She looks radiant, is warm and funny, and has the energy and enthusiasm of a teenager. Milan Vohra, India’s first Mills & Boon author who went on to write the hugely popular Tick-Tock We’re 30 (Westland), had an illustrious career in advertising before beginning her innings as an author (she was previously Creative Director at JW Thompson). These days, Milan expertly juggles between her various roles — mother, wife, author and advertising consulting guru.
Milan’s interview is the latest one in the How They Did It series on this blog (interviews that track the stories of successful authors and bloggers from their days as newbies to eventual success; and where authors offer tips to aspiring writers).
Have you always wanted to write? Or, did you have different career aspirations?
I wrote, I write, present continuous tense, to scratch my itch to do it 🙂 I write more than I’d ever dare show anybody. Not even my family. I’m critical of most of what I write and the bin is always full. I would never have dreamt of sending anything to a publisher but for that one time I sent a story on a whim for the Harlequin contest. From very early on I’d write long detailed letters to any relative who wrote back, kept a regular journal back then (despite constantly being found out on many occasions by my mom, who only had to read my diary to have all the evidence of any monkey business going on), I wrote stories for my younger cousins who have a better memory of them than I do, and later as a debater — I loved drafting my openings and closings with care. I also wrote a lot of college magazine stuff — essays mainly. I did have a pretty alive imaginary life that I believed was real; that I could be invisible on will, that kind of thing… but well, I assume every child has that universe.
For me, it became clear when I got into the London School of Economics for a post grad course after studying economics at Delhi University. I realised that my elation was only about getting in. The actual prospect of spending my life working with that subject suddenly seemed dreary, even scary. By then, I was quite in love with the craft of writing ad campaigns and so then I went on to study and work in advertising as a copywriter. I still believe I am very fortunate to have found this stream of writing pretty early on. I often met and sometimes interviewed people who after intense years of studying engineering, MBAs or medicine etc. wanted to chuck it all up to start from scratch to write ad copy.
What do you enjoy more — writing advertising copy or writing fiction? How do you juggle both?
I am grateful that I could be in a profession that gave me a buzz. It still does, it lets me travel, gives me pretty decent money, and lets me continue writing and feeling like I am on my own turf, a turf that gives me flexibility. It’s something I love doing. Even in ‘break’ years, I hated to be away from writing ads. I would take on whatever freelance projects came my way, to do what I enjoyed so much. I think that at the heart of it, being able to use your mind, along with the love for spinning a tale has given me sanity — while handling city moves, working, making it to PTAs, remembering to pay your taxes or getting your kids all prepped for fancy dress thingies or making sure you’re there for your parents, in-laws, friends, pet or the causes you believe in.
Writing advertising has been good to me and for the most part never felt like work (Post cracking the idea of course, until then — arghhh!!)
Writing fiction was something I did for myself. Good, bad, indifferent, I can’t say. It was never with an aim to get published. I had been writing the occasional short stories and when the Harlequin (Mills & Boon) contest came along, I wrote one and entered it on a whim. From there on, writing fiction integrated quite naturally with my life. But I should confess, I love to agonise over everything till it’s done. So to pull off any of this fine juggling, I now sleep less than I did earlier.
How long did you take to write your first book The Love Asana?
The Love Asana as a short story (that won the first Harlequin contest to find their first Indian M&B author) was written in the space of two margaritas, say an hour. Keying in the darned thing, some 4000 words initially, and then editing it to half that length took me the better part of the night. I write long hand and as advertising copy only got shorter and shorter over the years, one finger typing would usually suffice.
Developing the short story into the book actually also took me only a few months, but it was preceded by several months of interaction with the Harlequin editorial team in U.K. and understanding the various series that M&B was bringing out then, to see where my plot might sit, what the romance genre demands, and then there was a lot of sharing and interaction about Indian sensibilities. Thus, the book finally came out about a year later.
How was the experience of being the first Indian Mills & Boon writer?
Brilliant. I went to Mumbai when I was invited by Harlequin, thinking ‘Cool, I’ll enjoy the view of Marine Drive where the event was happening, meet up with some friends if I can and have a nice evening.’
The next thing I knew I was in the thick of an exciting countdown and finally comprehending what those speechless pageant winners must feel like when they are crowned. BBC cameras in your face and journalists from iconic publications you grew up reading asking to fix up interviews. It was exhilarating.
You had a full-time career and kids when you began writing. How did you manage all your responsibilities along with your writing?
My business card says it best.
I’ve used a Picasso illustration of an owl, and added two hats to its head. Below that illustration, it says:
Author. Advertising consultant. Insomniac.
(It’s true, I am serious actually about the almost-insomniac bit. I usually wrap up interacting with my art partners by midnight, sometimes it may stretch to 1 or 2 a.m. Some art directors I work with live in different time zones and we may Skype late at night etc. Time that earlier I’d spend reading through the night has now become time that I spend in front of a screen, reading random stuff that I could kid myself is part of ‘research’ (LOL) or with my papers spread out all over the (once) dining table. I’ve been a big believer in the ‘you’ve got to get your kids used to you and your life’, whether it was the earlier advertising pressure when if I had to show up in an office on a Saturday, I’d just take my daughter with me, let her take over my desk, hand her the crayons and teach her the intercom number on which to order herself endless Rooh Afza . Now, in fact it can get quite crazy, because my kids are older, as nocturnal as me and we can make each other go nuts waiting for everyone else to clear out and do our work. Everyone likes the dining table to park themselves at!
Any personal anecdotes stand out in your mind in your journey from successful career woman and Mom to author?
I’d like to think my kids see me as this pretty ‘chill’, mostly friend-type mom but sometimes scary-as- shit mom too.
I don’t think the other aspects to me have ever become too important. Not when I was in a full time, high pressure, seemingly-glam job, nor as an author. It’s all part of ‘this is what Amma is up to right now’. In the same scale of importance as Amma is going to Singapore for an edit or Amma is cranky because she dropped a level in literati. My becoming an author changed nothing at all. To the extent that in the initial days when I got quite a kick out of seeing my name or picture in a newspaper or magazine and would bring it home and ask the kids to look at it, most times it went unread.
One day, I think one of my son’s school seniors who had read my book Tick-tock we’re 30 was pretty thrilled to discover I was his mom. She sent him enthusiastic whatsapps (which I savoured completely) with lots of OMGs and why she and her friends loved the book and how many times she’d read it and how her friends and she were co-relating the characters in the book with each other. (In the way of — Are you a Lara, or Nanhi or Reeti or Maneka or God forbid a Kalyani!). That day my son asked me, “Are you like famous or something?” I said of course not, which is a fact. He put on a fake sad face and said, “So, like, no free steak dinners if we go out?’ Nope, I told him. “Good!” he repied,”‘Cos I was wondering if I need to start worrying about the paps and all” and went right back to getting me to look away from my phone and listen to a new song on his!
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?
It’s a personal decision. Either ways, you need to be pretty strong to take the feedback that comes and not let it throw you completely. So much easier said than done! I know an author friend who has sold 11 manuscripts all through a literary agent. I, on the other hand, have so far had direct interactions from the start with the publishers I’ve written for. I’m happier for it.
Did you chalk out a specific plan for your second book Tick Tock We’re 30?
The plan with Tick-tock we’re 30 was specific in the sense, I knew it was going to be a ‘big’ book, in terms of word length…I had an idea of that in terms of chapters. I was also quite sure that it needed all the characters it did. It’s a book about 12 friends, six guys, six girls and then some more fairly major characters. They are all important in creating the group spirit. I could not have achieved it with say 4 or 5 characters. One publisher had suggested more ‘imperfections’ in Lara, my main female protagonists’ character and in some of her other girlfriends. Happily for me, the editor who commissioned Tick-tock we’re 30 felt as strongly about keeping Lara and her friends exactly as I saw them.
Does it help for writers to have a daily minimum wordcount or fixed number of hours for writing?
I so admire the ones who do, truly truly I do. Some of the most successful ones have it down to a science. 1000 words a day, an average word count of 60000 words to a book, 2 months to write, 2-3 months in edits, six months to publish , and wow, wow, wow!. Seriously, I do mean wow. Instead, I’m this lazy advertising rascala, used to only working last minute and with a deadline looming large.
After the stress levels induced by racing towards the finishing line on my first two books, I’d thought it would be liberating this time around to not have a sword hanging over my head and write for the pleasure of it, at MY pace. But in hindsight, nope. From the next book on, it’s going to be no bath, no facebouche, no nothing for me – till those daily 1000 words are done!
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)?
I think the earliest most authors can hope for, between a manuscript being accepted and your receiving the first author copy, is at least 6 months, possibly longer. It depends on so many factors… if the book has a tactical reason to be pushed through fast, or if a book by a more popular author is slated to come out soon with a much larger print run, the publisher’s own list or if a deadline has been pushed on the book, it can get the book’s printing delayed because other books are in the pipeline at the presses. All this is a very rudimentary understanding and I could be totally wrong, of course.
Is there anything specific a writer can do during this time to make the most of the wait?
Read a lot, meet up with friends you haven’t managed to stay as much in touch with as you’d like to, listen to your kids, chill with your parents, don’t imagine you have forever and that everything will wait while you write, prioritise yourself too, go do everything you fantasised you would do in the last few high pressure months when edits were happening. Also, get into shape! Writing is sedentary and for me at least, when you’re in the zone, it’s to the exclusion of anything else, so much that it can get you quite out of balance. It’s important to stay healthy and have a life outside of writing.
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?
I’d strongly advocate holding on to the day job. To make a full time career out of writing requires that you be not just good but pretty prolific and/or very blessed. I am also going to stick my neck out and say it. Ask yourself, why exactly do you want to do this? Why is it so important to write? What makes you think you have anything special to say?
Maybe you should be following your inner calling and aim at becoming the next cult figure type Life Coach? 🙂 I am meditating 1000 seconds a day to get answers to all such major questions and will start a podcast soon as I have all the answers or 60000 seconds of meditation under my belt and THEN quit my day job 🙂
Will readers get a sequel to Tick-Tock We’re 30?
I hope so, someday soon. Before that I hope a brilliant director stumbles across the book and decides to make a film of it. I’d like that a lot.
When can readers expect another book?
At the moment, I’m working on a screenplay for an international project. Fingers crossed about that! I’m also looking forward to some more short stories coming out in the next few months as part of an anthology.
Thanks, Bhakti. It was a pleasure.