I’m starting a new series on this blog, called How They Did It. And yes, like the name suggests, each post will chronicle the journey of a successful author, journalist or blogger. Each interview will delve into how that writer overcame the usual challenges faced by the newbie, to emerge successful (and published!).
I’m happy to begin the series with an interview with one of the genuinely funny authors in contemporary Indian popular fiction — Yashodhara Lal. Her first book (published by HarperCollins India), with the kitschy title of Just Married, Please Excuse, was a laugh riot. Her new book Sorting out Sid promises to be just as funny.
At first glance, it can be easy to shrug her off as just another alumnus of the prestigious Indian Institute of Management (IIM) wanting to write a book (not that there’s anything wrong with an IIM-alumnus or any alumnus writing a book!). But she’s funny, really. Don’t take my word for it…hop over to her blog (umm, after reading this interview?) and see for yourself.
Over to Yashodhara, who tells us how it all began.
Have you always wanted to write? Or, did you have different career aspirations while growing up?
I have wanted to write for the longest time. It’s been one of my biggest areas of interest, largely due to the reading I did as a kid. Not that it was anything extraordinary, the regular Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys and Archies and then Wodehouse and so on. My career aspirations when I was growing up ranged from Basketball player to Rock Star to Writer to Doctor, so I can’t really say I’ve had a crystal clear vision. Even now, of course! But I’ve always wanted to have writing as a part of my life and I’m glad that’s happening.
How did your first book Just Married, Please Excuse come about?
While in the corporate world for several years, I didn’t write at all, but in 2006 I started blogging on yashodharalal.com and got quite a lot of encouragement from some very nice people who enjoyed the humor in my writing, especially stories involving Vijay, my husband. Then in 2010, after I had my twin sons and a complicated surgery, I realized that time is limited and there’s no point putting off what you feel passionate about. So on maternity leave while nursing my sons, the first draft of JMPE was written.
How long did you take to write the first book?
About 3 months. It was exhausting but I kept at it everyday. In general that’s how long it seems to take me.
You had a fulltime career and kids when you began writing. How did you manage all your responsibilities along with your writing?
I was on maternity leave from my job, although I went back in a few months and had to rewrite, edit and so on. It was getting very tough and in fact that’s why I decided to move to consulting for the time being – while the kids are small and I’m trying to give my writing more of a shot. So far, it’s working reasonably well but it was definitely a tough call to make as I was doing a job that I really liked at the time – business head for a movies website!
Any interesting personal anecdotes stand out in your mind in your journey from successful career woman and Mom to author.
Well, I still consider myself a career woman apart from being a Mom and author – just that I’ve taken a different route. It’s an ongoing journey and filled with learning and interactions with people.
But for me, I remember dancing around my room alone after concluding a conversation with Karthika, the Chief Editor at HarperCollins – she had just finished telling me about my first book …she said “I think it works.” Those four simple words were enough to get me boogeying like an overexcited monkey. And incidentally, when she used the same words for my second book, Sorting Out Sid, my reaction was the same, except that my steps were perhaps more coordinated.
Would you advise writers to first approach a literary agent, or is getting in touch directly with the publishers a good enough thing to do? In your case, did you chalk out a specific plan? Were you at all worried about the slush pile scenario?
I’ve been asked this question before, but I have only my own experience which was to write to several publishers with a synopsis and covering letter and three chapters from my first book. I found everyone fairly responsive. But the thing is, they’re definitely loaded with manuscripts and you have to be patient. Having said this, I think the scenario has changed a lot even in the last three years or so since my first book was accepted – I didn’t have a plan, just tried to stay patient and prayed.
It makes a lot of sense to focus on your product first – try and get some beta readers, someone you trust to give you feedback that will be helpful to refine your book even before it reaches the commissioning editor’s desk. Respect an editor’s time and make sure you’re happy with your own work before it goes out.
Does it help for writers to have a daily minimum wordcount or fixed number of hours for writing?
Different strokes for different folks, but for me, writing for an hour or two everyday helps me maintain the momentum when I’m working on a new book. I go for months without writing which are relaxed but somewhat directionless months. I’d say set aside 1.5 hours a day and see what happens when you just let yourself go. That’s the pace you’re comfortable with, and you can maintain that or take it from there.
From your experience of your own books and others you’ve known, how long does a writer usually have to wait to see the book published (after the manuscript has been accepted)? Is there anything specific a writer can do during this time to make the most of the wait?
It could take easily up to a year depending on which publisher you’re with, or even longer. Yes, there’s something a writer can do in the meantime to keep oneself sane… Work on the damn new one.
Given the modest advances and royalties in Indian publishing, how much income can an aspiring author realistically expect from a literary career spanning several years? Is the oft-repeated advice to not leave that day job true?
Ha ha ha ha ha. Yes, the advice is true. Which doesn’t mean you need to get despondent about it. You may be lucky enough and/or talented enough to make it big. But it helps to keep your expectations realistic. It’s tough and there’s a lot of competition, so it’s definitely very difficult to eke a living out of writing, especially if you come from a corporate background and are used to a different order of income.
A little about your new book Sorting Out Sid. Also, will readers get a sequel to JMPE?
Sorting Out Sid is the story of a 36 year old man undergoing a mid-life crisis, with a divorce on the cards and other challenges related to his career and relationships. Like JMPE, it’s a funny book, but it’s fictional unlike my first book which was unabashedly autobiographical; and on top of that, the fact that it’s about a man makes it different from a lot of books in this light fiction genre. I enjoyed getting into a man’s head for this one, it was a lot of fun to write! Here’s a sample:
‘Arrey … Khatam?’ Sid looked with surprise and confusion at his empty beer bottle. That was quick. He had intended to savour his first bottle, savour the feeling of an evening alone at home and the ability to do exactly what he wanted. Chalo, no matter, he still had a few bottles to go. He leaned over and stretched out to grab another bottle, singing out an impromptu and cheerful ditty.
‘Come here, my dear, you are so near…
Please have no fear, I love my beer…’
He ransacked his brain to come up with a last line that would do justice to the poet in him. But he could only manage a lame ‘And my name is … Sid’. He cackled at his own silliness. He had been going for the style of Urdu poets, like Ghalib. The last line of a couplet usually had the writer’s name inserted into it, as a sort of signature. It didn’t always work, he decided. Those Urdu poet guys weren’t practical, he concluded. No wonder most of them were dead. Still, they had churned out some pretty riveting stuff. Sid liked Urdu couplets and felt the urge to recite one, but for the life of him he couldn’t remember a single one at the moment.
He used his handy-dandy Swiss pocket-knife-cum-bottle-opener-cum-keychain to pop the cap off the second beer bottle and took another long, cold swig. He let out a loud ‘aaaah…’ as he leaned back and closed his eyes. He tended to get vocal when he got high irrespective of whether he had an audience or not. He just felt the need to speak, and it was nice to be able to speak without being judged.
He felt a fart coming, but held it in. He wasn’t going to fart on his favourite beanbag. It wouldn’t be fair to her. He patted her lovingly. It felt natural to converse with her at the moment. ‘Eh, Brownie? What has it been, fifteen years? We’ve been through too much for me to fart on you, right?’ Fifteen years with Mandira too, but wouldn’t mind farting on her right now, he thought, and immediately regretted it. That was low, below the belt, you might say. He giggled.
Another longer extract is here: http://www.yashodharalal.com/p/the-new-book-sorting-out-sid.html