Gather around, my supportive satsumas,
Happy Easter weekend! Here in Germany, it’s a loooong weekend, so I anticipate Berlin will be quite empty by Thursday evening. As for us, we just have to be organised enough to shop for our groceries much in advance, which is a tall order, and I suspect we’ll be down to pantry staples and pommes (fries) from the shawarma shop across the road by Tuesday. It’s still much colder than it has any business being in April, but every morning my little winter garden/study is flooded with sun, so the cats and I sit here and bask.
The pre-order link for Soft Animal is live! The book comes out on April 24, and if you’d like to read it the very minute it hits stores, be sure and click the link which is here.
Here’s the praise the book got already.
I’m not going to be in India doing any book events this year, so all my appearances will be virtual, which means it’s extra important you pre-order (or just order!) Authors get new book deals based on how well their previous books have done, and if you vote with your wallet, as it were, then it helps keep me afloat. To paraphrase what Rilke said in Letters to a Young Poet, I wish I could give you all copies of my book because it makes me so happy when my words reach people that actually get them, but sadly I am poor and don’t own more than ten author copies. The rest depends on people buying them and letting bookstores know to stock me.
So pre-order! Push me up the Amazon rating list! Let me write more books for you!
How to write a book: an explanation
Begin in childhood. Be an odd, lonely, bookish child. Realise the difference between having lots of people around you and people knowing your heart. When you think of being a child, you often think first of being alone with a book, but if you start to unravel that memory, you remember you used to have a lot of friends. They just weren’t like the people you knew intimately, people you had read about so often that their pages grew spattered with food, the spines bent, the covers fell off, again and again you returned to them, almost like you were being them, pulling yourself into their world, until you knew them better than yourself. Admit this to no one. Play with your friends and your cousins so well that no one realises you are actually two people, an inward and an outward. Begin keeping a diary, but soon grow dissatisfied with your own limited vocabulary. Begin writing a book in a spare notebook in class, a large family saga, the kind you like to play by yourself in your room—an orphan girl taken in by a large family, but this time everyone is Indian. You read books about white children, and you adapt them to your world. You find a tape recorder and record an audio play—all parts played by you. You call the family you invent something long and elaborate, the Goenkars, say, or the Goswalas. Every book you read has a large family, it is the only one you know how to invent.
Are your imaginary friends imaginary to you as well? You know they’re not real, right? How did you name them—what made them be called Sarah and Gaurav? Sarah is the bossy older sister, Gaurav is a little whiny. They both think you’re great, they both think you could do anything you want. They will teach you how to fly. In your new neighbourhood, the other children aren’t very nice. You wait instead for Sarah and Gaurav, the three of you can play, but you know they’re not real, and so you drift wistfully to the park, and watch the other children who have known each other since birth, swap friendly asides. They’re all in twos: sets of siblings. Even your imaginary friends are siblings. George of The Famous Five isn’t, though. She has a dog. You wish you had a dog.
When you make friends, Sarah and Gaurav disappear and never come alive again. You feel guilty, where do imaginary friends go? But they have each other, so they’ll be fine.
The other twelve-year-old girls seem so much older than you at your new school. You are still reading Judy Blume, but the bookshop owner recommends Sweet Valley High. It’s what everyone else your age is reading, he says. You clutch your copy of Superfudge.
You see a captive bear and it makes you write a letter to the editor of a newspaper. The editor not only prints it, he sets it in the centre of the page with an illustration. It’s your first byline—it has your name and your age and your school. An older student comes up to your classroom and asks for you, asks if you’d like to join the nature club since you seem to have an interest in nature. Nature Club isn’t as exciting as it sounds, but you are so thrilled to have been personally recognised, personally requested. You realise how heady that feeling is—your classmates still don’t get you, but someone else did.
Your parents’ friend is starting a children’s section in a newspaper. You’re too many years away from learning about nepo babies so you ask if you can get paid. To your surprise, the editor agrees, you get Rs 350 per article. You begin the personal essay trend in the kid’s pages of a newspaper, writing about your friends. You get into trouble for mentioning one by her initials, how many boyfriends she has. She’s only thirteen. Your friends surround you the next day, slit-eyed with judgement and superiority. “My father said,” says one, “That Meenakshi must not be a real friend at all.” Luckily, the subject’s parents don’t get the newspaper. It cures you of writing about your friends—at least, with identifying details. You learn a valuable lesson: if you don’t want to get caught, enough of it has to be made up. You also don’t know the words “plausible deniability” but if you did, you’d be applying it here. You don’t write any more for the newspaper, you wonder: am I a real friend? It’s sad to think maybe you’re not, but everyone had read your writing. There was that.
You keep a diary. You make friends. You work on the school newspaper. You learn human connection, and you know some parts of you are just yours. You’re living a story you’re telling yourself about a well-adjusted young woman. Where there were Sarah and Gaurav, now there is you. When you’re out, some part of you detaches, and this part writes everything down—in your head, and later in your journal. Because it’s private, you use it for social observations. Sometimes you’re so pleased with your turn of phrase, you wish someone else could see it, but mostly, you’re happy to have a place where you admit to being uncomfortable and angry and sad. That’s the only time you write in your diary. The rest of the time, you’re drifting along, but you’re keeping up your fiction in other notebooks. It gives you pleasure to write, to tell yourself a story. You’re not writing it for anyone else, and so your stories are as self-indulgent as it is possible to be.
You grow up. You get a job at a newspaper. You decide for the first time since that kid’s page many years ago to write about your life, but for an audience. You start a blog. You haven’t learned, you never will learn. You don’t mention people’s names, but the identifying details are so strong that your colleagues find out anyway. They don’t like being written about. The ones you haven’t written about loudly wonder why—mainly this one guy, much older than you, who seems to hate you. Later you realise his constant comments about what you wore to work—just normal tank tops and jeans—making it so you’d shrink as you passed him, would count as sexual harassment. Of course, it is him who finds your blog, he seems obsessed with you, this older man, he never gives anyone else such a hard time, and he mocks you loudly. You go home in tears and take your blog offline—only, you’re really proud of it. You worked really hard. You delete the post about your colleagues, they’re not that interesting, decide never to write about work people, and change the URL. You call it The Compulsive Confessor, it’s what your mum says you are. You change your username to eM, me spelled backwards, the first letter of your name. You say, “Oh no, I stopped blogging” if your colleagues ask, but honestly, who else is that interested in you, the youngest and least important member of the newsroom? They forget all about it, and as the youngest and least important member of the newsroom you have to stay late with the air conditioning and the fast internet and you write and write and write.
Success! Your first book deal! Editors reach out to you because of your blog, you choose Penguin. The newspapers make a big deal about how you write about sex—relationships, really, you tell them. You’re not Belle de Jour-ing, you’re blogging about being a single woman in India. It’s certainly not X rated. But that doesn’t sell papers—or books for that matter, so you give in. You are very young, you believe you will always be able to write from 1 am to 3 am and then wake up the next day and go to work and go out with your friends and that it’ll only get easier with practice.
And then? And then you do it all again, except you can’t, blogs are slowly not becoming a thing any more, other people are writing about single women in India, and besides, you don’t want to repeat yourself over and over again. You branch out. You write other books, just by putting one word in front of another, each time wondering if this is the time you’ve completely forgotten how to do this. You are poor, you are rich. You are well known, you are obscure. Literary darlings appear and disappear. You steal from people’s lives like a magpie and then put them together and tear them apart in your fiction. You don’t discuss your writing while you’re writing. You hate editing, it never comes naturally to you, but as you get older, you realise that for the book you have in your mind to match the book you’ve just put down on page, you need to rewrite, restructure, cut, polish.
You wonder: how do I write a book? You realise it is by writing. You work on your books and you occasionally write shorter pieces for money, but you also write for joy. You keep a little notebook next to your laptop where you can make notes about people who pass underneath your window. You need your novel-in-progress to rest between chapters, like dough, so you write down the beginning of a short story, just as a warm up exercise. An email newsletter, even. Joy isn’t to be found in imagining a book launch or big international success, those things are lotteries, some people get them, some don’t, some deserve them, some don’t. Joy is taking something you’re good at and doing it just for you. Joy is writing down things for people, and having them know exactly what you mean.
I hope you’ll all read (and love) the book! Just sharing the pre-order link once more, because maybe you just decided to buy it and it’ll save you scrolling back up again.
Meanwhile, here are some links, because I also read some excellent things this week:
I wrote about crows and Berlin last time, and so did someone else!
A mean but entertaining profile of fantasy writer Brandon Sandersen in Wired which the author responded to very graciously on Reddit, so worth reading both side by side.
Arundhati Roy on free speech.
Breeding dogs to be cute is animal cruelty. (Quite a sad piece because you’ll never look at a pug or a French bulldog the same way again.)
Fomo and chronic illness.
Inside the home life of women across the world.
And: because I was intrigued by how Germans eat a cold supper—as compared to India where it seems traditionally women slave over stoves to produce several fresh hot meals every day, I wondered if it had anything to do with female emancipation here. It turns out… sorta? But also the thick German folk bread everyone loves was popularised by, yup, the Nazis.
Have a great week! Don’t forget to share the pre-order link with everyoneeeee you know!
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
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