Writer & Best-selling Author
The Zoya Factor is such a fun, romantic story. What was it like to write?
It was actually really easy. My husband always tells me, “Please sound intelligent when people who are struggling to write, ask for advice. You should give good, concrete pointers on how to write.” But honestly, writing that first book was all about instinct, there was no science to it whatsoever, it wrote itself like makhan. Probably because it had a strong premise! It was a “what if” book. What if a girl is lucky for the team? How will that change her life? How will that change the life of the team? I think the strength of the premise provided a lot of the structure.
I’ve never enjoyed writing any book as much as I enjoyed writing Zoya. It was the excitement, the freedom. It was like a dirty secret.
I would pull out my laptop from under the bed after everyone went to sleep and write compulsively in the night. In fact, it’s an intensely overwritten book. Once I’d finished it, I didn’t know what to do, as I didn’t know any publishers, so I kept writing more.
That sounds like a lot of work for a professional at the top of her career.
Yes, it was very hectic. I had a full time job and three children.
But I made time for it, because it was like having an affair. Nobody ever asks how someone finds time to have an affair, right? It was like a dam of frustration bursting through.
The cumulative frustration of writing ads for fourteen years. Writing so much shit you thought was good and having it rejected. I couldn’t believe I could keep writing—there was no thirty or sixty second limit, no budget constraint, nothing to sell.
Why this intense need to break free?
I once read an interview that made so much sense. When Imran Khan married Jemima Goldsmith, her father was asked what he thought of Imran. He said that Imran would make a very good first husband. Similarly advertising is a good first employer. You get the skills and the exposure and the contacts you want and then get the hell out before it hollows you out completely. I had always told myself that I’d leave advertising at forty and so the pressure started building once I crossed thirty-six. It was like what’s your Plan B, whats your Plan B? Besides, I kept getting kicked upstairs into more and more managerial roles, and soon, people were constantly coming into my office with needs—“Promote me,” “make my script better,” “you are partial!” So one day, I had this epiphany…I looked around the office and thought, “Meriko sabki mummy kisne banaaya? I already have three kids at home! I don’t want a bloody baaraat of babies in the office also!”
I joined advertising because I wanted to write - and now I was doing everything BUT writing! You know how they show in the movies that there’s a guy with a tin spoon and he secretly digs a tunnel with it to get out of jail? I was doing something like that.
When did writing The Zoya Factor actually begin?
I started writing Zoya at a shoot for a Pepsi commercial. There were four big movie stars, crazy deadlines and everybody was yelling. I felt so out of control. I went back to my hotel room that night and decided to take back my creative control. Shah Rukh Khan had sensed my frustration and the next day he asked what me was I going to do about it. I said, “I’m going to write a book.” He said, “Super. When you write it, I’ll buy it.”
Would you call yourself a control freak?
Being a control freak is what got me into writing novels. It’s my laptop. I can add, delete and kill people, I can change plot lines. My children say I talk with great authority about things that I know nothing about. They say that I’m so full of myself. Somewhere in there is the kernel.
I’m opinionated and I’m enthusiastic. In fact, I’m childishly enthusiastic. Can you imagine what a horrible combination? Enthusiastic, opinionated, uninformed, control freak!
Where does your love of writing come from?
I am the youngest of four sisters. When we were children, my dad was in the army and we were posted everywhere. There was no television and the army library was the most exciting thing. We would each borrow four books a week so we always had sixteen new books. We would discuss stories and characters around the dining table. Because I was twelve years younger than my sisters, I would read a lot of stuff very early.
Then my dad had HIS epiphany/Plan B moment or whatever (just like I did, twenty years years later), quit the army and moved us all to Haryana to farm his land. He had this frantic urge to return to his roots, which was good for him I suppose but pretty confusing for all of us because we were English medium, convent-educated girls and suddenly he was yelling at us for not knowing how to count up to a hundred in Hindi! He expected us to be something we were not. The kids in the village only spoke Haryanvi so it was pretty isolating. My sisters and I dealt with it by reading his massive collection of books, and writing some of our own stuff. Luckily, he decided to migrate to Australia a few years later!
So you’ve always been a storyteller…
When my dad realized we weren’t going to gel with the kids in the village, he sent us off to boarding school. There was no entertainment in those days, even on TV all we had was Doordarshan. So we’d sit around in a circle after basketball and I would make up love stories for my girlfriends. It was super corny and full of tropes. For example, I made up a story about my friend and how she went to a basketball tournament but the bus broke down. There was a bus of boys coming from the other side…You know, that kind of stuff.
I was like a little entertainment-providing person. Also, I would get quite homesick so I’d make up long love stories to put myself to sleep. I was thirteen so they were very chaste. Even after a hundred episodes people hadn’t kissed. Like some star-crossed serial!
How do you reach into yourself and imagine such stories?
Growing up, there would be a lot of sitting around on a double bed drinking chai and eating matti, talking family politics and gossip. Because I was the youngest, I’d be lying around, listening to a lot of age-inappropriate stuff, and nobody would notice. My childhood impressions are very strong. I have a good memory. My latest novel Baaz is about this Air Force pilot in 1971. That was like my maama’s life. My interaction with him was minimal, but I’d heard so many vivid stories about his life during those duple-bed chai sessions that I could write a book about it!
It’s important to have a rich conversations. I am very interested in people and what their real shit is. Not the upar ki baat. I talk a lot to people. Even people whom I meet on a flight or at a literature festival. If you can unlock something they haven’t told anybody else, it’s like winning a chocolate in a contest. A very, very special chocolate! I really treasure that.
What gives you the confidence to speak to just anyone?
Alcohol?!! Or really good food! I’ll be like, “Ya, let’s do lunch, let’s chat.” We’ll go somewhere and stare deeply into each other’s eyes for three hours and talk. I enjoy people who are willing to talk about themselves. When I see my friends after long, we do a complete series download. It’s like when you miss a lot of your favorite show so you binge over one weekend.
But one thing I cannot do is polite conversation. That married couple socializing scene with its boring, fake conversation. I zone out, make excuses and leave because I’m terrible at it. It gives me a headache. I’ve left all those kinds of WhatsApp groups now. They just eat up your time and give nothing in return. You have to weed out of your life.
Do you ever encounter difficulty in writing?
Writing has always been my escape. I go back to it compulsively. I wake up in the morning wanting to write. It sounds very shallow but I have written in hospitals when people were unwell. I have written a very sunny, happy scene in times of great sorrow because that’s my way of switching off. The biggest thing for me was when my son was unwell. That just blew my brain sideways.
And when my mum passed away in Australia, I couldn’t write at all. It was like a muscle that wouldn’t work anymore. I was broken, you know.
My sister literally nursed me back to writing. She tucked me up in her gorgeously floral guest room, put vases of garden-grown roses on either side, and said, “Don’t worry, Moturam.” Everyday, she’d feed me and ask how much I had written.
How can you protect for the pain that happens?
I tend to write very sunny, happy books. I have a naive sort of belief in the goodness of people and the existence of romance. If something shatters my illusions then it becomes tough. But pain avoidance cannot be a life policy. I always tell my daughters that it’s ridiculous to use pain avoidance as a strategy. You’ll never do anything.
I tend to go at things full on and not have any protective armor. But I’ve also become very good at JOMO (joy of missing out) and not doing things I don’t want to do. Like right now…I’m here with my dogs and I’m enjoying the sunshine.
JOMO sounds like a great life philosophy…
When we built this house, my mum made the long trip from Brisbane for three consecutive summers to help me set up my garden. One day I asked her how my garden was looking. She said, “Anuja, bahut sundar garden hai. Ab tum na, apne garden mein baitke, murgi ki tareh kahaaniyon ke sunhaire ande dena.” So sweetly she said it! It was like a blessing and bhavishyavaani in one. That’s the best gift writing novels has given me. I can write here! No corporate office or time sheets or squealing juniors! Just my dogs pooping in the bamboo, and hummingbirds buzzing in the bougainvillea! And all of this is possible because of writing.
(Anuja’s mum said, “Anuja, it’s a very beautiful garden. Now you sit in your garden and, just like a chicken, lay your stories as golden eggs.”)
How did you know you were a good writer?
Have you read The Princess Diaries? It’s about an ordinary fourteen-year-old girl’s who finds out she’s a princess. I read that book, and I thought - I can write like that. Which of course is supremely arrogant because it’s a complete classic. Around the same time, I read A Suitable Boy, and again, with supreme arrogance, I felt compelled to try and write like that. Those are my heroes - Meg Cabot and Vikram Seth!
I love that you can be so arrogant!
Everyone has something that is their jalwa. We are all arrogant about something. One hundred percent you’ve got something too. Like all those people who go to Bombay to become actors. Clearly they see something on the screen and they think, “I can do this.” Or somebody who’s good at science will say, “I can crack this, or make this.”
I’m only selectively arrogant. I’m not confident about many other things. I can’t cook. I can’t drive. And don’t even talk to me about my tax returns! But I am a little arrogant about my writing.
Does writing ever feel like work to you?
It feels like work when I don’t know what the hell to write. Last year, I decided to give Bollywood one year of my life to see what comes of it. By the end of it, I was writing the Baaz screenplay for YRF, the Zoya dialogs for Star Studios and one more independently scripted screenplay for Emmay Entertainment. Bollywood is like another animal and a lot like advertising in the sense that you have no creative control. Like even on the Zoya movie, they called me to Bombay and I saw the edit. But you know I’m not the director. I can give my opinion but I can’t do anything beyond that. Bollywood hollowed me out. I was trying to write a book and it totally suffered. I had a bunch of terrible false starts. I would roam around in a bad temper for a long time. But then I just chucked it all away. Pretty much like on the third of January, I woke up and knew what I wanted to write. Since then it’s been going swimmingly. I should have my book out by the end of the year.
How do you keep your momentum going?
I don’t want to romanticize it. Before I start, I never have a whole structure in place. There will be some premise, two or three high points, and one twist somewhere. Like in cricket, there are a lot of slog overs in the middle.
There’s a point when everything is up for questioning. Other ideas start sounding better and you have the urge to chuck what you’re struggling with and start something new. But you have to resist. It’s like those video games where you’re walking with your gun and you can’t see shit because there’s so much fog. That’s the worst stage really.
You take a take a deep dive and go under water…You think for a while that you’ve run out of air and there’s nothing…You keep swimming and claw up and rise to the surface at the other end. There is a lot of faith and leaping required. After your first draft is done, you do other things for a while and then go back to move blocks around. There is a lot of science to it as well. I have one part of my brain that loves writing and one part of my brain that likes economics. When I write novels, I pull both together.
Do you ever get any advice?
When I’m about twenty-five thousand words into writing a book, I share it with the kids, with my husband and with some of my first readers whom I love and trust. I listen very carefully and take their feedback on board. It’s like hanging a painting, really.
When you’re hanging a painting, you can’t judge whether it’s crooked, because you’re standing too close to it. So my trusted people, who are standing at a distance, tell me if its crooked and how to straighten it.
How do you deal with criticism?
I think I have a healthy relationship with feedback, because of my advertising training. I realize that it’s constructive. Of course, sometimes when a person just hates you, it is not constructive. But I can suss that out.
I sense that the person is coming from their own place of hurt or their own weird motivation and that really, it’s got nothing to do with my book and so I don’t take it personally.
Will you write romantic novels forever?
As I’m getting older, I’m getting crankier. I had this total panic last year thinking, “Man, I can’t write these wide-eyed, twenty-something romances forever.” But then something small happens, which reaffirms my faith in romance.
Do you ever get recognized?
I’m slightly recognized! And that’s why now, I understand why there’s this whole obsession with airport chic. You need to be selfie-ready. I find that when I’m all well-turned out, nobody ever recognizes me. But when I’ve just crawled out of bed, half-asleep and badly dressed and missing my flight, that day only somebody will recognize me. And I’m smiling and saying, “Ya ya sure, lets take a selfie,” and inside I’m going, “Oh god, I’m going to be on Instagram looking hideous.” That’s just the law.
What does success mean to you?
There are two parts to it. One is your personal standards based on your ideology. It’s very important to be personally satisfied with what you put out. You should like it. The other is that people should like it. Like you go to a party and someone says, “Beta yeh kitaab padha, bahut accha banaaya tumne.”
I’d be quite sad if I wrote stuff that I thought was great and everyone was like, “What is this shit?” That’s real too. What’s not real is how much I got paid or whether I won any awards.
What have been the high points so far?
Every time a new book comes out and the covers and the 6 copies come home, that is really a big thing. I remember when Those Pricey Thakur Girls came out. My daughter has a Goodreads account and somebody called Sangeeta had marked my book as “to be read.” And then Goodreads said that Sangeeta is reading it. My daughter and I were watching like hawks. We were saying, “Oh god, Sangeeta is reading…What will Sangeeta say?” Then two days later, my daughter woke me up and said, “Mamma look, Sangeeta has given five stars!” We were so happy! Things like that feel really nice.
What do you feel most proud of?
I’m proud of my kids. They are twenty-four, twenty-one and eighteen this year. My husband and I have managed to have a home where our children genuinely talk to us. It’s not like we are friends with our children because that is just rubbish. Who does that? We have very open relationships with them. I think that they would come to my husband and I no matter what happens. They would level with us.
I’m an instinctively proud person. And I’m proud of that.