There’s No Magic Equation With Balli Kaur Jaswal

It’s no secret that Balli Kaur Jaswal is an accomplished author.

In 2014, her first novel, Inheritance, won the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelist Award.

Her second, Sugarbread, became a finalist for the 2015 inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize and the 2018 Singapore Literature Prize.

And her third book? Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows was an international hit and was even picked up by Reese Witherspoon’s book club in 2018.

If you want to know more about this decorated author, read on!

1. In an interview with Business Times, you said your love for books began at a very young age and you would escape into them as you travelled from country to country. Can you list some of the first few books you escaped to?

Roald Dahl’s The Witches and Matilda were my favourites in primary school, as well as the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary.

I also found comfort in titles by Judy Blume, especially Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, It’s Not the End of the World, Tiger Eyes and Blubber.

As I got older (11–13) I enjoyed the Sweet Valley Twins and Fear Street series.

2. Speaking of youth, we also read that you’ve got a wonderful son! Do you have a book you can’t wait to read to him or if you’ve already read to him, which book is his favourite?

He loves books! We’ve been reading to him since he was born, and we’re fortunate to live close to an NLB branch so his personal library keeps expanding and shifting with new stories.

Some of his favourites include popular titles like Goodnight Moon, Where the Wild Things Are, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus. He’s also a big Singlit fan — as an infant, he really enjoyed the board books I Can by Ben Lai and Afternoon Tea at Raffles Hotel by Fleur Vella-Chang.

Since becoming a toddler, he regularly requests the Bo Bo and Cha Cha series by Jason Erik Lundberg.

3. How do you decide your next read? Do you have a to-be-read pile?

Oh yes, I have a very tall teetering pile of books on my nightstand. I read reviews of new releases and also go with recommendations from trusted friends. Sometimes a book mentioned on Instagram catches my eye and I’ll add it to my list.

At the moment, my to-be-read pile includes: The Lights that Find Us (Anittha Thanabalan), Nothing to See Here (Kevin Wilson), Optic Nerve (Maria Gainza), The Leavers (Lisa Ko), My Name is Why (Lemn Sissay), Milk Teeth (Amrita Mahale), A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother (Rachel Cusk) and Homeless (Liyana Dhamirah).

4. How did you first know you wanted to write?

I knew from a really early age that I wanted to write stories. It certainly sprang from my love for reading, but I also felt an innate compulsion to participate in conversations with characters and worlds that I created in my imagination.

I can’t pinpoint an exact moment when I knew I wanted to write but I do remember being enthralled and really invigorated by any task in early primary school that involved writing stories.

5. You mentioned that at the start of The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters you didn’t know where the novel was going to go and it was a process of discovery for yourself as well. Could you tell us more about the discovery process? What were some of the challenges faced when writing it?

HarperLuxe, 2019

The novel is about three British-Indian sisters on a pilgrimage in North India to fulfil their late mother’s final wishes.

Although I had a rough plan for each character, I had no idea what their journey would entail and I tried not to control it too much, because I wanted the central conflict to come from the deviations and challenges that they encountered along the way.

Instead, I focused on developing my characters and their inner lives, and then seeing what sorts of situations they found themselves in. It was intimidating at first to let go like that, because I was creating lots of loose ends that I wasn’t sure I could resolve or reconcile with my idea of where the characters should end up, but it also made for a really rich writing process.

I had to trust that it would all work out in the end, and it did.

6. In your TEDx talk, you mentioned “We fail to realise when we meet people who have attained a certain success, we forget that lots of machinery has gone on the last couple of years or over their lives, or lots of obstacles have been overcome.” Would you mind sharing with us how you came to that wisdom?

It came about when I first started publishing, and people would ask “how did you write a book?” but they seemed dissatisfied with my answer, which was: I wrote and revised and chipped away at the story until it was complete. It’s not the most romantic response, but there’s no magic equation — you have to push past your reluctance and doubt and you have to tackle the obstacles in the draft no matter how much they frustrate and discourage you.

From the outside, it appears as if a writer just gets struck by inspiration and then divines a manuscript. But actually it’s grit and toil over years and it involves making great sacrifices to your time. It doesn’t happen by chance.

Source: Giphy

7. You also touched on the fact that you still read with the perspective of a student who’s learning more about writing. Can you tell us more about that?

One of my favourite things about writing is that you are always learning how to do it. Every new project brings new opportunities to learn about characterization, plot, dialogue and setting.

Of course, some skills you’ve learned from previous work are transferrable — the more you write, the better you get at self-editing, and more confident with choosing a particular narrative voice.

But most of the time, starting a fresh story means learning new things because I have to learn how to write that particular story, which I have never written before.

8. You’ll be sharing more about your books across several library events in March. What is something you’re most excited about?

I’m looking forward to meeting readers and talking about my books to a diverse range of people. I like these library events because they draw participants from all ages, professions, and experiences. As an author, it’s always exciting to see what sort of common ground all these different people have with my characters.

Books available via the NLB Mobile app or at our public libraries:

Text by
National Reading Movement
National Library Board

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Medium Account for Public Libraries Singapore — book lists and book reviews, discovering programmes at the libraries and promoting a bookish lifestyle.

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