Thursday, May 20, 2010

Interview : Roopa Pai

Roopa Pai needs no introduction as she is a well known name in Indian kidlit world. She first impressed me with her wonderful imagination in Sister, Sister (Eureka series, by Pratham) books (reviewed here) and then with the Taranauts books. Besides making a mark as an author of excellence, Roopa is a tour guide with Bangalore Walks and through these walks she combines three loves of her life - history, kids and Bangalore.

Presenting here, her views on various topics for all of you to enjoy.
You mentioned in one of your previous interviews that you wanted to be a writer from a very young age, how has been this journey so far?

Yes, I think I've always wanted to be a writer. I know it isn't common for kids to know what they want to be so clearly, but I knew writing would be one of the things I would definitely be doing later in life, from the time I was eight or ten.
However, I did not major in English Literature as would have been expected for someone with such clarity. I actually have an engineering degree. But the moment I got my degree, I was fortunate enough to land my dream job - a sub editor with Target, the legendary children's magazine. And after that, there was no looking back. And it's been a fabulous journey.
I have taken breaks from writing, though - gone away and done other things for a bit and enjoyed them immensely too, but every time I come back and start writing again, it's so satisfying, so fulfilling, that I wonder why I ever went away.

What inspires/excites you? Any role models? Which books fascinate you the most?

Well-told stories inspire me. And I think I have always been more inspired by the stories than by the authors or by the style of writing. I guess I have my non-literature background to thank for that - maybe if I had formally studied literature, I would appreciate the craft of writing more, and would (over)analyse authors' writing styles, and the story would become (in a sense) incidental to the analysis. As it stands now, it is engaging stories - any genre, any style - that make me think and feel things that are my best inspirations.

Books that are sensitively written fascinate me. Also books that are intelligent. If they can be both together, those are the best kinds of books for me. The genre does not really matter - but my personal favourites are (1) crime fiction (especially ones where the detectives are fallible, human, and have the souls of poets beneath the hard-baked exterior (male) or feisty, bullheaded, tough-talking, and total softies on the inside (female) and (2) children's and young adult fiction (here sensitivity would score over intelligence). In short, books that stay with me long after I've read them, and whose mere mention has the power to reawaken all the warm feelings I felt when I first read them, would figure on my all-time favourites.

According to you, what kind of plot is good enough to be qualified as a story idea? How do you refine it and how many iterations go in the process to bring out a finished product?

Actually, again perhaps because I'm not a 'trained' writer and write mainly by instinct, I don't think of stories in those terms. Any plot is a good plot if it is developed well and presented engagingly. If you look at Taranauts, for instance, there isn't anything particularly unique about the plot; it is the most hackneyed plot in the world - good guys, bad guys, and a Quest. But it is also the best plot in the world - no one ever gets tired of reading a story with these elements!

Refining it happens in real time, every day that I am writing it. I usually have a very sketchy idea of what I'm going to write when I begin - just the MOST basic framework. I think as I write, and I put in whatever makes sense at that time. If in Chapter 10, I decide to put in something that doesn't follow logically from what happened in Chapter 1, I just go back and change Chapter 1.

Of course you can do this endlessly, and some discipline has to be exercised to stop at some point - for me, a looming deadline usually does it!

How different is writing children's books from adult books?

I don't know - I don't write books for adults! But it is the rare writer who can do both with equal felicity - Roald Dahl and Roddy Doyle being cases in point.

Sister, sister series was quite different from the Taranauts series? How do you switch between age groups and styles so comfortably?

I don't know - I guess I try to think about someone I know in the age group I'm writing for, and then write for that person. I say 'I guess' because I don't do it consciously, but my kids are my muses (and always at hand) and I suppose subconsciously I am thinking about them.

How did the idea of Taranauts and Mithya occur to you? What does it take to imagine something so different and unique?

Well, I know I'm beginning to sound like a stuck record here - but I get asked this all the time, and the true, cross my heart answer is - I don't know. I wish I could say that Mithya appeared to me in a dream, all dazzling and shimmering in the rainbow coloured light of its 32 Tarasuns, its Magmalift exploding out of the top of Kay Laas and aquautos skimming speedily across Dariya, but that's not how it happened. In fact, I had never even considered writing a fantasy-adventure until my brilliant editor and good friend, Vatsala Kaul at Hachette, asked me to consider writing a series in that genre. And then, out of an initially fuzzy cloud of Taradust, Mithya began to take shape

You have wonderful views on how history should be taught in schools - handling a particular century in one class so that it helps children in making connections. Do you ever consider to be on the panel of policy makers of some schools? What if any such offer comes your way?

In theory, I would love to be on a panel of policy makers deciding what should go into the history curriculum for schools. But in practice, I would be terrible at being part of any organised group like a panel which convenes meetings and such. I hate imposing my opinions on others, and do not have the drive to persuade / manipulate anyone into seeing things my way. So, no, I would be very very chary of accepting any offer like that.

But through my writing, through my walks, I constantly put my beliefs to the test with real kids, and when it turns out from their reactions that there is some wisdom in my views, I feel gratified and happy to have made a small difference, at least in a few kids' lives, by helping them look at history a little differently.

What kind of children's books/stories do you find missing in Indian markets?

Fun books! Particularly for kids in the 8-15 age group. And sensitive books for teens that help them deal with prickly growing-up issues in the new, facebooked world (I'm assuming you are talking about books by Indian writers, not books by western writers?)

Is there enough space for new talent or already it’s a crowded place out there? What would you like to say to the writers who are reading this interview and wondering if their ideas are interesting enough to be shared with others?

There's ALWAYS space for new talent - J K Rowling is a shining example of this. To the writers who are wondering if their ideas are interesting enough, I would say - ask yourself that question first, and answer with absolute honesty. If YOU honestly think they are interesting enough, if YOU would absolutely love to read a story like the one you're thinking of, well, then it IS an interesting idea and a story worth telling, and never mind what any editor tells you.

Do you think there are enough publishers of children's books in Indian market or should we have more to bring more variety and healthy competition?

The Indian children's publishing market is booming right now, and the next couple of years should see a flood of new writing for children coming out. There are seriously fun times ahead for both children and writers of children's books - get set for the ride!

A very big thanks to you Roopa and best wishes for all your interesting endeavours!
More here...


  1. Enjoyed this V - interesting questions and interesting answers :) Thanks!

  2. You're very welcome, Vibha, and thanks so much for the opportunity to air my views. I had never thought about much of the stuff I say here - not in so many words, at least - enjoyed the process.

  3. For my ten-year-old (and me,) Taranauts is the most delightful bedtime read. He loved the new terms and names Roopa coined for her world, and would have a fit of giggles whenever something like 'dingling' occurred.
    I have illustrated some of her pieces for mags, and they were all fun - to read, to draw, to read to to my kids. :) She has a fantastic way of telling stories - pun intended.

  4. Thanks for bringing us this interview, Vibha (and Roopa!). Loved reading it.


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