Our editor Laure Deprez has been speaking to The Writers’ Retreat author Indu Balachandran, who tells us during this Q&A session about her journey from writing about the comedy of the Advertising industry to the comedy of romance, and the ways in which her culture and personal experiences have had an impact on the book.
1. You are originally from the world of ads – what made you decide to become a novelist?
A lucky phone call! I had just written a fun spoofy book, Don’t Go Away, We’ll Be Right Back: The Oops and Downs of Advertising, in a genre I am most comfortable with: non-fiction humour. An acquisition editor read it in a plane ride, and called me right from the airport: would I write another funny book—but a romantic novel this time? I had never written a story longer than 2000 words, so it seemed terrifying. But I got started, thinking such phone calls rarely happen.
That said, Advertising is a fabulous training ground for fiction writing: it teaches us to be sound storytellers, be under different skins every day. So I mimicked the art of copywriting even in a novel. There are some fundamentals of a 30-second commercial I follow: there must be a strong central ‘idea’ running through, with pithy dialogue and action to keep the pace.
My favourite authors started out as copywriters: Nora Ephron, Salman Rushdie… (did you know he wrote “Naughty, but nice” for cupcakes, at Ogilvy?)
2. If you had to describe The Writers’ Retreat in twenty words, what would they be?
A rollicking, romantic adventure of three girls who quit boring jobs and escape to magical Greece to chase a passion.
Three girls run away to magical Greece to chase a passion – a tale of love, laughter and living life to the fullest.
3. In The Writers’ Retreat, the three female protagonists have “the world’s best jobs”, but they feel unfulfilled. Is it something you experienced yourself or witnessed?
I was raised on an unhealthy diet of Mad Magazines since I was 8 by my dear, funny Dad, so writing was always a plan! But I did something strange like study Economics in college, passed a tough bank exam—but literally ran away from the final interview. I knew I would never be happy in any job that wasn’t about writing. Advertising was the perfect choice for me — I thoroughly enjoyed my 30 years in JWT. I quit only because I am crazy about travel, and a fabulous opportunity to review eco-friendly destinations all over India came up. But I can’t claim to have lived an ‘unfulfilled life’ really — the angst the protagonists feel came from seeing many of my friends who earn well, yet hate what they are doing… I just feel lucky I always got to do what I enjoy doing.
4. There is a lot of talk of marriage (arranged or not) and ceremonies – how big are weddings in the Tamil community?
Yes, the ‘arranged’ marriage is highly prevalent still in India, initiated through matrimonial websites, but controlled by parents! The Tamil community follows solemn rituals, but thanks to the overpowering influence of Bollywood, traditional weddings have now morphed into humungous filmy song-and-dance affairs.
5. You use a lot of pop culture references in the novel – the main character Amby is a fan of Nora Ephron and often quotes classics; who are your personal icons and inspirations?
My character Amby is my own writer’s voice speaking throughout. It follows that Nora Ephron is my ultimate screen-writing hero. Favourite authors that I can keep re-reading are: Dave Barry for impossible exaggeration, Ogden Nash for hysterical rhymes, and Nora Ephron for witty dialogues. And my bookshelf is filled with TV humorists: Tina Fey, Ray Romano, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Ellen DeGeneres… they just kill it with their writings too. I’m currently reading ‘Sein Language’ by Jerry Seinfeld (maybe something to do with sharing his birth month and year, exactly, I feel he’s my soul mate).
6. Amby’s boss and love interest is a ‘Kollywood’ (the Tamil cinema hub) actor – How big is the industry in real life, compared to Bollywood? Which Kollywood movie should we be watching this weekend?
India, the world’s film capital, makes about 1700 films a year! (compare it to Hollywood’s 600+ average). Bollywood, or Hindi films lead, followed by Kollywood (Tamil), with about 350 films per year. The Tamil film to watch out for is Sanghamitra, a mega special-effects blockbuster about a warrior princess with music by Oscar winning AR Rahman. Sanghamitra had a red carpet walk and grand opening in Cannes 2017—it plans to outdo Wonder Woman, and also Lord of the Rings!
7. Part of the novel is set in gorgeous Greece – what made you decide to pick this country for our intrepid writers to travel to?
Simple reason: I myself attended a Creative Writing workshop in Santorini and Crete, a few years ago. Absolutely magical. Though the workshop itself turned out to be too basic and disappointing, I have never had so much joy, meeting some amazing, eccentric writers too. That entire experience is in this book, the places, the people (we are still in touch), but I had to work hard on inventing and adding new fun and challenging writing exercises, as part of the narrative. (But now I am ready to conduct one myself, I guess!)
8. During the writers’ workshop, the prospective authors discuss their writing process and habits. What are yours? Do you have any advice for young writers out there?
I am kind of obsessed with ‘famous writers and how they write’, so I enjoyed putting that in from all my gathered notes. In my writing workshops, I always say a strong basic idea is crucial but I give enormous importance to crafting. My genre, writing humour, is much like doing stand-up comedy — timing is everything. Words must be ‘heard’ in the right rhythm and metre — with the right pauses. And that comes with punctuation. Semicolon or comma? Full stop or three dots? And a misplaced exclamation mark! It’s like a stand-up comic laughing at his own jokes. For me, all writing is re-writing, it takes me forever to hit the Send button.
9. Any chance of a sequel to The Writers’ Retreat? Or possibly a retelling of the story from the dreamy Kaykay’s perspective, a la Mr Darcy’s Diary or Gray?
Now that’s a great idea-starter! I am far better at answering a good brief, than coming up with something on my own (perhaps my years of training in Advertising). Perhaps I will now write a ‘lad-lit’ from the male point of view…
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