Chhimi Tenduf-La scored two sixers this year with two successful books: The Amazing Racist and Panther. Both the books, based out of Sri Lanka, cater to a different set of readers. While TAR is for the adult readers, Panther is for young adult readers.
Having read the Panther and now reading TAR, I was totally awe-struck with Chhimi’s writing. A couple of emails later, he responded to my questions. The book and the characters in the questions are from Panther.
How long did you take to write the book?
It’s difficult to put an exact timeframe on it; my first draft, which was just 40,000 words, took about two months at a guess. Then, in consultation with a wonderful person who my agent introduced me to, I added in war scenes and took the story in that direction. I did that pretty quickly, so at a guess I would say, all told, about 3 months. However, between writing it and sending it to my agent I re-read it millions of times and made tweaks here and there.
What inspired you to write the book?
Friendship and hope. At the heart of it, Panther is about relationships; loyalty, betrayal, abuse and so on. Essentially I wanted to write a story about two boys from different sides of the divide becoming great friends.
What is your writing routine like?
I try to write a couple of hours a day. My target is 2000 words, but 1000 is fine. I do this at work, before or after my day starts or I will make time if I am inspired. Then, the key is to read back what I have written in the day, just before I go to bed. I jot down notes on my phone and then start the next day by editing and then it is easy to get into the flow of writing again. I don’t put a great deal of pressure on myself. If I don’t feel like writing one day, I won’t. I always take the weekends off which is good as it means I have time to make sure I am heading in the direction I want to.
Any inspiration? Did you borrow any incidents from people close to you or someone you know?
Pretty much all of it is inspired by real events, from the fight with a minister’s son, to the abusive coach. Some of these things are from my life, or they are things I have read about, or heard about. For example, an NGO worker told me, how in a rehab camp she worked in, there was a former child soldier who could only sleep in a tree – she couldn’t sleep in a bed.
Can you tell about your publishing journey? From the time you finished your novel till it got published?
I sat on my novels for a while – I had both The Amazing Racist and Panther ready and then I read about an old friend of mine being published in India, so I googled Indian agents and was lucky that I came across the best of them, Kanishka Gupta. He replied to my email in about 0.3 seconds and asked for the whole manuscript. Then he put me in touch with one of his consultants, Neelini Sarkar, who told me where I needed to make changes. She felt I had rushed the story and needed to flesh it out. Once she was happy it was ready, Kanishka sent it around and within a couple of months I had offers from a few big publishers. We chose to go with Amish Raj Mulmi at Hachette India because he seemed to believe in the story the most- I loved working with him.
Kanishka told me to keep writing so that we could try to sell another book quickly. I did as he suggested but then remembered that I had Panther up my sleeve and we went through a fairly similar procedure. This time two publishers got back very quickly indeed so we didn’t bother waiting for anyone else. They both said wonderful things about the book so it was a tough choice but we went with the great talent of Manasi Subramaniam at HarperCollins India. She decided that we needed to leave about 6 months between my first book and second, otherwise it could have come out even sooner.
With both books, I spent about three weeks editing with the publishers, a bit of time on cover design and then I had to learn quickly about marketing, PR and distribution.
Your two books were published within a short time – how did you manage that?
I had written the first versions of both before I approached an agent so there was not a huge amount to do after that. I was very lucky it worked out like that because it meant that there was never any pressure on me to prove that I could get published more than once.
Can you tell more about the character Prabu and Indika from your latest book and how did you develop them?
Prabu is based loosely on a friend of mine when I was at school. He came from out of town and was very naïve about the ways of the city – like in the book he did genuinely believe that if a girl kissed him on the cheeks she loved him. Indika is a very glorified version of myself. I wrote the book so I was allowed to make myself the coolest, best-looking, most talented person at school. That is the great thing about being the writer. In someone else’s book, I would be ugly and talentless. Prabu’s character developed when I made him a former child soldier. That changed the dynamic.
What you do when not writing?
I love all sports, I love chilling by a pool, I watch a lot of TV, go to the gym, enjoy a glass of wine with friends (although with a young daughter all these things are quite rare now). Above all else I am a father and that is the most time consuming and enjoyable part of my life. I rarely see friends who do not have children of a similar age.
Advice for upcoming writers/novelists
If they have a genuine passion for it, then they should never give up. There is no reason why they cannot be published. Yet, they need to listen to advice and understand that if someone says something doesn’t work, it is not a personal attack. The more they read and write, the better they will get at it. I would also suggest they read some books about writing to get the technique right, and also that they try to join some peer review sites. Also, just observe well – if they have a funny friend, see something beautiful, get angry about something – all these things can be used in a book. Above all else though, I would say that it is a mistake to be too precious about what they write. Editing is the key and they must be prepared to cut anything. Also, they shouldn’t try to be too clever – instead try to write a story people will enjoy reading. That’s what I think anyway.
Chhimi’s picture is a reading of his book — Panther at Galle, Sri Lanka