The first Indian author for Mills and Boon, that is just one facet to Milan Vohra.
Her visiting card succinctly describes her as Author. Advertising consultant. Insomniac.
Milan entered the world of authoring a Mills and Boon where no Indian had ever ventured and created a niche for herself. From top notch advertising writer to becoming the first Indian author to write for the legendary Mills & Boon series…Milan Vohra has two novels to her credit, ‘The Love Asana’ (the first Indian Mills & Boon published by Harlequin India in 2012) and ‘Tick Tock We’re 30’ published by Westland Books Ltd in 2013.
Milan Vohra’s short stories for Young Adults have also appeared in ‘Love like that and other stories’ by Penguin India in 2013. But in fact, Milan informs us, her first published work was in end 2011 – some short stories that were quite far removed from the romance genre that she has now come to be better known for. These stories explored child sexual abuse and its genesis as well as gender identity and teenagers at a crossroads. The stories were published in the award winning anthology ‘Vanilla Desires’ by Unisun Publications.
From writing literary short stories… to writing short stories for young adults…to the headlines making first Indian Mills and Boon ‘The Love Asana’ that outsold best selling author Penny Jordan with four times as many copies sold in India, and became a huge best seller in South Africa too…to her latest book ‘Tick-tock we’re 30’ – a page turner of a rom-com that’s had glowing reviews from every mainstream newspaper, magazine and blogger.. it seems like Milan is charting her own way and making it all seem fun and effortless in the process. Thank you, Milan, for giving me this opportunity to chat.
At the outset, please tell the readers a bit about yourself.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, when both my kids were in their teens (my daughter was just getting out of her teens and my son was just getting into his) , my husband got great joy out of telling everyone there were three teenagers at home! I think anybody who knows me will agree that’s a pretty good description of me. I’m a slightly unpredictable mix of impulsive, let’s go do this *right now*, and I mean RIGHT NOW kind of person and the kind that likes to pull back, breathe, think things through, ‘respond’ not ‘react’. It keeps most people never really sure what’s next..including myself!
From advertising to writing a book, how did this come about?
Well advertising was the most interesting career option that was available to me when I was in college — doing Economics honours at Delhi University to make my dad happy. With my fascination for people watching, eavesdropping, language nuances, wondering often about things that we can universally relate to, that made for interesting anecdotes, quirks, well the theatre of human behaviour really..and then there’s always been my obsession with pop culture..it felt natural to be using this to create stories too within another kind of fiction…that is advertising. And I say this with utmost affection because I do still love that world and the thinking and craft it involves.
Writing fiction was something I had been doing for myself, short stories really and never with a view to getting published. Strangely to me getting published never was and never is the reason why you must write. If you choose to.
Anyhow, one January night on my wedding anniversary, after a slightly disastrous dinner with house guests where everything that could be wrong did go wrong….the chicken was too chickeny, the ice cream was too sweet (you get the drift).. I’d come home, looked at my comp. The inbox had some mails a few friends had forwarded to me for a Harlequin contest to search for the first Indian author. It required a love story of 2000 words and I decided a wedding anniversary called for some romance, dammit 🙂
I ended up writing a story called The Love Asana in the space of two margaritas but because I write long hand (pen on paper) the real challenge became how to get it to make the transition from page to screen. I did a rough calculation of my handwriting…about how many words on every line going zig zag and all the crossed out rewritten stuff. It was then probably twice the length it needed to be. A girlfriend called around midnight, my friends know the best time to reach me. I read it out on the phone to her as she keyed it in. We giggled and had a blast as we argued and I convinced her of utterly critical things such as the rightness of why the hero needed to be wearing linen pants not track pants and so on. To cut a long story short, my story about a yoga instructor who falls in love with her student went on to win the nationwide contest from amongst several hundred of entries.
This did not mean though that I had the book contract in hand. It only meant that I’d won a contest with lovely prizes (my personal favourite among them being a year’s free subscription to 10 M&Bs every month!)
What came next was actually an interesting period interacting with the M&B editorial team in U.K, understanding what the various M&B series were all about especially as so much had changed from back when I read them….some of the newer lot also got prettty steamy. Then there was my sharing with the U.K editorial team an Indian perspective and sensibility.. which is so different from say, a British woman’s. The process resulted in a book contract about a year later and the book and its quite incredible success some months later. Some of the things I think it did was make everyone realise how ready Indian readers were for their own unique Indian romances within the M&B brand which stood for a lot. I think it probably also made the editorial acknowledge and accept the Indian sensibility better. To me this acknowledgement seems reflected positively in the Indian edition books that have followed. So a win win resulted really!
How does it feel to be the first Indian to author a Mills and Boon?
It was great not just because it was something so unexpected but in a sheer childlike wish fulfilment way. The kind of thing you might think on a winter’s day, when all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey. ..oh wouldn’t it be be such fun to write a Mills & Boon someday… it was that very simple pure kind of happy kick it gave me. Yes there was a lot of media attention, worldwide even, with BBC and CNN and the Times London etc and it was all exciting of course. But I was quite clear in my head that my 15 seconds of fame were very cool and of course I was grateful to have that unexpected burst of being in the spotlight but I also wanted to not be in a tearing hurry to write more of the same…at least not immediately. I wanted to think through what I wanted to write next.
What motivated you to write a book?
Initially I’d thought it can’t be too difficult taking the short story that won the contest and developing it into a book but the challenge of developing a plot, journeying the highs and lows of your characters, keeping it convincing emotionally and not have it become a Hindi movie scenario where if all else fails you bring out some baddies usually an Amrish Puri breathing fire out of the nostrils kind of dad.
For me it was also a different kind of personal challenge because I’d written a play some years earlier.. A musical comedy complete with all the song lyrics. I found writing a book similar in terms of plotting or thinking through your characters and motivations.. but otherwise just not similar. It was interesting to let the writing flow, balance dialogue and narrative, a luxury playwriting couldn’t give.
The biggest reward?
Meeting readers. A lady recently and repeatedly in reviews online and on my fb page told me she read my book ‘The Love Asana’ seven times and will soon read it again. Gosh. That feels incredible.
Tick-tock, we’re 30 is a fun, quirky, relatable book. Personally I found myself literally laughing out loud many times while reading it. What was the inspiration behind the book?
The book is inspired by the fact that I had a group of friends I grew up with in Anand Niketan in Delhi. We had all planned a reunion at the millennium but years went by with no sign of anybody ever actually making it happen. Finally I decided this was my revenge. I would write about a bunch of people and a reunion that would be so much fun, it would make them want to make ours work out!
Then of course once you start imagining things I had my main female protagonist Lara also have a pact with a guy from the group Nishad. A pact to marry each other if neither had hooked up with anyone else by the time they were 30. That’s when it gets nice and loony because Lara doesn’t want to give Nishad a chance to say he was right – about her being so wrong about Randeep, the guy she was dating back then. Enter Perzaan aspiring Turkish model, flame bartender and Lara’s pretend love interest in the book.
Actually this book has been getting some really good feedback not just for the romances within it (yes there’s more than one) and the humour but also as a story of old friendships revisited.
Did you start writing after taking a professional course or is it natural?
I didn’t study writing from any course per se but if you’re a keen reader hopefully your learning is constantly happening 🙂
I don’t think writing can be taught. Like charisma you either have it or you don’t.
It helps to have feedback for sure to improve it and to strengthen weak areas. But even while you’re writing – you know when the words or construct isn’t sitting quite right. Each writer has their own process to come back, fix it. But you do usually know.
The covers of all your books are very nice? How much say did you have while designing the covers?
For ‘The Love Asana’ the cover was designed especially to create a separate look from their existing series’ templates. The Love Asana was not falling into any of the existing series they had. So the Harlequin team decided to call it a Special India edition. They brought in elements of yoga with a yoga mat and used Indian models on the cover. A band with silver foiling flagged the introducing the first Indian author on the front. I was shown the cover but didn’t really have a say in it. I was pretty delighted though that the country head also fought to retain the original title of my winning short story for the book. It’s so much nicer than ‘ A shocking proposal ‘ don’t you think? 🙂
With ‘Tick-tock we’re 30’ I’d asked to be involved in cover design and especially coming from my advertising background I guess I do like to be able to get into it. And the editor and graphic designer were both open to it. I asked Vrinda Goyal, an art director friend, who had worked with me in the past to do the design and she and I brainstormed on it, went through many many options, illustration styles, various fonts, graphics, or only typographical routes before arriving on this final design. Happily for us, everyone at Westland too liked it.
The numeric 30 in place of the 12 on a clock along with graphic symbols on every hour of the clock to represent some of the major characters was a pretty neat idea. For instance we had a graphic hookah to represent Pathak – a guy in the group who is often smoking up and is a conspiracy theorist; there was a potty seat representative of Thin Riya a character in the book who is quite OCD and constantly constipated.
I wanted to choose symbols that also conveyed the overall feel of fun which was what the group of friends were all about. So there could be no dark motifs.
I was also pretty sure I didn’t want a pink cover for the book… synonymous with chicklit. This book is about a group of 12 friends – 6 guys and 6 girls and the real story of ‘Tick-tock we’re 30’ is actually about what happens in the week that all these old friends meet. The old baggage, the old jealousies, the old familar comaraderie, leg pulling, protectiveness as well as new equations and working out of things from the past. On the back cover you see a graphic of a lot of pairs of legs..really to tell the reader browsing in a store that this story is not just about two people falling in love…it’s a many-character story. There’s also a graphic of a dog..because through the story there is a pajama wala uncle with a mad dog who is pretty much a character too. Finding just the right kind of illustration for the dog was crazy. I knew how I’d imagined that dwag. We went nuts.. kept getting vicious dogs that looked like they were going to go for your balls right off or some sad morose types or big outright wusses. This doggie fella had the right mix of looking slightly mental and someone you could hope to out manoeuvre.
I know it is difficult for an author to choose between her books, but which of these, is closer to your heart?
The one I’m writing now. (Until I finish writing it then it’ll be the one I’m writing after it) 🙂
You have mentioned that you read a lot. Can anyone who is a reader write books?
I assume you mean does just about anybody who reads a lot also be able to write?
Sadly not. Though I’m pretty sure it would be hard to find anybody who writes who hasn’t been obsessed with reading.
Arre it’s a little like saying if you love to eat you’ll be a great chef. Nah.
Who is your favourite author? Any author who has influenced your writing?
That impossible question again 🙂
How how how can anybody answer this?
Roald Dahl, Amy Tan, Marian Keyes, Enid Blyton, Tennessee Williams, Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Gilbert Jones, Vikram Seth, Kafka, Wodehouse, Capote, Neil Gaimon, Mary Higgins Clark, Hemingway, J. D Salinger, Douglas Adams, Woody Allen , Tina Fey…..Good writing, whatever the genre (or not) should of course leave you with wonderful things to think about etc etc but here’s my thumb rule – it should never feel like something you have to ‘work’ at reading.
What is the next project that you are working on? When is the next book scheduled for release?
I can only say it’s pretty different from what I’ve done so far. It’s still early to say anything more. I’m also working on a very fun screenplay for an international project but am under a non disclosure contract. Will be happy to share details once I can.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring authors?
I’d say…Don’t try to be like anyone else. The same story told by five different people will sound interesting and different if each one does it in their natural way. Know your story, your characters and just tell your story your way.
Thank you once again Milan for sharing your thoughts with your readers.
Social Media links of Milan Vohra for reader to find/follow/like:
google+ id. : https://www.google.com/+MilanVohra
If you are interested in Milan Vohra’s Books, here are the links:
Tick-Tock we’re 30 – Check out this book on Goodreads: Tick-Tock we’re 30 http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17311334-tick-tock-we-re-30