Interview with Sharanya and Vinayak

Meghna Singhee, jack of all trades, in conversation with Sharanya Deepak, author of The Vampire Boy (forthcoming, April 2013), and Vinayak Varma, illustrator.

MS to SD: Just out of college and already a book published! You must be one helluva focused individual with a clear plan!
SD: Okay, that just cracked me up. I have no plan at all! I stumbled out after exams into the Duckbill workshop, which is a moment I’m so grateful for. Before that my lines between reality and youtube were almost absent. I think it is luck … At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d like to say that getting published for me isn’t the end of the road. I just hope all the seven-nine year olds that read it like it. Adults are easy to please. You tell them someone has just signed you and they’ll get a look of forced awe on their face and say something random like ‘Wow, Book” (I really don’t like that) and send you a Facebook friend request. Kids, on the other hand, are brutal, and they’ll definitely be more honest. I’m terrified. And I have no plan. I’m trusting life to work itself out and present me with amazing things.
MS: So you’d never planned to be a writer?
SD: No plan at all! I’ve been writing since I can remember though. I have an anonymous sort of blog, it started as a bundle of heartbreak rants when I was sixteen and the writing is truly HORRID. I have always wanted to be a writer but in the ‘stay up all night and be dramatic’ sort of way. I never thought it would work out! Hemingway went to war before he wrote the way he did after all! The only thing I maybe planned was to maybe be a journalist. (Two maybes, so you’re getting how planned I am!) But then I want to be a different thing everyday. Kristofer, the Vampire Boy, came up in the workshop and I took it from there!
MS: So not only did this just happen in a panic over not having an idea in the workshop, you beat out the book in what, three days of the workshop? (You know aspiring writers everywhere are going to hate you?)
SD: Around five to six months, I think. The idea came up in the workshop. Then I went back and forth from my house to Sayoni’s and wrote it. It’s the first time that I realized writing is work and also very scary. When you’ve written a sentence it’s hard to know if it’s any good, and sometimes it is good and you hate it. It’s just all very confusing! But yeah, I realized it means actually waking up in the morning, really waking up, sitting down and doing some work and not only dreaming far away dreams and thinking you know better than everyone.
MS: Vinayak, on the other hand, has had a few jobs and has now dedicated his life to the work of creation. What lofty heights! Is it fun, Vinayak, this being unemployed and being a writer? (Let me rephrase, being employed as a writer?)
VV: Writer? Unemployed? I think you have me confused with someone else. I am quite employed, thank you. Didn’t you read my card? I’m a freelance party-pooper. I come cheap, and I only eat salad. Harried hosts pay me to attend their weddings and birthdays and upanayanams, buttonhole guests who refuse to leave post-muhurtham, and tell crazed, made-up stories of sailing ships and dead albatrosses. It’s a thankless job, but someone has to do it.
MS: Sharanya, how did you and Vinayak work together? Did you get in each other’s way?
SD: I’ve never met Vinayak! I wrote it and Anushka and Sayoni found him. Then I sent him character sketches and he got to work on his own. I like the illustrations a lot.
MS: Thank god you do! Vinayak, what about The Vampire Boy tempted you to illustrate it?
VV: Nothing whatsoever. If only it were so easy! It was torture, blackmail and torture all the way through. I’m not afraid to talk about it any more, now that I’m free and within yelling distance of a police station. Did I say ‘torture’ twice? I meant it, and how.
This is the stone-cold truth: I was kidnapped by a horrible gang of web-footed publishers, flown to a Romanian castle in a decommissioned Zeppelin, and chained up for most of the twentieth century in a dank cellar there. I first thought I was being taken on a surprise holiday, until they put a bag over my head. It was a plastic bag–quite see-through, rather pointlessly. I saw everything. It was terrible.
I was kept underground for eighty-three years, which is a long time even in vampire-years. I missed all the most exciting wars: the airline wars, the cola wars, the Mafia Wars. When I first heard of an X-Box, I was all, like, “What’s that? A box containing an unknown quantity of an unknown something, like in algebra and stuff?” When I first heard of a website, I was all, like, “Are you kidding? This place is full of them! Have you seen the number of spiders in this joint?” Jail-o and Cage-o, to me, are just hip ways of saying ‘incarceration’, not the names of a pop-star and a movie director respectively. And still I don’t know what molecular gastronomy is, try as they might to educate me. Such was my deprivation.
What did they do to me? They pulled out all my nose-hairs, one by painful one. They forced me to listen – endlessly! – to recordings of parakeets reciting haiku. They threatened to set fire to my Tintin collection. They made me eat nothing but Happy Meals for months on end. I was distinctly unhappy by the end of it.
“Why? Why? Why?” I screamed. “You must draw us a children’s book,” they said. “But I don’t know how to draw!” I wailed. “That’s not our problem!” they said, and, indeed, they were right. And so I painstakingly taught myself how to draw with my feet, using only sounds to guide me, because my hands were bound behind my back and I had a polythene bag over my head all the while. I persevered, even though the stationery they provided consisted of a couple of burlap sacks and a rock.
Oh, there was no temptation at all. I never wanted to do it, but I had to buy my freedom somehow, and so I had to.
What? Yes, that’s right. It was the haiku that finally got to me.
MS: But still, the vision, the art, the atmosphere of the castle must have sustained you while you toiled over the masterpiece. (i’ve seen the illustrations and for a job done with your feet, it’s quite good). You must have had fun with the characters at least?
VV: Fun? You think being kept underground and tickled behind your ears till you wet your pants is fun?
MS: ermm. okay. Sharanya, we’ll give Vinayak a moment to gather himself. (I’m scared to mention the b-l-o-o-d word in his presence) But you tell me… Is getting a book published a bit like tasting blood? Do you now wake up ever morning banging away another story?
SD: I want to write again so desperately! It’s like this. So you want to be one thing all your life but it’s more up in the air than any real effort. Then it gets headway and now I’m just dying to write more. But I have a hard time. I haven’t written anything good in two months or more. I’ve been looking for a story in the shadows but can’t find one. (Interviews are fun, I can say things like ‘story in the shadows’ and people will take me seriously!’)
Honestly, I’d like for someone to give me a crash course on getting ideas. That was actually what the workshop did, but I’m rusty again. I really want to write something good!! (I’m screaming inside my head right now)
MS: Vinayak, you were trapped for eighty-three years with a single idea. But before and after, you’ve done quite a bit of work, what’s your process when you get a good idea?
VV: I shove it to the ground, run as fast as I can, and hope against hope that it doesn’t catch up with me.
MS: And now that Sharanya is stuck idea-less. Give her a getting unstuck tip!
VV: The trick to getting unstuck from good ideas is to keep a powerful solvent handy at all times. I tend to favour rubbing alcohol (as well as its non-rubbing version).
MS: Now that you have our freedom, do you actually make time to write or illustrate everyday? is the sweet air and sunshine turning wheels inside your head? How does a normal day go by?
VV: I spend most of each day fretting about being kidnapped and tortured. The rest of my waking hours, I run away from apparitions of poetic parakeets. It’s only once I lapse into a troubled sleep in the wee hours of the morning, that the nightmares about writing and illustrating begin. I often wake up sweating and craving lemon tarts.
MS: Speaking of lemon tarts, Sharanya, I have a bone to pick with is Ms. Flourfinger! I can’t imagine why a woman who makes and sells delicious, soft buttery bread would be so nasty. Are we going to smidget fall into a vat of butter? Maybe Mighty Dirtmouth Bran pushes her? i do love him. Is there a follow up?
SD: All the bakers I know are extremely obsessive and scary, which is why Ms Flourfinger. And I hope so! I love Bran too. I would love to write an Adventures of Bran. He’s awesome.
MS: So how do you come up with a vampire whose superpower is his quick and accurate counting skill? Like a good accountant! Vampires everywhere must be upset.
SD: I think they should be thrilled! I would kill for skills of exaction. I can never keep count of everything so I was often envious of Kristofer. Lots of his organization comes from my dad. My dad is super exact and clean all the time. But the origin of the superpower is that in Scandinavian mythology, Vampires have a compulsive love of counting. There’s a word for it but I forget. Apparently, if you ever encountered a vampire in the dead of the night all you have to do is throw a bunch of grain in front of him/her and escape, because the vampire will need to count the grain and won’t be bothering about drinking your blood anymore.
MS: I don’t think anyone–from Bran Stoker to Buffy, Interview with a Vampire to Twilight–has ever used that little kernel of vampire lore. Though I have to admit, I was surprised while reading it that you didn’t further set it apart by making it an Indian vampire?
SD: I’m actually often ashamed because I remember my professors in college would tell us about how ‘we are fed the West from the beginning’ so I hope I’m not planting colonial biases anywhere. But I didn’t mean for Kristofer to be white, I just didn’t want to do an Indian focused story with Indian names and things because he looked different in my head. Okay let’s say I couldn’t. Kris, Bo and Bran can be from anywhere though, some sort of middle land with no race or nationality?
MS: You like cliches I believe, what’s the cliche in The Vampire Boy?
SD: I believe in clichés. Did you read that in my author description? Basically its there because it’s a sentence I’ve always wanted to say. I believe in clichés like true friendship, and love and absolute fulfillment and things like that … Come to think of it, I don’t know what that sentence really means or what I was trying to say. It just sounded good in my head. Kristofer is not cliché at all! He doesn’t even like being a vampire. Unlike Edward Cullen, who I hate deeply despite having read only one Twilight book. Why would anyone want a boyfriend who moons over you in your sleep and glitters!! Yuck. He sounds like he should be in a burlesque show.
MS: And finally a quick check of your counting skills.
How many books have you left midway?
SD: Oh, Countless. I read four books at once, and then eventually pick my favourite. But I’ve never finished Midnight’s Children. Not that it’s not good. I think its amazing, I’ve just never finished it. Left it midway around six times. Never managed to read a John Grisham beyond four pages. I don’t like them.
MS: How many dream careers do you have?
SD: I have a new one everyday. My ultimate dream career is to play lead guitar for a band. I grew up being obsessed with Pearl Jam and Nirvana and when I watched videos of them being cute and drive around the world for fun, I would call my friends and be like, Lets start a band!! But I think I want to be a good writer. That’s the ultimate dream career. Oh I also want to be a truck driver in the mountains. How awesome would that be? Or just one of those people who gets famous on youtube and then gets really rich. Actually that would be kind of embarrassing and pointless. I also want to see the world. I know that’s not a career but it’s the only thing I really want right now.
VV: I’d be a molecular gastronomer. Or a rat-catcher. I’ve gotten pretty good at rat-catching in the last few years, you know. Also rat-eating.
MS: How many times have you wished you could sleep in a coffin?
SD: Never! I’m claustrophobic. But I do wish I could live in a graveyard. That would be kind of eerie and fun. But the ghosts I’m imagining are friendly and like to do choreographed dances. If they were scary, I’d run.
VV: You know what would be scary? The Indian vampire they were forcing me to draw. A dark blue kid with sharp teeth and a flute? A whole new level of scary! No, I’d never draw it, not if they kept me in that cellar for another half-century. I couldn’t inflict such a horror on little children, not after all that I’ve been through!
No artists were permanently damaged in the making of this book.

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