Leicester-born Bali Rai is perhaps best-known for his novels (Un)arranged Marriage and Rani & Sukh, but he has achieved huge literary success writing for teenagers . In Part One of his interview, the Writer-in-Residence for Booktrust speaks about the challenges of creating his début novel, finding out one of his books had become a set text for GSCE, how he feels about awards and what helps him to write.
Rai says his first inspiration was James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl. “[After reading that, I] began to dream about being an author. But it was after seeing the success of Sue Townsend and her Adrian Mole books that I first thought [writing] might be a career option. She is my biggest role model being from the same city as me.”
He claims “I didn’t really know what I was doing” when he first began to write. “I’ve never been taught creative writing,so everything I know I taught to myself, learning from my favourite authors. I also had a full-time job, managing a bar and then a nightclub. My body clock was upside down and I did most of the writing at odd hours of the morning.”
He met with children’s fiction agent Jennifer Luithlen, who was impressed enough with his work to take him on. The moment he discovered that his début novel, (Un)arranged Marriage, was going to be published came somewhat unexpectedly: “When Transworld [now Random House] first called I was cooking soup at the bar, getting ready for the lunch service, and I thought it was a wind up. They were great, supporting me through the editorial process and making sure that I was happy and comfortable with how [everything] works in publishing. I owe the team at RHCB a great deal. They’ve helped to make me the writer that I am today, as has my agent, Penny.”
He declares that he never finds it difficult to tap into the teenage mindset when writing. “I don’t ever think about [young people] as somehow different from any other age group. I concentrate on the personalities and motivation of my characters rather than their being teens or whatever. In fact I wouldn’t say I write for teenagers at all. I write about them.”
In 2010, his third novel Rani and Sukh – which represented the UK at the IBBY Awards – became a set text for GCSE. He describes it as one of his “proudest moments as a writer” and said he was amazedwhen he found out. “To know that something you’ve created has been given such an honour is such a wonderful feeling. I wrote the novel so that young people could see the comparisons between Romeo and Juliet and the modern world. So many young people think of Shakespeare as boring or irrelevant and I wanted to show that his work covers almost every human emotion you can think of. […] To show that stories connect every human being, in every culture, across the world because they are universal and speak to something innate in all of us.”
Writing from the point of view of a character of the opposite sex is certainly a challenge for many authors, but Rai found it exhilarating. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done!” he smiles. “It was such a great experience. I spent eight months of my life pretending to be a pregnant15-year-old girl who is madly in love. What’s not to like?”
His most recent book, Killing Honour (published in 2011), won the North East Teen Book Award and was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal 2012. These accolades meant a great deal to Rai. “I love being shortlisted for any award but particularly the ones that are voted for by actual readers, […] especially when you consider how many eligible books are published each year. Winning them is just a massive privilege and a real honour.”
His next novel, Fire City, will be published in September 2012. The project is “a complete departure… It is a fantasy, set in a future ruled by demons. It’s a horror story with a manga-feel to it – at least that’s the idea. Sometimes there’s a danger that you can end up pigeonholed as a writer and I think I have suffered from that over the past ten years. So I decided to change direction completely and write the kind of novel I would have loved as a teenager. That doesn’t mean I won’t be returning to stories about modern British teens however. I just wanted to do something different. I’m really pleased with how it’s turned out too and can’t wait to see what the reaction will be in schools when I eventually begin to promote it. It’s very dark and very adult.”
At the moment, Rai creates his bestsellers in his office, which is “a spare bedroom in my house, far from ideal”. However, he has plans to convert his garage into a bigger workspace later in the year. He says that he always listens to low-volume music when he writes. “My favourite artists at these times tend to be female blues singers, like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, for some reason.”
His creative process is quite traditional. “I put everything on paper first and then all of my drafts are done on either my laptop or desktop – it just depends on what mood I’m in. Originally I wrote at night and during the early hours [but] I now do my best writing during the afternoon, and then after a few hours break, into the late evening [and] night.” He has one stipulation, though: “I can’t write on Sundays, which is a bit odd.”
Next week Rai will discuss his opinion on e-publishing, his residency for Booktrust, his advice for prospective authors and his plans for the future. Stay tuned!