Sarita Mandanna realized she had an uncontrollable itch to write a novel a few years ago while she was well ensconced in her corporate life in New York. After she completed her first book, Tiger Hills, Mandanna bagged the highest advance paid by Penguin India for a debut novel. The figure, according to industry sources, is Rs35 lakh, which is, of course, an advance against royalties (so far, the highest advance paid by an Indian publisher to an author of fiction is Rs44 lakh to Amitav Ghosh, for his trilogy).
Closer home: Tiger Hills by Mandanna recreates life in the coffee plantations of Coorg. India Picture
Mandanna, vice-president, Equifin Capital, was born to a book-loving family in Coorg. Tiger Hills, set in a coffee plantation in Coorg, spans a period beginning in the late 1800s and ending in the 20th century.
In an email interview, Mandanna tells Lounge about juggling private equity and creative writing, how her growing years in Coorg influenced her writing and the logistics of publishing one’s first book. Edited excerpts:
Your book has already been labelled “an Indian epic” that is “The Thorn Birds meets Gone with the Wind”. Do you believe these are fair descriptions?
Gone with the Wind and The Thorn Birds are each cultural watersheds and it is flattering to have Tiger Hills spoken of in the same breath. The similarities likely draw from the period setting of all three, and thickly populated story arcs that span a number of years.
You were born in Coorg. Does your novel draw from your early years there? How autobiographical is it?
Tiger Hills is (from my) imagination and neither the plot nor the characters are autobiographical. As with anything creative, though, its wellspring is afloat with the flotsam and jetsam of memory. A half-remembered anecdote bobbing here, a turn of phrase heard spoken there. Also, the setting, Coorg, plays a prominent role throughout Tiger Hills to qualify as a minor character in itself. The mountains, the jungles, the coffee estates—these have each been drawn from experience, with every brushstroke rooted in reality and fondest memory.
Can you describe Tiger Hills in your own words?
Tiger Hills is a period saga set in Coorg and is named after a coffee plantation owned by a particular family. The novel traces their lives, the attendant intertwining of hope and consequence(s) of choice, beginning in the late 1800s through the wartime years of the 20th century.
Most Indian writers living in the West choose to write about their immigrant or desi identity. Did you want to steer clear of that path deliberately?
It wasn’t a conscious decision to steer clear of a particular path as much as the insistent pull of this particular story. One writes the book that one simply must write, and for me, there was no denying Tiger Hills.
Tell us a little about your process of writing. How often did you write, how long did it take you to complete the book? Did you write many drafts?
Tiger Hills has been five years and counting in the crafting. I wrote in snatched time, as often as I could alongside my job, late into the nights and on the weekends when I was not working. I edited as I went along, visiting and revisiting the plot and honing each character until they felt true. Tiger Hills was well into its sixth or seventh draft before I was ready to show it around.
Clincher: Mandanna is believed to have got a Rs35 lakh advance.
Was the writing the easy part compared to finding a publisher?
I have been very lucky in having it be the other way around. I owe a great deal to David Davidar and Penguin India, who expressed a strong and early interest in Tiger Hills.
Why did you choose an agent instead of approaching a publisher directly?
An agent of David Godwin’s calibre is invaluable. He brings a great deal of credibility to bear upon the manuscripts he endorses, opening doors that would not be otherwise accessible.
You are also a finance professional. How do you reconcile both these worlds? Are they necessarily antithetical?
I am a private equity professional, occupying a one/zero, mostly objective world during the day. The arts, on the other hand, are a thing of subjectivity where there rarely is just one right answer. Straddling the two has been an alternately fun, satisfying and utterly crazy process. There is some common ground, though—logical, decision tree-based models were, at least for me, a definite asset in plot development.
Tell us a bit about your upbringing. Are you from a literary family?
My maternal grandfather was an inveterate storyteller, regaling us with accounts of thieving princes and houses made from salt, while my paternal grandfather had a deep respect for the written word. My mother is an avid book lover and it is thanks to her that I developed my own reading habit. I did not, however, begin to write in earnest until some years ago. I am still coming to grips with how deep and abiding an itch writing is.
What do you care more about: critical acclaim/awards or popular success? And why?
Both together would be the Holy Grail!
Tiger Hills will be released worldwide early next year.