Payal Kapadia’s Wisha Wozzariter won the Crossword Award for Children’s Writing in 2013. It is also on the 101 Indian Children’s Books We Love! list. We loved Horrid High and this December the next in the series Horrid High: Back to School is scheduled for release. We caught up with Payal for a quick chat!
tgbc: How did the idea for Horrid High strike you?
Payal: I was at a writers workshop and I wrote a few lines about a character called Volumina Butt, a school bully who demolishes her victims by sitting on them. When I read this aloud, it elicited many chuckles and the character of Volumina started growing on me. I thought, why not write about the world’s most horrid school, a school where a bully like Volumina can rule the roost?
I’ve always wanted to write a story that’s delectably horrid and wonderfully funny at the same time. And although Horrid High is a horrendous and miserable place, full of unwanted children, the story is laugh-out-loud fun and utterly madcap. It’s the classic school story turned inside out. It’s not the children who are horrid, but the grown-ups! Kids can’t resist a story in which horrid grown-ups are taught a lesson for a change. And I can’t resist a story in which I have the opportunity to poke fun at horrid people!
tgbc: Is it mere coincidence that your illustrator is a Dahl?
Payal: I wouldn’t call it coincidence, I’d call it serendipity, and I’m sure Roger would agree! Both of us have been asked, many times over, if he’s a long-lost relative of Roald Dahl. But he isn’t – they only share the same last name!
tgbc: If you were a character in Horrid High, which one would be you?
Payal: I’d be Granny Grit, the Lara Croft-type grandma in pink shorts who tromps around in jungles and saves animals from extinction. Beats the tired stereotype of Grandma in a rocking chair, spectacles perched on the edge of her nose and knitting needles in hand! I feel it’s about time that old people were given action-hero roles in children’s books.
tgbc: There’s nothing specifically Indian about ‘Horrid High.’
Payal: Must there be? My intention, both with Wisha Wozzariter and with Horrid High, was to write the sort of story that a child anywhere in the world might enjoy. Stories are universal, and so is human nature. A child’s search for his own identity, his yearning for a sense of family, his search for friends, these are situations that any child can relate to, Indian or not. And Horrid High is an imaginary school in an imaginary space, why must we define its boundaries?
I have read ‘Horrid High’ at schools all over the country, and funnily enough, no child has ever asked me if the characters are Indian, or whether the book is Indian. This seems to be a grown-up concern, and it’s bothered me when it comes up in reviews of the book. Must we link the content of a book to the nationality of its author? I wonder if we are guilty of a double standard here: judging foreign books like ‘Harry Potter’ by their imaginative prowess, but judging Indian children’s books by their cultural identity, by how Indian they are.
Someday I’ll write an ‘Indian’ book, one with recognizably Indian characters, but only when the story demands it, not because it’s politically correct to do so.
tgbc: Who are your book mentors?
Payal: I’m very grateful to my parents who made a big fuss over my first poem when I was nine and made me believe that I could write. Believing is half the job, isn’t it? My husband is my first editor, which makes him a very brave man because writers don’t like being criticized too much! My daughters read my stories, cover to cover, many times over – and I can tell from their faces when something doesn’t work. I’m also indebted to a long line of wonderful English teachers and brilliant children’s writers, from Roald Dahl to Eva Ibbotson. I also feel a debt to Ruskin Bond, who endorsed my first book Wisha Wozzariter, even though he has never met me! Last but not least, my editors at Puffin for walking me through the nail-biting bits.
tgbc: What do you do when you are looking for inspiration, or facing a writer’s block?
Payal: I find an unsuspecting victim – a friend, a fellow writer, my editor – whose ear I can talk off! Long baths and long walks help. Even writing down my doubts on paper is cathartic. Or reading a book instead of writing one!
tgbc: Name one celebrity you want as your book fan!
Payal: I would have liked Eva Ibbotson to chuckle over my books …
tgbc: Your regular working/writing day?
Payal: I try to write from 10 AM to 1 PM on an average day, but on some days, the writing gets the better of me and I end up squeezing an hour extra over the afternoon or the evening. Every day is different as a writer. I often dread the morning build-up to the point where I must sit down and write because of a niggling fear that I won’t get much done, but usually I surprise myself. On a good day, I can write 4,000 words in a few hours.
tgbc: A quote you swear by
Payal: Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. That’s the last line of Roald Dahl’s ‘The Minpins.’
tgbc: Your comfort food?
Payal: My comfort drink would have to be a macchiato or a fruit-yoghurt smoothie. Yum! My comfort food could be anything from a warm toast slathered with peanut butter to a plate of sev-puri!
Payal: Too much for my own good! The next in Horrid High is done and ready for release. I’ve also got a book for girls in the pipeline and a grown-up book for women!