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Editor and writer Trisha Bora talks about her riveting debut novel ‘What Kitty Did’

Trisha Bora - What Kitty Did

This month, HarperCollins India publishes Trisha Bora’s debut novel, What Kitty Did. 

Trisha isn’t new to the world of books and writing—she studied English Literature at Miranda House, and has worked in Indian publishing over the past several years. At the moment, she is a commissioning editor at Juggernaut Books.

In this email interview with Ankita Poddar, she opens up about Kitty, life in and outside publishing, admonishes crude stereotyping of women’s fiction, and shares the challenges of being an editor and a writer. Edited excerpts:

What’s incredible about What Kitty Did is that one can’t box it into a single genre: it’s outrageously funny, romantic and Nancy Drew-esque. She has an Oh! The Places You’ll Go round-trip ticket on the Orient Express. How would you describe your novel?

It’s part romance, part murder mystery, part love letter to Delhi in a twenty-something’s indomitably cavalier style.   

The book’s title is clearly inspired by What Katy Did, which you cite within the novel. But, there’s also a murder involved. What was the thought process behind naming the novel? 

The title was rather organic. As a kid, I loved reading the Katy series, and when I began to write my book, the title just seemed perfect. Kitty is the antithesis of Katy; she is everything Kitty is not. Katy is brave and driven, Kitty not so much. Yet they both go out and have themselves an adventure. Also, I got a stupid little kick out of how clever it seemed (to me that is).

But to be fair, I picked the name Kitty for my character before I thought of the title, because—as tragic as this sounds—I love cats.

What made you finally want to put pen to paper, after years of editing and publishing? Was there a particular eureka moment which made you decide to write the novel?

I’ve written short stories before but this was my first stab at a novel. And I was writing a totally different book. A family drama. Something I wasn’t having fun with and was also struggling with majorly. Then one winter party later, my friend and I came back to our hotel room, sozzled out of our minds. Just as dawn was breaking, we ordered a hefty room service—fluorescent orange-coloured chicken curry and rice, a club sandwich and lots of lemon sodas. Once we’d eaten, I had a spurt of responsibility and volunteered to put our dinner tray outside our room, despite my friend’s many protests. Tottering, I made it across the room but when I was at the door, I lost my footing, and off went the tray, flying halfway across the corridor, splattering the hotel walls with disgusting orange gravy. Every breakable thing on the tray was broken. Instead of helping me, my friend burst into a drunken hysterical laughing fit, sprawled on the carpet, and hiccupping these words—‘You had one job. You had one job.’

When I woke up, I was hungover and destroyed, but also tingling with excitement, because a story was forming in my mind—A girl has one job and she bungles it up.

And so the book is dedicated to her.

The book’s protagonist, Kitty, incessantly jokes about being a student of literature and a pseudo-journalist. These are subjects you have been employed with, and still are. How much of yourself do you see in Kitty, or rather, how much of Kitty is in you? Given that first novels are usually autobiographical, did you ever find yourself in situations similar to what Kitty lands herself into?

A tiny bit. After all, you do try to work with what you know and viciously mine your life for all the juicy bits. Kitty is perkier, bashes on regardless, me not so much. Unlike Kitty, I loved studying Eng Lit and didn’t think buying books was a waste of money. But, I did live in a flat like Kitty’s.

The hungover bits, however, are all me. My twenties went by in a haze. It’s like I stepped into a time-machine after school and it’s brought me straight to my thirties, which is a luscious idea, really—given that the twenties can be a hard, clueless, and very broke period. Even though there may be a few similarities, Kitty is, at the end of the day, a fictional character; a caricature of lots of twenty somethings I had the pleasure to meet and hang with.

Kitty’s mum seems like a riot, as does her roommate, Rima (though for very different reasons). Are the characters in the novel inspired by the people in your life?

To quote one of my favourite actors (and characters), in one of my favourite films, quote his fictional grandfather, ‘To answer that would take the piss out of the whole thing.’ 

Truman Capote said, ‘I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.’ A writer’s job is to create content, and an editor’s is to trim the fat, so to speak; it’s a tough line to tread. While writing the novel, how did you strike a  balance between the writer and the editor in you, given that you have both the pencil and the scissor?

This was the hardest bit. I’ve been an editor far longer than I’ve been a writer, and find no sweeter joy than to chop sense into text. For the first few months, I deleted everything I wrote. As a writer, I would bang out sentences, stuff I felt strongly about or foolishly attached to. They sounded good to me. But as an editor, I would revisit those bits and think—how artificial and fatuous even! Never have I felt more torn, more Dr Jekyl-Mr Hyde-ish than while writing the book. It was massively frustrating.

But then I stopped deleting, wrote out the damned thing, and sent it to a few people. They read it and gave me solid feedback, told me everything that wasn’t working. I was thrilled! To shrug off my editor cape for just a bit. So I revisited the draft, deleted, deleted, deleted and, then rewrote. I was starving for this kind of thing, and it’s hopefully, helped the manuscript a lot.

I’m still wrestling between these two roles, and will probably always do. But it helps to edit one’s own work, to look at it with a cold eye (and heart), and to not feel too sentimental or possessive about it.

There’s one portion of the novel, a sentence rather, which perfectly captures the dichotomy faced by today’s society, where Kitty thinks, ‘… make(s) me a bad feminist.’ Struggles between what you think and what you should think haunt us all. I’m constantly checking myself thinking, “I should not be thinking, let alone saying, something like that.” In a similar vein, this books tends to fall into the genre of chick lit, which is also the genre under which we’re publishing What Kitty Did. This genre is probably deeply problematic, if you think about it. How do you deal with this divide as a writer and a publisher?

Here’s the thing: If a boy wrote this book, would we call it guy lit? Nicholas Sparks—the romance bestseller—isn’t slotted into some vague, highly problematic gender-based genre? He is simply a romance writer.

And what is chick lit even?? I don’t agree with this pigeonholing, both as a writer and a publisher. Yes, I’m a woman who writes, but must that be my defining quality? Is a woman surgeon called Chick-doc?

The problem is systemic, and permeates through all creative industries, and others of course. If a female popstar did something outrageous she’ll be called a diva. Whereas, if a male musician trashes a hotel room, he’s a rockstar. It boils down to one thing: there is always this itch to slot, define, and explain what women do or say. And it worries me no end.

Chick lit is publishing’s own version of mansplaining, and it’s ironic because publishing is mostly a women-dominated space. Feminism isn’t just drawing room talk. Nor is it something that happens outside of us. Women are not feminists by default because of our gender. It is always going to be a conscious fight against socio-economic discrimination. Feminism today has already become muddied by big business cashing in. What now passes as feminism is mostly laughable. So it is our duty as writers and publishers to be conscious of these issues. (At Juggernaut, we don’t have a genre called chick lit. We’ve done away with it.)

At the heart of all genres, the thing that matters most, as simplistic and obvious as it may sound, is the story and the art of storytelling, which, I feel, genres tend to obfuscate and forget. I read across genres and I almost always never think of genre when I’m picking up a book. Of course, we can’t rid ourselves of all genres, but we could start by doing away with limiting gender-based ones.

Over the course of the novel, you cite several books, from Harry Potter to War and Peace and a Yeats reference thrown in the mix. What are the kind of books you grew up reading, or make it to your all-time favourite list?

I began with a lot of pulp, then moved on to the classics. I remember reading Jane Eyre and thinking, ‘There’s something about this. This is it.’ It’s still my favourite book to return to. I loved Shakespeare’s comedies for their slapstick and entertaining plots. One day I discovered P.G. Wodehouse (Something Fresh) in the club library, and my life changed. How clever and fun it was. It made me look at language differently.

There are other books I have loved—A Suitable Boy, Franny and Zooey, Murder on the Orient Express, Elena Ferrante’s works, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, White Teeth, Venice, A Secret History, all of Charlotte Mendelson’s works, everything Potter, everything by Caitlin Moran, Bridget Jones, pacey psychological thrillers like The Talented Mr Ripley and Gone Girl, rich historical fiction like I, Claudius, Cuckold, Wolf Hall and the Mary Renault series. To name just a few!   

Kitty seems to have been dealt a sour hand of cards from the get go. Also, bad hair, which makes the best of us miserable. Throughout the book, she always has people who have her back: her parents, friends, and YouTube. On a bad day, there’s always cake (and alcohol). What are your fallback options, when worse comes to worst?

A glass of wine and good comedy (could be TV or a book).

Is there any advice you’d want to offer to the Kittys of the world? The girls under the impression that their lives (professional and personal) are going nowhere?

Don’t be too hard on yourself. And, thirty is the magic number. Everything, except hangovers, gets better after that.

(What Kitty Did, published by HarperCollins India, is available on Amazon. Buy it here: http://amzn.to/2rUUnpX)

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