Thursday, March 31, 2011

Interview With YA Fantasy Author Mahtab Narsimhan

I am delighted to have fantasy author Mahtab Narsimhan join me today in a chat about writing, inspiration, transformation and fantasy! 

Mahtab is a fellow Canadian and her latest novel is The Deadly Conch, the conclusion to the Tara Trilogy (Dundurn Press). I was so thrilled to find another South Asian woman writing fantasy YA when I met Mahtab in Toronto last year, and I immediately knew I wanted to learn more about her. 

Please join me in welcoming Mahtab!

NM: Please tell us about your publishing journey. Did you go the traditional route - getting an agent, then querying publishers?

MN: The road to publication of The Third Eye had quite a few pot holes. It took me about a year and a half to write it. I tried to get an agent and thought I was very fortunate when I landed one at a very reputable agency in Toronto. Unluckily she was not at all right for me or my manuscript. Rejections poured in. She gave up on me after eight months of trying to sell the manuscript. I was quite devastated at the time and ready to give up. But I had invested so much time, effort and sweat in this story that I was compelled to see it through. Also, this was a tribute to my dad. I told myself; I would give up on this manuscript only when every publisher in the world had rejected it.

I joined a critique group called Kidcrit, started by writer, Marsha Skrypuch. Fellow writers who are now close friends helped me streamline the manuscript – “sleekification” in kidcritter terminology! 

At an OLA conference in Jan 2007 I got my first break. Marsha introduced me to the Barry Jowett, the editorial director at Dundurn. He asked to see my manuscript and I sent it to him expecting yet another rejection. Two years of rejection had primed me too well to hope for anything else. To my shock and utter amazement, he said. He wanted to publish my book. What followed was a week of walking on air, a few months of agony as the contract was finalized and signed, and the joy of holding my first book in my hands, knowing that it was born out of countless hours of writing and rewriting but above all, not giving up.

NM: What an inspiring story!! I love tales about people not giving up on something they really believe in. I'm so glad you didn't give up.

So many South Asians writing in English seem to be writing contemporary realistic novels. Why did you choose to go the fantasy route?

MN: I love fantasy as a genre, always have, and always will. I started out reading a lot of Enid Blyton as a child and my favourite then used to be the Faraway Tree series. It was about the adventures of three siblings who discovered a magic tree in the forest which bordered their backyard. Every week, an exciting world floated to the top of the tree. Sometime it was fun, like the land of birthdays or the land of chocolate. Sometimes the world had dangerous goblins or wizards who captured the children as slaves.

Since then, numerous series have caught my interest. Noteworthy are The Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman and the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. Also love Philip Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go. Life is tedious enough without having to dwell on it even when I am writing. Fantasy fiction allows me the freedom to veer away from the routine to the totally unpredictable, the fun, and the unimaginable. 

I realized that Asian protagonists were under-represented in children’s literature. I find Indian mythology quite fascinating and thought it would be great to bring it to the world in an interesting and palatable form.

NM: Speaking of palatable forms, I recently wrote a guest post on the dearth of genre stories available for young readers - for example, there are very few romances or mysteries or humour books featuring South Asians in YA. And YA author Y.S. Lee wrote a post called "Antidotes to Earnestness" where she writes that so many Asian-American books tend be "Earnest and Moralistic". Do you have any thoughts on this, and what would the teen Mahtab have liked to read?

MN: Loved your post, Neesha, and look forward to reading Jazz in Love. To answer your question, I believe literature subconsciously reflects the beliefs prevalent at a particular time or of a particular people. I think Asians were brought up this way. This is our culture and our way of life, or at least it used to be when I was growing up. Education and study took precedence over fun and frivolity. Education was the ticket to freedom from poverty for most average Asians, and they were driven to be academic over-achievers by their parents.

In a country where a billion people are struggling to survive, the situation is not in the least amusing and it’s no wonder that so many books written by authors who must now be in their fifties are serious and dealing with the problems of the time. A classic example is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. A poignant and brilliant book, but not in the least light-hearted. I honestly cannot recall what I read as I teen but a couple of books that come to mind are Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. And you will notice, both are very serious books. I would have loved something light and funny but I’m not even sure what the teen me would have liked. I used to be quite serious then.

NM: Yes, the serious literature is important and necessary, without a doubt. My issue, personally, is with the fact that for the longest time, that is all we seemed to see. Things are changing at a snail's pace, but it is happening. Hooray for more diverse stories featuring the full gamut of experiences of people of colour!

What are your thoughts on some of the changes happening in publishing, with the explosion of e-readers and digital technology? Are you enthusiastic, or worried?

MN: With the way technology is moving, it was inevitable. As long as our publishers change and adapt to keep up with the times, and we authors continue to get a fair deal for our work, I think we will continue to produce books which will be read by an even greater audience, especially those who would never pick up a book but can read a ton of material on their iPhones or iPads.

There are pros and cons to every situation. We just have to figure out the pros and learn how to use them to the best of everyone’s advantage.

NM: Definitely. Having more options is always a good thing :). You've mentioned that you are a working writer. How do you manage your time between promoting books, blogging, social media, writing, and working? Give us a snapshot of your typical day.

MN: I have a set time, a set place and a goal every day. Every morning from about 6 am to 8 am I devote to writing and I have to churn out 1500 words a day. This includes Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. And yes, even on my birthday!

An interesting fact I discovered is that most habits, good or bad, take about two weeks to form. I have followed this routine, i.e. writing early in the morning in my basement office and giving myself a daily quota, for the last six years. It’s a deeply ingrained habit and allows me to complete the first draft of a novel in about four to six months. In fact, now, if I have not finished my “homework” on a daily basis, I feel terribly guilty and even cranky.

I work with my husband at his office from about 9 am to about 6pm. Evenings are for research, social media and other activities.

I’ve learned over the years that no task is herculean if you break it down into little chunks and attack it every day. That hold true even for writing a novel.

NM: I envy your discipline! Something I keep trying to work on (grin). Will have to try that two week trick...

What is the best fan feedback you've ever received?

MN: I read your book within a day because I just could not put it down.

This was for The Third Eye and I was so pleased! To have your fans devour a book that took you years to write, in a few hours means I accomplished what I set out to do. I knew then, all that trouble, heartache and frustration was worth it!

NM: And I'm sure that reader spoke for dozens of others who are too shy to get in touch!

Tell us your favourite part of writing your trilogy, besides seeing it published :).

MN: For me, writing is a process of self-discovery. I didn’t realize it when I was writing the trilogy but seven years later when I wrote the synopsis for all three novels and the over-arching theme, I realized it was all about believing in yourself and not letting fear stop you from doing what you have to do. Fear of change and of the unknown have always been a huge source of anxiety for me and in writing this story I worked through it along with my feisty heroine,Tara.

Since 2009 when I finished the trilogy, I have embraced a philosophy of change and of constantly challenging myself. I’m surprised and proud to realize that I can meet anything head on without the numbing paralysis that used to overwhelm me at one time.

I quit my full-time, well paying job of twelve years to help my husband, thereby starting a fifth career (I have worked as a Front Office manager, a credit card sales executive, a recruiter, and a VP Operations previously). I learned how to do school presentations, starting with an audience of seventy-five students and working my way up to three thousand. Public speaking no longer terrifies me.

And now whenever I am presented with an opportunity that scares me, I make sure my answer is yes. I’ve never regretted it to date.

NM: I love bold, brave and daring women! I wish you much success with your books, Mahtab, and thank you, again, for taking the time to graciously answer all my questions.

EVERYONE, go buy Mahtab's books here and visit her (very cool) website here!

1 comment:

Mahtab said...

Thanks, Neesha,

Enjoyed chatting with you and wish you all the very best, too!


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