Publication day interview with Sarwat Chadda – author of DEVIL’S KISS

May 7, 2009

May 7, 2009, is a very, very special date. Today marks the publication of our first Greenhouse title. DEVIL’S KISS by Sarwat Chadda publishes today in the UK with Puffin – to be followed by a US edition from Hyperion in September. Seven other countries (France, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Indonesia, Holland, Japan) have currently acquired rights in the book, and an audio edition will be coming from Brilliance Audio in due course. Sarwat signed with Greenhouse in Fall 2007, when the agency was still being formed, and he went on to secure virtually simultaneous US and UK deals at auction (with just a weekend in between!) in March 2008. You can find out more about Sarwat and DEVIL’S KISS on the Author section of this site, but now he’s magically dropped in on my blog to tell you the story of this extraordinary year in his life.
Hi Sarwat. You’ve featured a lot on the Greenhouse website over the past year, so it’s great to welcome you in person. You were the Greenhouse’s first-ever client, so tell us – what’s it like to be a Greenhouse author (if I dare ask!)?

Very nice. I was pretty anxious when we first met, having no real idea what to expect. There was a sense that this was going to be an adventure, no matter how it turned out.
I remember speaking to one or two of the other writers as they were joining Greenhouse and there’s a great feeling of solidarity with the other ‘seedlings’ as we’re mostly debut authors all trying to find our way. I love the range of the Greenhouse writers and how different our journeys are turning out to be.

It’s weird to think it’s only been just over a year since it all started. A lot has happened!

The story of how you got your book deals for DEVIL’S KISS is quite exciting. Can you tell us about it – and did you ever think something like this would happen to you?

Never in a million years. It still feels like I’ve won the lottery. I remember working at the first rewrite over Christmas and sending it to you on New Year’s Day. It was when you contacted me the following day saying you’d read it and loved it that I started to hope I had something good. Then there were the crossed fingers when it went out to the publishers, both in the US and the UK.

My wife and I had forced ourselves not to have too high hopes. If we were lucky we could get our carpets replaced and maybe cover our holiday costs. Our best-case scenario was for me to stick at the day job and maybe, just maybe, in five of six years make a gradual move into writing. But I never imagined that I’d become a writer full time.

I had a running joke at work that I’d quit engineering before my fortieth birthday. Can’t believe I actually did that with two weeks to spare.

We all know it’s very hard to get published, so give us some insights into how you got there. Going back in time a bit, when did you start writing, how long did it take you to write DK, find an agent, and get to submission point?

I think one of the things that holds people back from their full potential in writing is that they see it as a hobby that pays. I always saw it as a career change. So I put in as much effort as I could, imagining it as a second job. So I read a lot of those ‘how to’ books, I went on courses and tried to get myself involved and understanding the publishing business. Everyone talks about how you wouldn’t imagine playing a gig just because you’d picked up a guitar. The same applies to writing. Don’t think you can earn a living just because you’ve sat down at your keyboard.

The key issue was that the learning never felt like hard work. It felt like playtime.

The rewrites were endless. Fortunately, I write pretty quickly but still it’s hard having the guts to scrap EVERYTHING you’ve already done and start again. DEVIL’S KISS began in Autumn 2004. Between that version and the one that got the book deals I’d rewritten it maybe three or four times from complete scratch. The last (and biggest rewrite) was once I signed with you. From signing with Greenhouse in November 2007 to getting it to the publishers in March 2008 I tore the entire story apart and not one aspect of it survived, not even the title. But my goodness, it was worth it!

Nothing is wasted. All those words I scrapped over the years meant the ones remaining were the strongest. The stale plots were abandoned so what I had left was red and bloody. For me I think my selling point is the passion I feel for my subject. The writing isn’t that sophisticated. What I aim at is getting my story across as powerfully as possible.

DK is very dark and actually quite violent. Where did the inspiration for the story come from and how did you work out where to draw the line in terms of content, given your teenage readership?

I’ve always loved action stories and gothic horror, so wanted to combine the two. I love Bernard Cornwell and Clive Cussler, but their heroes are the best of the best. You never really feel the hero is ever in mortal danger. I wanted to give my hero a real run for her money and test her to the limit.

The London setting helped immensely. It’s a unique mix of ancient and modern. I used to work in a modern air-conditioned building five minutes away from Temple Church, which was consecrated in the twelfth century. I’ve been out on the streets before dawn, watching the mist roll off the Thames. I love history and the way it creates our present. Writing supernatural horror allows me to take this quite literally. I wanted somewhere very modern and very ancient, like London.

Interestingly, your main protagonist – Billi SanGreal – is a fifteen-year-old girl. Did you find it hard to write from a teen-girl’s perspective?

No, not to begin with. There are issues at fifteen that are relevant to girls and boys. Identity, the idea of becoming an adult and the responsibilities that brings. Rebelling against the normal order of things, like your parents.
I remember what it was like being fifteen, and the decisions I had to make about what sort of person I was going to be. It’s a time for choices and it’s hard to pick the right ones. There are pressures all around, from parents, friends, and teachers, most well-intentioned. Billi’s in the same position, but her choices have life-and-death consequences.

That said, I have been picked up on where I’ve strayed off the female perspective. Fortunately, having female editors and my wife as a first reader helps. Curiously, writing the romantic scenes wasn’t hard. Billi’s consumed with self-doubt. That’s something I identify with.

So you’re publishing in the UK today and in the USA in September. Given your deals were virtually simultaneous, I know you’ve been working with both American and British editors at the same time. What is it like to be a truly transatlantic author? Has it been hard to work for two publishers at the same time and are their approaches different?

Ari [Ari Lewin at Hyperion-Disney in the USA) and Lindsey [Lindsey Heaven at Puffin UK] have worked together to make this pretty seamless, collaborating on their edits and sending me only one set of notes. For a while after that my main contact became Lins as we worked on the UK edition.

However, there are different demands from the different markets. I delivered the Puffin revision last Autumn, knowing I still had time to continue working on the Hyperion version, which wasn’t due out until five months after the UK edition. Then my main contact became Ari.
The two books are subtly different. I’d be interested if anyone could actually spot the differences. Of course, I’d be very happy for everyone to buy both.

I know you’ve got a lot of publicity lined up on both sides of the Atlantic. Can you tell us what you’ve done to help promote yourself, and what your publishers are doing for you?

Oh, the blog – and completely rebuilding my website, www.sarwatchadda.com. I started the blog last year, thinking I’d get bored after a month or two. I probably never really appreciated the world out there on the Internet. I’m still trying to find a balance between blogging about writing, and blogging about books.

I’ve a week of school visits, starting this Thursday. Done one already and it was a laugh. I got the audience to write their own ending to the story then act it out. Fortunately no-one was hurt.
I’ve a trip to New York coming up and will be attending BEA at the end of the month. I’m on a YA panel with other writers so it’ll be great to talk shop with them. I’ve just taken part in the Crystal Palace children’s book festival in London and did a reading there, and that was fun. Met a lot of other writers and I loved the camaraderie. We all know how lucky we are to be part of such a cool profession.

You’ve come such a long way in the past eighteen months. Imagine you are talking to all the aspiring writers who read this blog. From your own experience, what tips would you most like to share with them?

Write what you love. It’s the only thing that will see you through. Writing’s the closest you get to revealing your heart so make it worth it (but not worthy).

I know you’ve got some foreign deals, so DK will appear in other languages, thanks to our sister company, Rights People. We tend to think most about the market in our home country, so what’s it like to be published in other parts of the world?

Very, very cool. C’mon, I’m going to be published in Indonesian, how cool is that? Went to Bologna for the international children’s book fair in March. Meeting my foreign publishers there really brought home the enthusiasm people have for books. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever come across. You do it because you love it. Not because it pays well, not because it gives you status, not because it’ll make you popular at parties. There’s something magical about books and storytelling.

Not giving away any state secrets (of course), are you able to give us any clues about what you’re writing next?

THE DARK GODDESS. It’s the sequel to DEVIL’S KISS and takes Billi way out of her comfort zone and drops her in Russia to face Baba Yaga, the fairy-tale witch.

If I have a style it’s that I take ancient legends and myths and put a modern spin on them. Baba Yaga is an avatar of the Earth Mother. Her job is to protect the Earth. She’s had enough of the damage Mankind has inflicted on the planet and is now going to do something about it. Something very drastic.

I think as a species we’re slowly waking up to the idea that we’re not aloof and detached from nature. We’ve tried to conquer it, not realising nature always wins. Always. Humanity hasn’t been on the planet for that long. The terrifying fact is that with us gone, everything else will be better. Baba Yaga represents all those species that have suffered under the dominion of man.

Take us through a typical day in your life as a writer. How do you organize your time?

Oh, my day is terribly domestic. Once I drop the kids off I try and write a thousand words. Usually in the morning. I try and avoid emails until the afternoon. Actually, one of the advantages about having a transatlantic set-up is that my afternoon is your morning. I feel I almost have a double-day, which means writing when everyone’s asleep too, but that’s cool. Afternoon and early evening is family time. My worst habit is the tendency to write on Saturdays.

I focus on monthly word targets, so there’s some scope for the unexpected. The target is usually about 20,000 words. That’s separate from rewrites, but I divide those up into chapters per week, leaving two weeks to polish before I need to return my manuscript to the publisher. That’s the ideal arrangement.

One thing I do miss is the chit-chat and larking about of an office. I socialized a bit (a lot, truth be told) in the office. Working alone means I’m probably quite manic now when let out in public.

Your life has changed a fair bit in the past year. Tell us about that – and how do you see the year ahead?

The main thing is that I love my job now. Really, really love it in a way I feel embarrassed trying to describet as ‘work’. Like I said earlier, it feels like playtime. Which is weird because, when you think about it, it should really be very boring. Sitting alone in a room for days and months upon end.

I spend much more time with the kids. Being away from them so much was something I always regretted when I was a wage slave. To be honest, I think there are times they probably wish I wasn’t around quite so much. In a few years I’ll probably evolve into one of those embarrassing dads, if I haven’t already.

I want to become much more disciplined with my writing over the next year. I’ve still got loads more to learn (like where to put inverted commas) but that will probably be how I feel for the rest of my life.

If you could choose just one word to describe how it feels finally to reach PUBLICATION DAY – what would it be?

Delirious.

Thanks so much, Sarwat – and congratulations! We wish you a wonderful day and much success to DEVIL’S KISS in all its incarnations. We’ll be keeping track of your progress in the years ahead. And also, of course, talking to other Greenhouse authors as they experience their various literary milestones.

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