Arti Sonthalia’s hOle book Big Bully and M-me will be published in May 2015. She is interviewed by Tanu Shree Singh, college teacher, blogger, reader extraordinaire and chief reading raccoon. TS: Hi, AS! We’ll start with the clichéd question. How did this happen? When did you start writing? School magazine? A secret diary? A love note on behalf of a friend? AS: It has been a long-time dream to become a writer. When I was at hostel, after lights-out, I would often be scribbling in my diary. Every thought, every incident had to be written down for me to get a good night’s sleep. I was a huge fan of Enid Blyton and dreamt of the magical lands and Faraway Trees she created, and I always hoped to chance upon a time when I, too, would write like that. But time flew and so did my dream. At a school reunion in Delhi, a former roommate asked me, ‘Hey, do you still write?’ And that is when the forgotten dream came back to life. On the way home, I decided I was going to WRITE! And that’s what I did. Things fell in place. I studied online from Oxford and London School of Journalism. A lot of my short stories got published in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and then I began my journey into the world of children’s books with Big Bully and M-me. TS: Big Bully and M-me is probably the first Indian book for younger kids that tackles the issue of bullying. Was there any particular incident/observation that got you started on the plot? In proper Freudian tradition, were you bullied as a child? Were you the bully? AS: I was never bullied as a child and I never really came across any big bullies. The plot came to me when I was doing a research for a short story on schizophrenia. My protagonist stammered, and the idea evolved from that. Usually, when someone stammers, we complete his words for him and we laugh at him. This issue has never been taken very seriously in our country. I did my research on stammering and what children face when they stammer. I also met the Indian Stammering Association leader in Hyderabad, who was kind of enough to let me attend one of his sessions. Listening to them, reading books on stammering, hearing podcasts, made me feel the trauma a person who stutters goes through, and I couldn’t help but write about it. Big Bully and M-me was written with the idea that we all have our weaknesses and strengths, and we need to learn to deal with ourselves and with others. TS: Completely agree. Stammering is a huge issue that is never taken too seriously. And when they say that characters ought to be well researched, this is probably the reason why? Krish comes across as a perfectly believable character. Which also brings us to the big bully! Mostly bullies are often depicted as villains who are evil to the core of their beings. Ishaan isn’t like that. What kind of research did you do for him? AS: For Ishaan, I didn’t really have to do much research. No one is all white or all black. The goodness in us just needs to be rekindled, and that’s what I have tried to do with the character of Ishaan. TS: Tell us something about your writing discipline. I hope to steal some pointers there. Are you an early riser? Or do you write at unearthly hours? Do you write every day? AS: I don’t have any discipline about writing. I am a pretty early riser but never write in the mornings; they are saved for enjoying fresh air. Because I love the morning air, I can’t stay up late. I write when I feel like writing. There will be weeks when I don’t write a word and then, all of a sudden, when things clear in my head, I itch to write. I write once my other work is done, or else I can’t concentrate. I prefer to write once my kid is in school and finish before he is back. I need to be at peace with myself. Writing soothes me. Thanks to technology, even if I am driving, if a thought slides in, I can make a note of it on my phone at a red light. Or if an object or scene intrigues me, I can click it and give thought to it later. TS: Ah! I have hope then! I always curse myself for not sticking to a schedule. Talking about your son, do you tell him the stories you write? Does he tell you what he thinks about your work? Who else is your biggest supporter/critic? AS: My son usually wants to know what I am writing; I tell him briefly and watch for his reactions. If he likes it, he wants to hear more. I have three stories in Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneurs Soul and he liked them all. As of now, he just feels proud that his mom’s a writer; maybe a little more time and he’ll be a stern critic. A friend who lives in the U.S.—we were in the same writing class—usually critiques my work. I like her insights into my work and her truthfulness, that’s what helps me improve. TS: So what’s next? A sequel? A new adventure? AS: Yes, a new adventure is bubbling inside but there is still a lot of work to be done. Since chapter books are a favourite with me, I would like to write for the same age group. TS: True. This is the best age to rope them in. We’ll be waiting for your next! Now for the rapid fire questions (strictly on the line of International Code of Interviews with hOle Book Authors). 1. Do you love dogs? AS: No. No to dogs. 2. What about chocolate? AS: I love chocolates! 3. Have you ever stolen a book? AS: No. 4. Where do you keep your story ideas? (Enclose detailed map.) AS: My story ideas are always in my mind. I never put it down on paper till I know it will work. When I start putting it on paper, first I draw a curve and see if things are falling in place. If they are not, I see if I can find a solution that works, or I chuck the story. Once they fall into place, only then do I go ahead with the actual story. 5. If not a writer, what would you rather be? Just so you know, a dragon slayer is a valid career choice. AS: A dragon slayer would be great idea! I used to be a jewellery designer, but I was never myself when I did designing. I think I would love to have my own library with a fine café attached, nestled somewhere in Mussoorie. TS: Here’s to more writing and reading by means of buying, borrowing, or stealing. And I’ll be your permanent customer at the café. I also bake for books. We’ll be eagerly waiting for your next!
Arti Sonthalia: Interviewed by Tanu Shree Singh