Adithi Rao graduated from Smith College, USA, with a degree in Theatre, and returned to India to work as an assistant director on the Hindi film Satya. Shakuntala & Other Timeless Tales from Ancient India is her first book for children. Growing Up in Pandupur is her second. When the Muse comes knocking, Adithi pens the occasional film script, the rights to two of which have been brought by leading film production houses in her country. Several of her short stories may be found in anthology collections published by Penguin, Scholastic, Puffin and Zubaan. Her adult short fiction frequently appears in the online as well as print editions of Longshot Island, for which she enjoys writing. In her free time, Adithi takes long walks and cooks food that her family politely enjoys.
Longshot: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Rao: Well, there are two places. One is Rajasthan in Western India. The desert there has made its way into many of my stories. One winter evening, while I was sitting on a sand dune in the Thar Desert, a young tribal boy called Virdhara wandered up and sang a Rajasthani folk song that fired my imagination. His name stayed with me, and he eventually became the Virdhara of my story, “No Strings Attached”. His voice and his song became Nandan of “Mango Tree in the Desert”.
My second pilgrimage—one which I undertake several times a day—is to the cupboard in which I keep the chocolate. Chocolate brings out the best in my writing. (At least that is the excuse I give to my daughter when she comes home from school and finds her share gone.)
Longshot: Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
Rao: It probably hurts more than it helps. If I think I’m perfect, then I wouldn’t bother to improve. And that, right there, is the death of a writer, isn’t it? Having said that, a writer definitely needs to know his strength. Letting the rejections stop you (and let’s face it, there are millions of publishers out there just waiting to reject you) can actually send the Muse hurtling into cold storage.
Longshot: What is your writing Kryptonite?
Rao: When I’m writing on a subject and come across a book or a film that has already dealt with it in an exceptional way, it brings my work to a grinding halt. I get so entangled with the expression of that piece, that I’m unable to proceed with my own.
Longshot: Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
Rao: No. Say I wrote under the pseudonym Jack Smith. What difference would it make? Nobody’s heard of either of us! Quite frankly, I think pseudonyms are for famous people. For the rest of us who are plodding along trying to make our little marks (ink blots?) in this world, we need all the credit we can get. All that we can splash across our Facebook page and garner ‘likes’ for!
Longshot: Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
Rao: When I try to write for an audience, it turns into a disaster. I usually have to tear up that draft and wait for something better to come along. A lot of film writers advice me to study the popular story trends and write a concept that producers will like. But that would mean that I never actually wrote anything. My work would become a product of market trends and ideas modeled on other people’s successes. Eventually it will fail at the most basic level—to tell the story. If the writer’s voice and vision are not clear, how can he inspire his audience to be swept away?
Longshot: As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Rao: Dogs! In India we have plenty of strays. To and from the shops, or on my morning walks, there is at least one in every street who is a friend. Since I avoid social media, it usually turns out that on any given day I have communicated with more canines than people.
Longshot: Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice?
Rao: When you get rejected five times a day, you have no option but to be spiritual about it! But jokes apart, yes, writing is spiritual, simply because it takes me outside and beyond myself.
Longshot: How do you select the names of your characters?
Rao: I have a friend who hails from a very large family of ingeniously named cousins. I have happily made my way through the clan, picking names for my characters. If anyone from that family were to read my stories, I will be facing a law suit faster than you can say Donald Trump!
I’m always on the alert for quirky or interesting names. India is full of them, actually. Many of our gods and goddesses have a thousand names. Each. There is even a goddess named Apitakuchalambal (I dare you to pronounce it). It’s like a buffet out there.
Longshot: Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Rao: Not deliberately. But since much of my writing comes from my own experiences and interactions, a certain incident in a story might be particularly significant to someone in the family or friend circle.
Longshot: What was your hardest scene to write?
Rao: One that was set inside a prison. Trying to come up with an authentic scene that could plausibly take place in jail proved so difficult that I ended up putting off it off indefinitely. The story idea still grabs me, though.
Longshot: What is your favorite childhood book?
Rao: Enid Blyton’s “Magic Faraway Tree” series. A magical world in a cloud above a giant tree, Moonface and Silky, the Saucepan Man and Dame Washalot… It was too delicious for words. Every tree in the garden at home took on magical possibilities. I was always on the lookout for pixies and toadstools and brownies… I’m still on the lookout for brownies. Only now I prefer them with walnuts and chocolate sauce.
Longshot: What is the most difficult part of the artistic process?
Rao: Getting over the need to turn this one into a masterpiece.
Longshot: Do you believe in writer’s block?
Rao: Believe in it? I tried to write the book on it and encountered writer’s block! I don’t think there is a writer alive who hasn’t bumped into it at some point or the other. Writer’s block is not a concept. It is an actual physical thing. A gut-wrenching experience that makes you want to double over and scream. It can go on for minutes or for months. The trick is to not mind it. Because the more you do, the longer it’s going to take to leave.