Shiwani Neupane is the author of Monica: Perfect Pieces and has MA in Journalism at Columbia University, New York. Here’s a brief conversation about her experience as a first-time novelist, the thrills, and challenges that she faced. She tweets at @ShiwaniNeupane. Monica is available at various bookstores in Kathmandu.
1) Can you tell us about your novel Monica: Pieces of Perfect briefly? What inspired you to write your first novel?
Monica is a teenage fiction about a billionaire’s daughter and has everything that one can possibly imagine in life. One day, however, everything comes crashing down around her. The book is an account of her journey to reinvent herself.
As for inspiration, I always knew I had a book coming. I had written diaries ever since I was a little girl, and writing Monica was just another step. If there was a person who inspired me to complete the book, it is probably my brother who challenged me to finish a novel for a change, and not leave it half-written.
2) What does writing mean to you? Are you trying to convey something that you uphold personally or is it just a hobby? Did your schooling (education) play a role in your writing?
Writing is one of my favorite pastimes, but it’s also something I want to pursue professionally now. I have more so done it for fun, so it’s not something that I use to convey my personal views yet. However, as I continue to write, I realize the personal does get blurred with fiction, especially when it comes to expressing opinions about war, politics, and ethics.
My schooling has definitely played a role in my writing. I finished my undergrad with a double major in English and Politics, and both majors helped me not only shape my writing but also my critical thinking skills. I am very grateful to the wonderful professors I had in college for giving me such a wonderful education.
3) Monica faced criticisms in mainstream media citing it was not proofread well; had multiple names of the same character (possible spelling error), and probably suffered from the elitist viewpoint. Besides the limelight you got from publishing your novel, how have you managed to face the criticisms? Have you accepted the blunders and determined to write a better novel next time? Do you agree with the critics of your novel?
I knew about the spelling errors, but this is the first time I’ve heard of it being of an elitist viewpoint! I agree with the critics about proof-reading. As a writer, after you read your novel five or six times, there comes a point where you cannot see the simplest of errors, even as you read again. My editor worked very hard too and spent several hours on MONICA.
However, one of the biggest problems my publishers and I faced was trying to find a good English editor. Since a majority of people in Nepal are better versed in the Nepali language in Nepal, its difficult to find English editors, especially those who are willing to undertake the task of proofreading a novel. For my next novel, I once again can try very hard, but a lot of it depends on the editor or proofreader I find.
Addressing elitism, one of my main ideas behind MONICA was addressing capitalism and materialism, and challenging it. I would love to know more about why people thought it was elitist.
4) Who’s behind the publishing of your novel? Why didn’t you approach established publishers like Penguin and others but rather decided to publish from an unknown publisher in Nepal? What are your views on publishing, marketing, and the market as a first-time novelist?
I actually finished MONICA two years before I published it, but never found the time to look into the publishing process.
It’s a very tedious process and can take more than a year just to find an agent and an international publisher who show interest in your work.
I also had no guidance whatsoever. However, when I came back to Nepal, I wanted to publish the book that was just lying on my hard drive for so long and began asking about how publishing works. Someone recommended that I go to Kathalaya Publishers and see if they would accept my book because they were looking to expand their publications. I remember being so nervous when they took my first draft for examination. I, in fact, did not choose them. They were the ones who chose me! They are an excellent group, and I feel lucky to have found them. As a first time novelist, I think it’s enough when someone decides to invest in your work!
My book was also written for a Nepali teenage audience so publishing outside Nepal wasn’t such a priority. I don’t think Monica is marketable abroad as much as it is in Nepal.
5) Do you think mainstream media in Nepal are supportive? What are your experiences after publishing your novel?
I got very lucky with the mainstream media, who were very supportive of my work. I think they are supportive of most budding writer’s in general because there are few English novels written by Nepali writers. It was also one of the first teenage fictions I think, which perhaps made the début more newsworthy. I experienced a lot of interviews, features and great reviews by some major publications. I am truly very thankful to all the media outlets. It’s also really nice to have young fans that have enjoyed the novel so much, and ask me when I’m coming out with another one.
6) You said in an interview by Wave magazine that Samrat Upadhyay is the writer who fascinates you. What about female authors in Nepali and English—anyone who inspires you? Also, do you follow the similar themes that Upadhyay explores? Is Monica for western or eastern readers? What themes have you explored in your novel?
I’ve read a lot of Manjushree Thapa’s work as well, and once again, I love the way she writes! It is so different from Samrat Upadhyay, in terms of the writing style and themes she explores. She is a pioneer and such an inspiration.
To answer your other question, I do not follow the same themes Upadhyay explores in his novels. He writes about elements that are intrinsically woven into the political and social reality of our country because I touch on them very lightly. Perhaps, I will follow similar themes when I write more novels for an older audience. Also, when you write something for a young audience, you have to try to think about their level of understanding.
As I was writing MONICA, I tried to put myself in the shoes of a teenager.
That said, I wrote Monica with an eastern audience in mind! It explores a variety of themes that range from capitalism, globalization, home and identity to the person and society.
7) What was your intention in writing Monica? Was it for pleasure or for something you wanted to speak about? Where do you write usually—on paper, laptop or in a room?
I’ve said this in the preface of my book; Monica was a means for me to discuss the growing obsession with everything “western” in our society. As I was growing up, I read a lot of novels that talked about Christmas and Halloween and terms that were foreign to my Nepali existence. The problem was never in the romanticism of the other but our ignorance.
I wanted young people to glorify the flying of kites in Dashain and eating of that-chiura when the farming season begins. Those are simple joys of Nepali living that go unnoticed because we don’t have literature to glorify them.
I usually write in coffee shops that are quiet and write on a laptop.
8) What’s your favorite novel? Name five novels that inspire you.
I don’t really have a favorite novel of all time. I read a lot of books, but don’t go back and re-read so often. My top five over the last few years are probably:
Beloved- Toni Morrison
Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte
Harry Potter- JK Rowling
Dreams from my father- Barack Obama
Living History- Hilary Rodham Clinton
9) Your favorite authors. Your inspiration. What’s your writing schedule like? Can you tell us as what you’re studying at Columbia University at the moment?
I have many favorite writers, but I especially enjoy Toni Morrison’s books. There are very few people who can make you feel so much with a simple sentence in writing. My writing schedule was for few hours of focused writing in the afternoon, but I haven’t been able to do much writing in the last few months. I am doing a master’s in journalism at Columbia, which keeps me really busy!
10) What’s your message to aspiring writers? Especially to female writers in Nepal. And can we expect the second novel from you soon?
I would say keep writing and keep trying! And yes, you can expect the second novel from me soon. I am about done with my next novel but am thinking of exploring the international publishing world this time.
(Excerpts from an old interview)