Revathi Suresh worked with EastWest Books, Chennai, and helped edit, along with a senior colleague, a book review magazine called Indian Review of Books. EWB also had an imprint called Manas which brought out both fiction and non-fiction. She has worked with some of India’s finest translators—Gita Krishnankutty, Lakshmi Holmström, Vasantha Surya, N Kalyan Raman to name a few, as well as writers like Paul Zacharia, Ashokamitran, Ambai, K R Usha, and Esther David. She has freelanced for a while during which she has written small commissioned books for children for Mumbai-based IL&FS-ETS. She has been a part of the UNICEF-Karnataka government sponsored Sarva Siksha Abhiyaan project for reluctant readers in rural Karnataka. Prior to which she wrote a commissioned biography of a south Indian industrialist, a project that was particularly challenging because he’d been dead twenty years, and trying to get a picture of his childhood and early life was pretty difficult because none of his contemporaries were around.
Bored with the kind of editing and writing jobs that she was getting, Revathi Suresh decided to go into quiet retirement. Jobless Clueless Reckless, her first novel brings her back from retirement to make a comeback.
Chaithali Pisupati, catches up with Revathi Suresh to talk about her experience with her first novel.
Why Young Adult? Tell us a little about Jobless. Clueless. Reckless.
Why write for young adults? Because I know that this is a particularly tough market to crack. There’s a glut of foreign books on themes ranging from gossipy high school dramas to vampire/werewolf romances and our kids are devouring these imports and are clearly in a happy place. So I thought how about I make life difficult for myself by writing my first ever full length novel for an age-group that is not only hard to please but wary of trying out Indian writers in the genre? Seemed like a suitably frustrating sort of challenge for a newbie like me.
Okay, I’ll get serious. Most people, I presume, have some sort of a story idea in mind when they start writing—it’s just easier that way. I, on the other hand, began writing with nothing but the voice of a character in my head. It turned out that the voice belonged to a teenaged girl. And once your protagonist is a teenager, I think it follows that your book will most likely interest the same age group.
Jobless. Clueless. Reckless (JCR) is the story of Kavya, a 16-year-old girl, growing up somewhere in Bangalore. You see her at a particularly tumultuous time in her life when nothing seems to be going right for her. The novel has all the stock props of a teen story and then some—her family is dysfunctional, she has sibling trouble, she’s not sure who her friends are and thinks herself lacking in social skills (which makes it hard for her not only with her peer group but also with the boy she has a crush on), she’s home-schooled and worried about whether she’s going to be able to take her class 10 exams, and trying to come to terms with a childhood trauma. I don’t think teen angst has been done quite this way before in Indian fiction. But the reason I believe JCR is a significant book in this genre is because, in seeing the world through Kavya’s eyes, the reader gets an accurate picture of contemporary teenage in upwardly mobile urban India. It appeals to teenagers because it mirrors their lives, while adults kind of squirm their way through it because it shows clearly, and not very prettily, the role we play in the lives of our children. I don’t know if it’s coming-of-age, but it’s certainly slice-of-life reality fiction. You’ll find it funny when you’re reading it though I don’t know if that’s the impression you’ll be left with at the end.
What research did you have to do to understand the life of teenagers of today?
I don’t think I did any research at all. The voice came to me very naturally. Teenspeak, which is an important part of getting the voice right, came without any effort. When in doubt, I just paid close attention to the snatches of conversation I heard outside schools and in coffee shops. It also helped, I suppose, that I have teenagers of my own. Then there were conversations with friends—moms of teens—that I had stored away at the back of my mind, again, not consciously, about the kind of experiences children have in school and at home. For all that, none of the incidents that take place in the novel are based on the real life experiences of anyone I know. And yet people often come up to me and say that’s my life you’ve written about or that’s the life of someone I know. I went back to my own teen years to access long forgotten emotions and the intensity of those feelings.
Then there are other aspects of teen life that one only needs to acknowledge, not research. We live in nuclear families, often both parents work, lifestyles have changed, children go to posh schools of the kind that didn’t even exist when I was growing up, latch-key kids are the norm rather than the exception. In many cases the children lack for nothing materially, and still the emptiness and disconnect. Social networking is an obsession with many of them. The films and TV serials they watch, the books they read, the songs they listen to, the way they talk – all American. Even Bollywood films directed at the younger crowd endorse western culture.
I’m not pointing all this out as criticism, but rather, as fact. If one is aware as a writer of all these issues, for a book like mine, that’s most of the research done.
How do you build your characters? How can aspiring writers build a full-bodied character like Kavya?
I’m just a book old but I will try my best to answer this one. In a first person account, if you get your narrator right, that’s half the battle won. It’s great if you already have a clear picture of your characters in mind because then you can begin writing them the way you conceived them. But if, like me, you have to grope and feel your way around getting acquainted with your protagonists, it helps to create situations that force reactions. When it came to peripheral characters, I tweaked stereotypes. I’m a great believer in stereotypes because they offer you a broad framework to start building your characters. Then you can narrow it down and decide what qualities you want to discard or keep and put in a little bit from your own imagination, and before you know it you’ve created a person who has shades of someone your reader knows. Capricious characters like Kavya’s mother are, I think, easy to write because you don’t know how they are going to act anyway so any and all behaviour is authentic and convincing.
It’s important to remember that you are not your character (unless you’ve consciously decided to be that fictional person, otherwise you’re always going to hold something back), so allow the person on the page to speak freely even if you don’t agree with what they are saying or doing. Once you have a feel for which way he or she may spring in a given situation, you try and keep close to that pattern. But none of us stays true to form all the time—and too much predictability can get boring—so you can jolt the reader by making a character react in a way that’s totally unlike him or her. It’s especially fun thing to do at a crucial stage of the story.
In Kavya’s case, once I became familiar with her, I wanted to test her strength all the time. So I put her through more and more emotionally trying situations, poor thing, and watched her struggle to emerge from every crisis I’d thrown in her path. But she comes out fighting every single time, not always unscathed, and that’s what I think endears her to readers—she’s hurt but will move on, sense of humour intact, ready to face whatever life has to hurl at her next. That’s the key to a full-bodied character as far as I’m concerned. Keeping them real and not being afraid to take them to places you don’t want them to go to, trusting in them even when they are making mistakes, and not making them so infallible that you take them out of reach of your reader.
You said that JCR took two years to finish; you have been an editor yourself. How did the novel change during its various drafts?
In the first draft Kavya was 14 years old. I have to say that most of what is in the book now was there even in that draft. She was well-drawn, if a little coy (yuck), but many of the other characters were fuzzy and not well etched out. One of the most glaring flaws was that I had not tied up Manisha or Kiran because, quite frankly, I did not know what to do with them. They were loose threads and I left them to hang and hoped no one would notice, I guess. There were a couple of chapters that served no purpose other than to add to the bulk of the manuscript; they certainly did nothing for the pace. I think it read like a crude sort of journal entry book of which there are already several in the market. But the sheer relief of having concluded my story made me do this foolish thing of sending it off to a few publishers without showing it to enough people in my circle of acquaintances. Close friends and relatives are always going to make encouraging noises and those were the ones I revealed my masterpiece to. Rejections came in thick and fast. I retreated, smarting, hurting, sulking. When I was through licking my wounds, I sat down and read the manuscript all over again. Yes I was in love with it, but clearly the people who mattered weren’t. And what I had done in my haste had led to several doors shutting on me because I don’t know many publishers who will respond after they have already made their lack of interest clear. And what was I supposed to write? ‘Hello, remember that crappy manuscript from last month? I worked a bit on it and I don’t think it’s so crappy any more. Now will you publish, huh huh huh?’
The second draft improved the manuscript vastly. I had to bring all my half-dead editing skills and experience to the fore. Yes, I had written something, but someone with my background should also have been able to see all the things that had been wrong with it in the first place. So I got objective and Kavya became 16, much to my relief, because I could now put her through experiences I had been too squeamish to make her undergo in her younger avatar. The hanging chapters were lopped off but the hanging threads remained. Manisha, because I was truly foxed about what to do with her, and Kiran because while it was now ok for him to show more than just a brotherly interest in Kavya, I wasn’t quite sure where a romance between them would lead. Basically, I was just being a coward. But I was a little surer of this version than the last one and sent it off to a few people to read; a smart query by a reader made me put in a new chapter. Heartened by the overall response I now cautiously approached another publisher. I decided to go slow and write to them one by one this time—there are only so many publishers of YA fiction in India and I obviously did not want to cross them all off my list at one go. I got a very promising reply from the editor I sent it to, and also the expected feedback. Do something about Manisha and Kiran. Reorder a couple of chapters. That was the push I needed. The solution came to me out of nowhere and not only did I manage to work those loose threads into the fabric of the story, I also had Kiran play a part in closing Manisha’s story. However, for whatever reason, things did not work out with that publisher either and it was grim and dark times again. I knew my manuscript was as tight as it was going to get but I still went snip snip snip, rewrote some bits, rephrased what I thought were awkward sentences, made punchy lines punchier, braced myself and sent it off to Duckbill. They got back to me in ten days with a YES. That mail I plan to frame and keep for life. But even after the manuscript had been accepted, I continued to make small changes, looking for mistakes, tightening paras and smartening lines. And when my editor said let’s edit I sent her the final, final version and said edit this new and improved JCR, please. She was very sweet about it.
What was the publication process like?
Alright, so my editor sent me a mail that said something like ‘we begin editing now.’ I had been looking forward to this for so long but this was when I got really nervous. We are still very conservative in the way we write fiction for this age group. We are happy enough to read foreign fiction—or fine with our kids watching a teen romance like say, Ten things I Hate about you— that contains language, because that’s the way ‘they’ speak but are not so willing to accept that, hello, that’s the way our children speak too. If you have read the book, you know that it’s peppered with swearwords. They are not there for effect but for authenticity. If the children in the book didn’t speak the way they do in real life I was for sure going to be rejected by the very age group I was targeting. So my biggest worry was how I was going to react if that was going to become an issue? Having come this far, would I be willing to compromise and ‘clean up?’ I sat around chewing my nails, waiting to hear from Sayoni, my editor, and she got back to me at the end of the day, saying, ‘edited, take a look’ and I did. I believe we discussed em dashes, ellipses, and single and double quotes. We exchanged some mails about whether it’s better to use ‘maths’ rather than ‘math’ in a particular passage. That’s it. All my self-editing had paid off. There really was nothing left to do. It takes a strong and sure editor to not intervene unnecessarily and I’m lucky I found one.
Next came the book’s cover. Once again, I was involved every step of the way. I was shown so many options I went dizzy. I liked how my publishers approached the book, not as chick lit (the tag I find most irritating) or even YA lit, but as one that would appeal to anyone who cared to pick it up, irrespective of age or gender.
JCR was published three months after I signed the contract.
We have to ask this, what were you like as a teenager? What books did you enjoy as a girl?
Well, I grew up in the era of bell bottoms, maxis, and weird eighties fashion. Luckily for me, my fellow teens had to suffer the same bad fashion so at least it was collective misery. Most of my schooling was in small towns in north India and we all had such limited exposure that there weren’t many kids you could compare yourself with and come off looking bad. I wasn’t terribly bright academically, but my parents had a sense of humour and laughed their way through my many report cards. Where I grew up, boys of the kind you could crush on were scarce. Once in a very blue moon one would come along who would cause hearts to flutter but I couldn’t see such a fellow singling me out for attention, so I just mooned from afar. In any case, I didn’t know how to talk to boys. I forgot to mention that to add to the bad fashion I sported a long oily plait, and bell bottoms or no bell bottoms, always wore a bindi. In those days we only had liquid bindi and during summers, half way through the day it would melt and wind its way down my nose to perch at the very tip.
I worried sometimes about what would become of me in the hazy, distant future but was bolstered by a curious kind of confidence and optimism that some door would open up and things would work out. This, even when I found myself having to write a supplementary exam in physics and math to pass my ninth standard exams. I was quiet, shy and painfully reserved, and prone to be misunderstood for those qualities. I had few friends and suffered intense loneliness when things went wrong in our friendship (sounds familiar?). I’ll add social retard to my list of qualifications.
What did I read? I read a lot when I was little but by the time I hit my teens I found I had become a bit of a reluctant reader, the result, I suspect, of having read a lot of classics before I was ready for complex literature. Somewhere I began to think that after you were done with Enid Blyton (and no, I’m not a fan anymore) books got boring and incomprehensible. Often I was in places where it was hard to come across book stores and libraries. Where there were libraries, they had such aged, raggedy, yellowed books that smelt and felt so old and depressing that I never wanted to pick them up. So I just caught up with TinTin and Asterix when they were available, and I went through an Earl Stanley Gardner phase when everyone else was going through an Agatha Christie phase.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Writing is like long distance running—it’s lonely, it’s hard work, it’s mentally and physically draining but if you want to get to the end, keep at it, don’t give up. Most importantly, write for yourself rather than with the goal of getting published, because then you’re putting pressure on yourself even before you’re done with the creative process. Seek, and be prepared to take criticism not from people you know, but from those you don’t—the latter will be frank and feedback can only help improve your work.
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