Surviving to tell the tale

Former pharmaceutical copywriter Pia Padukone discusses her novel-writing life.

June 28, 2014 04:39 pm | Updated 04:39 pm IST

Daughter of a dentist who plays the tabla and a copywriter who is a classical singer, Pia Padukone studied at Manhattan’s tuition-free Stuyvesant High School, known for its academically gifted students. After graduating from the London School of Economics, she became a pharmaceutical copywriter. Now, at 32, her debut novel, Where Earth Meets Water , published in the US and India by Harlequin’s literary fiction imprint, Mira, has won both critical acclaim and a second-book deal that frees her to be a fulltime writer. Recently, she talked to The Hindu about her life and her work.

What’s your novel about?

It’s about the fragility of life and a young man’s survivor guilt — over 9/11, the tsunami and the Boston bombings. The story was inspired by my real-life experiences. My summer job on the 82nd floor of the World Trade Center ended just four days before the Towers fell; then, in 2004, I was on Puri beach, 200 miles from the tsunami; and last year, when my husband ran the Boston marathon, I’d walked past those bombs to meet him at the finish line.

Why did you make the protagonist a man?

It might have been too close to home to make the central character a woman. I put myself in Gita, the strong woman who is Karom’s girlfriend. The first chapter was written as a short story, and then expanded into a novel.

Was it hard to get published?

I’d sent out multiple query letters to US literary agents and got no response, so I tried Penguin India. Within six weeks, their fiction editor accepted my book. It was scary because I wondered if this is the right amount of money. What about international rights? In America, agents help you figure out such things. So I found — via Google! — a New York-based Indian agent who represents authors in India. She suggested selling the book to a US publisher — for more money — and shopped it around until Harlequin Mira came through for both countries.

Working fulltime, how did you find time to write?

I’d write from 6.30 to 8.30 a.m. It took me a year to write the novel. Then, I got extensive notes from my American editor on the changes to be made. It was very humbling.

Are your characters based on real people?

Kamini is based on my two grandmothers. My mother’s mother is a feisty, independent writer who, at 87, writes nonfiction, in English, for Kanara Saraswat magazine; my father’s mother was a sweet, caring, nurturing woman who lived in Bangalore. Anamma died before she could read my novel, Ajji read it and then, like Kamini, she learned to use the computer!

What’s your second novel about?

It’s about two families — one in New York, the other in Tallin, Estonia. It’s based on my brother’s student-exchange with a Hungarian family whose son came to live with us. We’ve stayed close to that family, I made them Estonian to avoid being autobiographical. My husband Rohit and I visited Estonia to research my novel. I’m rushing to complete it — before our first child is born — at a writers’ colony over the next month.

Talk about your eating/reading blog.

I write “Two Admirable Pleasures” with Rohit who’s such an incredibly talented cook that I don’t enter the kitchen. He works in finance, so cooking’s his release. He considers the five-six ingredients in our fridge and comes up with dinner every night, using Indian spices to make non-Indian food. I cook one day a week when he’s at his running club. I’m a voracious reader and crave the foods mentioned in whatever book I’m reading. I tell him what I feel like and he comes up with a recipe to fill my emotional void. As a novice stockbroker, he’d lived frugally and found that cooking was the cheapest way to eat. Starting with basic recipes, he discovered fine food. Now he can recreate the best restaurants’ recipes.

You’ve also been an actress?

Acting’s fun but my passion is directing. In college, I saw Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues , a one-woman play based on interviews with women world-wide about this taboo word. This funny, sad, heart-warming play about women’s sexual discovery has been staged all over the world — even in Mumbai — by community-based volunteers, not professional actresses. I’ve directed it three times, including in London and New York. The money raised is donated to women’s causes.

Describe your writing life.

I started writing poetry early, and then I wrote my first ‘novel’ at 10. It was about a girl who wants to swim the English Channel. My grandfather saw me writing it and gave me his typewriter, saying “Bang away!” At 12, I enrolled in a writing group and the instructor submitted my story to Barnard College’s writing contest. One had to be 18 to enter but she must have fudged it — somehow, I won that contest. It was an ego boost. I knew then, that I wanted to write and was lucky to have a young mentor. After that, I won Seventeen magazine’s Fiction Writing Award for a short story and, later, another for “flash fiction” — a 700-word story. For five years, I’ve been in a three-member writing group. We critique each other’s work via Skype sessions.

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