When a Writer Goes to Work…

Most of you  know I have a day job. That means I’ve to operate in the real world like a real person. I can’t daydream endlessly or treat my day job as a school visit. Of course if everyone who likes my books reviews them, puts stars on them on online retail websites and recommend to their friends, soon I could stop going to work and write all the time.

In the meantime, I thought it would be fun to tell you how my boss at the day-job gets exasperated with me when I forget I’m not a writer on those three days.

PLEASE DON’T TALK IN RHYME and other exasperations!

© Chitra Soundar

Chitra, you cannot write business requirements in rhyme
and you cannot autograph business contracts with Keep Reading.
Chitra don’t ask your colleagues to join in the chorus in a meeting
and NO! That  video conference was not for making #readoutaloud videos
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kATDWRHMJkw&t=41s
The above video was made at home! Full disclosure!
Chitra please don’t correct sentence structure in every business email
and please don’t ask your staff to imagine an alien and a cow during work hours
Chitra please don’t read out minutes of the minutes like a story
And don’t illustrate your meeting notes
Chitra please don’t clap your hands when you want attention
And don’t organise team meetings into groups of 3
Chitra, please can you stop staring out of the window
and get back to your boring paperwork.

Well, I try most days to be good. Some days, I scribble on the side and some days I get grumpy because I want to be somewhere else. But I should say I have the most understanding day-job ever. They support my writing in very big and small ways. So this is just a tongue-in-cheek poem I wrote, on the way to work.
In part this is inspired by a post that Sarwat Chadda posted on 17th May titled “Shane’s World” about a Walmart employee (from Thunder Dungeon).

Goodbye 2016!

It’s that time of the year again when everyone looks back at the departing year and introspects, ruminates, sighs.

2016 was one such year – where the world’s balance was shaken, politics everywhere has been less about the people they serve, natural disasters occurring more often and some bright lights switched off.

2016 for me personally was a mixed bag as well – but I should say if I don’t count the collective disappointment of Brexit and the US elections, and if I just focussed on the inner nucleus of my writing, it has been a good year. 2016 has been a culmination of hard work from many years and some of those have paid off.

46bfec_f5268c0aea994555b1e2c98fc517784b-mv2My first picture book came out in the UK – Pattan’s Pumpkin (illustrated by Frané Lessac and published by OtterBarry Books) and that definitely gave me a place in the space, a small seat at the table, even though Farmer Falgu has been a roaring success worldwide. And then of course Farmer Falgu himself has decided to fly to the UK with Red Robin Books, which is amazing. Three picture books in the UK certainly gave me some elbow space at the table.

My second title in the Prince Veera series came out with Walker Books – A Jar of Pickles and a Pinch of Justice. And it rekindled interest in the first title too – A Dollop of Ghee and a Pot of Wisdom.AJOP_9781406364675_PC_UK_circ

I got mentioned in a few diverse books list, did a novel length amount of blogging and officially become a Picture Book Den-er. I used to have my nose pressed against the Picture Book Den window and I’ve now been invited in. How cool!

I was at many amazing events this year – as usual the SCBWI conference was a highlight, but more important to that, I proved myself as an accomplished liar at the SCBWI anniversary party. I reconnected with SAS and went to Folly Farm and of course also joined Picture Book Den.

At my MA, we celebrated a summer of events with Vermont MFA students and I made some lasting friends, stood in a queue next to David Almond and listened to some great writers read and speak about their stories. I should mention that a few months after the summer celebrations, recently, in December, I had a one to one session with David Almond (yes, have you fainted?) and he was so inspiring and encouraging. He in fact wanted to read more of the story he had reviewed and it was uplifting.

A bunch of us, from the MA and SCBWI and non-SCBWI friends attended a seminar by John Yorke. What I hadn’t expected was that I would pitch a screenplay on stage on behalf of five of us who worked on an assignment and get commended by the judges and by John Yorke. Small things like these keep me going in search of whatever is the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

POR_seal_800x800_blackAs an author, I was proud to be asked to be Patron of Reading by West Earlham Junior in Norwich. My first trip to Norwich was fabulous, the children so enthusiastic about reading and a wonderful team of teachers, literacy coordinators and believe it or not, a school librarian for real too. Over this year, I’ve visited schools in London, Lincoln, Norwich, Liverpool, Wiltshire and Somerset and performed in festivals in Linton and Medway.

On a personal note, I set aside my shyness and went to a Bollywood dance class., moved to a Wiltshire town to spend half the week writing and playing house like a grown-up when there is no evidence of me ever turning into one. I’ve been watching and photographing birds around where I live, going on walks in the countryside and generally filling the well in my soul.

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I’m thankful to so many friends and all of my family for being there, for booksellers, librarians and teachers who invited me to their schools and children who were kind enough to read my books and tell me about them too. I’ve been blessed with wonderful parents who take joy and pride in my success even if it is as small as placing my first poem in an anthology (Yay!) or releasing two new titles in the UK in their presence. My sister and her brood and my brother-in-law have been enormously supportive and I cherish my time and love of my little nephews who draw with me, play with me, listen to my stories, make up new stories and demonstrate car-crashes almost causing bodily harm.

I don’t know what 2017 will bring. It’s starting with a bang with appearances at the Jaipur Lit Festival, two new book launches and a family wedding. It has the promise of more joy – more festival appearances, more WBD visits and more stories to write. I wonder if I would get comfortable driving a car again next year, see the world around where I live, have a sleepover with my nephews at the new place,  transition from part-time writing to full-time writing, perhaps even unagented to agented? Who knows? That’s what makes it exciting – the not knowing, the struggle, the unexpected success and the cycle of it.

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I wish you all a wonderful 2017 and I hope your dreams come true and you get both what you want and what you need. Read widely, share a lot, smile more and I’m sure we would have chased 2016 back to where it came from. Let’s welcome 2017 with open hearts and warm hugs.

I Write Like I Cook

My first cooking lesson perhaps started when I was six, because I hung around my grandmother, sitting on the kitchen counter, listening to her tell stories from her past, smelling the foods she was making. She taught me how to cook without tasting – just with the smells.

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When I was ten, I really had to cook. A full family meal. I learnt from my Mum who stood outside the kitchen giving me instructions as I nervously mixed and stirred and listening to the number of times the pressure cooker hissed. My mum and my her mother-in-law, my grandmother, didn’t measure any of the spices. Everything was intuitive – a pinch or a handful or just the right quantity. There was no recipe to follow. Nothing was written down. All the cooking was passed down by practice. If I hadn’t spent time in the kitchen arguing over whether the salt went first or the spices, I would have never learnt.

Until I was in my teens, I knew only the regional cuisine I was brought up on. In India every time you crossed a 100 KM you crossed a cuisine line. I grew up in the state of Tamil Nadu, but Tamil Nadu itself has tens of cuisines, all regional, and many passed down from 2000 years ago.

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When my interest in cooking got stronger, I started experimenting with other Indian cuisines. I tried Gujarati food from the west, Punjabi food from the north, Kerala food from the south-west, street food from Mumbai. All vegetarian, and all adapted. I don’t think I ever cooked anything that I didn’t change a bit here and there. Even to my mum’s recipe. In fact, some family recipes have been irrevocably changed and my dad thinks it’s for the good.

As I left the country in late 20s, and moved to Singapore, I remained an Indian foodie. I still experimented – but only with Indian food. foodcourtThe vast array of food courts in Singapore didn’t tempt me one bit – primarily because they did not fathom how anyone could be vegetarian for 7 days a week, 365 days a year and definitely on the extra day in a leap year too.

But I did venture slowly into international food – not necessarily always authentic, but an adventure nevertheless. I started travelling to the west around this time and had to quickly find alternatives to Indian food that didn’t contain egg or fish or meat of any kind. Italian, Greek and some Mexican if you knew the difference between con and san.

Moving to the UK 11 years ago, introduced me to the vast array of supermarket shelves. I walked around the aisles (I still do this in mega big food stores), looking at strange names – Paprika, Sun-dried tomato paste, Rosemary, Thyme, Pesto, Udon noodles and such.westernherbs

I not only learnt to appreciate world cuisine, I wanted to experiment, learn and cook things I liked. My philosophy about food is – learn to cook what you love to eat. That way I never have to wait for someone to cook, or find a restaurant.

Experimenting with new spices from Europe and South America taught me new flavours, new smells, new combinations. I cooked a lot of Mexican food – like vegetarian chili, burritos, tacos. I cooked Italian. I love pasta more than pizza for some reason. And some British food – especially crumbles and pies.
For a while I kept my two interests separate – I cooked Indian food the Indian way and the world cuisine as per downloaded recipes. Then slowly I started mixing and matching. The more confident I got with the spices, the more I experimented.

I started taking traditional Indian recipes and adding western ingredients into it. And voila! These turned out to be my signature dishes. Those that my mum and my sister want the recipes for. Although it still frustrates my sister when I say – just a pinch of this and a trickle of that.

Then I took the western dishes I loved – especially the pasta and started adding Indian ingredients into it. My brother-in-law freaked out. He politely asked me to cook Indian the next time he visited – because he is an authentic foodie and my mixing up food cultures troubled him and kept him awake at night. I’m getting hungry thinking about so much food.

But the point is, I’ve recently realized that my writing has also taken a similar journey and the parallels were obvious when I looked.

When I had started out writing, of course I wrote as per the rules. I didn’t change anything, I didn’t modify anything. Not just from a craft point of view, but also from content – edicts like if you’re a girl, these are the kind of things you wrote about. What was not allowed, I wrote in diaries. I sometimes regret that I destroyed all my diaries before I left India – they contained raw emotions, anger, passion, sorrow, frustration and so much truth. Perhaps as a grown-up I would cringe at my teenage diaries. But nevertheless they would have been more authentic than the stuff I showed others.

I don’t think I ever thought I’d write for publication until I left India. I sent in poems and essays to competitions and magazines.newsletter storytellingprize The kernel of a writer was there. I wanted others to read my stuff. I secretly left my writing where people could see them. I loved it when I won prizes and things got accepted. But never in a million years, a lower middle-class girl could aspire to focus on writing and not a career.
The next stage of my writing started when I reached Singapore. I started writing down my stories on paper. By now the Internet had reached the html stages and I could Ask Jeeves! (remember that?). This was the time when Yahoo was still god and Google hadn’t been born yet.

I read lots and lots of books – craft books and fiction. I wrote every day. I sent out stuff every week. Many returned, one or two found their place. At this time, I wasn’t sure what type of writer I was – as much as I didn’t know what food I loved other than Indian. I wrote business articles that were published in the national newspaper. I wrote inspirational essays; I wrote short story and the first one was published in the Singapore Airlines magazine. I was experimenting in the kitchen and in my notebook.singaporeair

When I settled on children’s writing, I knew why. My imagination was too bizarre and weird for grownups. I wanted wishing chairs, my own faraway tree and witches and goblins and magic. I settled down into writing children’s fiction the same time I settled into my Indian cooking. I had experimented, I had figured it out and I was happy where I was.

When I came to the UK, it was a completely different ball game. I bumped into serious talent and I quickly realized I had to up my game. But it took a long time to understand how.

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As with my cooking, and experimentation with western cuisines, I realized there was a perception that I had to figure out. Indian food had to be a certain thing – curry. People thought they knew what authentic curry was and they didn’t want an Indian telling them how it should be. It was the same in the stories I wrote. I was told what I should be writing or what was authentic. And when I experimented with western cuisine, and western plots, stories, characters, that didn’t go down well either.

Like in my cooking, I realised my authentic experience was not in the popular experience. I wasn’t sure if I had to write only Indian stories that matched the accepted norm, would I be “exploiting” my heritage just to get published. It was like cooking “curry” for a dinner party instead of cooking my authentic south Indian food. I had to connect to India in every story.

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Because for many gatekeepers, my “western” stories were like being invited to an Indian home and being served fish and chips. They had come expecting Sag Aloo and Naans.
I switched gears very slowly. Many writing workshops later, many retreats, lectures, random courses, tens of SCBWI events later, I was figuring myself out. This was not just a writer’s journey. I had to figure out my identity – I had become a British citizen but I wasn’t born here. I had to deal with the conflict of my identity as a person and as a writer.

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Less than half a decade ago, the recipe started to take shape. I could smell the spices, I could figure out the pinch and the trickle. I did exactly the same in the kitchen and in my writing – I blended my experiences in. I’m different and I am one. I’m a contradiction and I’m ambiguous.

Like the brinjal fry (brinjal is aubergine, just in case you were wondering), I made with my mum’s recipe modified with sun-dried tomato paste, I mixed the ingredients in the writing. I started figuring out how I could bring an authentic story to a western audience. I think I’m still figuring it out. Like how I still go to explore spice shelves in supermarkets, to find the ingredient that I could add to my mother’s spice box, I’m constantly learning how to blend my experience growing up in India with my world citizenship.

Sometimes the spice combinations don’t work. Sometimes they blow my taste buds and it becomes a classic recipe. Same way, some stories just work. Some struggle and stay inside my notebooks.

As I said, I cook the same way I write. I’m richer for the new spices I’ve learnt to use. I’m one person with multiple experiences. What’s authentic to me would never be authentic to my next-door neighbour in India who grew up right next to me. We had similar experiences and different ones. Who is to say which one is more authentic?

There is no single story to humanity. All our stories are universal and unique at the same time.
So next time you visit me, ask for some authentic Indian food and don’t gasp when you don’t see the curry takeaway staples on it. As for the stories, I can only hope I stay true to my characters and spin a good yarn. Like with food, the writer or the cook is only part of the experience. They have to be completed by a reader or a guest. Come and have a taste. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Happy Birthday Mr Dahl

Yesterday was Roald Dahl’s 100th birth anniversary. His estate is celebrating it worldwide with movies, jars with hedgehogs and such and hopefully more reading too.

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I came to Dahl’s books much later in life after I moved to England in 2006 – and I wish I had known about his books when I was growing up. I grew up with Enid Blyton’s books. The Magic Faraway tree made me imagine and inspired my first made up oral story. But in many ways they were still not as subversive as Dahl’s books. I wish I could have read the wacky and crazy anti-establishment books like The Twits or Matilda or Fantastic Mr Fox or even The Enormous Crocodile.

As a kid I flew under the radar mostly, unnoticed and invisible, except for a few verbal outbursts and once in a while doing some unexpected things that I must admit my mum let me do and my dad never knew about. Before you go imagining anything wild like crawling under the neighbour’s fence (we had a wall) or exploring ancient caves (we lived in a city), it wasn’t anything like that.

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At 6 I switched my choice of 2nd language at school. We had to study at least two Indian languages in school – one main and one like an elective but at Y1. I went into my Y1 class for the first day and switched my languages to opposite of what was filled in my admission form. I wrote a radio song at 8; wrote poems and essays and went on stage along with our neighbours until we were 15. We didn’t know it was anything unusual.

Apart from these approved extra curricular all I did was read and follow rules. I didn’t want to break rules or crockery if I can manage it although I was thin as a blade of grass and clumsy like a clown. Who knew in the future I would be fat and go to clown classes.

But I was a serious kid – worried about orphans in the SOS village, wrote passionate (but bad) poetry, raised money for my mum’s charity, gathered friends to publish a neighbourhood newspaper and didn’t get jokes that people made about me all the time. My coping mechanism was reading and writing. What I read expanded my imagination. I dreamt up elaborate situations in my head and had an entirely new family in my head (Ssh! My real family doesn’t know still). I was shy, easily intimidated and in awe of style and fashion and girls who could be confident. I am still like that – I just have learnt how to hide it better.

So the Enid Blyton books and Nancy Drew stories were all about following rules anyway and my stories were like that – should I say – are like that. I wrote quiet and serious stories and even if I have managed to put some funny bits, my stories are not yet wild and absurd. When I met Andy Stanton a few years ago to join the course he was going to teach at Faber – that’s what I told him – I want to learn to let loose – make my stories jump out of bins and tins, sing loudly at traffic lights and hop around the tube station with a mask. He just smiled. Perhaps he wondered if that could ever be taught or learnt. But he was immensely supportive during the course.

When I read amazingly absurd stories I wonder – would reading Dahl as a kid have helped? I think it would have. It would have made me a different person in the head and in real life too. Since 2006, I have managed to read all of Dahl mostly including his short stories and biography and I wish I could have immersed in his world as a kid. Today with my nephew I am getting the reputation of CRAZY AUNT – he is a serious 4 year old who asks me not to be silly when I dance like a clown and make faces. I am going to put Dahl into his hands as soon as he can read on his own and get him to soak up the crazy wacky subversive world. Life is too serious for us to take it seriously. I’ve changed over the years; I know I can be whatever I want to be. But I wish I could have known that when I was 6 or 7 or 8.

I’ve changed since writing for children and still changing. Every children’s book I read, opens up my imagination and shows me more possibilities and I forget I’m a grownup. I still read children’s books for pleasure and I would rather be inside the pages of a funny Roald Dahl than look up and see President Trump (or our PM for that matter) on the telly. Sometimes I wonder what he would happen if we let some of Dahl’s characters loose on him. That’d make a great movie.

Anyway, Happy Birthday Mr Dahl. Your books are needed for every child to take refuge in, forget whatever the dire situation they are in and revel in the anarchy. Thank you to everyone who edited and published the books, to Quentin Blake who gave us the pictures. I’m off to find a crazy villain for my own stories.

Looking Back at 2015

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The year is almost over and as I scan my timeline for 2015 on social media and at the blogs I wrote this year – I must admit it has been a full year in more ways than one.

2015 started with a bang. Anansi’s New Web was accepted by OUP Pakistan after a long wait. The story had taken 7 years from creation to acceptance and the news came on New Year’s Day. Read about it here.

pongal_007Mid-January is Harvest festival in India and Farmer Falgu visited many homes during this festive period. Watch this space in 2016 for a story about how such celebrations led to Farmer Falgu – Book 4.

 

Recommended by the eminent Jan Blake, CLPE invited me to tell stories in February. I had a blast telling stories from India to children from various schools. Look at the photos here.

11021052_818744094884625_3675444683418509908_n2015 was my first World Book Day as an author. I did a whopping 17 school visits in 6 weeks – across many parts of England. I told stories, made up stories with the children and introduced Farmer Falgu and Veera to many children. Some glimpses captured on camera here.

Clever camel8x150Clever Camel (illustrated by Eugene Ruble) was published by Guardian Angel Publishing in July. Cheeky camel did a round of visits in Bexley and Slade Green community libraries in the summer.

I visited two libraries and a school in India via Skype this year. Miraculously the technology worked and we had roaring fun. The stories that we created during such sessions are available to read here.

Farmer Falgu and I also managed a Google Hangout session with 3 homes directly connected to me and we read the stories with the parents and children. Technology here was a bit on the rough side – something to work out for 2016. Find out more about our tele-story sessions here.

Falgu_1_FrenchCover falgu-2-japan-web2015 also marked new milestones for Farmer Falgu. He got his passport stamped in France and Japan. Find out more about these books here. The story of Farmer Falgu’s journey across continents is told here.

2015 also saw signing of new contracts for a number of books.

adollopofgheeI signed with Walker Books for a second title to tell more stories about Veera and Suku, which is due out in 2016. Watch this space.

Farmer Falgu 3&4 are also in the making and hopefully available to buy in 2016 as well. Karadi Tales also commissioned a new title Varsha’s Varanasi (illustrated by Soumitra Ranade) which is in final stages of production now and due to be out in 2016 as well.

cover_chitraScholastic India signed me up for 3 titles of reading and activity book based on my favourite Panchatantra stories (illustrated by Nimisha Saikia). Those would be out in 2016 as well. Find out more about this here.

pattan_coverTo top it all my first picture book in the UK – Pattan’s Pumpkin was commissioned, illustrated and ready for Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015. The amazing Frane Lessac and I hit it off big time and we are hoping to have a blast with Otter-Barry Books. Expect some Indian pumpkin recipes too to mark the book’s release.

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All of us in our group sans Jay at the Christmas lunch in a nearby pizzeria

I must also reveal to those who don’t know already that I finally took the plunge and signed up to do my Masters in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. With the first module under my belt, I am excited to be on this journey to push the boundaries of my writing, discover my strengths and fix my weaknesses. I have amazing tutors and fabulous classmates and this is a dream come true in so many ways. Yes it is tough to juggle life with work and writing and a Masters degree. But that’s the joy of it – life is full of happy challenges, and no minute is wasted.

IMG_2247I should also mention that before my Masters started, I snuck in a short course of writing poetry for children with Roger McGough and Rachel Rooney at Arvon. What a fab week it was.

In 2015 I also visited three other schools in the second part of the year – each one different and fun in so many ways. From down the road in Shadwell to all the way in Lancashire (thinking of everyone there during the floods), I met with so many kids and brought Farmer Falgu and Gola and Balu to them from faraway India.

Through the year, I have become more conscious of diversity in children’s publishing in the UK, discussed Indian books in detail with various professionals in India and finding my voice as a BAME writer (or should I say a writer from multiple heritages). Read some of those interviews here. As part of this conscious effort, I also created a list of South Asian books for children – Saffron Stories.

In 2015 I launched the Kids Zone site for all things kids – activities, puzzles, recipes – all based on my books. All resources are free. Get them here.

Now it is nearing 2016. It’s been a busy year – writing, discovering, learning, teaching, travelling and meeting friends. I have made new friends and renewed connections with many old friends. I often think of myself as the people collector and I am glad my collection has grown both on Facebook and in real life.friends

I travelled with my parents to 6 towns in South India to discover the places my father lived as a boy and some places I lived as a child.

And with all this going on – I have read over 50 books this year and I still haven’t dented my ever-toppling tower of books to read.

In the last week of 2015, here I am in India, committed for two more events. I visited my favourite haunt in Chennai – Just Books Anna Nagar (27th December) to do a talk and sign books. It was a roaring success (even if I say so myself). I am reading a book to Karadi Tales team on the 31st December – a perfect round-off for a perfect year.

What would 2016 bring? What am I wishing for?

Well the list is long as usual and this is just for my writing life. My wish-list is usually my to-do list too – I believe in making things happen on my own. luck-quoteHowever there are some things only luck and fate can bring. So I have one wish for Santa (right at the end….)

  • I want more time to read the ever-toppling mountain of amazing books.
  • Of course more time to write and experiment with words and stories.
  • I want to take the time to fill the well – be inspired, be open to experiences of all sorts and let loose my imagination.
  • My MA would be in full swing and I would start on my final manuscript. I could use all the help and energy I can get to make this the best it could be.

christmas-296381_960_720And Santa if you’re listening, I wish for an Amazing Agent who would take me on and believe in me as a writer, so that I could write full-time.

I wish every one of you – friends – writers and illustrators, editors and publishers, readers, parents of readers, librarians, teachers – A WONDERFUL NEW YEAR!

Happy New Year!