A. Coven is the author of the Hill School Girls series, which is for middle-grade readers and is set in an alternative boarding school in the hills. The first two books in the series Alone and Secrets will be published in December 2017. The next two books will be published in mid-2018.
She is interviewed by Devika Rangachari, a historian and the prize-winning author of several books for children and teenagers, including Queen of Ice, about a tenth-century queen of Kashmir.
DR: Both the Hill School books have a delightful irreverence towards figures of authority. What are your memories of your schooldays and did you also sometimes question the wisdom of the adults around you? Also, did you go to a boarding school?
AC: I didn’t go to a boarding school. I went to a slightly odd school. I remember it fondly enough but I also think it’s much better to be a grown up than to be in school – you can do whatever you want, more or less. I think I did often question the wisdom of authority figures, which is unfortunately a habit that persists till today.
Of course, we were irreverent of our teachers – kids everywhere have nicknames for teachers, sometimes even for the ones they love. And of course we didn’t agree with everything in the school structure. My friends and I broke rules – mostly small ones. But breaking them gave us a sense of agency. Kids need that, to feel that their actions can control their lives. In general, I liked school. I liked learning, and it did happen in school and gave me self-confidence. I liked playing basketball and volleyball with my friends, eating samosas. Most importantly, I think I developed a sense of myself and who I wanted to be during my years in school.
DR: How and when did you become a writer? Did you always know you were going to be one?
AC: Probably when I wrote a ten-line composition in Class II! I don’t think that this was a conscious decision at any point. Writing is part of being who I am. The kinds of things that I write–yes, that’s something I think about or the craft of it. But the act of writing itself, no I don’t think that was a conscious decision.
DR: What is your writing process like? Are you a procrastinator or do you stick to deadlines? Do you have chocolate breaks, for instance? How long does it take you, typically, to finish writing a book?
AC: I take very long to write anything. I take food breaks, shower breaks and reading breaks almost constantly, to the point that when I’m trying to avoid a deadline is when I’m most clean, well-fed and well-informed. Then finally, when I can’t put it off it anymore, I get to work.
DR: The Hill School books are about a group of friends and their escapades. Do you identify with any one character, in particular, and why?
AC: I identify with Elizabeth’s fear of the unknown, and with Ayesha’s irreverence. Schools are strange places–you don’t choose the school you go to and sometimes you’re stuck dealing with people you don’t really understand, so Elizabeth’s angst makes sense to me.
DR: Food seems to form an important element in your stories. What is your favourite food? Do you have a sweet tooth?
AC: I think food must be given attention, in life and in art. It’s hard to put down one favourite food but I can tell you my comfort food is dal-chawal with mutton and sookha aloo.
I’m not crazy about sweet things but for some reason I eat a lot of ice cream in cold weather. Like Elizabeth, I like to eat in the middle of the night, in the dark, and usually at that point anything will do.
DR: What are the kinds of books that you like to read? Who are your favourite authors?
AC: Pretty much anything, depending upon my mood. I love crime fiction, especially with women detectives. Sara Paretsky is one of my favourites. And I love children’s literature–David Almond, Neil Gaiman, Anushka Ravishankar. I also like to read Indian writing in English as well as writing from other parts of the world like Japan and Latin America. These days I mostly read non-fiction about things that other people wrote.
DR: What are the kinds of books/ stories that you enjoy writing? Do you have a favourite genre?
AC: I like to write books where kids make their own place in the world. So, realism is important for me but I like to write stories that show how fantasy exists in reality, especially in children’s worlds.
DR: Describe yourself in three words. The more enigmatic, the better!
AC: Volatile and elastic, romantic and melancholic, organised but phlegmy.
DR: The first two Hill School books are from the perspective of Elizabeth and Ayesha, respectively. Will the next books in the series take the other girls’ perspectives, in turn?
AC: Yes, you guessed it!
DR: Ayesha likes hip-hop and rap music. Do you like that sort of music, too? Can you churn out rap songs?
AC: Sadly I cannot churn out rap songs, but I like to listen to them on high volume sometimes. This isn’t usually a problem except when I’m on the bus. I’m quite eclectic in my choice of music but I would have to say that 1960s music—rock, folk rock—is often my default choice.
DR: Can you list five of your all-time favourite books? Any that you think everyone should read?
AC: I’m always stumped by these list questions and find it hard to choose. But here’s what comes up right now:
Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky
Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Moin and the Monster by Anushka Ravishankar
In an Antique Land by Amitav Ghosh
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
To read the opening chapter of Alone: http://www.duckbill.in/images/uploads/booksamples/Alone%20sample%20chapter.pdf
To read the opening chapter of Secrets: http://www.duckbill.in/images/uploads/booksamples/Secrets%20sample%20chapter.pdf