Monday, August 12, 2013

Anushka Ravishankar of Duckbill Books on her many roles in publishing in India

Back in 1997, I fell in love with Anushka Ravishankar's picture book, Tiger On a Tree, published by Tara Books in India and later in an American edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Together with former Scholastic India editor, Sayoni Basu, Anushka has now launched a new press in Delhi, Duckbill Books.

Here's a recent email exchange I had with Anushka:

[Uma] You've played so many roles in children's publishing in India--poet, picture book writer, editor, risk-taker, mover of mountains…. Talk about how it's felt over the years to invent and reinvent your engagement with your work.  Or did it all just happen?

[Anushka] Oddly enough, I've never thought of my work as work. I wrote, I edited, I moved molehills ... I never thought I was taking risks, or doing anything special. None of it was carefully planned. I got tired of software, and wanted to do something in children's literature or theatre ... and I joined Tara Publishing. That sort of crystallised it for me. I realised I was doing something that was more than work; it was a way of living that I enjoyed and I remember thinking one day, at Tara, how fortunate I was not to have to differentiate my life from my work. But I get restless when I don't write, so I left Tara to write plays, and joined Scholastic because I wanted to get back to editing, then left again to write ... no planning, or invention or reinvention, I'm afraid.

[Uma] Tell me about Duckbill. What led to this venture? What excites you about it? What if anything feels daunting?

[Anushka] Duckbill was a long time in gestation. Like ideas tend to, it lay dormant, and Sayoni and I talked about it now and then, but never very seriously. When it did happen it was all rather serendipitous. Sayoni had just left Scholastic and I had just moved to Gurgaon, so I ended up joining Scholastic in her place, on a short-term, part-time basis. When my time was almost up, Sayoni had decided to leave her new job. We were (still are) neighbours, and so we thought this was the time to put our money where our mouths were. It wasn't Duckbill when we spoke about it before. That happened in about two minutes on a car ride. (Most of our maddest ideas seem to happen on car rides. I wonder what that means.)

What's exciting? Finding fresh new voices through our workshops, happening upon gems in the unsolicited manuscripts, publishing books that we would never have published if we were working in a big publishing firm. The selling is daunting. Getting children to buy books, to read books ... how does one do that in a country where there are no public libraries, and very little institutional purchase of books that are not text books?

[Uma] You're also Regional Advisor now for SCBWI-India. How about your own writing? Where do you see yourself going next?

[Anushka] That's a tough one. I have three or four books to write in the next six months, but time has become a very scarce commodity. I keep thinking I'd like to write a longer book, but for now, it looks like I'll have to be satisfied with chapter books and picture books. Not being able to write when I want to is the one thing that I find difficult about being a platypus. I have to find a way to do it, though.

[Uma] Are there a couple of forthcoming books from Duckbill that you'd like to talk about?

[Anushka] Flat-track Bullies is a book by a Chennai-based software engineer, called Balaji Venkataramanan. It came to us out of the blue. Balaji is a first-time writer. When we read the book, we were bowled over, because it's written in completely unselfconscious Chennai English. It is absolutely hilarious and yet, it has a strong story with an undercurrent of seriousness. The voice of the narrator is fresh, audacious and completely original. We're so happy to be publishing it! It's due to be out in August.

Another gem that landed in our inbox is Jobless Clueless Reckless, a young adult novel, which also has a narratorial voice that is completely authentic and charming. It's one of those rare books that was so tightly written that we only had to put in the odd comma and full stop. An editor's dream! The author, Revathi Suresh, is another first-time author. The writing is deceptively smooth and pitch perfect. Only a beleaguered editor can know what a joy it is to have such a finished and accomplished piece of writing drop into the mailbox!

[Uma] Thanks, Anushka! Much luck to you and Sayoni in this new venture, and to you with your plans for SCBWI-India. I have a feeling our paths will cross again. 

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