We interviewed Payal to find out about her journey to becoming a children’s writer, and to learn about her experiences of winning the Crossword Book Award in 2013. She also told us about her most recent book, Horrid High. Read on to find out what Payal had to say, who also kindly shared some top advice on writing a book!
Tell us about your background. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
As far back as I can remember, I have loved stories, both telling stories and being told them. I wrote my first poem when I was nine, and although it was quite terrible, my parents made a big fuss over me and gifted me a little notebook in which I could record all my poetic impressions. I still have it.
My favourite subject through school was English Composition. I loved following my imagination wherever it took me. All it took to get going was a new topic, or the seed of an idea, or just the prospect of being able to write about anything at all. I read more than I could, begging for extra books in the school library.
You come from a strong writing background. Can you please tell us a bit about your professional work experience, qualifications, and how you came about to become a writer of children’s books?
I grew up in Mumbai and studied first at Queen Mary School and then at St. Xavier’s College where I took a BA (Hons.) degree in English Literature. I had a deep passion for both reading and writing from my early school years, but it was in college that I was introduced to the literary greats and truly fell in love with the English language.
I always harboured the desire to become a writer, but fresh out of college, I was plagued by a question that many budding writers must confront: what to write about. I was a writer without a story, and what use is that? So I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago. I assumed that the stories I would encounter as a newsperson and by living away from home for the first time would inspire a novel someday. I went on to work for Outlook Magazine in Mumbai as well as The Japan Times in Tokyo. Life and work took over and in the blink of an eye, I was 27 with no concrete plans of becoming a writer, only a wish and a childhood hunch that I had what it takes. I also realized, to my dismay, that my years in journalism and away in the United States, Hong Kong and then Japan hadn’t given me the magnum opus I was looking for.
But there was something positive that had come out of being Arts Editor at The Japan Times. I had started writing a children’s book-review column that ran for six years – and I had read scores of children’s books in the process. I enjoyed them tremendously even though I was a grown-up, and I realized that the world of children’s fiction had changed dramatically from the days when I was a child. Contemporary children’s fiction can be read just as easily by grown-ups. Its tone is savvy, tongue-in-cheek, funny and clever – without ever feeling the need to dumb things down for young readers. So armed with this newfound appreciation of contemporary children’s literature, I returned to Mumbai and found myself restless. I was on maternity leave, my infant daughter took long naps and I started sitting in front of my computer, staring at a blank screen and wondering: Do I have what it takes to be a writer? That’s when I decided to stop looking outward for a story, and instead to plumb the depths of my own imagination and write. There, I found a character not unlike myself, a girl called Wisha Wozzariter who wishes to be a writer. When she stops wishing and starts writing, she goes on an incredible creative journey. And when Wisha became a writer, I did, too.
What types of messages do you like to convey in your children’s books?
I don’t write any book in order to convey a message. I write books to tell a story, to explore an imagined world, to celebrate words. But yes, all books have a message and in the best books, it’s not an overt one that’s forced down your throat. My books are about characters realizing that they have it in them to be heroes. Wisha must discover that she has it inside her to be a writer. What she must conquer first is her own self-doubt. In Horrid High, Ferg Gottin, as his name suggests, is a forgotten boy. Even his parents don’t want him. But an unremarkable boy can also possess remarkable skills. My characters become empowered when they realize their own inner strength. If we must find a message for my books, they’re about creative freedom, about summoning up the courage to question the given order, about following your destiny. And I hope that my books succeed in using humour, light-heartedness and a deep sense of fun to communicate these things.
Your book entitled Wisha Wozzariter won the Crossword Book Award 2013 for Best Children’s Book. Can you please tell us what it felt like to win such a prestigious award?
It felt incredible to win such a prestigious award, and as I put it in my acceptance speech, it was the best cure for writer’s block. Wisha Wozzariter was my debut novel. I was a newbie writer who had not paid any attention to target age-group or larger meaning or an ultimate message while writing my book. So you can imagine what a great affirmation the award was, not just of my writing abilities but also of my own childhood hunch that I had what it takes to be a writer. The award gave me credibility and a renewed faith in myself. It opened up many avenues for me. I was invited to read at prestigious literary festivals, from the Jaipur Lit Fest to the Sharjah Children’s Literature Festival. Many new book contracts opened up. I think what counted for me as much as the award was the positive feedback that Wisha Wozzariter got from my peers – other equally talented writers as well as publishers and editors.
Your most recent book is entitled Horrid High. Can you please tell us a bit about this book and what inspired you to write it?
Horrid High is a rollicking tale of the world’s most horrid school, a school where you can dump your children and forget about them. The idea of such a school still makes me chuckle! I wanted to write a book that was horrid and gross and funny, all at the same time. And although the school is an utterly miserable place, full of unwanted children, the story is laugh-out-loud fun and utterly mad. It’s a story in which the grown-ups, most of them but two, are total write-offs. And it’s an empowering story because the children rise up from a position of weakness to fight their horrid teachers. It’s a story about defying authority, reversing your fortunes and standing together. It’s the classic school story turned inside out. Kids can’t resist a story in which the grown-ups are misguided characters for a change. And I can’t resist a story in which I have the opportunity to poke fun at horrid people!
From your experiences, can you please share 2-3 tips with authors who want write a book for children?
My first piece of advice? If you want to be a writer, write. As I put it in Wisha Wozzariter, stop wishing and start writing. Writing and imagination need to be exercised, like any other muscle, so write a blog, write a diary, write a manuscript, but write. Now here’s the contradiction: While writing is a creative exercise and we can’t snap our fingers and expect our imagination to wait hand and foot on us, writing is also a discipline and you need to train your imagination to turn up at the same time, each day. Writing is also about perseverance, about sticking with it even when it’s lonely and confused. About weathering the bad days when squeezing out even a few words leaves you feeling spent. Good writing also stems from good reading. Read as much as you can. Reading always has a way of inspiring what you write.