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Shyama Perera Interview

Posted on 08 November 2004. © Copyright 2004-2020 WriteWords
A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
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WriteWords talks to novelist, journalist and columnist Shyama Perera about how she manages to wear so many different writing hats

Tell us about your writing background- what youíve written, what youíre currently writing

Iíve written three published novels: Havenít Stopped Dancing Yet, Bitter Sweet Symphony and Do the Right Thing. None of them has been remaindered yet, so I take heart from that. Iíve just delivered a new draft of my fourth novel to my agent, Clare Conville. Itís my biggest and best project to date and thatís reflected in the time itís taken (over two years) and the volume of reworking required. Originally, I thought it would turn me into a literary fat-cat overnight. I imagined my name on the sides of buses and prepared to be wined and dined by Hollywood moguls vying for film rights, but the only financial change is that Iíve had to remortgage the house to finance the rewrites! I also have work in fiction and non-fiction anthologies, and a jolly romp through the history of contraception, Taking Precautions, which is published this month by New Holland.

How, when and why did you first start writing?

Itís all Iíve ever wanted to do. I started writing concert reviews for the NME while still at school but was ignominiously dropped after I panned Sparks at the Rainbow, Finsbury Park, causing apoplexy amongst the readership. I left school at 16 and started a mad campaign of writing to local papers begging for a job. I used to take the number 6 bus to Fleet Street and wander in and out of offices with my paltry cuttings, blagging advice. After about 18 months of temping around the capital, I was taken on as a trainee by a news agency. I was a pig in shit. Later I had a stint at the Daily Star, doing scurrilous things like chasing Lady Di and reducing her to tears, before moving to The Guardian. I was their youngest ever reporter until Andrew Rawnsley stole my crown a couple of years laterÖ

Who are your favourite writers- any kind- and why?

My book of the moment is A Man In Full by Tom Wolfe. He lets himself down in the last 50 pages but is forgiven on the grounds that the preceding 700 are truly luscious and brilliant. I also thought The Bonfire of the Vanities, extraordinary. I love Amy Tan because sheís so clever in the way she juxtaposes west and east, science and superstition, and pulls it together with fantastical storylines. Thereís a scene in The Joy Luck Club that reduced me to hysterics, and I thought The Kitchen Godís Wife was glorious. Toni Morrissonís Beloved is my favourite book of all time. I am unashamedly middlebrow in my reading tastes: if Maeve Binchy and Mary Wesley were still writing (or indeed alive in the case of the latter) Iíd be queueing up for each new novel. Other current favourites are Alice Sebold and Patrick Neate, and Iíll read anything by John Irvine. Classic favourites are predictable: Great Expectations and Pride and PrejudiceÖ

How did you get your first agent/ commission/ publisher

One miserable Christmas when I was married and at home with two very small children, I devised an idea for a novelty book called The Buxom Buttyeaters Bible (Weíre Big and Weíre Bold so Bugger Off). I sent a synopsis to a non-fiction agent at Curtis Brown who Iíd met socially and he called the next day to say the idea sucked. But then he said: ĎYouíve the perfect writing style for novels. Why donít you write one for me?Ē I didnít have a single idea in my head. When I told him, he advised me to write four different pages everyday till one came. By the end of that week I had the first four pages of Havenít Stopped Dancing Yet. Later, when I was halfway through writing, I showed the book to one of the mothers in my baby group who showed it to a friend of hers, who showed it to a friend of hers, who was then a literary agent. She poached me, and when she was happy with my final product, targeted six editors who specialised in my sort of writing. Each was given three weeks to come back with offers. Hodder were the most enthusiastic and generous, so we signed to their Sceptre imprint.

Whatís the worst thing about writing?

I found it very difficult to come up with an idea for a third novel, which was difficult as I was under contract and had received advances against it. I started five different narratives over two years, giving up on each around the 15,000 words mark. Thankfully, an idea finally came and worked surprisingly well. I also freelance, writing features for newspapers and magazines. Sometimes, if I havenít been commissioned for a few weeks, I watch the bills pile up and wonder if I should get a proper job.

And the best?

This is what I do best, and itís what makes me happy. How many people can say that about their jobs?

Do you read your work to audiences? Tell us what kind of response you get

I dread readings. Itís ironic because I do radio and TV without a flutter. I can stand and address a hall of people with no preparation and be totally confident. But the minute Iím called upon to read aloud, I feel self conscious and stupid; that Iím failing both my characters and the listeners. And itís not just my characters - Iím a terrible mother because Iíve never read to my children at bedtime. Itís not something I can do. That said, the readings go down very well and generate sales and complete strangers are so kind to you. Iím doing one at the Museum of London on December 2nd, which is a bit daunting...

What was your breakthrough moment?

I think the best moment was when Alexandra (my then agent) called to say weíd had three bites on Havenít Stopped Dancing Yet. My marriage had broken up the week before and I was in a trough of despair. Suddenly the clouds lifted and all I could see and feel was sunshine.

A longer version of this interview is available to WriteWords Full and Community Members.
Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Comments by other Members

Account Closed at 16:02 on 08 November 2004  Report this post
Truly inspirational, Shyama!
I admire your energy and drive. I found your chick-lit comments interesting - I'm always afraid to write anything (long) from a female POV for fear of it turning into CL.
Welcome to the site - it's great to have such experienced people around.

anisoara at 18:42 on 08 November 2004  Report this post
O agree with Elspeth, this is very inspiring. Practical, too. I loved the agent's advice to you "to write four different pages everyday till [an idea] came" as well as your own advice to go ahead and write in order to find the structure, voice, etc.

By the way, I've visited your site. It really looks good.


anisoara at 18:48 on 08 November 2004  Report this post
I just noticed that 'o' and 'i' are neighbours....

Dee at 19:04 on 08 November 2004  Report this post
Great interview, Shyama. Very pleased you've joined us.


ShayBoston at 20:00 on 08 November 2004  Report this post
I enjoyed this interview too. Sounds like you were damn lucky with your first break, but I'm sure you deserved it and have justified it.


Zigeroon at 21:31 on 16 November 2004  Report this post

Facinating interview. Your enthusiasm for writing comes pouring through. Thanks.


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