NAW Interview with Janaki Lenin

Janaki LeninJanaki Lenin’s first book ‘A King Cobra’s Summer’ for children was published by Pratham Books in 2011. It ranked among the top 12 publications for children for that year. A collection from her popular column in The Hindu ‘My Husband and Other Animals’ was published in 2012. She lives with her husband in Tamil Nadu where they run a farm together. Read more about her at

NAW- When did your literary journey begin? At what age did you discover that you wanted to write?

There was no definite moment or age when I discovered I wanted to write. My mother says I went through a childhood phase when I said I wanted to be a writer. But I also wanted to be a painter, a pilot, and many other things. I wrote various stories and essays right through school as part of class work and for my own pleasure. But when I graduated from school, I didn’t think of writing as a career option. I chose to become a film editor instead. A few years later, at age 34, I quit filmmaking. But I was at a loss – I didn’t have any other skills. I enjoyed writing scripts and I had written articles about our filmmaking experiences, so I thought I’d explore writing as a career. I’m still in the business of story-telling, I merely changed my medium of expression.

NAW- Do you write prose only or delve into other genres also?

So far I have written prose but I’d love to write a ballad. It’s so much harder and takes much longer to move the story from point A to B. I’d have to clear my schedule of deadlines to attempt it.

NAW- Was it difficult to write A King Cobra’s Summer which is meant for children? Not many authors tend to write for children in India.

To be honest, it wasn’t my initiative. Pratham Books wanted a story about king cobras and I wanted to support their mission to put a book in every kid’s hands. They have great publishing values and still manage to keep the price of their books low. So it was a satisfying collaboration.

One of my childhood fears was of getting lost and never seeing my family again. That was the starting point and the rest flowed. I didn’t write the book with the thought – this is a children’s book – in mind. I didn’t want to be condescending or keep the story simple.

Since I didn’t have any experience writing for children, I sent it to three children of friends. I tweaked it based on their feedback. I didn’t know how to deal with reptile sex. I was circumspect in the draft, and one of my three critiquers challenged me to write about it openly.

The other worry was the timeline – I switch from the present to the immediate past to the distant past and back again. I wanted it to be simple to understand and yet not have to narrate the story linearly. And children didn’t have any problem in understanding.

To answer your question, the book wasn’t difficult to write but it seemed difficult because of my worries. The lesson I learnt was not to underestimate children.

NAW- What are you reading right now? Are there any authors that you would name as influences?

I just finished reading Amitav Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’ and haven’t picked up another book yet. I’m still in the afterglow, savouring the story and characters. I haven’t analyzed who have been influences. One writer I look up to is Bill Bryson who combines history and travel with a large dose of humour. Tim Cahill, David Quammen, Amy Tan, and Isabel Allende are other writers I read carefully.

NAW- How did you get the idea for My Husband and other Animals? I am reminded of the book by Gerald Durell- My Family and other Animals. Was that an inspiration given that Rom and your life is similar to his?

It is a rip off of Gerald Durrell’s title. But I think I’d have come up with it even if Durrell had titled his book something else. ‘My Husband and Other Animals’ is just so appropriate, I can’t think of another title. I write about humans and animals, wilderness and farm life, observations and ruminations, and most importantly, it sets a tone of irreverence and humour. All the other candidate titles were too boring and restrictive.

NAW- Naturalist, film maker and writer. Is it difficult to juggle all these activities? Do you follow a set routine and dedicate certain hours for writing each day?

I don’t make films any more. I spend most of my day writing and the rest around the farm. Since we have animals and live on a farm, I do work to a routine – my day begins with making food for the dogs, walking them, watching them play (I can’t leave them unattended because of the resident leopard), and feeding them. Only when I shut them in the kennel does my day really begin.

Communication – emails, social media – takes up the first hours of the day. Until lunch time, I switch off communication to write or edit what I’ve written the evening before. A brief session of emails and I’m back to writing or researching in the afternoon. At 5 pm, no matter how deeply engrossed I am in work, the dogs will not rest until they get me out into the garden and play with them. After they are fed and walked, I write my journal, and read blogs and news. I end the day with a book.

Sometimes, this routine is broken to see a bird or climb a hill.

NAW- Writing is not looked upon as a full time vocation in many countries, were you aware that making a living solely out of writing is difficult when you first started out?

That was my first worry. But when Rom, my husband, started out on his strange career, he had no guarantees he could make a living from it. He took the plunge anyway and was successful. He goads me to not think of the money, to just do what I love doing, and everything else will fall in place. If I lived in a city in an apartment, I could probably survive as a full-time writer. Running a farm is not cheap. So we opened a home-stay at the farm and hopefully that should take the stress off my writing life.

NAW- Please name your 5 favourite books.

Not only is it constantly changing, but the task is complicated by my bad memory for names and titles. So for what it’s worth these come to mind –

Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The Cairo Trilogy – Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street – by Naguib Mahfouz

The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje

Reading Lolita in Teheran by Azar Nafisi

The Red Letters by Ved Mehta

And so many more.

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

I’d like to do My Husband and Other Animals Vol II next year. And then write a book about people and wildlife. The other day a publisher of young adult literature suggested I write a novel. I’m still cogitating the idea.

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