Author Highlight: Deepa Agarwal Discusses her New Book ‘You Cannot Have All the Answers’ and Stories from her Life
It’s time for another author interview. Today, with us, we have Deepa Agarwal, who currently lives in New Delhi, India. She entered this profession by contributing general interest pieces to newspapers and magazines but eventually found a comfortable niche in the world of children’s books. Now, her writing career is more than thirty years old. An avid reader from early childhood, Deepa firmly believes that all the books she read made her into a writer. She loves to travel and among her most popular books, the historical adventure novel Caravan to Tibet is set in picturesque Munsiyari and nineteenth century Tibet.
Why did you decide to write mostly for children?
It happened by chance. I was free lancing for all kinds of magazines. My children were young and I used to subscribe to a magazine called Target for them. One day I decided to try my hand at a children’s story. It was not accepted but I received a very encouraging note from the editor, Rosalind Wilson. My third attempt was successful and little by little I was drawn into this field. After I made my reputation as a children’s writer, my articles and stories for adults became fewer and fewer.
Why is it important to inculcate the reading habit in children?
Reading is not only one of the most rewarding leisure activities for children, but opens up the world for them in many different ways. They are exposed to a variety of experience, discover new cultures and acquire language and communication skills. Reading develops creativity and an imaginative and empathetic worldview. A reader will never suffer from boredom or loneliness since she can find diversion and companionship in a book. She will also be more understanding about other beliefs and ways of life.
Many writers stick to one genre of writing but you write in different genres and for different age groups. Explain why?
Well, this is a little hard to explain. Many writers stick to a specific genre and it becomes their signature brand. Or they feel comfortable writing for a specific age group and become known for it. My reading habits are partly the reason why I write for different age groups and in different genres. I was so addicted to books as a child that sometimes for want of anything else I passed my time reading dictionaries and encyclopedias. My taste in reading still ranges from poetry to popular detective stories, horror fiction to classics and contemporary literary works. My work reflects this variety. It’s also because different kinds of stories take root in my head at different times. So, it’s not really a conscious decision to dabble in different genres but just the story that takes hold of me.
Do you think writing a book from the comfort of bedroom or study-room is better? Where do you prefer to write? Do you go to some specific place, like the beachside or into the hills?
Actually, I have learned to adapt and write almost anywhere. On journeys, airport lounges and doctor’s waiting rooms. Mostly, however, I work at my desk or in my bedroom. Quiet is important, so a library is the ideal place but it’s not always convenient for me to commute to a library. I enjoy writing in the hills, but solitude is the most important thing. If I can have complete solitude, my output is much better.
Did you do extensive research before penning down this book or was it something based on personal experience?
My recent short story collection did not require much research except for one historical story. Many of the stories are based on incidents I witnessed or were narrated to me or a chance remark overheard. Some of them have roots in some event or conversation that puzzled me as a child. Caravan to Tibet is the book that demanded most research, many years of it. My biographies too required considerable research and even some of my early children’s books. I feel it’s important to present facts as accurately as I can.
Do you always keep your audience in mind when writing?
Not necessarily. The organic flow of the story is interrupted if you keep wondering how your audience will respond. When writing for children, you do have to make sure you maintain a child’s eye view and live in a child’s world of experience. That usually comes quite naturally when your characters have taken shape and you have entered the head of say, an eleven-year-old girl. I usually deal with issues like child friendly language and dialogue while revising.
An author always runs the risk of being rejected by publishers. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers about coping with rejection?
This is something that you have to understand and accept when you decide to take up a writing career, that rejection is an occupational hazard. Since it feels like a direct blow to your self-esteem it is very hard to cope with. But it’s not the end of the world. You have to learn to recognize that there are many reasons for rejection and some may not necessarily reflect on the quality of your writing. An editor’s response could be subjective, your work may not fit into the policy of the publishing house, it may not be marketable—there are numerous reasons. A good way to cope is to remind yourself about all the famous works that were rejected several times before they became famous. Again, do study the publisher’s submission guidelines and try to find a beta reader to give you honest feedback to spare yourself heartache. Don’t be lazy about revising thoroughly. And if you get several rejections, put it on the back burner and move on to another work.
At present there are a lot of creative writing courses and workshops to help aspiring writers, as well as a great deal of material on craft and technique on the Internet. How did new authors learn the techniques of creating good fiction when you began writing?
We learned on the job! This is where avid readers have an advantage. You absorb the basics of story writing, like the elements of plot construction, developing characters, pacing the action in the course of your reading. It was also very helpful that I found an excellent editor when I began writing. She would discuss your story, take it apart, analyze its strengths and weaknesses. That was a real learning experience. Not many editors in our country do that. I always feel that a good part of the credit for a successful book goes to the editor. And when there isn’t any editorial contribution, it shows.
Should authors write with a particular purpose in mind? Tell us something about ‘You Cannot Have All the Answers’ your short story collection for grown-ups which has been recently launched by Niyogi Books.
It is not essential to write with a purpose in mind. The idea should be to tell a story that a reader will always remember. If it conveys values or explores social issues all the better. You Cannot Have All the Answers is a collection of stories written over a long period of time. Many of them explore women’s concerns but I did not write them because I wanted to focus on women’s issues. It was more of a natural response to everyday situations and contemplating the hypocrisies of middle class life. The title story is about the innocent romanticism of youth when you feel even heartbreak would be an uplifting experience. “Cradle Song” is a partition story based on an incident a neighbor narrated to me. It was supposed to be a tale of communal harmony but became the story of a neglected girl child. “The Path” is about a group of defeated soldiers compelled to flee the battlefield. Some of the stories are about girls and women taking radical decisions or coping with adverse circumstances in their own way, sexual exploitation and same sex love. Since they were written at different times, there is variety in theme and style.
What inspired you to write this book? Any stories to tell…
As I mentioned earlier, I was trying to make sense of incidents I had witnessed both as a child and as an adult, to find answers to the riddles of existence that baffle many of us. Why was a girl who had made the mistake of eloping permanently branded as a bad character, for example? What happens to a family when a middle-aged father abandons them? Why must a girl always bow to the wishes of her parents? I had written these stories for magazines at different times and wanted to put them together in a collection. Since publishers are not keen on short story collections I was rejected several times. When I learned that Niyogi Books had recently brought out some collections I felt encouraged to approach them. I was overjoyed when they accepted it.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?
“Breaking in” was very gradual and far from dramatic when I began. It was more like slipping in. I think I had already developed a good writing style in my school days. That is the most important thing for a writer. Also, I persisted and didn’t let the rejections defeat me. It definitely helps if you are passionate about writing and have not taken up the profession just to acquire fame and mint money. That was simply not possible when I began my career. I became a writer more because it was something I enjoyed doing and was content with the small rewards it brought me. Of course, the scene is very different for writers now. If you are not ambitious you won’t get anywhere.
Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
Since I write in English, people might be surprised to know that I learnt to speak English only when I was seven years old, after my parents sent me to boarding school. I could read well but could not converse at all. And after nine months in school when I returned home for the holidays I had lost my Hindi! It came back later, of course. But language can be a strange thing. Many people have reported this kind of experience.
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