|Born at||Srirangam, Trichy|
|City of residence||Bangalore|
*Translated into Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada.
**Available as an ebook in addition to the printed version
|Bio||Arundhati Venkatesh has always been making up stories. Now she puts them down on paper. She believes fantasy and reality are different ways of looking at the same thing. Stories, sleep and motichoor laddoos are a few of her favourite things. When she is not cooking up stories, or dreaming of food, she haunts bookstores and libraries in Bangalore.
Arundhati enjoys writing hilarious school stories and adventures featuring monsters with massive appetites. Her picture book, Junior Kumbhakarna, won the RivoKids Parents and Kids Choice Award 2014 for the best book by an Indian author for ages 0-5 years.
Fantastic Five – Five of my favourite books
It’s impossible to list just five, so I’m going to name the ones I happen to be in the mood for today.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll Needs no introduction!
Fantastic Mr. Fox – Roald Dahl The mundane can be made magical – see how a master storyteller does it! Beautifully written, this is one of my favourite Dahls.
Book Uncle and Me – Uma Krishnaswami A charming tale about a young girl on a mission to save a pavement library. If that’s not reason enough to read it, I must proceed to inform you that the book won the Scholastic Asia Book Award and the Crossword award. The illustrations by Priya Kuriyan add to the charm.
Unprincess – Manjula Padmanabhan Three bold stories about feisty “unprincesses”. My favourite is the one about Urmila whose looks are so revolting that nurses faint and flowers wilt. She’s uglier than a polka-dotted warthog! My only grouse is that it wasn’t written when I was an adolescent. If it had, I might have seen myself as a rather cool Agent of Mass Horrification instead of plain ugly!
The Day it Rained Letters – Nury Vittachi Meant for younger readers, this one has gems about imagination, stories and reading.
Tell us about your earliest attempts at writing. When, where and from whom did you learn the nittygritties of writing?
I’ve always enjoyed reading, writing and daydreaming.
The first story that I submitted was accepted by a leading publisher. It fizzled out eventually, but the initial acceptance gave me the courage to go on.
Once I realised that this was something I wanted to pursue seriously, I participated in workshops, attended conferences, read books on the craft, referred to resources online and of course, read voraciously and wrote furiously.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
Something I’ve heard, read or observed is the trigger. I see connections and patterns and bingo, there’s a story taking shape!
What does your typical work day look like?
On a good writing day, I write in the few hours between breakfast and lunch when I have the house to myself.
Other days are spent ticking off items on my to-do list before it grows as long as a dragon’s tail.
What is one habit / trait of yours that makes you effective / productive as an author?
I’ve always suspected that I have a split personality. My teachers at school thought I was very mature and dignified, and now my publishers say I’m very professional. But those who know me well think exactly the reverse! There’s a part of me that never really grew up. It’s this playful, silly side of me that writes. The left-brain takes over later.
What is the one thing that you recommend every aspiring author should do?
Tell us something about yourself that very few people know?
I’m like Dogmatix when it comes to trees. They were a big part of my childhood and I find that they feature prominently in my books now – as secret society hideouts, as a safe sanctuary from four-legged creatures … When they’re not being clambered on, there’s fruit being picked off them.
Which reminds me, I can only read lying down. Non-fiction and picture books I can read in any position, but for fiction I have to be horizontal. I was positive there’s a scientific explanation, but I guess it’s just a habit from my teens when I smuggled books into bed. So while the rest of the world talks of a comfortable chair and a cup of chai, my requirements are a bed and a blanket!
Does technology (the Internet, software tools) help you in your writing process? If yes, can you tell us about them?
I once ran a search on ‘Help! I’ve glued my fingers together! How do I get super glue off?’ (I only hope I’m not in a situation where I have to apply this knowledge in real life.) More recently, it was ‘famous people born with teeth’. The internet is great for research of this kind.
Is there any other way in which technology can help you in your work as writer?
The internet does help get the word out about the books that are available, but it can also be a source of distraction.
There are apps that help you stay focussed and tools that let you organise your research, collate notes and navigate more easily across your manuscript.
What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?
Publishers and editors, senior writers, creators of all the books I’ve enjoyed reading – they’ve been generous, gracious, excellent mentors.
Everyone I’ve ever interacted with has knowingly or unknowingly said something that I needed to hear at that point in time, and kept me going. When I was going through a particularly low period, wondering if I would ever see my work in print, I read this post. All of a sudden, my problems seemed insignificant.
For writers and illustrators, the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is a vibrant community worldwide. SCBWI has an India chapter.
For budding young writers, the Duckbill Gang is the place to be.
For anyone interested in children’s books, Saffron Tree is a great resource.
Can you tell about what you are currently writing and other works in the pipeline?
Bookasura: The Adventures of Bala and the Book-eating Monster has just gone to press. It is a story about my greatest passion – reading. Bookasura has been illustrated by the fabulous Priya Kuriyan and published by Scholastic. It should be in bookstores by February 2015.
You are an engineering graduate and have a past in the IT sector. What made you to change paths and choose writing as a career?
I knew what I didn’t want to do, but I hadn’t figured out what exactly it was that I wanted to do. I knew it was something to do with children, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to work directly with kids. It was while I was on a maternity break, struggling to cope with sleep deprivation, postnatal depression and an asthmatic infant that I found myself spending every spare minute writing. This was also when I discovered the wonderful world of picture books in London’s public libraries. I had this urge to create something in the Indian context.
I put in my papers and haven’t looked back since.
After returning to India, I volunteered at a school for differently-abled and underprivileged children. That was something I’d always wanted to do.
I put in a stint as a freelance writer, reviewer and editor, but I found writing books for children was what I loved doing the most.
In the “Petu Pumpkin” series, a teacher names a boy “Petu Pumpkin”, referring to his physical structure. Isn’t that child abuse?
As someone who has worked closely with victims of emotional abuse, researched extensively and written on the topic, my answer is an emphatic No.
The thought that Pushkin could be fat didn’t strike me initially, maybe because I don’t think of anyone in terms of these labels. Pushkin earns the nickname from the teacher because he’s eating all the time. And that’s not a flaw; the problem begins only when he starts emptying his friends’ lunch boxes. Also, the teacher in question is someone the kids are fond of (and vice versa).
But is fat really such a bad thing to be? What matters is that Petu is comfortable in his own skin. He’s the sort who would be thrilled to see his (nick)name on a book.
You can take political correctness to an extreme, but children are smart and perceptive. They’ll see through it. I’m happy to report that kids who read the book take it in the spirit in which I have written it.
On a related note, I find it infuriating that everyone has to fit into these cookie cutter moulds. Girls are expected to be dainty; they can’t enjoy sports or science. Boys who are into books or art are misfits; they have to be macho aggressive superhero types. Introverts are looked down upon. The characters in the Petu Pumpkin books don’t conform to these ridiculous notions. They’re real and adorable with all their quirks.
What are the five towns that you schooled in, and the four countries that you worked in? In what way has this globe-trotting helped you as a writer?
Six, if you count my short stint at a school in Ludhiana. But they couldn’t get me to stay; I’d leave after pocketing the candy offered as bribe to stay till the bell rang.
So I actually started school in Bombay, where we lived for five years.
Next came a school that would be termed “alternative” today – no exams, learning through stories, plenty of reading and creative writing, sports every day of the week, vocal and instrumental western and Indian classical music lessons, carpentry and soldering classes, a beautiful green campus… I didn’t stay long there, but it had a lasting influence.
After that, we moved to a place straight out of an Enid Blyton mystery or a Ruskin Bond story – a sprawling bungalow with a haunted house next door. A garden with all kinds of fruit trees and with langurs, snakes and hornbills as visitors. The house boasted a view of a gushing river that would hurtle down a cliff a few hundred metres ahead. A lot of my time was spent staring into space and dreaming up stories with the sound of the river in the background.
To reach school, we had to take the bridge across a gentle stream and walk uphill. Needless to say, we had several adventures.
I passed out of school in Madras. Work took me to Bangalore, Melbourne, the Bay Area and London. I don’t know if it affects my writing in any way, but travelling through the countryside in England, Scotland, Australia – I felt books had made all these places come alive for me long before I actually visited them. The impact of reading hit me then.
Travel opened me up to new ways of living. There are stories all around us, if only we care to stop and listen. I find people fascinating and I’m grateful for the opportunity to meet so many interesting ones – kind old Larry in Arizona, young Wilson who quoted Burns and Scott and said he’d given up his job to return to the Isle of Skye because he didn’t want to spend his life staring out of a glass building wishing he were outside.
The change of scene made me look at the world with wonder again. And the public libraries opened up a whole new world!
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