A Bangalore-based writer, who has published nineteen novels, of which three are e-books, Andaleeb Wajid has written on diverse topics like food, relationships and weddings in a Muslim context. Her most recent book, Twenty-nine going on Thirty is about four friends who are brought together by family drama, boy trouble, and their fast approaching thirtieth birthdays. Here, she tells our Books Editor, Archana Pai Kulkarni, why in a world where othering is common, normalising day to day lives is something that needs to be done.
How does it feel to be named after a book (an Urdu novel, Andaleeb), and to be raised in a family of readers?
Reading is not the widespread culture in my extended family. But it was the absolute norm for me, growing up. We found different worlds within books and we enjoyed the glimpses into the many different lives. I found out that I was named after an Urdu novel and that made me feel a little better about having an unpronounceable and unusual name as a child. Only now I realised that indeed it’s wonderful and serendipitous that I am a writer now, especially since I was named after a book.
There were so many books there! In Urdu, in English, dusty books with silverfish crawling away rapidly in some of the pages. As a child, it seemed that there was a lifetime hidden in those books.
Tell us more about the time you spent at your grandparents’ house in Vellore, which was a treasure trove of books. How did it shape your reading and writing?
We spent some of our summer vacations there, under the cool tiled roofs, flipping through comics mostly. I read several Phantom, Mandrake and Richie Rich comics there. Reading books there was not very easy because they were often hardbound books which didn’t give much clue about the content and it wasn’t easy for me to pick up one of those and spend time with those books. There were so many books there! In Urdu, in English, dusty books with silverfish crawling away rapidly from some of the pages. As a child, it seemed that there was a lifetime hidden in those books.
You started writing at ten. Do you remember what you wrote or why you felt compelled to write?
I’m not sure why I wanted to write. I just felt like it was something I had to do. I remember writing a few stories that were straight away rip-offs from Enid Blyton books. I also remember writing about a boy who didn’t like to bathe and he was named Unhygenix (Heavily influenced by Asterix at that time)!
The liberation I mention here is that there is much more allowance for a married woman to do certain things than there is for an unmarried woman especially in my society.
You got married at 19. You have mentioned that it was liberating. How did marriage and motherhood contribute to your journey as a writer?
Getting married at 19 wasn’t liberating as such and it’s not something I recommend to anyone! The liberation I mention here is that there is much more allowance for a married woman to do certain things than there is for an unmarried woman especially in my society. More than marriage, I would say the family I married into gave me the freedom to be myself. Motherhood gave me a respect for time. Time was no longer my own and I was bound to another now. When my son was born, I was pretty sure this was the end of my life as I knew it. But I was only 20 then and obviously it was all very overwhelming and scary. But as the years passed, I learned that being a mother was not my only identity and I had to make one for myself outside of it.
When did you realise that you were meant to be a full-time writer? How did you go about living that dream?
I knew I wanted to write when I was seven or eight but that was because I loved the idea of having a desk to myself to write ‘important’ stuff. Being a full-time writer isn’t easy. Currently, this is the third time I’m trying it and I’m hoping third time’s the charm. The first time I gave up my job to write because I felt I couldn’t do both together. The second time, I had a better understanding of my ability as a writer and as someone who held a job. Right now, I’m doing some odd jobs for content writing but my heart is in writing stories, full time, so planning to plunge into it again but with a better plan.
How difficult or how easy was it to get your first book, Kite Strings, published?
It was extremely difficult. The market was new and there weren’t as many Indian authors who were getting published in India as there are today. It was also not easy to approach publishers with a book that didn’t fit into any set genre. ‘Kite Strings’ was not mystery, crime, historical fiction, romance or chick lit. It was a coming of age genre; one that I didn’t even know existed. All those factors contributed to the difficulties in getting the book published.
Well, writing a book in a month happens only when I’m completely involved in the story and characters and the book ends up writing itself.
It takes you just three months to complete a novel. What’s more, you can sometimes finish writing a novel in one month! How do you accomplish such an incredible feat? This must involve a highly disciplined writing regimen. Tell us a little more about it.
Well, writing a book in a month happens only when I’m completely involved in the story and characters and the book ends up writing itself. But otherwise too, I make it a point to write at least a chapter every day. A chapter in my books is usually between 1200 to 1500 words and it helps if there’s dialogue! Yes, discipline is a must.
Describe your writing space.
It’s a mess. I try to organise it but it keeps getting cluttered
How long do you sit at your desk before deciding that you have put in the required amount of work for the day?
It depends. It’s not about the time but about how much I have written in that time. If I’ve completed my requisite chapter, then I’m done for the day although if the writing flow is good, I do write a little more as well.
I really enjoy Stephen King’s books and he’s certainly an inspiration. But I also enjoy reading well-written romances.
Do you read specific authors when you are in the process of writing your books? If so, who are the authors that inspire you?
Not really. I read anything and everything I can get my hands on except non-fiction. I really enjoy Stephen King’s books and he’s certainly an inspiration. But I also enjoy reading well-written romances. I used to avoid reading books while I was writing my own earlier but now I’m able to compartmentalise what I’m reading and what I’m writing more easily.
Your novel, More Than Just Biryani, started out as a recipe book. You are fond of baking but not cooking. What was the impetus for writing a recipe book? When did the turnaround happen and fiction begin to take shape?
Well, I thought that many people equated Muslim food with biryani and I wanted to talk about the other dishes that are cooked in our homes as well. But then I realised that this would take a lot of work because Muslims are integrated into various communities that influence their cuisines and I wasn’t really cut out for that sort of research. I do enjoy baking because it feels easier than cooking for some reason. I put aside the idea for a recipe book when I realised that I wasn’t the sort of person who could do research and be accurate when it came to recipes and the book did leave my mind for a couple of years. I came back to it when I heard about a young distant relative who had lost her husband and it reminded me of my own mother who was very young when my father passed away. I started writing, More than Just Biryani, a fictional saga of three women, their kitchens, the men in their lives and the different ways in which food influenced their decisions or fuelled their dreams. I felt I was much more suited to writing about fictional lives.
Your latest book, Twenty-nine Going on Thirty, has been published a decade after you have passed that milestone. You have mentioned that the book was born out of trying to understand what the fuss around turning thirty was all about. Did writing it entail a lot of looking back?
I wrote a different version of this book after I turned thirty but the story is essentially the same. So there wasn’t much looking back because I had experienced those emotions myself. What is different though is that my characters did change slightly in this version, especially my leading character Priya, who was insufferable in the first version I’d written. I think ageing myself helped me put things in perspective.
When I write, I write within a bubble, where I don’t let thoughts from outside affect me. I don’t think about my accomplishments or any expectations. I just write.
You are called the queen of the breezy read, a consummate storyteller whose books have that elusive unputdownable quality. Does living up to that reputation put pressure on you? If so, how do you tackle it?
Thank you. Well, I don’t feel like I am living up to any reputation. When I write, I write within a bubble, where I don’t let thoughts from outside affect me. I don’t think about my accomplishments or any expectations. I just write. I look back only once I’ve finished writing and even then I try to stay focused on the story and the plot and whether everything makes sense and if I have plugged any plot holes and tied up all the threads.
Do you share your manuscripts with anyone before you send them out? Who are your first readers?
Initially, it used to be my brother but these days he doesn’t have time to read my work. I often send it directly to my editor without sending it out to any beta readers.
Your earlier books had Muslim characters and the stories had a Muslim milieu. Considering the times we are in, do you think that as a writer you need to be more vocal about the issues Muslims are facing today?
A majority of my books do have a Muslim setting, simply because it makes the writing easier for me. I feel that my stories which are set in Muslim households are already doing the job of presenting Muslim lives as they are to the world at large. I’m showcasing the very normal lives of Muslim people as they go about doing their work. Unfortunately, in a world where othering is common, normalising day to day lives is actually something that needs to be done.
The childhood memory of your grandmother was the inspiration for you to write The Sum of All My Parts. You have confessed that writing that story made you look at older women differently. Is there a shift in the way you look at people now?
I look at all people through the lens of a writer. I can’t help it. I look at people and make up their back stories in my head, especially if they are someone I don’t know. Older people are fascinating for me because of the rich lives they have lived and the experiences they have accumulated. For many people, especially the young, old people are nearly invisible. Youth has a way of thinking that they are the only ones experiencing everything right now.
You have written across genres like Young Adult, romance, sci-fi and horror. How did this exploration happen?
I think this happened because I want to write the genres that I enjoy reading. I haven’t really written any sci-fi (the Tamanna trilogy was more of a young adult fantasy romance). I think I’m interested in exploring different genres because I don’t want to be tied down to just one.
Which genre posed the most challenges? What were they?
Horror is definitely the most challenging genre to write for me, especially a novel. I realised this because when I was writing the book, I couldn’t discern how scary something was. Was it chilling? Or was it corny? And it’s difficult to scare people when you don’t have the advantage of sound effects which is where movies and TV shows are so much better suited for horror.
The main notebook however has a single page synopsis of each of the various books I want to write. So you will probably find a lot of unintelligible scrawl about characters, stories, back stories and sometimes even conclusions.
You maintain a notebook which is the source from where your stories are developed. What can we find in it?
I have several in which I scribble the various stories as they are being written. The main notebook however has a single page synopsis of each of the various books I want to write. So you will probably find a lot of unintelligible scrawl about characters, stories, back stories and sometimes even conclusions.
Do you work on more than one story at a time? How do you manage to do so? Doesn’t it get confusing?
No. I can’t do that. Yes, it’s confusing and also it’s easy to mix up the voices of the characters which is something I cannot take risks with.
What are you working on now?
Currently I am finishing up a Young Adult novel, a genre that I haven’t written since the past three years.
You quit your job in 2016. Why? Do you think it’s difficult to hold a day job and write?
I quit my job because I wasn’t getting much creative satisfaction there. If you are methodical and diligent, you can absolutely do both because I wrote three novels during the period I held a job.
You dread weekends and vacations as they come in the way of your writing. Most writers go on vacations to be able to get the time and space to write.
This is something that most writers dream about, but don’t really get because it’s a privilege to be able to leave the house, the children and the family to just go away and write.
Friends call me a machine but I can’t help it if my brain is churning out stories constantly.
Don’t you need that time out to allow your mind to lie fallow?
I took a one year break from writing in 2014. Decided I never would do it again because I suppose I am built differently from other people. Friends call me a machine but I can’t help it if my brain is churning out stories constantly.
How do you deal with the unease of not being able to write when you want to?
I hate it. I usually type out something on my phone’s note app, mostly notes about the book I’m currently writing.
How does it feel to be the first woman in your family to get a job, travel solo and stay alone in a hotel during a lit fest?
Amazing! If I can do it, so can others. I know it’s easier said than done and my circumstances have been different but I always tell the other women and girls in my family to focus on the different ways they can be empowered, especially so that these very normal activities are not extraordinary in anyway.
What is the most important piece of advice that you can give other aspiring writers?
Read a lot and write every day. Reading is really the biggest preparation you can give yourself as a writer. Writing every day flexes the writing muscles and helps you get a smooth flow when it comes to writing. Also, being observant of the world at large is important.