Author Arya Rajam talks about her journey, future and relationship with mother, acclaimed dancer Anita Ratnam
For a writer of fantasy novels, Arya Rajam is quite a realist. She believes that hard work, patience and discipline are the most important skill sets in her arsenal. Daughter of famed danseuse Anita Ratnam, Arya first created ripples when she published her book Blood, Sweat and Tears in 2013. Her second book, A Dual-Dragoned Throne — the first of the fantasy trilogy Crowns Of Imperium got released earlier in February. The 35-year-old is currently working on the second part. Upon meeting with her at her ancestral home in Teynampet, we ask her when it’s expected to release and she responds with a laugh, “Technically, I’m on the second draft of the book but I still feel like I’m only halfway through it. I’m ready to wait until I’m fully satisfied. I don’t want to rush it.” In a freewheeling chat that unfolded, the young author discusses her journey, relationship with her mother, her writing process and more.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did your family react?
I think I knew it when I was about 19. As a kid, I was enchanted with the idea of creating stories and characters. To become an author of novels, I was dreaming about it ever since. I grew up with my mom and my grandparents. Mom is an artiste herself. So she was supportive from when I chose English literature to when I told her I wanted to become a writer. She was also a bit concerned about the stability aspect of it, because her career has been very difficult and demanding. Whether you are a dancer, musician or a theatre artiste in India, it is likely that most people won’t appreciate it because we don’t get a regular paycheck. You will also constantly get criticized by people who don’t really understand our passion for it. Thankfully, my mom was there for me all along.
How was life different, being the daughter of a famous personality? Was there pressure to become an achiever?
Right from college, I’m known after my mother. Everyone would say I’m so and so’s daughter. I found that very annoying, even to the point that it felt disturbing. I would think ‘why can’t I go to any place without hearing this’. After a point, I stopped telling everyone that this person is my mother. But people would still find out somehow. So yes, it was pressure in a way, but also a matter of immense pride. She’s really carved such a big name for us. Regardless of what my mom has achieved, I do want to excel. I write every day, I’m very ambitious about it. In my own way, I’m a perfectionist who wants to do my best. I work out daily and eat healthily. I want to be the best version of myself.
How would you describe your journey so far?
The journey from my first published novel, that is from 2013 to now, has definitely seen me grow as an author. I definitely want to improve with each book I write. In terms of being an author, I’m very fulfilled because I’m telling the stories my heart wants to tell. When I look back at my first book, I can definitely say that my second one is way better. So career growth had definitely been there. It’s been very exciting five years since my first book. There may not be much change in my daily life, but I can surely see the change in how I write.
Where do you find the inspiration for your books? What’s your process like?
I think ideas can come to authors at any point of time. Like when you are sitting in a car or when you watch something inspiring like a play. But for me, the idea of my first book came to me out of nowhere. Soon I started writing down ideas for books that I wanted to write, including the fantasy trilogy I’m currently working on. I think each person has their own way of writing, their own routine. For me, I try and wake up every day by six, finish my workout by eight and sit down to write till one. While I’m at it, I try to keep away from all the distractions including my phone and just focus. For the rest of the day, I’m free so it’s like a part-time job. I train myself to be disciplined because only that habit will keep the flow of your work going.
Is that something you learned from your mother?
Yes, I got it from her and also my grandmother. Growing up, I have seen mom and other dancers rehearse for group shows from six in the morning. I remember being surprised at their dedication because those were people with day jobs. So it is definitely something that my mom taught me and also something I want to do for myself. I like to push myself every day.
What were some of the challenges you had to face?
I think the biggest challenge for any writer is to take criticism. When I was writing my first book, I remember, after I finished the first draft, I thought, ‘oh this is good’. But then, I got feedback from editors saying I have to cut and rewrite a lot. That’s when I realised that it’s a very long process that requires a lot of patience. I did get my first publisher through my mom’s contacts so that part was rather easy. But once I signed the contract, it took almost one and a half years for the book to come out. It’s a lot of waiting. One has to be patient, handle your writer’s block, rewrite a lot, be open to feedback and trust that with each book, you will get better.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
I’m glad that a lot of people are writing these days. I get emails asking how to get published. Instead of jumping to that, I suggest they focus on finishing the book. Writing is a very long process that requires a lot of discipline. Whether you have a day job or kids to look after, you need to find the time to sit down and write.
Do you often go to your mother for advice?
I don’t because we work in two very different fields. She has only seen my books after it’s come out. I don’t show her anything before that. However, I know that she is there to guide me if I have questions. When I was working with my first publisher, she would ask me to do things a certain way I wouldn’t listen. But I feel that itself is a learning process.
My mother is someone I really look up to, she’s one of the most inspiring people for me. Being an artiste who also chose a difficult path, she understands what it’s like. She chose to do contemporary dance and not just Bharatanatyam. A lot of people didn’t understand it back then but she chose to do it anyway. She tells us to do what makes us happy, but work hard at it and be disciplined.
Fantasy fiction. How did that happen for you?
I have not really read anything in the fantasy genre other than Lord Of The Rings and of course, Harry Potter. I think a part of me has always been entranced by it a — be it fantasy art or music. The thing with fantasy fiction is that you can create your own worlds, magical creatures and give your characters power to do almost anything. Although I approach life very practically, it’s thrilling to write something so different from real life. Although I worked the two books the same way, the second one was much more challenging. I just couldn’t finish telling the story in one book, hence the trilogy. When I was writing it, I kept reminding myself that it was fantasy and that I have to write exciting things otherwise people wouldn’t want to read it.
Lastly, how do you see your future?
After this book, there will be my next. I hope I write 10 to 15 more books before I die (laughs).
Queen of grace
An acclaimed classical and contemporary dancer, Anita Ratnam also dons the hat of a choreographer, theatre practitioner, arts entrepreneur and a cultural activist. Classically trained in Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Mohiniattam and Kalarippayattu, she defines her dance style as ‘Neo Bharatam’ and herself as a ‘Contemporary Classicist.’
How has your journey as an artiste been so far?
My journey is very surprising, even to me. I never planned or prepared for the success that I now enjoy. I am an emotional person and so I have always operated by instincts. It has been a roller coaster ride, lots of crests and dips, high and lows… I have learned more from my mistakes and less from my success. I sure hope to have the energy to continue for another five to seven years before I wind down.
How have you supported Arya in her career?
Writing is a solitary activity, fraught with more disappointments and rejections than acceptance. I told her that it will be a long and lonely road. I asked her to pursue it single-mindedly and never to listen to naysayers. I also encouraged her to travel to the US to study creative writing, meet authors, attend book events and conventions.
Do both of you approach your respective careers differently?
Arya is a dreamer, she is an optimist who sees the good in everyone. Whereas, I am a pragmatist and know how tough the world of publishing is. Although I urge her to use social media to promote her work, she is very hesitant. Arya prefers to take her time and not rush into anything whereas I am more impatient. I cannot do what she does and likewise, she also cannot do what I do. But together, we are two strong women who believe that we are enough!
What’s the best advice you have given her?
Refuse to give up. There is no deadline for success.
Arya’s top 10
• Shalimar the Clown — Salman Rushdie
• Kane and Abel — Jeffrey Archer
• The Other Boleyn Girl — Philippa Gregory
• Dancer — Colum Mc Cann
• Rebecca — Daphne du maurier
• Da Vinci Code — Dan Brown
• Kite Runner — Khaled Hosseini
• The Taliban Cricket Club
— Timeri Murari
• The Palace of Illusions — Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
• Prince of Ayodhya — Ashok Banker
Set in the medievalistic Kingdom of Caelisia, A Dual-Dragoned Throne — the first in a planned trilogy, follows the story of Princess Aurora, who goes on a quest to save her kingdom from the destructive wrath of a sorcerer. As dark power rises to torture the noble King Lorien, the princess takes it upon herself to embark on a journey to a faraway land to destroy an ancient object that embodies evil powers. With a mighty wizard by her side, she finds her fate tied to that of her kingdom and tries to fight demons and monsters to save the world by finishing her quest. Rs. 360, Maitreya Publishing Foundation.