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‘Writing is difficult'

At 26, Prajwal Parajuly has just started a creative writing course at Kellogs College, Oxford University. He has also become the youngest person to sign a two-book deal with Quercus, London. His first, a collection of short stories that chronicles the lives of Nepali-speaking people the world over, is scheduled for publication in December 2012 (Penguin Books India will represent Prajwal when his books are published in India). At a time when publishers, especially in the U.K., are averse to publishing short stories, the buzz around Prajwal's debut seems to indicate that this young author might herald a resurgence of the short story. Excerpts from an interview:

You're a writer at a young age. Was this always the plan?

Could have been, although I wasn't always aware of it. I knew I would write a book someday, but these days even people who can barely distinguish an adjective from an adverb think they are born to write. I had some excellent English teachers in school. The encouragement to write seriously had always been there, but I didn't think of writing as a career until much later. At Truman State University, in Kirksville, Missouri, where I was an undergrad, I was a communication major. The writing and editing then were hardly “creative”. Most of what I did was journalistic writing. I took no English classes except Writing as Critical Thinking, which was mandatory.

Because Professor Evelyn Carlson was an amazing teacher, I took a Creative Writing class with her later; not because of a burgeoning interest in Creative Writing but because she was teaching it. She, too, asked me to take my writing seriously, but what do you do when you're 19? You have far more interesting things to occupy you than strengthening your verbs and pondering about the intricacies of plotting.

After graduation, I moved to work as an advertising executive at The Village Voice; it was an amazing job for somebody fresh off college. It came with the cool factor, the right invites and entailed very little real work. Again, all wonderful things until you begin questioning where your life is headed and if that's what you will do until you're 50. So I quit. I travelled the length and breadth of India with my college roommate and began writing when he — an accountant who absolutely despised writing — started blogging to keep in touch with his family back home. Once he was gone, I flew to Manali, rented a room in a no-frills hotel called The Raj Guesthouse and wrote while every drug-addled human around me partied until the wee hours. After some time there, I returned home and became more serious. I completed a good portion of the book at home and the rest during my first year at Oxford.

Give us a little insight into the stories.

I am a Nepali-speaking Indian, and my stories mostly deal with people like me; our problems, our quest for an identity. My mother is from Nepal, so I have a story or two based there. Sometimes, as it happened in the case of my father and mother, people of the two worlds come together and a story is born. I also write about things that affect me; like Bhutan, the most beautiful country in the world, performing the most heinous, ruthless acts. You need to go to the Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal to see what the country has done to its people. Some say it's the Nepali-speaking Bhutanese people's fault for having triggered protests galore in the country. If that's the case, you discipline them, perhaps jail them. You don't herd them out of their country and forget about them. It's a big problem, the effects of which will reverberate for years to come.

Would there be a message, a specific, central idea that you've tried to convey through your stories?

I doubt if the stories have a specific, central idea. These are stories of people like you and me set in a Nepali-speaking backdrop.

Was there anything particularly challenging about writing your first book?

See, you know nothing when you write your first book. At least I knew nothing. It wasn't until I signed with my agent that I discovered that virtually no publishing house in the UK took on short-story collections from debut writers. It was very brave of Susan (at the Susan Yearwood Literary Agency) to have signed me based only on a very rough draft of a few stories and an incomplete manuscript. I'd say that it helped that I was ignorant of the market when I wrote the book. Had I known of the step-daughterly treatment meted out of short-story collections, I may not have even attempted it. I had the most difficult time disciplining myself when working on the book. I'd work for 17-hour stretches for two or three days and do nothing for weeks. It was very unhealthy. My sleep pattern was a mess. It still is.

How has the sudden catapult into stardom been so far?

It's been insane. We knew that the book deal would create a buzz, but no one would have anticipated the fervour that the acquisition of the books by Quercus provoked. It helps that I am from India. It helps that I am a student. “Student gets a book deal” is a story that touches people's hearts. I have stopped Googling myself because I often find that it's not your book that's being discussed. People are talking about you. There are lingering moments of nervousness. What if the writing doesn't live up to the hype? What if the books disappoint critics? I then tell myself that nothing really matters. I am doing what I want to do, writing about what I want to write, so if someone has an issue with that, it shouldn't bother me. I have realised a good way not to be affected by your sudden fame is not to take it seriously at all. Laugh about everything. And then you receive an earnest message on Facebook about how you've inspired this person to pursue his passions, and you know you can't simply laugh that off. What can I say? It's been tricky, unexpected and a little weird. Sometimes, the pressure is massive. I am trying to learn to enjoy it while simultaneously not being affected by it. The media attention on me happened the same time Kingwa Kamencu , an Oxford cohort, declared her candidacy to become the president of Kenya. The media have gone crazy covering her and her campaign. It helps that someone close to you is going through the same thing you are. We exchange notes and help keep each other grounded. All that helps.

Tell us a little about your novel. After a collection of stories, how easy or difficult is it to write novel?

So far, I feel writing a novel is a lot easier than writing a collection of short stories. Ask me the same question in a month, and I might have a different answer. In a short story, there is so much to be resolved in a few thousand words. In a novel, you can go on and on. Or so I think. The novel is a family saga of a family from Gangtok with characters living all over the world. I haven't reached the point in the novel where I am stuck. I will be in a few days. And then I will whine about just how easy writing the anthology.

How much of your own life is in these writings?

I wouldn't say there's very much of my life in these writings. Sure, I write what I know about, but that doesn't mean my life is plastered everywhere in the book. A character might share his quirk with me. Someone in the book might look like my sister. Another one might share his name with a good friend. That's the extent to which my life is in the writings. We Nepali-speaking people have fascinating rituals, amazing foods, great customs...to encapsulate all that in my stories seemed only the natural thing to do.

What do you read yourself? Any influences or inspirations you'd like to name?

Wodehouse, Tom Wolfe, Nabakov, Austen. Oh, and Enid Blyton. How amazing her books are. I still read and re-read them. Let me tell you something -- every time I come to India, I make it a point to pick up Indian magazines. It's heart-warming to see so many new magazines come up every day. Have you read the Indian GQ? The writing in it is stellar! Our burgeoning reading population makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Just 10 years ago, we barely had any good things to read, and now, we have one quality publication after another. And the publishing houses: so many of them, some small, others international. We must have a higher number of new publishing houses than any other country in the world. It's such an exciting time to be a writer in India.

Any advice for other young aspiring authors?

If you think you have a story to tell and you're a decent writer, go for it. We've become too pragmatic a country. We don't take risks. Middle-class India is still stuck in the IIT/IIM rut. It's by far the most dangerous educational phenomenon I have witnessed. Kids aiming to get into these institutes from eighth grade onward? Parents should be caned for bringing up children that way. (Again, if the children are thankful, who am I to talk?) An upper-middle-class Indian child these days goes abroad to study, gets sucked into America's corporate workforce, orgasms when he or she gets the green card and lives a faceless, nameless existence. Which is all wonderful if that's what you want to do. If you don't, there's little point doing it. Write. Get an internship. Work for a paper. Work for a literary magazine. Read. Explore. Travel. If you're worried about finances, work for a few years, save a little and then write. It's about making your life work for you. Get a mentor — someone who believes in you. Writing is difficult. It's challenging. But if that's what you think you're meant to do, then do it. Start working on it now!

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Printable version | Mar 9, 2021 12:40:58 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/writing-is-difficult/article2573398.ece

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