NAW Interview with Payal Dhar

Payal Dhar

Payal Dhar is an author, freelance writer and editor. She also does a bit of web design and development. She writes about computers, technology, books, travel, general interest and, of course, fiction. Contact here here.

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

I was pretty sure by about seven or eight that I wanted to be a writer. I used to write stories (mostly sad derivations of the Enid Blytons I read), copy them out neatly on foolscap paper, staple them into books and hand them out as gifts to my grandparents. My grandfather even kept all those “books” – they’re still lying around in my grandmother’s house! When I was about 12 or so, I co-opted my sister and cousin into bringing out a magazine. We called it Echo andwe (mainly I) used to hand-write it and either photocopy it or use carbon paper to make copies, and then force various relatives and acquaintances to subscribe to it. I wrote a lot of cringeworthy stuff when I was a teenager and in my early 20s. Thankfully the notebooks are all lost and the digital files were password protected and I’ve long forgotten the password!

NAW- Tell us about your book ‘There’s a Ghost in my PC’, how did you get the idea for the book? What made you write for children?

Ghost in My PC is based on a short story I wrote for a Puffin collection around 2009. It was a ghost story anthology and I wanted to made a different kind of spook, so I created Viru the digital ghost. I really liked the characters in the story and always wondered what happened next. I happened to mention thisto an editor at Scholastic, who was very enthusiastic that I write a novel about what happens next. Thus, There’s a Ghost in My PC was born.

I had some second thoughts while writing it because I didn’t want to romanticize the notion of an unknown voice inside a computer talking to you (especially children). Cyber crime targetting children is very much a reality and young people are vulnerable in ways that adults may not be. This book was also aimed at a younger audience than I usually write for and I was very much afraid that it would make kids think that it was fun or cute to have your computer talking back to you, or even think to keep it secret from their parents. Thus, striking the right balance was very important.

I’m not really sure why I write for children. Maybe part of the reason is that I love children’s literature. When I was a child, the pickings were pretty limited and those of us who read a lot tended to move on to adult literature as young as thirteen. Today it’s a very different world out there and some part of me is probably catching up on all the reading I missed when I was a child/teen. The other reason is that as a culture, we are quite reticent in talking about the big issues with young people. Fiction is a way of doing that without ruffling too many feathers. As a child I can recall having questions that I instinctively knew that I couldn’t ask. But kids need to read about more than just puppies and picnics. I like the challenge of speaking to young people as intelligent individuals inhabiting a flawed world. I’m not saying I have it all figured out or do it well, but I try.



NAW- Did you face any difficulties in finding a publisher? Did you hire an agency for representation?

I had a bit of a struggle to find a publisher for my first book, A Shadow in Eternity. Mostly because one publisher—a fairly well-known name—showed interest and then backed out. That was a blow and I was quite disheartened at first. But then I met Anita Roy at Young Zubaan and realized that being turned down by the big guys had been a blessing in disguise. For my later books it’s been fairly easy. In fact, it’s mostly been a case of publishers reaching out asking if I have a book to offer rather than my having to look for a publisher. The reason being that the children’s fiction industry in India is relatively small and well networked. Young adult writing is still trying to find it’s feet and manuscripts are always in demand. In short, it’s a good time to be a children’s writer right now.

NAW- Tell us about your Satin trilogy, isn’t writing and marketing a trilogy difficult?

Satin is still work in progress. Unfortunately, I’ve been sidetracked by a number of other projects and let it take a backseat. Funny thing is, I’m not much of a fan of trilogies, but somehow ended up sticking my fingers in two of them! I think it happened because I wanted to write series (both for Satin as well as Shadow in Eternity/Maya in Turkish), but was intimidated by the idea of having to write six or seven books! So thinking about three was safe.

Satin has probably been my most complex project, one of the reasons why it’s taking so long to complete. It was my first (and, so far, only) attempt at building a fantasy world and a social system from scratch.

NAW- Tell us about your works?

I primarily consider myself a writer of fantasy (though I’m currently working on two non-fantasy novels). Building new worlds with different social systems is what I love doing. The Shadow in Eternity series were my first tentative steps in that department. It’s still my favourite even though I got a lot of things wrong, world-building-wise. I’m working on a fourth book and thinking about a spin-off series or single sometime in the future (provided, of course, someone wants to publish it!). The series was published in Turkish as Maya and had reasonable success.

Satin is a more ambitious project, as I mentioned earlier. Not only in terms of world building but also in the relationships, the story line and the scope of the story. Since it’s a work in progress, I don’t like to talk much about it—mainly because I don’t yet know where the various threads are going to end up.

There’s a Ghost in My PC is for a younger audience. I wasn’t confident about pulling it off, but I had a very positive editor and had great fun writing it. I would love to write more for the pre-teen audience. In fact, it’s in my alarmingly long to-do list.

NAW- Which writers would you name as your influences?

That’s a really hard question. I grew up reading Enid Blyton, mostly because they were the only books we had access to. Even as a kid I had my reservations about Blyton’s politics—even though I was well into adulthood before I could articulate them—but I have to admit that it was her work that attracted me to the idea of writing. I don’t think I have read any other author who writes with such lucidity. Thus, I guess it would be fair to say that Blyton was my first influence. Since then it’s been a bit of a blur, really. There are dozens of authors I admire and look up to—Neil Gaiman, Astrid Lindgren, Jacqueline Wilson, Judy Blume, Malorie Blackman are five names I can see on my bookshelf right now among hundreds of others. I also read a lot of crime—Reginald Hill, Val McDermid and Ian Rankin are among my favourites—and I’m sure they influence me in ways that may not be obvious.

NAW-Please name your five favourite books.

Oh, now that’s a completely unfair question! Only five?! Moreover, this list is likely to change depending on when you ask me and what’s in front of me. But for today (and from what I can spot on my bookshelf), they are, in no particular order:

  1. Knots and Crosses (Malorie Blackman)
  2. Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren)
  3. On Beulah Height (Reginald Hill)
  4. Tomorrow: When the War Began (John Marsden)
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)

NAW- What are your upcoming projects?

I just finished working on an amazing project with the wonderful Kirsty Murray from Australia. It’s a collaborative Australia-India anthology of young adult fiction. Ten Australian and ten Indian writers and illustrators have come together to imagine futures with a feminist lens, and each of the stories is either a collaboration or born out of a conversation between two storytellers from each country. I’m one of the three co-editors on the volume, which is titled Eat the Sky, Drink the Ocean, and is due out later this year.

I’m also working on my first non-fantasy young adult novel about a girl who discovers that her best friend is gay. I’m in the process of finalizing the contract for that book and still have a lot of hard work to get through before it ends up as a book.

Finally, I’m involved in another exciting collaborative project with three other Indian children’s writers. I’m not a hundred per cent sure, but I think it’s a first-of-its-kind in India. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet got the go-ahead from the publisher to talk about it, so that’s all I can say right now.

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