My heart belongs everywhere and nowhere: Award-winning author Priyanka Pradhan

There are very few first-time authors in the world who can predict the success of their debut book. Dubai-based Priyanka Pradhan is one of them.

Her first book – 'Tales from the Himalayas', an illustrated collection of 17 short stories from the Indian state of Uttarakhand – started bagging awards even before it was published in 2020.

Photo: Connected to India
Priyanka Pradhan, author of 'Tales from
the Himalayas'. Photo: Connected to India

Ruskin Bond, arguably the world’s most popular children’s book writer, handpicked Mumbai-born Pradhan’s manuscript from hundreds of entries from Indians across the world for the “Ruskin Bond Promising Writer Award” at the 2019 Dehradun Literature Festival.

“Enchanting tales, straight from the heart of the mountains. Vivid storytelling and striking themes make it a delightful read,” Bond said of Pradhan’s book, which was inspired by the colorful folktales of the mountains she heard as a child from her grandmother.

The 'Tales from the Himalayas' manuscript, which would later go on to become quite the money-spinner, was runner up for the Montegrappa Writing Prize at the Emirates Literature Festival in early 2020.

Now in the middle of writing her second book – a “coming-of-age drama-meets-adventure novel” – the 39-year-old journalist-turned-author opens up about her stupendous success and frustrating struggles as a writer.     

Connected to India: (C to I): Was 'Tales from the Himalayas' your first book? Have you written books before that are unpublished?

Photo: Connected to India
The cover of 'Tales from the Himalayas'.
Photo: Connected to India

Priyanka Pradhan: 'Tales from the Himalayas' is my first published book and yes, I’ve written one before, which mercifully hasn’t been published because it’s objectively terrible. I was 14 years old when I wrote it and did not have the kind of self-awareness that is required of a writer then.

C to I: Another book has been commissioned. Please take us through it. What's this one about? 

Priyanka Pradhan: The book is a young adult fiction called 'Roadtrip', a coming-of-age drama-meets-adventure novel about coping with childhood trauma and finding the strength and perspective to move on. I’ve been having a rough time writing this because it’s not easy to face one’s own demons while telling a story. Writing can be cathartic, but at times, it can also be incredibly difficult to write about matters closest to you. To revisit past trauma and put yourself in a vulnerable place for the world to see, creates a certain inertia, which I’ve been struggling to deal with while writing this book – even with therapy. The one thing I’m sure of is that I will tell this story, no matter how hard it gets.

C to I: Your first book was meant to be primarily for children, but it was read and appreciated by adults, too. While you were writing it, did the thought cross your mind that it could find the sort of audience it eventually did? 

Priyanka Pradhan: I’m so grateful that my first book was appreciated by children as well as adults. CS Lewis once said, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” So, I’m thrilled that my stories found an audience across age groups. While writing the book, I simply envisioned a child listening to my stories, much in the way I heard stories from my grandmother. In fact, the book is dedicated to her because she was my very first storyteller. I had no idea grownups would enjoy it too!  

C to I: While writing, do you keep an audience in mind? What is your approach?

Priyanka Pradhan: I do keep in mind whom I’m writing for, because it’s important to be mindful of my writing voice. I’d tell someone my own age the same story differently. This is not to say I’d ever dumb something down for young readers. Children are far more sensitive, perceptive and intelligent than adults so one needs to be even more mindful of their writing tone. In my opinion, its more challenging to write for children, than it is, for adults. I’m not one for rules, honestly. If someone gives me a rule for writing, I’ll go out of my way to refute it. However, an easy way to figure out if what you’ve written is resonating with whom you’re writing for, is to read it out aloud. It’s important for a writer to know what they sound like. Their writing voice and this clarity will help you decide if your writing is suited to your audience. 

Be authentic and write your story straight from the heart
Be authentic and write your story straight
from the heart, says Priyanka.
Photo: Connected to India

C to I: A writer will do anything to avoid the act of writing. It is a supremely hard job – to start and then finish a book. Your take?

Priyanka Pradhan: I can’t tell you the number of horrid TV shows I’ve watched on the pretext of research. I keep telling myself I’m learning about plot and character development and the nuances of the three-act structure while I watch one insufferable show after another. In reality, I’m simply procrastinating. When I do start writing, I simply cannot stop. I won’t eat, sleep, bathe until I have it all out on paper. I don’t know how some authors swear by the “method writing” approach, where they set aside a particular time of the day to write a certain number of words each day. Give me this regime and I’ll probably be found discovering a new banana smoothie in my designated writing time.

C to I: That would mean a lot of support from your family?

Priyanka Pradhan: My husband was the reason I could even finish my first book. I decided to start writing the book days after my daughter’s first birthday and as you can imagine, it’s not easy to have done that with a tiny one in tow. Firstly, one never knows when inspiration strikes – could be in the middle of a diaper change or midway in a deadlift at the gym and secondly, with the challenges of early parenthood baby shark on loop, it seemed unlikely I’d have a book of 17 short stories ready to be published. My husband took over my responsibilities and did all the dirty work while I was a woman possessed – part writer-madness and part sleep deprivation. I’ll always be grateful to him for seeing me through it.

C to I: Some really awesome writers would write at times only one paragraph a day, sometimes just one sentence a day. Do you follow any such style?

Priyanka Pradhan: My style is erratic, at best. I’ve taken a long hard look at myself to figure out if it’s just laziness, but I realised it’s not. Some people thrive in order and others like me, in chaos. So, I write in massive spurts lasting days, even weeks. Then nothing for days, even weeks. My five-year-old daughter does keep me on my toes so I can only write after her bedtime, which means I end up writing between 10 pm to 3 am – the bewitched hours of the day. I’ve always been a nocturnal creature so I’m not complaining but yes, it can take a toll, with the morning school routine starting at 6 am.

C to I: You were born and bred in Mumbai. Yet, your fascination with the mountains comes clear in your first book. Where does this fascination come from? 

Priyanka Pradhan: My maternal side of the family is from the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and my paternal side is from Darjeeling, so the mountains are very much in my blood. I’ve grown up in suburban Mumbai so my deepest connection to the Himalayas were just stories. My grandmother would tell me fascinating tales about her childhood in the villages of Kumaon, where the family chickens and goats would be snatched by leopards by night and kids would swim in a small river to get across the border to Nepal for afternoon snacks! The sheer passion with which she’d describe even the most mundane events in her beautiful Himalayan village ignited my imagination as a child. All my vacations ever since I remember have been spent in the mountains and I found myself falling in love with the smell of the crisp mountain air and the glittering night sky. So, when I initially started writing this book, it was a collection of six stories for very young children – almost a picture book for toddlers. I wanted to compile these stories and illustrations for my daughter as my grandmother’s legacy. I thought that since my relationship with my roots in the mountains was bound so closely with the storytelling tradition, it was a privilege to be able to do the same for my daughter. 

C to I: Being a travel writer, you have travelled far and wide. Would you call yourself a mountain person or a beach person? 

Priyanka Pradhan: My heart belongs everywhere and nowhere. The mountains are where my roots lie, and the beach is inextricably linked with my destiny. I do love going back to the mountains, but I feel most at home near the beach. I have to live in a coastal city. My next book, 'Roadtrip', explores my love for beaches as it sees an estranged mother-daughter duo taking a trip along the Indian coast, covering Goa, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Pondicherry and the Andaman Islands, along the way.

Photo: Connected to India
'Tales from the Himalayas' is an illustrated
collection of 17 short stories from
the Indian state of Uttarakhand.
Photo: Connected to India

C to I: When do you see 'Roadtrip' hitting the stands?

Priyanka Pradhan: I still have a lot of travel to do before finishing the first draft, as this book has a very strong travel-adventure theme. In true travel writing tradition, I plan to visit all the locations in the book and use real places as props for the plot. I love it when the location becomes a character in the story. So, I’ve covered more than half the places so far and I’m looking forward to completing the book sometime next year.

C to I: Should new authors expect a signing amount once a publisher agrees to publish?

Priyanka Pradhan: Yes, a signing amount or “book advance” should be expected from the publisher once they’ve commissioned your book. The exact amount will differ, depending on whether it’s your debut book or you’ve been published before, the sales record and profile of the author etc. However, first-time authors should also expect a small book advance.

C to I: Do you always know exactly what you are writing about or do you think of or change the script as you go along?

Priyanka Pradhan: I tend to be very particular about getting the story and finer points of the plot in place, before I start writing the first draft. I could never start writing and see where the story takes me – that’s too chaotic, even for me. Changes in the manuscript may happen in the drafts that follow but that’s after I workshop it, take feedback from friends and editors and put it through a final round of professional editing but when I write, I stick to what I’ve meticulously planned. In my opinion, it is crucial to know what the ending of your story will be. It needs to be examined and fleshed out thoroughly because it will make the over-arching idea of your story clear. This is important because one writes a story to convey a certain idea or a message or a concept. Writers must ask, “Why do I want to tell this story? What do I want to say to readers?” The answer to this will be clear if the story is precisely fleshed out before writing and according to me, this is the most important aspect of writing a book.

C to I: Do you actually make enough money from writing books to live decently well?

Priyanka Pradhan: If I had to earn a living off my book, I’d be a hobo – the proverbial starving artist. Firstly, in traditional publishing, the standard percentage of book sales that go to the author is miniscule. New authors need the credibility and validation of traditional publishing houses but once the author is successful, he/she can actually make a decent living out of self-publishing because a large chunk of profits will be theirs, as opposed to a mere 12 to 15 per cent with a publishing house.

C to I: Any parting words for aspiring writers?

Priyanka Pradhan: My advice to aspiring writers is to simply forget the business of publishing, forget what’s trending in the literary market, forget what genres are doing well, forget how much money you’ll be able to make. Instead, focus only what you want to say to the world. Be authentic and write your story straight from the heart. Don’t think about how “domestic noir” as a genre is selling a lot of books or “fantasy” is something you want to write only because it’s a crowd favorite. Tell your story and tell it well. Never write for success or money or fame. Write only because you simply cannot live without telling your story.