Despite having known Percy Wadiwala for many years online, I had never read his blog or any of his other writings till I met him personally at a book launch event. Out of curiosity, I hopped on to his blog to check out his work. A fortnight passed by and I had no idea of the passage of time. I had spent it all reading and rereading the extremely delightful tales that he has posted on his blog. I printed out some of the stories and sent them to my mother who loves literary humour.
Whenever I am low, physically or emotionally, I enjoy reading something funny. Usually, it is Wodehouse or Richmal Crompton or Frank Richards. Nowadays, I hop on to Percy’s blog. It has always surprised me that he has still not been discovered by a publisher. A long queue of publishers banging on his door, fighting for the right to publish his work, does not sound far-fetched or unrealistic to me! His writing is that beautiful. So, I was one of the first persons to download a copy of his novella as soon as he put it up on Kindle.
Today, he shares with us, in a no-holds-barred interview, all about himself, his love for reading, his peeves as an editor and why you should never ask him about bus routes. 🙂
Q What made you self-publish your first novella? Would you be exploring traditional publishing for your upcoming books? Why or why not?
A Well, they say novellas are famously difficult to place with traditional publishers, and ‘The Day Money Died’ is perhaps a novelette, more than a novella. At the same time I thought it had a lot of good points and was topical and I would be better served having it out there than waiting for publishers to make their decisions.
For the future, I think I would definitely be interested in exploring the traditional option for anything I might write that is of a more conventional length. Both options obviously have their pros and cons, and I wouldn’t shut the door on anything without at least dipping my feet into the waters.
Q You have been blogging for many years now. How did that begin?
A The short version is—a friend said I should try my hand at it.
The slightly longer version is that I had no idea what a blog was, but there was this website, like a social network of its time (2004) for b-school aspirants where I noticed one chap who sometimes posted these very humorous autobiographical pieces and complimented him on his writing. We finally bumped into each other in Pune for a b-school interview (he was from Chennai) and he told me there was no good reason I should not write a blog myself. He gave me a quick run-down of what I needed to do to get a blog up and running, and before long, my first blog was live. The first post was an account of a b-school group discussion and interview, presented with the interviewers and candidates written as animals, and the second was a commentary on the Union Budget, written as a dialogue with a dead man worried about his taxes…so yes, not exactly conventional, I guess, but that’s how they came out.
Things sort of took off from there. Or went off the rails, depending on how you look at it.
Q One can read any article on your blog and understand that your prose style is unique, classy and attention-grasping. When did that develop? Did you take any conscious efforts in improving your language skills?
A You’re putting me in a ‘Jennifer Lawrence dilemma’. I sound churlish if I try to say you’re exaggerating and if I don’t say anything at all it will seem as though I’m being a tad vain. So I’ll just say I’m really glad that you think my writing is—all those nice things you said about it.
I used to read a lot as a child, and scribble a lot in diaries and notebooks, though I don’t think I ever thought of writing as something serious other than for getting as many marks as I could in school exams. The occasional ‘castle in the air’ sort of idea for a novel would float through my mind, but as I said in my answer to your previous question, it was not until I started the blog that I tried to write stories with a plot and paid much attention to how I was writing. I don’t know when that style developed, and I haven’t really worked on it consciously—I just try to write in a way that I think best conveys what I want to say.
There is one thing though that I would say helped keep me in touch with the world of literature – I did not drop my reading habit all through school, college and corporate life. Sure, my pace of reading slowed, but I would make sure I always had a book ‘in progress’.
These days I also try to not go for too long without writing something or the other. Practise is important for any skill, and the last thing one wants when sitting to write is to find that the mental machinery is rusty!
Q You use a pen name. How has that affected your writing and publishing? Have you found the anonymity liberating?
A Liberating, yes. Several of the characters and stories I created—the bickering couple, the talking cats, the motley crew of bankers that you see in ‘The Day Money Died’—I doubt I could have written them before I stepped into this somewhat impersonal pen-name identity. There are times when I think that taking on the pseudonym is as essential to my writing today as having a word-processor on my PC.
But yes, that has meant that I have never been able to tap into the ‘friends and family’ network for appreciation, support or sales, as only very few people who know the real me also know the name I write under.
It’s a trade-off. On the whole, I think I have come out ahead of the game, so far.
Q After Wodehouse, I haven’t read any author who writers ‘Literary Comedy’ as well as you do. What made you choose this genre?
A To invoke the name of Wodehouse before a comedy writer is to risk him going down a rabbit-hole of memories and appreciation for the master. I’ll try to stop at saying that the comparison is one of the nicest things anyone has said to me.
As for choosing comedy as a genre—I think writers don’t choose it at all. Comedy chooses writers, for it takes a certain ability to look at the world. Marx is supposed to have said that history repeats itself twice; first as tragedy, then as farce. The way I see it, that means that tragic aspects of any event are immediately obvious, to see the comedy in them takes a slightly different way of looking at things.
I think when I am able to pull off a good comic scene or plot, I’m just doing a good job of presenting that ‘different viewpoint’. That’s as much as any writer can hope to do.
Q What does one need to do to develop, at least a little of, the literary skills of Percy Wadiwala?
A If there are any skills to speak of, they owe almost everything to reading a reasonably broad variety of genres. I try not to reject any author or genre without reading, and keep an open mind for multiple writing styles. I think it is also important for a reader, especially one who wants to improve his language skills, to give a chance to books that might be regarded as having ‘difficult’ language but are part of the literary canon—whether it is Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Salman Rushdie. I wish I had more of an exposure to vernacular literature than I do, but that is another thing I would recommend to anyone who is able to read in multiple languages—it keeps the mind flexible and opens you up to another way of thinking, all of which contributes to your own felicity with words.
Q The beauty of language or the nitty-gritty of a plot—what would you choose?
A My instinctive response is ‘plot’. That can mean a conventional plot or something that is more a character study or a provocative piece meant to raise questions in the reader’s mind, but there needs to be a plot.
Of course, having seen a number of stories with language so banal that it made me lose interest in the plot itself, I guess this is not that obvious a choice. I think if a plot is the foundation, language skills are the edifice that is built upon it and showcased to the world. If you want to stand out in the overcrowded space that is today’s literary world, you can’t afford to ignore one or the other.
Q You let go of a lucrative corporate career to pursue writing full-time. How has that journey been?
A It has had its ups and downs. I would be lying if I said I did not have regrets about my choice, I do, and often. The romanticised view of the ‘struggling writer’ is rather at odds with reality in that sense. Once you’re used to having a certain amount of money coming in, it’s not easy to adjust or change one’s lifestyle.
But I am fortunate to have people around me who are supportive of me and of my writing, and that usually helps me get through the difficult days. The response to ‘The Day Money Died’ has been particularly encouraging, I would say. As time has gone on, I am increasingly sure that even with the difficulties attendant to it, my decision has been the right one.
Q Who is your writing mentor? How did this person influence you?
A Can’t say I have a writing mentor, really. In general my family consists of people who do read, but are from solid, conventional professions. Most of the writers I am friends with today are also friends I have made after taking the plunge myself. My late grandfather did influence my reading when I was younger, however. He encouraged me to read the classics from a very young age, and my parents have also supported my reading habits with words (and by buying books) since I was very young.
They probably regret that now, but hey, you can’t have everything!
Q What is the worst thing that you were asked as a writer?
A One tries to keep an open mind…still, there was this one time—there is a story of mine that was published in a magazine. It follows a schoolboy on a bus travelling through South Mumbai, set in the aftermath of the Riots of 1992-93, and reflecting on the events and changes in the city as he travelled past various landmarks.
The story was very well-received in general, except for this one gentleman who kept harping on the route not actually touching one of the places I have mentioned in the story (in reality it passes by, but from a distance). The social commentary, the reflection on the city itself, none of that seemed to matter as much for this person as the mention of the bus going through that particular road. I hope that he does not read Alice in Wonderland ever—how will he ever deal with a disappearing cat!
Q What is the worst thing you have faced as an editor?
A All writers, myself included, make mistakes, you know. I wouldn’t want to say this or that bothers me for things like grammar or punctuation or even misplaced words. But it does bother me when writers don’t care to develop their own plots or characters well. I think if you are writing, you should do justice to the story and the people you have created to the best of your abilities, so when writers themselves don’t seem inclined to do that, it’s disappointing as an editor.
Q If you could name only one favourite author and one favourite book, what would that be?
A That’s so difficult! Still, if you do hold a gun to my head today, it would be Wuthering Heights for the favourite book, for reasons that are well-documented.
For my favourite author I’d say Charles Dickens, that’s a whole body of genre-straddling work that I enjoy reading and re-reading.
Q What is a genre that you can never see yourself write?
A Never say never, you know. Still I doubt I could do justice to an out-and-out horror novel, though I like reading them well enough. I seem to lack the tenacity for drawing out a scene designed to scare the reader.
Q What is one thing that you would like to change in the literary/publishing community?
A Now that’s another tough question, because the industry is in such flux between the advent of self-publishing, the decline of brick-and-mortar stores as a mode of distribution and the emergence of the ‘vanity publishing’ model that it’s impossible to say where this community of ours will stand a few years from now, or in what form.
Still, I’d say I wish writers gave themselves more time. The rush to publish, the eagerness to see their name in print, drives too many writers to put out sub-standard work and gives rise to a saturation in the market that has a detrimental effect on writers as a whole. I don’t mean writers should strive for ‘perfection’, but they should at least try to go through some level of gate-keeping in the form of a quality beta-reader or editor.
Q Name one lesser-known writer that you would hugely recommend.
A That’s hard, there are so many very talented writers out there just in India who are drowned out by to some extent by the deluge I mentioned answering the previous question! I think of TF Carthick, or Shreyas Bhave, even you yourself are someone I would like to see step out of the ‘lesser-known’ tag soon!
But let me recommend Suresh Chandrasekaran, author of A Dog Eat Dog-food World, a fellow-comedy-writer and blogger who writes a sort of reflective, gentle comedy with barbs of sharp satire peeking through when least expected. I hope he will publish more work as well so that there is more material for people to read and appreciate.
Just to cheat on the question a bit, let me add an author who is long dead and gone, and was very famous once. I don’t see much love for his work these days—Sir Walter Scott, whose historical novels remain fascinating studies of their time and have enough action (once you get past the long build-ups) to be fun reads even now.
The author who calls himself Percy Wadiwala is a Chartered Accountant and MBA who quit a successful career as a Banker to spend more time with his cats. Realizing that his cats are much happier without his company, he is now engaged in other pursuits such as staring mournfully at broken glasses, contemplating drying paint and, despite the protests of those who he inflicts it upon, writing.
He lives in Mumbai with his family, his book collection and a firm conviction that modern civilization is in terminal decline.
His first book, ‘The Day Money Died’, is available at Amazon.