Andaleeb Wajid is the author of several novels for adults and young adults. Her next novel, When She Went Away will be published in October 2015.
In conversation with her is Himanjali Sankar, author and editor.
HS: Maria’s mother walked out one fine day leaving behind a totally dysfunctional family. When She Went Away deals with issues that are grim and dire. Yet there is that lightness of touch, which is your trademark. How do you do it?
AW: Most of my other books are lighter and have an element of fun but this book is rather dark.
I guess there are two ways to look at the problem, both of which are explored in the book. For a teenager, a mother leaving is akin to the end of the world as he or she knows it, which is how it is at the beginning of the book. The other option is to look at things very superficially, which is how Maria deals with it later.
HS: When you started writing the book did you know why the mother left or did you figure it out as you wrote on? So, what sort of writer are you—a plotter and planner, or one who lets the story take her where it will?
AW: I knew why she left. For this book, it was all decided in my head.
When I started writing, I used to let the story lead me. But later, I realised I had better control of the situation if I planned things out. I was afraid that planning a story would kill the spontaneity, which is fun for me as a writer, but I also realised that it’s up to me. I didn’t always have to follow the plan.
HS: While Maria, her mother and K are very clearly delineated I found that the characters of the dad, Sharmila and, to an extent, Saud interestingly minimal—it’s left to the reader to fill in the gaps and come to their own conclusions. Was that a conscious decision on your part? And who is your favourite person in this book?
AW: It wasn’t a conscious decision. It probably arose out of giving more time to Maria, her mother and K as the primary players.
My favourite person in the book is Maria. She’s got emotional baggage and she’s got a chip on her shoulder. She’s not as sassy as she’d like to be. But she’s also human and finds that in the midst of all the different crises at home, she can still manage to crush on K.
HS: You have tackled head-on some very adult and difficult problems that kids might have trouble wrapping their heads around. How do you expect teenagers to react to the book— for instance, to the way you have portrayed the mother?
AW: I don’t really know.
I’ve tried to humanise the mother, depict her as someone with feelings of her own, and an identity that is more than just motherhood. I think it’s imperative that teenagers realise that their mothers are people in their own right.
HS: As an adult I’m dying to know more—Sharmila and what she’s all about, and the inner lives of the parents. Do you have it all worked out in your head or were you focussing on understanding Maria only?
AW: No, I don’t have any of that figured out. Since my focus was on Maria, I wanted to show things only from her point of view.
Many teenagers don’t consider adults as actual people, I think. They’re either authorities or someone you want to emulate or admire.
Maria has never really looked at her parents as individuals.
As for Sharmila, she could be your regular, independent woman living alone, but considering the wide berth that Maria’s father gives her, she’s also judged for her choices. I’ve kept the adults somewhat hazy in the book, because they are hazy in my mind as well.
HS: When She Went Away is a page-turner, packed with so much in terms of emotions and events. Which part did you enjoy writing the most? The teen romance, the mother-daughter relationship, the dad and children bonding?
AW: Everything—because all of it was different. The teen romance was sweet and slightly mushy. The mother-daughter relationship was more, like one between equals. The dad and children, however, take a lot of time to figure out how they can deal with their situation together.
HS: Do you find it easier to enter the minds of teen girls rather than boys? What is your reference point for depicting teenagers—your own childhood, your son’s life or are you just able to get the pulse naturally?
AW: Teenage girls are easier, yes, because the reference point is certainly my own adolescence and teenage years. In my head, I feel quite young and I suppose that is the reason why my YA fiction sounds natural. Also, teenage angst was something I lived with for quite some time, so that just makes it easier to identify.
HS: You said you lived with teenage angst for a long time. Have you dealt with any of the issues that bothered you as a teenager in this book? Also, would you say teenage angst is overrated or is it something we don’t give enough attention to once we become parents?
AW: My issues were different. They had to do with being told—when I was twelve or thirteen—that I shouldn’t think of having a career because girls from ‘our families’ just got married, had babies and managed the house and kitchen. This wasn’t told to me by my mother, but it was considered a given. My angst arose from seeing kids around me dreaming of becoming doctors, engineers, architects and I couldn’t accept that my future was so narrowly defined. I refused to believe that this was all my life would amount to. I think it was a product of the belief that my father had in me that I could accomplish anything and everything, that I became the person I am today. I’ve explored my own personal angst in my first novel Kite Strings through the protagonist Mehnaz.
For a teenager, small things feel like the end of the world. Too often, as adults, we forget what that feels like.