Monday, 1 November 2010

Interview with a Debut Author: SAVITA KALHAN


*Hi Savita and welcome to tall tales & short stories. 
Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi Tracy, thanks for inviting me.

I was born in India, but I came to live in the UK when I was almost one. I grew up in High Wycombe, and I’m the eldest of seven kids, five girls and two boys. I had to play at being a bit older than my years from when I was quite young.

When I was 18 I traded the Chilterns, responsibility, a traditional upbringing and familial duty for the liberating freedom and beautiful mountains and valleys of Wales. I went to study Politics and Philosophy at the University of Aberystwyth.

I loved it there, living on the seafront with an ever-changing view of the Irish Sea, stunning sunsets, porpoises playing at dawn and the most dramatic storms. I met my wonderful husband there, and made friends who are still friends to this day.

Before turning to writing I did a few other things. I was a Batik artist and ran workshops for kids and Art teachers, I had exhibitions. Then I went to live in the Middle East for several years, where I taught English. It was a huge lifestyle adjustment, but it was generally an enriching experience and I still go back to visit.

I live in North London now with my husband and son, and spend my time writing, reading, gardening, and playing tennis.


The Long Weekend


Sam knows that he and his friend Lloyd made a colossal mistake when they accepted the ride home. They have ended up in a dark mansion in the middle of nowhere with a man who means to harm them. But Sam doesn't know how to get them out.
They were trapped, then separated.
Now they are alone.
Will either of them get out alive?

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* What inspired you to write The Long Weekend?

A flyer went round all the local schools warning that a large silver car had been seen cruising round schools and the driver had tried to snatch children after school. I was horrified. Parents and children were warned to be on their guard and vigilant, and to report any suspicious behaviour. As anyone who is a parent knows, the twenty minutes after school finishes are very chaotic, busy with kids pouring out of school, parents and cars.

I began to wonder – how easy was it for something like that to happen? Not that easy I discovered. Kids are generally pretty aware of the dangers of talking to strangers or accepting a lift from them. But the kind of person who might try to get a kid into their car would have some tricks up their sleeve, a plausible story. And kids can sometimes be easily distracted or misled. An unthinking, distracted moment could lead to a mistake. That’s what happens in The Long Weekend.

The flyer gave me the idea for The Long Weekend. A scenario came to mind that was terribly simple and would have the most devastating consequences.


* The Long Weekend tackles some serious issues and hints at a very dark and disturbing trauma suffered by Lloyd in particular. How important do you think it is for children to read books that deal with difficult situations such as abduction and child abuse?

I know that the book has given some people nightmares! Adults more so than kids because of their greater awareness and knowledge of exactly what Lloyd has suffered. The book is frightening - it’s meant to be, and it’s meant to make kids stop and think.

I don’t believe child abuse should be a taboo subject in teen fiction, far from it, as long as the subject matter is treated sensitively and appropriately for the age group. In The Long Weekend the abuse is not described, it’s alluded to, nor is it in any sense graphic. It does not need to be.

In an event organised by schools and libraries in South London, I was invited to take part in a number of discussion groups which consisted of about fifteen kids in each group.
One of the questions a boy put to me was, “Was Lloyd raped?
Another boy answered him with, “Of course he was.
The question was echoed by other kids in other groups. All had read the book. None of the kids felt the subject was inappropriate, and they were all of course aware of the issue of child abuse, and indeed The School Librarian recommended The Long Weekend as a must-read for all secondary school kids.

Personally I think kids should read what they like - be it action, adventure, fantasy, science fiction, or books based on difficult social issues. Reading a good book that has at its core a difficult situation, whether it is child abuse or abduction, can do no harm, and for some kids, may go a small way in helping them.


* Your main protagonists are both teenage boys. How difficult, or easy, did you find it to get right from a teenage boy’s perspective?

It’s funny you should ask that because some people who have read the book and who don’t know me have thought the book to be written by a man! To tell you the truth, I didn’t have to think about it or worry about it. The opening scenario for the book and the two protagonists, Sam and Lloyd, arrived together, complete with personalities and characters. That has never happened before and not happened again to that extent. I don’t mean it to sound trite, and I have to say I still find it baffling, but I had Sam’s voice embedded firmly in my head from the outset, and the rest was easy.


*In tackling this subject matter was your publisher open to all your ideas or did you have to censor yourself in any way?

When I wrote The Long Weekend I didn’t have an agent or a publisher, so the book was written without censorship, self-imposed or otherwise.

When I did have a publisher, Andersen Press, they absolutely did not want to censor any part of the book.


* You worked as an English teacher in the Middle East. Did this influence or inspire your writing in any way?

It played a huge part in the reason why I started writing. The frustration of working within different norms, the complete lack of books, so many things. I recently wrote a blog on living in a country where most books were banned. Smuggling in several month’s worth of reading and then finding some of the books disappointing spurred my friend and I to think about writing a book ourselves. It started out as a joint venture, a bit of a dare, but in the end, several hundred thousand words later, writing became a way of life for me.

So yes, living in a country where most books were banned made me want to write!


* Do you use your own children or any others as a ‘sounding board’ for your books?

My 12 year-old son gets to read the first draft of everything I write, and so do his friends, and so do other kids, some I don’t even know personally! Yes, kids are great critics and my books are written for them, so they are the best judges. I never give them a work in progress. The book has to be finished, edited and in final manuscript form. They don’t like typos, they find them too distracting, but then neither do we!


* The Long Weekend was your debut novel. Was it your first attempt at writing a novel or did you have other manuscripts hiding away?

When I first started writing I was living abroad and reading a lot of fantasy epics; some of it was excellent, but some of it was terrible, which was galling after the effort it took to get the books into a country where most books were banned! So I wrote a fantasy epic, complete with a whole world, a beautiful map of all the lands within it, a multitude of rich characters and creatures, all revolving around, of course, the age-old struggle of good versus evil. I wrote three long tomes. One day I may take another look at it...


* How long did it take you from initial inspiration to finally achieving the publication deal?

From the moment of inspiration, the book was finished within a couple of months. I didn’t have an agent at that time, nor a publisher, and I wasn’t sure what to do at first. Should I find an agent first? Should I try sending it directly to a publisher? I was a complete novice and the internet was a mind-boggling place that I rarely visited. If I had, I might have chanced upon lots of websites offering unpublished writers advice and tips.

I sat on the book for a while before plucking up the courage to send it out to agents. In the end, I bought a copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, checked out the submission details and sent out a cover letter, synopsis and three sample chapters to agents who specialised in children’s books! So the publication deal took some time in coming.


* Did achieving your first book deal change the way you approach your writing?

Not really in that I write what I want to write in the way that I want to write it, so that hasn’t changed.


* Do you plan your stories in advance, or do they happen on the page?

I find each story I write is different. With The Long Weekend the story very much happened on the page. Other novels I’ve written have taken a different tack, but none of them are planned in detail, and the ending is never pre-planned. I like the fluidity and freedom that not pre-planning allows you. The story can then go anywhere it wants and you just have to flow with it.


* Rewrites and Revisions: How much did you have to do throughout the writing of The Long Weekend?

The Long Weekend didn’t need much more than a proof read. Again, it was an unusual case. Although I did take up my agent’s suggestion of writing an Epilogue. When I thought about how the book ended and the teen who would pick it up and read it, I realised that such a dark book needed some hope, some light at the end of the tunnel, especially considering the trauma the boys, particularly Lloyd, suffer. Teen readers don’t necessarily need a Hollywood ending in a book, but they do like villains to get their come-uppance, and for the kids to be somehow okay in the end.

My publisher, Andersen Press, loved the book. Apparently when Klaus Flugge read The Long Weekend, (and he did read it all!), he said ‘this woman can write a good story’. My editor at Andersen, Liz Maude, asked for two small revisions and for two words to be edited out, and that was pretty much it.


* How long have you been pursuing your writing ambitions and what have you done along the way to improve your writing?

I’ve been writing for a few years now, and, as my agent says, my early work was the way in which I honed my craft. Teaching English helped. I’ve dabbled in different genres, different age groups, but eventually found myself writing the kind of fiction that I love reading, that I would have loved to have read when I was a teen because there was nothing like the teen/YA fiction that we have now then.


* Before getting an agent and achieving publication did you have to deal with rejection along the way? How did it feel to finally secure the agent and publishing deal?

I think all writers have had to cope with rejection – it comes with the job description. You have to very quickly develop a thick skin or you’ll spend years in agony.

Securing an agent was a great moment. I came back from a holiday to find letters from a couple of agents who wanted to see the whole manuscript. I posted the manuscripts off to them and waited. The waiting is the hardest thing. I heard back from both agents, both loved it and were interested in representing me. One of the agents was from a large literary agency and she wanted the abuse element removed from the book because she foresaw problems with the book finding a publisher. The other agent loved the book as it was and suggested the idea of an Epilogue. I went with the latter: the most marvellous and indomitable Anne Dewe at Andrew Mann Literary Agency, who has such belief in me and my work.

When I got the news about achieving a publication deal, I was eating sushi and working on my laptop and I almost choked when I opened the email. I had to go out onto my deck and scream and shout and jump up and down a few times! It was thrilling and exciting and scary all at the same time.


* What made you think ‘I want to write for children?’ Is it a genre you enjoy reading?

I do love reading children’s fiction and always have. I didn’t make a conscious decision to write for children, I think I stumbled into it. The characters for the first book I ever wrote were teenagers, and I like that teenage voice. Deep down I’m still a teenager!


* Which authors/stories did you enjoy reading as a child/teenager? How do you think they compare to the children’s novels available today? What do you think children of today want to read?

Going to the library every Saturday morning was our only outing when I was growing up. So reading became a passion. I read everything in the children’s library in Wycombe and I think they compare very well with children’s novels today. When I found an author I loved, I hunted out every book they had ever written.

I loved so many books including: E Nesbit, The Phoenix and the Magic Carpet; Louisa May Alcott, Little Women; Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase; Frances Hodgson Burnett, A Little Princess; Johanna Spyrie, Heidi; Noel Streatfeild, C S Lewis, K M Peyton, L M Montgomery, Roald Dahl, Tolkein...

Of course there were no teen books as such then, but I managed to join the adult library - after lots of begging and pleading the Librarian allowed me in because I wanted to read The Kraken Wakes, which was in the adult library, although The Day of the Triffids had been in the children’s library. She tried to oversee my books for a while, but pretty soon I was choosing for myself. I remember from 12+ I was reading adult classics from Zola and Maupassant to Tolstoy, Austen and Hardy, who I adored; I read the whole crime section: Agatha Christie to Erle Stanley Gardener, fantasy, science-fiction, horror, you name it, I was reading it. There was no one to censor my reading. I chose my books, I made mistakes, I learnt from them.

I think children today want what children of yesterday wanted. I think they want a good well-told, well-made story, and I think it’s as simple as that.


* What’s next for Savita Kalhan? Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?

I’ve just finished the final draft of a book! It’s called Amnesia and I’m hoping the title doesn’t get changed along the way. It’s about a 14 year-old boy who wakes up in hospital with complete memory loss. But I’m getting ahead of myself – my agent hasn’t even seen it yet. My son read it and has given it the thumbs up!

I’m also hoping that my novel All About Jay, which is dark in the way of The Long Weekend, finally finds a good home. She’s out there being read by the powers that be...


* Words of wisdom and advice to any aspiring writer?

Never, ever, ever give up! Take advice from lots of different people, allow your work to be read and critiqued, preferably by people who feel they can comment honestly about it. All of those things will make you stronger as a writer. And read every day, read everything – as many genres, as many stories as you can.


* Any other comments/observations/general mind-blowing information you‘d like to add?

If you’re not internet savvy, then get internet savvy! Social networking has become increasingly important in the book world.


* AGENT'S COMMENTS: Anne Dewe of Andrew Mann:

“This book leapt from the pile of submissions, and held me with the sort of grip that I seldom feel. Partly, I think, because of the black worry of the story, but also because it enters the mind of a child so naturally and completely, and, of course, it is well written too.

“Savita has an extraordinary ability to write about subjects which in other hands could be crass or unsuitable with a sensitivity and a certainty of touch which compels confidence.”






The Long Weekend ~ a tall tales & short stories review

It's not often that you pick up a book and are genuinely at a loss to know how it will end yet Savita Kalhan achieves just that and it's what helps makes The Long Weekend such a page-turning read. This reader read it in one sitting, so desperate was I to know how it would end.
This is a dark book and as the interview explains it tackles a difficult and gritty subject but it does so with chilling subtlety and understated power. At its heart it's a psychological thriller, the story unfolding with increasingly sinister twists and turns that really draw the reader in. Told in third-person from Sam's perspective, the prose is economical but highly effective, emphasising the skill of the author's storytelling skills.
This is a gripping 'must read' for readers who want something intriguing, different, and dark.


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1 comment:

Miriam Halahmy said...

Excellent interview Tracey and good to see Savita raising her profile even higher on the Internet. I thorougly recommend The Long Weekend - but be prepared to be very scared!!

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