In Conversation with Publisher Shantanu Duttagupta

by Sonali Misra

Shantanu Duttagupta is the publisher of Scholastic India

My eyes rove over the books behind Shantanu’s desk, and spot a couple of Philip Pullman titles, with a life-size zombie-head cookie jar at one end. A few Lego figurines lie scattered on his desk in a corner, next to a half-foot General Grievous action figure. Shantanu jumps from his chair and fetches a copy of #Horror, the new anthology by Scholastic India, from his backpack and I gasp. It’s a gorgeous book – I was aware of the creepy boy illustration on the cover (created by the very talented Mukherjee twins) that immediately jumps at you on a stark white background, but I had no idea the book was going to be a larger format jacketed paperback – the end flaps even contain black-and-white photographs of the ten authors.

Sonali Misra (SM): Thanks so much for sitting with me for this interview. Tell me about Scholastic India – what does the publishing house specialise in? And what’s your role there?

Shantanu Duttagupta (SD): Scholastic India is a subsidiary of Scholastic Inc in the US, and it specialises in children’s books from ages 3 to young adult. We publish everything from picture books and chapter books to teen fiction, fantasy fiction as well as workbooks, non-fiction, reference books, encyclopaedias – pretty much anything and everything related to reading. My role in this company is to manage the local publishing programme in India as well as decide what kind of books to bring in from the other subsidiaries of Scholastic, and that could be from the UK, US Australia or New Zealand.

SM: How do you think Indian fiction is faring today vis-à-vis the books from American and British publishers?

SD: I can’t comment on adult publishing, but certainly in the children’s publishing market, there are a lot of books coming from the UK and US ­– whether it’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Geronimo Stilton, and these are perhaps the most popular books now along with those by the likes of Rick Riordan, who’s American too. We find there’s a lot of Western influence in children’s options in India. Having said that, there are many publishers doing wonderful work in India. I’m seeing a trend where there’s more demand for original Indian content, because I think there’s a saturation we’ve reached with content that isn’t always necessarily identifiable with an Indian audience. Young parents that have international exposure want their children to know a little bit more about their own culture and history.

“There’s more demand for original Indian content, because I think there’s a saturation we’ve reached with content that isn’t always necessarily identifiable with an Indian audience.”

SM: What are some of the spaces in publishing you feel Indian authors and publishers are doing really well in?

SD: I think Indian authors and publishers are doing really well with mythology, which can perhaps be compared to books by the likes of Neil Gaiman, JK Rowling and JRR Tolkien – all those Western authors who are part of a rich tradition of fantasy fiction. We find Indian authors like Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi who are writing really good fantasy fiction by using the vast treasure trove of stories that India has, whether it’s the derivatives of the Mahabharata or the Ramayana, or simpler folk stories, since India has a rich oral storytelling tradition. A lot of the voices that aren’t first written in English are slowly being translated; if you look at Perumal Murugan, who writes in Tamil, for example – he’s doing fantastically well. I notice that fantasy is one, non-fiction is certainly another. Politics is a big one too. Some great authors have come out from India in fiction, such as Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy – the list is endless. And what I think is really interesting is that a lot of publishing that’s happening in India is not only restricted to Indian authors, but you see many from the subcontinent, whether they’re Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan. They really look towards India to be published.

“What I think is really interesting is that a lot of publishing that’s happening in India is not only restricted to Indian authors, but you see many from the subcontinent, whether they’re Pakistani, Bangladeshi or Sri Lankan. They really look towards India to be published.”

SM: Could that be because the offices of international publishers, like the big five, are located within India and not these countries?

SD: I’m not necessarily saying they publish with the big five; even the local and regional-language publishers are publishing authors of different nationalities within the subcontinent. I think there’s a tendency for the publishing industry to be looked at as English-based, but it’s certainly not the case. You find regional publishers working on books in the vernacular, and these in turn get translated into English. Translations are a big thing today, so you find that a lot of great bestsellers, including our own Geronimo Stilton that was originally published in Italian and is a phenomenon now, are being translated from other languages into English.

SM: What are the spaces where Indian publishing can improve?

SD: While there’s always room for improvement, I think that the Indian publishing landscape is very diverse and varied and well-represented. India has strong copyright laws. We’re doing a lot of things right. I think things can only get more exciting; it’s not about better or worse. Given the global position right now, Asia is the most exciting place to be in. And evidence for that is the growing interest over the past 15 to 20 years in literature coming out of India.

“Asia is the most exciting place to be in. And evidence for that is the growing interest over the past 15 to 20 years in literature coming out of India.”

SM: Children’s fiction – what are some of the things that work really well in it, internationally and nationally?

SD: That’s a huge question. It’s funny, but a lot of bestsellers in the West, in Europe or America, are bestsellers in India as well. I look at it as a good thing because it means that the world is so much better connected now and there’s access to all this content. I just have a concern regarding how relevant they are to an Indian context and how young, post-millennial children would understand this in their way of being, since due to this they’re more in-tune with how children in rest of the world live than the rest of India. Having said that, fiction is not the strongest category of books in India unfortunately. It’s got to do with how we’re brought up with an education system that is primarily focused on classics, if they focus on fiction at all. Which is all fine, but I have yet to meet a 20-year-old who is not a literature student and loves the classics or has even read them or wants to read them. I think it’s forced on them, and I think an updating of the system is required.

“Right from school, if you’re encouraged to read classics that you can’t relate to, forget the love, even the habit of reading for pleasure is not going to emerge. Reading is supposed to be a pleasurable activity.” 

Right from school, if you’re encouraged to read classics that you can’t relate to, forget the love, even the habit of reading for pleasure is not going to emerge. Reading is supposed to be a pleasurable activity, which we have been trying to tell people in our 20 years in India. It’s linked to so many good things like better performance in school and better comprehension. Unfortunately, fiction is looked at as a flight of fancy. Which is why having a lot of international products – books and learning materials – is important. But at the same, it’s a very urban viewpoint. The reality of India is very different.

SM: Yes, a similar thing happened to me growing up. My parents pushed me more towards non-fiction and despised the fact that my favourite genre was fantasy.

SD: I certainly have a lot of expectation from younger parents, because hopefully their reference point has been different to the previous generations’. You know it’s bizarre that when we were 12, we were encouraged to read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – come on, really? He’s a cocaine addict, and somehow that’s alright? But reading fantasy is an issue? Thankfully, I’ve started noticing a lot more alternative books coming out, even from Indian publishers, that tackle divorce, sexuality, abuse. It’s happening slowly; in typical Indian fashion, it happens but happens quietly. I’m quite excited.

SM: Are there certain subject matters that you wouldn’t touch because you think they would create a furore in Indian society, which can be really conservative at times?

SD: You have to remember that when we publish, it’s not just about what we personally like, but what we believe will sell, and we also have a social responsibility.

SM: Especially as a children’s publisher, the buying power would lie with the parents for your books.

SD: They do have the buying power, but if you look at the Scholastic Book Fairs, typically it’s the children who decide what they want and they ask their parents for money and then buy them at the fairs. Our larger point towards creating readers at an early age is also backed by some research, such as there is a higher chance of a child finishing a book if they choose it themselves.

SM: Your new anthology, #Horror, features a whole cast of Indian authors, many of them debut authors. How was it working with so many first-time writers?

SD: We have 10 stories in the book and I can safely say 7 of them are first-time authors. I basically took 3 months to finalise all the stories, and about the same to put all the stories together and edit them.

SM: Is that a normal timeline to work on a book?

SD: That’s not a normal one; it’s very quick. I think those sorts of timelines can only work where you have a very clear idea of what you want in a book. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all circumstances. If you’re looking at a novel, it might be very different. But yeah, ours was pretty much in record time because, on the whole, the quality of the first drafts of the stories was pretty high. I was pleasantly surprised regarding that. I thought I’d have to work on them pretty intensely.

“In order for you to execute a good short story, you have to begin as close to the end as possible.”

For me, the most important aspect is the readability of the story. That’s how I look at a lot of the manuscripts that come in. Is there a story there? Is it interesting? Is it contemporary? One thing I told everybody was that I don’t want a Victorian horror story, and I think to that end we’ve achieved that, whether it’s your story or the other ones in this anthology. And all the writers took on this challenge of writing a contemporary story within an Indian setting, and aren’t just bowing down to a Western style of horror. The quality of the stories in the word limit the writers had, of a maximum of 3000 words, is great. It’s not easy writing a short story. I’ve always felt it’s the toughest format to write in. In order for you to execute a good short story, you have to begin as close to the end as possible. Think of the great short story writers – Maupassant, Saki, O Henry – they were masters. They knew what kind of information you need, and you don’t need a lot of background information and fancy character development in a short story. You can do that, but it’s very action-oriented. Unless you deliberately want to leave it hanging at the end, but I think that itself requires a lot of dexterity, which I think only some greats like Yeats can do, where they don’t have to look for words. Words come at their command.

SM: So, you specifically wanted the setting to be India and characters that Indian children could relate to. Why do you think this was so important?

SD: All the horror we get here is from abroad, like Goosebumps. And if you think about it, there really isn’t that much horror for a younger audience. Goosebumps, sure. And then a few classics.

SM: Yes, I remember reading Goosebumps and also abridged classics like Frankenstein that aren’t actually horror in their unabridged versions, but are pitched as horror stories for kids.

SD: Most of the horror you find in India are abridged versions of classics. I think the only person who writes really good horror is Ruskin Bond; he’s most famous for his horror stories. Which is why I wanted to address this gap.

“To make something scary, you don’t need to be graphic. I was looking at terror and fear, rather than outright horror.”

SM: Your main competition in children’s horror might be Goosebumps, a series by Scholastic. What made you go up against your own series to find space in the market for this anthology?

SD: I don’t think Goosebumps is competition. I think horror is a genre that’s popular among all ages. I feel it would go down well with all age groups. This book doesn’t specify anywhere what age group it’s for, and that was a deliberate decision on our part. Unless something is very graphic and extremely disturbing, which the stories in here are not, they’re fit for kids. To make something scary, you don’t need to be graphic. I was looking at terror and fear, rather than outright horror. We weren’t setting out to compete with anyone else. If you see the inside pages, one of the stories is told in the format of a graphic novel and another in verse form, and their treatment in the layout is quite different as well. That sets this book apart from others too.

SM: How do you think Indian publishing is doing today when it comes to diversity and representation – do we have enough books by and about people from various cultures, classes, castes, genders and sexual orientations? What about representation regarding mental health and physical disabilities? Or those who have been victims of abuse or persecuted for their religious or political beliefs?

SD: Interestingly, in our 10 authors, 5 are men and 5 are women. I think there’s a lot that’s going to happen when it comes to inclusion and diversity. There’s a lot to come in Indian publishing. There are already signs of beginnings – it’s not only us, but some indie publishers are also working on very interesting things – Talking of Muskaan by Himanjali Sankar, Queen of Ice by Devika Rangachari and Half the Field is Mine by Swati Sengupta are some examples. But they’re not part of the mainstream; they come in the peripheries. One thing that’s good about the younger generation is that they’re comfortable talking about these issues online, particularly sexuality. And hopefully such conversations will help these issues come to the forefront.

SM: Do you have any advice you’d like to offer budding writers reading this interview?

SD: My advice is first and foremost, read. Read a lot. Read everything. Then, practise a lot. Write every day. Maintain a blog or just write something in a notebook. I also believe that to be a writer, you need to have a lot of empathy. If you don’t have that, how are you going to appeal to a reader? And lastly, I think being authentic is really important. If you’re going to write outside your realm of experience, you better do the homework.

SM: Thank you so much for sparing some time for us and this conversation. This hopefully will help improve our readers’ understanding of children’s publishing, Indian publishing and the horror genre.

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You can get your own copy of #Horror at:

Amazon order link: https://goo.gl/5A2wWA
Flipkart order link: https://bit.ly/2spvN1N

And you can read an extract from the book here.