first historical novel, might seem to be a significant departure from the 10-novel, award-winning Rei Shimura mystery series for which the author has been known. But for all its epic sweep, the new book contains many of the flavors that have characterized Massey's writing since 1986, when she began her career by covering food and fashion for The Evening Sun.

The novel is set in India during the waning years of British rule from 1925 through the end of World War II. It takes its title from a term used by British officers to refer to their native paramours, who educated them in Indian customs and traditions.

The novel tells the story of a young peasant girl known variously as Pom, Pamela and Kamala, who makes her way from West Bengal to Calcutta in the 1930s. She becomes involved in a love triangle between a well-born Indian lawyer fighting for his country's independence and a member of the British colonial society working to change the system from within.

When Massey appears Thursday night at the Ivy Bookshop, she'll talk about her research methods, which include scouring libraries on three continents. "The Sleeping Dictionary" concludes with a bibliography of roughly a dozen pages, and Massey's website (sujatamassey.com reproduces black-and-white photos of India during the late Raj, including several locations mentioned in the novel.

Even before Simon & Schuster published "The Sleeping Dictionary" in the U.S. on Aug. 20, the 528-page book had touched off a bidding war among India's English-language publishers. The novel was sold to Penguin Books India and is scheduled to be released as "City of Palaces" in May 2014. It has also been sold to publishers in Italy and Turkey.

Massey's Indian editor, Ambar Chatterjee, writes in an email that he was eager to acquire "The Sleeping Dictionary" because it fills a void in his country for historical fiction.

"One would expect a lot of writers from the subcontinent to mine our rich history for the purpose of good storytelling," Chatterjee writes.

"But curiously, this does not happen as often as one would expect. Historical fiction as a genre is not as well established in India as it is in the West. As a result, it's difficult to come across a historical novel that is truly satisfying, something you can relish.

"Sujata Massey, however, comes as a breath of fresh air. From the nuanced characters to the meticulous historical detail, her novel is simply unputdownable, and we are confident that it will do very well here."

As Chatterjee points out, Massey takes enormous pains with details — and not just in the novel. She is quick to provide the picky facts that reporters care about. She volunteers, for instance, that her new home near the Eddie's on Roland Avenue isn't in Roland Park, but in Tuxedo Park.

Unprompted, she spells out the name of the technique used to decorate one of her hands with a temporary henna tattoo — Mehndi — which she acquired when she attended an Indian wedding. When asked about specific dates, she doesn't say "sometime in the 1980s or 1990s." She says "1986" or occasionally, "September 1997."

This habit reflects more than just journalistic training. It's also a manifestation of a palate so refined that it can pick up seemingly insignificant differences. A fact is for Massey a celebration of the individual, the specific, the particular. Even the smallest true piece of information represents a doorway she can open to a unique land.

"A good storyteller," Massey says, "needs to look for things in the world that not everyone notices."

As a product of two cultures who has spent most of her life living in a third, Massey has become adept at interpreting subtle cues from the dominant culture so as to learn how to best navigate the existing power structure

Her mother is German, and her father is Indian. Massey herself was born in England, grew up in the United States (mostly in Minnesota) and lived for two years as an adult in Japan.

"I'm really interested in the idea of mobility between cultures and within your own life," she says.

"My parents had a mixed-race marriage. When they lived in Britain in the 1960s, no one would rent them an apartment. In my books, I'm constantly mining the reality of interracial relationships, of being an outsider and trying to decide which culture fits you better."

She came to Baltimore in the early 1980s to attend Goucher College. After two years of studying international relations, she switched to the writing program at Hopkins. She graduated in 1986 and then started work at The Evening Sun.

Three years later, she co-founded a book club at the paper, and one member was a new features writer named Laura Lippman. They began a friendship that is now in its third decade.

The two women are an intriguing mix of surface contrasts and underlying similarities. Lippman is blond and statuesque while Massey is petite and dark, dressed in clothes that emphasize her Indian heritage.

Both Lippman and Massey write books that express deeply held commitments to social justice. Both possess a formidable sense of personal style that doesn't take itself too seriously.

Though neither was a novelist when they met, the two women independently wrote and published their first mystery novels within seven months of one another in 1997.

Massey had immersed herself in Japanese culture from 1991 to 1993, when she was living overseas with her naval officer husband.

"I wanted to learn as much about Japan as I could," Massey says. "I had a chance to become a student of tradition and understand ritual and folk customs, and I took my life in Japan really seriously. I didn't spend a lot of time with foreigners. I spent a lot of time with the Japanese, living off the base, going out every day and trying to learn things by going really back to the basics, like: How do you actually make tofu? I was very interested in kimono, in old patterns and how fabrics are dyed and embroidered and things like that."

Lippman has joked that Massey's books make it safe "to embrace my inner Martha Stewart, pre-criminal indictment and conviction."

By exploring the social issues underlying the details of Japanese flower-arranging and antique chests, Lippman says, her friend's books make it intellectually respectable to be a girl.

"In the food world, all this attention is being paid right now to slow cooking," Lippman says. "But in publishing, a lot of people want instantaneous gratification. Sujata is enormously patient. She doesn't rush it. She takes the time and puts in the work."

When Massey was writing "The Sleeping Dictionary," for instance, she enrolled in the University of Minnesota and spent a year studying Hindi sentence structure.

Lippman says the way Sujata tackles home repair projects — and by now, she's been through several major overhauls — is the same way she approaches writing.

"Sujata has been done multiple renovations, and her books have been through multiple revisions," Lippman says. "She is very clear-eyed about what she does. She sees the big picture."

And part of that big picture includes knowing where home is. In 2006, Massey and her family left Baltimore for Minnesota's Twin Cities, where her family lives.

But the longer they stayed in the Midwest, the more they realized that it was Charm City that felt like home.

Almost exactly a year ago, Massey and her husband purchased an 1897 Victorian fixer-upper with six bedrooms, sleeping porches and a myriad of nooks and crannies and unsolved puzzles that would appeal to a historically minded novelist who likes to solve mysteries.

"There's a social style to Baltimore and Washington that's very comfortable to me," the author says.

"People who don't know you will talk to you about their lives. You can be in a gym and the person working out next to you is a Holocaust survivor. Then you can go to the Stony Run Friends meeting and people will talk about how they helped integrate housing in the 1950s.

"I've met people in some very accomplished groups who make it clear it's what you yourself are doing that's interesting, not who your parents are or where you live. It's all around me in Baltimore — the excitement of history and real people doing things and not being shy to talk about their lives while still being engaged in the present."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

About the Book

"The Sleeping Dictionary" was published Aug. 20 by Simon & Schuster. $16; 528 pages.

If you go

Author Sujata Massey will discuss her new novel at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Ivy Bookshop, 6080 Falls Road. Call 410-377-2966 or go to http://www.theivybookshop.com

Sujata Massey

Age: 49

Home: Baltimore (Tuxedo Park)

Profession: Author of 11 novels

Best-known works: The Rei Shimura mysteries

Newspaper career: Covered food and fashion for The Evening Sun, 1986-91

Awards: Agatha Award for Best First Novel ("The Salaryman's Wife," published 1997) and Macavity Award for Best Novel ("The Flower Master" published 1999)

Born: Sussex County, England

Education: Bachelor's degree in Writing Seminars in 1986 from the Johns Hopkins University

Personal: Married to psychiatrist Tony Massey; one daughter and one son

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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