I was searching for a particular title on Amazon.com and I had just made my purchase when a recommendation for Pia Pudukone
's debut novel popped up on my screen. Who is this new author, I wondered. My curiosity got the better of me, leading me to a point where I decided to interview her for this Tête-à-Tête column. Her path to writing has been one that was probably written in the stars. Though she has had no formal education in writing, she has embraced it from a very young age, and has won awards, while still very young. Obviously something that was just meant to be.
Her first book, "Where Earth Meets Water" was born out of Pia's near brush with several catastrophes, starting with 9/11, the Indian Tsunami of 2004 and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
Pia will soon be heading out to a writers retreat to work on her second book. We are glad we caught her before she heads out, and thank her for taking time to answer some questions for Suprose.
Please tell us about yourself, where you are from
and how you chose to become a writer?
Photo Credit: Sylvester Zawadski
I am a very proud born and raised New Yorker, and I still
live in Manhattan. My parents moved here from Bombay in the late 1970s. I’m not
sure that I ever chose to be a writer; I almost think that it chose me. It was
just something I was always doing. I wrote stories as a kid, first in longhand,
and when my grandfather noticed my interest, he gifted me his old typewriter on
which I would bang out short stories and then my first “novel” at age twelve.
Where did you attend school? Did you study to become a
I attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City, a
prestigious public school with strengths in math and the sciences. While I was
there, I nurtured my interest in writing by starting a literary ‘zine with a
friend, and taking lots of creative writing classes. While I knew inherently
that I wanted to write, initially I convinced myself that it wasn’t a practical
career. I attended Mount Holyoke College for two years, and transferred to the
London School of Economics, where I graduated with a Bachelor degree in
political science, even though English was calling me like a siren. So I never
studied to be a writer. I forced myself to have lots of practice.
How different was it for you writing your first novel?
Please describe the process…
Truth be told, I didn’t set out to write a novel from the
start. The first chapter of Where Earth Meets Water was originally written as a
short story. But once I’d finished it, I realized that there was far more to
this story than just the fifteen pages, so I kept writing, learning about the
characters, discovering their quirks and getting annoyed by their idiosyncrasies
along the way. I only recently left my full time job as a copywriter at a
pharmaceutical advertising firm, which is what I had been doing since I
graduated from college. The hours could be quite unforgiving; by the time I
returned from work, my brain was quite resolutely finished thinking,
brainstorming and being creative. So I had to teach myself to become a morning
person, setting my alarm for 6am and writing for two hours each day before
work. I grew to cherish this cocoon of time when it was just my laptop, my
darkened bedroom and me. It really was a magical period; at the end of 10
months, I realized that I had spun this short story into something larger than
I had ever imagined.
What was the inspiration for this novel?
Karom Seth is a man who is haunted by the fact that he has
narrowly escaped multiple disasters, both manmade and natural. He was nearly in
the 9/11 tragedy, nearly on the shores of the Indian Ocean when the tsunami
decimated so much of the South Asian coastline. In the summer of 2001, I was
working as a temp in a stock brokerage in Tower 1 of the World Trade Center. My
last day before I left for my junior year abroad in London was Friday,
September 7th. When those towers came crashing down, I couldn’t help but fixate
on the idea that I could have been in them; somehow, I had been spared.
December 2004, my family and I were vacationing in Northeast India. We were
standing on the beach in Puri, letting the sand envelop our toes, watching the
waves crash gently against the shoreline when my uncle called us, frantic with
the news that a huge wave was wreaking havoc on the coast just a few hundred
miles south of where we stood. What if we’d decided to journey a little further
And in 2013, my husband Rohit ran his third Boston Marathon, a day we
will all remember as one of terror rather than athletic celebration. I walked
jubilantly past the finish line to meet him, and it was only over pints of beer
just a block south of where the backpack bombs went off that we saw the terror
occurring on the television screens. What if my husband wasn’t speedy? What if
the bombs had been set to an hour prior? Each of these misses made me consider
the fragility, the arbitrary nature that is life. While I had accepted each of
these events as coincidental, they forced me to ruminate about how someone who
was deeply affected by these experiences and had lost loved ones in similar
tragedies might approach his or her life. And Karom was born.
In this current environment fiction writers would give
anything to sell their book. What was the process you went through to make this
sale and get the book out on the shelf?
Once I had a draft of the novel that I loved, I began to
search for an agent who loved it just as much and wanted to represent me.
Unfortunately, I received so very many rejection slips that I considered
turning them into some kind of avant-garde art project. Dejected, I sent my
manuscript to an Indian publishing house, which accepts unsolicited
submissions, and I received an offer to purchase my novel. However, as elated
as I was that there was interest, I felt simultaneously overwhelmed: was I
being offered a fair advance? Were the royalties standard? This is precisely
why I needed an agent. So I worked backwards at this point, emailing a number
of agents and letting them know that I already had a deal in the making, and finally
found one who loved Where Earth Meets Water and wanted to represent it. But she
suggested selling it to a US publishing house, since that’s where I am from,
and she succeeded in doing so.
When you write a novel, do you have any pet peeves/specific
areas that you give extra attention?
I love reading tips and advice from other established
writers who have been through the process time and again. I think it was John
Steinbeck’s advice that I try to adhere to when I am writing dialogue: to read
it aloud in order to make sure that it sounds like it could be a realistic
conversation. Dialogue is tricky; when it’s used as a tool to convey information,
sometimes writers forget that it has to sound like words that would actually
come out of peoples’ mouths.
How many revisions did your manuscript go through?
Once I was happy with my first draft, I shared it with my
writing group, and a family member who is also an editor. They each had
comments and suggestions, some of which I used and some with which I disagreed.
After my agent and I had sold it to my publisher, my editor had a fair number
of changes to the manuscript. At first, I was hesitant and incredibly stubborn
about wanting to incorporate her changes. After all, this was my story. Only I
knew how it should be written. But I let her comments sink in and realized that
she was only trying to make Where Earth Meets Water a stronger, more powerful
story. She was trimming the unnecessary fat, and bolstering the weak links.
Ultimately, it was a better book for it. And I learned a very humbling
Who do you read for pleasure? … and for motivation?
I actually don’t see these two (reading for motivation and
for pleasure) as separate entities; I think reading for pleasure is also
motivational because when I read great work, it inspires me to write great
work, and anything I read for motivation brings me pleasure because it
encourages me to write, and writing makes me happy. Some of my favorite writers
include Ha Jin, Chang Rae-Lee, Meg Wolitzer, John Updike, Curtis Sittenfeld,
Dave Eggers, Emma Donoghue, Thrity Umrigar, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ann Patchett, Lionel
Shriver, Vendela Vida, Dinaw Mengestu, Somerset Maugham…I could go on.
Specifically, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad was incredibly
inspirational to me while I was writing Where Earth Meets Water. I loved how
she experimented with different styles for different chapters, and it encouraged
me to try my hand at something other than a straightforward narrative, which is
where I found the courage to write one of the chapters in an epistolary style as
well as a fairytale story within the larger story.
If I looked at your nightstand, what books would I find…
I’m a voracious reader, and the stack changes from week to
week. Right now, there’s Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Septys, a Young Adult
book that explores the indelible years of the Soviet occupation in the Baltic
States and follows the life of a Lithuanian teenager and her family who are
forced to the labor camps of Siberia. It’s been great background research for
my next novel. I also have Delicious! by Ruth Reichl, her first foray into
novel writing, and a truly charming story of a young food writer who is blessed
with a near-perfect palate and stumbles across correspondence between James
Beard and a budding young chef during the World War II years. And I’m on the
first few pages of Bombay Stories, a short story collection by Saadat Hasan
Manto, who has been decreed “the undisputed master of the modern Indian short
story” by Salman Rushdie. I’m intrigued.
What are some tools you use to overcome writers block?
The reason I read so voraciously is because you can always
glean ideas for you own work from other writers. One of my favorite quotes that
is often attributed to Picasso is, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”
Of course, it’s essential to ensure that those ideas translate in your own
voice as opposed to another writer’s, but reading other great writing has
sparked storylines and inspired motivations in my own work. Sometimes when I am
stuck, I force myself to keep writing, even if the work I am producing is
terrible and I know I will eventually trash those lines or pages.
write is the only way to produce more work, and at some point, it has always
led to some kind of hidden gem. I also swear by morning pages, writing
continuously without stopping first thing in the morning before you begin any
of your other ablutions. It’s a great strategy to cut the clutter in your head
that might be distracting you, whether it’s deadlines, reviews, family issues,
etc. by writing it all down once and for all so you can concentrate on writing.
What’s next for you?
I recently returned from a trip to the Baltic, where I was
doing some on-the-ground research for my second novel, which partly takes place
in Tallinn, Estonia. The story is about two families who meet through a student
exchange program and become inextricably linked so that their relationship
continues through the years after the program ends. The trip was crucial for me
to understand the nuances of newborn Estonia and its culture, forming and
creating its own characteristics after having been governed by neighboring
Next week, I am heading to Nebraska, where I have been accepted to a
month-long writing residency. I’ll be writing on a farm in Marquette, focusing
entirely on completing the first draft of my second novel, before Rohit and I
welcome our first child in September. I’m so grateful for this time, since I
have a rather non-negotiable deadline!