Debut Club

The Debut Club: An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

Swanky Seventeener Laura Silverman recently interviewed Rahul Kanakia, author of the YA Contemporary novel ENTER TITLE HERE, published on August 2, 2016 by Disney/Hyperion books.

About the Book:

Enter Title Here

“In order to score a book deal, an unscrupulous overachiever has to turn herself into a quirky, light-hearted YA novel protagonist. But after she’s caught plagiarizing an assignment, Reshma Kapoor will need to decide how far she’ll go to get a satisfying ending (Note: it’s pretty far).”

ENTER TITLE HERE can be purchased at

barnesandnoble.com & amazon.com

 

About the Author:

Rahul

Rahul Kanakia is the author of a contemporary YA novel called ENTER TITLE HERE (that’s its actual name, guys) that came out on August 2nd, 2016, from Disney-Hyperion. It’s been described (by his agent, so you know this is a thoroughly impartial assessment) as GOSSIP GIRL meets HOUSE OF CARDS. 
Rahul’s short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show. He holds an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University. He also holds a BA in Economics from Stanford University. He used to work for the World Bank, in their South Asia Environment division.

The Interview:

Laura: With your protagonist writing a novel of her own, ENTER TITLE HERE is very meta – was this something you intended going in, or did the meta aspects evolve as the story did?

Rahul: This is an interesting question! The short answer is that the book is kind of a take on that infamous YA novel How Opal Mehta Got A Life that turned out to be plagiarized. In that book, the Indian protagonist is told, by the dean of admissions for Harvard, that she seems too much like a robot, and that unless she gets a life, she won’t be able to get into Harvard. So she goes home and, with her parents’ help, constructs an elaborate plan to get friends and a boyfriend, etc.

Now that book is a light-hearted romp. But when you think about it, that’s a pretty cynical plan, and my book is an attempt to imagine the kind of person who would really make and carry out a plan like that.

The longer answer is that the meta aspect of the book has always felt, to me, a little bit tacked-on and not entirely of a piece with the rest of the book. It used to be a much bigger part of the book. The Hero’s Journey stuff was really complex. There were long discussions within the book about what could happen within the book. And with each draft, I toned down on the meta stuff. I even considered eliminating it entirely, but in the end I decided it worked well as a device. Without it, Reshma wouldn’t really have anything to do in the novel. She’d have nothing to hope for or try for.

Honestly, I think part of the reason for the meta stuff is that I was learning how to write novels myself. And I thought if I lampshaded every misfire and false step, then I could successfully obscure the fact that I really didn’t know what I was doing.

Laura: Reshma is pretty much the definition of an unlikable protagonist, yet the novel was entirely captivating. In your opinion, how and why do unlikable protagonists keep a reader engaged?

Rahul: I’ve always liked Reshma a lot more than anyone else has! It wasn’t until my book encountered editors and, later, reviewers, that I heard that she was unlikable. To me, she’s always seemed immensely likable! I think what drew me to her was that she took responsibility for her life. If she wants something, she gets it.

In high school and college, I always looked down on kids who studied really hard and cared a lot about their grades, because they seemed shallow. After all, none of this stuff really matters. There was something sad to me about somebody who cared so much about external approval that they’d spend all night studying something they didn’t really care about. These people, to me, seemed like they had no imagination and no sense of life.

And to some extent I was right. I’ve seen the bad things that happen to people when all they know is how to work hard. When all you know is how to succeed, then it’s so easy to end up trapped in a life you didn’t want. That’s how you end up at forty-five as a partner in an investment bank, working 100 hours a week, and hating every moment of every day. You want to quit, but you don’t, because you’re getting so much money and so much praise, and you know that if you leave, then all of that vanishes.

In some ways, slackers have it easier, because they don’t get handed praise. And when you have nothing to lose, it’s easier to put your heart into something that might be a little bit off-beat. Or, rather, when you have nothing to lose, it’s easier to quiet down and listen to what your own heart is telling you.

But as I grew up, I noticed something interesting. The slackers didn’t have it easy either. One by one, I saw my friends discover their passions and then…fail to pursue them. The problem is that you can’t get anywhere in this world without working hard. And working hard is a skill. If you’ve spent your life just waiting around for something that’s worth working for, then when it comes, you might find that you don’t know how to work 100 hours in a week. You don’t know how to hustle. You don’t know how to be ruthless and how to believe in yourself. So you give up.

The most powerful thing in the world is somebody who has both: somebody who’s learned to work and who’s found something that’s worth working for. And so now my opinion of the study machines has changed. They’re not shallow. They’re just in training. They’re developing the skills they’ll someday use to do something that really matters.

Which is a really long way of saying that Reshma is likable, to me, because she is heroic. She believes in the value of working really hard. The value of believing in yourself. And the value of ruthlessness. And she believes in these things even though everybody in her own world is telling her that she’s misguided and wrong. I think she’s captivating because she believes in herself so strongly that you can’t help but believe in her too.

Laura: What was the process of finding your agent and then your editor?

Rahul: Well, I already had an agent. I’d found John Cusick after a previous novel, a dystopian, came in second place in the Tu Books New Visions contest (for best genre YA novel by a person of color). The winner, Valynne, graciously contacted me and offered to put me in touch with an agent she knew. Before John gave me an offer, that book had been turned down by 93 other agents! That was in May of 2013.

While I was working with John on revisions for that first book, I was like hey I also have this other thing I want you to look at. Anyway, John loved Enter Title Here, and when the first book failed to sell in its first round of submissions, he was enthusiastic about the idea of tabling that book and going out with ETH. This was in April of 2014. The book went out to a bunch of editors and got its first offer in 16 days. The longest sixteen days of my life! Then it got some more offers and went to auction, and we ended up with Lisa Yoskowitz at Disney-Hyperion.

Then over the summer (of 2014), Lisa left to take a job at Little, Brown, and after a bit of musical editors (they took six months to hire her replacement), I ended up with Kieran Viola, who I love! It was a bit stressful there, not having an editor, and also feeling a little burned because I’d lost mine so soon after selling my book, but you know what? Ultimately it all worked out fine. Kieran loves Enter Title Here and has been an amazing editor for the book.

Laura: Reshma faces intense external and internal academic pressures – was this something you ever personally experienced, and why did you decide to write about it?

Rahul: Not exactly. I went to an all-boys Catholic prep school in DC that was pretty academically rigorous (I graduated with 14 AP classes and I think the average was around 7. You basically weren’t allowed to not take AP classes). But it was not an academically stressful environment. I don’t think rigor and stress need to be the same thing at all. Rigor comes from difficulty. It’s about being pushed a little beyond your comfort zone. Stress comes from being worried about the consequences of failure. One of the things you see in Enter Title Here is how high-pressure, competitive situations make you risk-averse. When you feel like a hundredth of a grade point matters, you’re not going to take the hard classes. You’re not going to take a different direction with an assignment. You’re not going to do anything except what’s expected of you.

For me, personally, I didn’t feel stressed out at school. I did all my homework, but didn’t spend a lot of time on it, maybe less than an hour a day. And I never studied much for tests (or did any of the assigned reading). I know other people at my school were different. I was shocked at one point to discover that one of my friends routinely did 3+ hours of homework a night! (He graduated with close to a 4.0).

I’m not sure why things were different for me. Partly it was that the school wasn’t like that. Awards were handed out basically on the basis of how much teachers liked you, and there was a sense anyway that they were meaningless. There were no class ranks and our GPAs weren’t weighted. Everybody in our school got into college, more or less, and mostly they got into fairly good ones: I remember that our admissions counselor knew someone in the office of the University of Chicago (an amazing school), so lots of people got in there. There just wasn’t this sense that everything was do-or-die.

I went to Stanford for undergraduate (I’m a legacy, so there’s no need to be super impressed), and although I continued to be something of a slacker, this was the first place where I really got to know a lot of Type A basket-cases, many of whom had gone to the type of Silicon Valley high school, Pali, Gunn, Los Altos, Saratoga, that I satirize in my book. And although they were like a foreign species to me, I was always impressed by how perfect these people were (and are).

They weren’t the stereotypical image of somebody who works hard and does well in school, because that’s not the kind of person who gets into top colleges nowadays. No. They worked hard and did well in school AND captained the baseball team AND sang opera AND conducted cancer research over the summer AND somehow also found the time to be really charming and attractive and great with the opposite sex.

As I mentioned above, during school I hated and feared these people, but after graduating I eventually developed a grudging respect for them, as I realized how important it is to be disciplined and hard-working. And I think it’s the interplay between the respect and the hatred—sort of a conversation between my older self and my younger self—that gave rise to this book.

Lightning Round:

Favorite writing snack?

Banana

Oddest job you’ve ever had?

All my jobs have been exceedingly non-odd. Although when I worked for the World Bank, I often had operational travel to Pakistan where we’d stay in hotels that were surrounded by high walls, travel by armored car, and never, ever go out on the street.

What was your favorite book at Reshma’s age?

Atlas Shrugged (true story…actually I bet that’d be her favorite book too, if she read books).

Write by hand or on a computer?

Been known to do both; depends on how I feel

Favorite writer’s block hack?

Writing journal entries from the point of view of characters who are not the main character (this is where the writing by hand comes in).

Book you’ve read more than three times?

Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel

 

About the Interviewer:

Laura

Laura Silverman is an author, freelance editor, and publishing consultant. Her debut novel, GIRL OUT OF WATER, comes out from Sourcebooks Fire in 2017. You can follow her on twitter at @LJSilverman1 and contact her at SilvermanEditing@Gmail.com.

 

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