NAW Interview with Payal Kapadia

Payal Kapadia

Payal Kapadia studied English Literature at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. After studying Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago, she worked with Outlook in Mumbai and The Japan Times in Tokyo.

Her debut novella, “Wisha Wozzariter,” won the Crossword Award for Children’s Writing in 2013. It is also on the “101 Indian Children’s Books We Love!” list. Visit her here.

NAW- Tell us about your book, Horrid High. How did you get the idea for it?

I’ve always wanted to write a horrid book, one that makes you laugh and squirm at the same time.  It was at a writers workshop that I first came up with a character called Volumina Butt, a school bully  who demolishes her victims by sitting on them! And then I imagined a school called Horrid High, the world’s most horrid school, where a bully like Volumina would feel perfectly at home.

The children who land up at Horrid High come from families where they’re not wanted. The teachers at Horrid High are no less horrid, I’m afraid. Chef Gretta Gross cooks up culinary disasters like crow pie a la mode – sounds hideous, doesn’t it? And English teacher Vera Verbose will only allow the children to read a dictionary – ah, or an encyclopaedia! Master Mynus’s maths classes are truly mental, and he gets the children to count anything, from leaves to grass to hair, yes, hair! And Coach Kallus, the cruel gym teacher, thinks that it’s perfectly OK to make the children run on their knees. The wicked principal has a book of 300 pointless rules for the kids to learn by heart. No beds, no showers and definitely no telly – what could possibly be worse?

The over-the-top horridness makes for some laugh-out-loud humour and some memorable characters. Horrid High has 15 characters in all, including five extraordinary kids – a pickpocket, a lockpick, a hypnotist, a mimic, a boy with an incredible memory – and a jungle-saving grandmother! What ensues is an exciting caper full of unexpected twists and turns – and a suitably horrid ending!

NAW- How difficult (or easy) is it writing for children?

I think it’s no different from writing for adults, except that you have the freedom to be wildly imaginative, and you have to be honest. Kids can detect deception and pretension pretty well. Children are smart, sophisticated readers with no obligation to be polite – they can fall in love with a book, and they can also slam it if it doesn’t work. You have to grab them from the start and keep them rivetted. You have to talk to them as equals, which they are. And most of all, it helps to make them laugh. Being funny is a huge risk, but it’s a risk worth taking. I also resort to a lot of word play, double-entendre and observations about human nature. I think that kids can handle it, that they see more and understand more than we give them credit for.

Horrid High book cover

NAW- How long did you take to finish a book? Is there any research involved? How do you decide the titles?

The title came to me first, it always does. I think a good catchy title helps focus the narrative to just one or two simple words. It took me two long months to develop the plot for Horrid High. I say long because there were many cul-de-sacs and nail-biting moments where I just didn’t know how to proceed. The early days were slow. Writing is like drilling for oil, really, rather unproductive at first. But once the narrative gathers momentum, once you strike oil, the story flows rapidly. Once the story picked up pace, I couldn’t type fast enough to keep up with my ideas.

NAW- Writing for children is not easy and I am not aware of many in India except Ruskin Bond perhaps; so what made you write for children? And does it come naturally, I mean the voice or do you have to make a conscious effort to write in a simple language?

I’ve always wanted to write books, from as far back as I can remember, but when I got out of school, I opted for a Master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University in Chicago. After that, I ended up in Tokyo, where I worked as an editor on the Arts desk at The Japan Times, Japan’s largest English daily, for three years. There, I launched my own fortnightly column called “On the Book Trail.” It was a children’s book-review column, targeted to young readers looking for good books to read. I read boxes full of books for my columns, and that’s when it struck me that children’s writing had changed so dramatically since the days when I was a child. I grew up on Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, but now there are so many new, vibrant voices, so much experimentation, there is lots more choice for kids today. I think this first got me started – why not write for kids? Having two children of my own soon after only made it easier to see the world again from a child’s point of view. My daughters are my most severe critics, my most adoring fans.

I don’t think there is a question of putting on a different voice when you write for children, not these days anyway. I don’t think the language of my books is particularly simple. “Wisha Wozzariter,” the book that won the Crossword Book Award for Children’s Writing last year, is about the creative journey of a 10-year-old girl called Wisha who wants to be a writer. Starting with the title, the entire book is a fable about the adventure of writing, using  wordplay, metaphors and ideas to make its point. I use puns, alliteration and inside humour with Horrid High as well. I think kids thoroughly enjoy the whimsical, the quirky and the unexpected.

NAW- We’ve read your book Wisha Wozzariter and must say it was a brilliant effort but is English fiction popular among Indian kids?

Yes, I think English fiction is certainly popular among Indian kids, although we have some fabulous children’s fiction written in our regional languages, too. I think English fiction by Indian writers is slowly coming of age, and there are many promising voices trying to take risks, break the mould and tell a different sort of story to Indian kids.

NAW- Tell us about your publishing journey.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but I decided to start out as a journalist. I figured that journalism would make an interesting pitstop and give me enough stories for my writerly career. However, about ten years ago, I was forced to take a sabbatical from the newsmagazine where I worked to raise my daughters – and at this point, I started wondering if the pitstop in journalism would turn into a permanent stop. If I was going to become a writer, I would have to start writing. That’s when I thought up the character of Wisha Wozzariter, someone like me who dreamed of writing but didn’t quite know where to begin. I wrote the first half of the book, got stuck, and then saved it on my computer and forgot about it!  Six years later, in mid-2011, I sent this incomplete manuscript to the commissioning editor at Puffin. She responded right away wanting to see the second half. I didn’t have it, not even in my head! But after she showed such interest, I sat down and read the first half again. And this time, I didn’t feel stuck. It was clear how to proceed. I think the time I spent away from the book had helped me gain critical distance. I wrote the second half in a mad rush, the book went on to sweep up the Crossword Book Award 2013, and there’s been no looking back!


NAW- Tell us about your other works.

In 2011 , Disney published my first book, “Colonel Hathi Loses His Brigade.” It was a re-telling of the “Jungle Book.” I had to use the same characters to tell a new story. I picked Colonel Hathi because he was my favourite character. In 2012, as you already know, I wrote ‘Wisha Wozzariter’ – the story of how Wisha became a writer, and how I became a writer, too. I’ve also written a nonfiction book for children this year, published by Penguin, a biography of B.R. Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution. His story is incredibly inspiring and life-altering.

NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?

I think my writing, which took up only a small part of my day earlier, has now expanded to take up all my free time. But I’m certainly not complaining! I also spent a large part of my day playing mother to my two lovely daughters. Keya is ten, Nyla is six, and they keep me busy with their piano, their homework and their swim classes. They are always giving me new ideas to think about! I love reading, of course, and swimming, in fact, nothing works as well as a brisk walk to clear my head. I love winding down at night by watching TV – yes, writers watch TV, too.

NAW- Please name your favourite writers. Are there any who you’d like to name as an inspiration?

I’m definitely inspired by Roald Dahl and by Eva Ibbotson – their quirky imagination, their outlandish plots, their wonderfully funny writing. Those are the kind of books you read with the clear sense that the author had a whale of a time writing the book.

NAW-What are you currently reading?

I read two books at the same time, which is weird, I guess. At night, I curl up these days with ‘The Silkworm’ by J.K. Rowling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith – and it’s got me totally hooked! But I like to read Eva Ibbotson’s wonderful books – Dial a Ghost, The Secret of Platform 13, Monster Mission, I have them all – in the daytime, they really charge me up for my own writing.

NAW- What are your upcoming works?

The second part of Horrid High is to be released in September next year. And soon after, a book about two unlikely princesses. Possibly, also, one book for grown-ups, but I won’t speak too soon about that.

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