Award-winning author Sweta Vikram: “An agent said that America was not ready for a happy immigrant story”

  • There are 2,2 million book titles being published worldwide each year, according to UNESCO.
  • Sex and the City’s lead Carrie Bradshaw believed that every other New Yorker had a book in them.
  • Stephen Hawking stated that “if you stacked the new books being published next to each other, at the present rate of production you would have to move at ninety miles an hour just to keep up with the end of the line.”

For aspiring writers, such stats are both encouraging (people still read!) and overwhelming. How can we secure our place in this crowd? How is it possible to tackle everything from the writing process to picking a publisher and going about the book launch? What feelings does an author have right before their book goes live? Sweta Vikram knows, as she has published a dozen books. Yet launching Louisiana Catch, her debut US novel, was somewhat different.

Sweta Srivastava Vikram (www.swetavikram.com), featured by Asian Fusion as “one of the most influential Asians of our time,” is a mindset & wellness coach, global speaker, and best-selling author of 12 books whose work has appeared in The New York Times, amongst other publications, across nine countries on three continents. Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between the Indian Himalayas, North Africa, and the United States collecting and sharing stories. She helps executives and entrepreneurs make critical mindset shifts so they can leverage time more effectively, thrive in their relationships, and lower stress levels. In her spare time, Sweta teaches yoga to empower female survivors of trauma. A graduate of Columbia University, she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients globally. She is also the CEO-Founder of NimmiLife, which helps women share their stories, heal from trauma, and empower their mental health and lives using Ayurveda, yoga, and storytelling. Find her on: Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

 

Before you read on, note that:

This interview was conducted a year ago, in April 2018, right before Louisiana Catch was released. Since then, Sweta’s book became an Amazon bestseller, won the Voices of the Year Award (former recipients were Chelsea Clinton and the founders of the #MeToo movement) and has found a unique place in academia. In the midst of her book tour and awards, Sweta was unexpectedly slowed down by serious illness, but she was able to recover from it. Sweta opened up about what the year after launching Louisiana Catch was like in a sequel interview.

 

How do you know you’ve got a book in you?

 

Louisiana Catch is the story of one woman’s quest to let go of a past toxic relationship. While hoping she’d empower other domestic violence survivors to gain confidence by organizing an international female conference, she herself finds inner strength, (self)love and healthy boundaries. How did you come up with this theme?

It developed over the years. Going back to April 2012, it was the time of the Arab Spring and we for the first time saw what social media could do around the world. We heard about the movement not through traditional media, but mostly via Twitter. As much as we find it absolutely normal today, it was quite revolutionary back then. It all left me thinking “what if.” That’s so typical of writers: we get stories wondering what if.

 

At that time, it was unbelievable to me how strong and influencing social media was. But what if people are misusing that kind of power? I opened myself up and listened to people’s stories about their interactions in the online space. Chatting with guys only to find out their ulterior motives. Texting with a woman who turns out to be 30 years older than she claimed she was. Being married for a while now, I only know about Tinder through my single friends and studying social phenomena in general. I started digging into that. That’s how Jay, the unpopular stalker character in my book, was created.

 

I also had to figure out what “online” meant. I wanted my book to be timeless and I quickly understood that social media was something constantly changing and evolving. Instagram started trending while I was already in the writing process, so I didn’t want to limit my characters to certain social media like “they met on Instagram.” In the book, I created an opportunity for strangers to meet in an online therapy group. Putting my main character, Ahana, into a vulnerable place, was key. I wanted to explore what it meant to be vulnerable in an online space, so I knew she had to be going through something. That was the psychology behind my creative process.

 

How much of Ahana is actually based on you? She’s Indian, her career revolves around social justice issues, and she has gone through the loss of a parent. Does the resemblance to your life end there?

Yes, it does end there. People automatically start to think it’s the author’s story, because there is no third person telling the story – it’s a first-person narrative. We might share an occasional indulgence in Pinot Noir, but this is her life, her experience, and her point of view. I actually wanted to write a character, someone who is really the opposite of me, and it was easy for me to develop Ahana. Her personality is different, and so is her physique, her clothing choices, all of that.

 

The hospital part came much later, and that was actually based on my real life experience. My editor pushed me into exploring those feelings. I had to go back to that place of losing my mum so I could give the scene some substance and humanity. It was horrible to write. But it had to be done. That’s why I am such a believer in wellness, yoga, and Ayurveda. Writing: it hurts and then it heals. My own healing happened from writing that scene, because there were feelings that I hadn’t talked about concerning my mother’s passing away. And writing that scene, it wasn’t even confessional or therapeutic; it was what it was. This is what prose does to us. Ahana’s response was not my response. None of what happens in the book is me, but just being in that moment of losing your mother, that was something I could relate to. So that’s a thing in common.

 

How is it possible to use your own experiences, but then not overshadow the story and let your characters have their own response?

That’s how you know you’ve done a good job as a writer. We all get inspired by life experiences, but it has to end there. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be Louisiana Catch, it would be Sweta Vikram’s story. That’s why I’d like writers to have their lives, to get out of their rooms, and not being closed at home behind their desks, isolated. Inspiration comes from life, from all around us. We all have real life experiences that subconsciously creep into our work. Even characters. You can create only so much from your imagination. So you have to go out there. Perhaps you meet a person, have a conversation, and something sparks from there. Develop that foundation and then let what comes your way build on it.

 

The writing process and developing characters

 

How do you develop your characters? Do you have sketches on paper, flipcharts, notes on the walls?

I’m cleanliness freak. I can’t have things on my walls or papers all over; things have to be organized, and that mostly happens in my head. I usually start taking notes, describing what each character looks like. The physical aspect is very important to me, not in terms of their bodies or looks as such but more as a context. If they are 4 feet 3 inches tall in my book, and then all of a sudden they pick a fight with someone who’s 6’5”, there better be a reason for that. I also read a lot about psychology. I interview therapists. To get into the process, I have a whiteboard, but it’s not outline after outline. My work is very internal: it’s ready when it’s ready. Sometimes I take notes. But a lot of things develop over a period of time. It’s not just one story – in “Louisiana Catch,” there are a lot of topics: sexual assault, online dating, multiculturalism, romance, grieving daughter, women’s empowerment, female leadership, diversity, and so on.

 

As some characters develop, you connect the dots: “OK, she is doing this, let’s find the reasons why.” It adds richness to the character and to the writing, and it’s what I’ve been hearing from almost all reviewers: that Ahana is so complex and relatable. She is nothing like anyone I know but she is very relatable. The more time you spend with your characters, you start to think of them as real people.

 

“It is so important to stay true to your characters, and you can only do that if you give them time to develop.”

 

They come alive.

I mean, I’ve spent six years with them, off and on. Every time I would get back and a scene would develop, it would not only grow the story, but also develop the characters further. The story moves on only when the characters develop.

 

How to keep boundaries and sanity when sharing your work

 

How do you test your ideas?

I created a lot of toxic characters and wanted to see how people would react to them, so I went to my safe space. Since 2009, I have been spending about two weeks a year at a writer’s retreat in Martha’s Vineyard. Because it closed two years ago, a bunch of us still rented a house in the area and went there to concentrate on our writing.

 

It’s amazing to have this brain space where you’re just a writer and you are not attached to anyone or anything. You write all day, and then in the evening sit down with other writers to share challenges with your people. If I get emotional about fonts and covers, they’ll get it. A lot of us have other careers, but those two weeks are sacred to us.

 

The idea for Louisiana Catch was still raw at that point. What is important for a writer in this vulnerable stage? How can you get the most from the feedback people are giving you, without getting scared away by possible criticism?

The reality of a writer’s life is that there will be criticism and rejection. It’s real and it’s here to stay. It might not be pleasant, so give yourself time to moan over it, and then move on. Personally, I am a big fan of not sharing my work with too many people. People personalise stuff. For example, Rohan, one of the main male characters in my book, was described as “terrible and arrogant.” And I’m like: “He’s a character – I’m not asking you to date him.” But also, if your work impacts people to that extent, it means there is some good writing going on. Showing your work only to people who can look at it without personalizing it to their own life experiences is key. If five people tell you the exact same thing, then there is some value in it. Otherwise, do what feels right to you. I’ve worked with a freelance editor who is excellent and gives me solid feedback. I send my work mostly to her and that’s about it.

 

Speaking of male characters, how were you, such a warm-hearted and centered person, able to develop Jay’s character a toxic, sleazy sociopath?

Oh, I loathe Jay. But he, too, is reality. I wanted to write a character that I would never date, who I’d never want around as a friend. My husband is a very sweet guy, so someone very different from him. And how did I develop him? I’d say look at people, notice qualities that tick you off and use those. I paid attention to people like Jay – those who never speak up or show their face in the online world but send sleazy direct messages. These people are  narcissists and sociopaths. My therapist friends were very helpful to discuss behavioral patterns on and off social media with me.

 

Were you at all excited to develop this character?

I was excited to challenge myself and my writing. But Jay as a person/character was nauseating to create. He seems nice in the beginning, because that is how I set it up–he is a sociopath who exploits vulnerable women. And niceness is a way to make women feel comfortable and open up to him. Once people like Jay gain your trust, the manipulation starts, which you might not even see as manipulation until it gets to be far too late. This is what happened in the book, too. That is why we see the gradual development/revelation in Jay’s character instead of portraying him as toxic right from the beginning.

On having the courage to be political or challenge the status quo

 

Your timing with topics such as digital stalking, shaming and violence against women could not have been any better with the #MeToo movement. Do you have expectations of the book becoming part of the social shift?

I started to research and write Louisiana Catch many years before the #MeToo movement started. The writing was not intentional. But the response has been great, and I do know that if it changes someone’s life or becomes part of a university course, that would mean the world to me.

Side note: Louisiana Catch did win the Voices of the Year Award in August 2018 and is becoming a well-respected work in the world of academia. 🙂

 

Another occurring theme in the book is female leadership. Ahana, an underdog, grows into a strong leader. Do you consider yourself an inspiration for writers and why is it important to show your strength?

I definitely think I am strong. Others have told me that I’ve inspired them, or that my writing has inspired them. I try to keep everything authentic and I am OK with vulnerability. So, a lot of people have seen my journey and noticed that things are not handed to me on a platter. I do believe that if you work hard and stay committed, you can make magic happen.

 

Diversity in storytelling is something I study with a lot of curiosity and openness. Being an Indian-American, are some doors more open to you now that diverse storytelling is trending?

I just feel we need more diverse stories, period, because it helps fight ignorance and everything connected to it. If you’ve just seen a certain type of person in your children’s storybooks, you will not understand other types of people as an adult. All these kiddie books should have heroes from different places, races, and ethnicities. Why is Black Panther doing so well? Having an African-American superhero narrative. That should be a norm. Having different people as role models, hearing different accents on mainstream television and in the movies: that is the world that would foster more creativity and better community, where you don’t have to look or sound a certain way to fit in.

 

That’s why I am such a big believer in diverse writing. Until I talk to somebody from Prague, how will I understand certain cultural traits? My Czech friend Blanka told me how around Christmas time, the Czechs have a custom where there’s a fish in a bathtub involved. Had she not explained it to me as an old tradition, I’d not be understanding of this custom. It is so easy to be ignorant and therefore dismissive. But having the context now, I can see how both Czech and Indian cultures are dependent on fairy tales and folklore storytelling.  As human beings, we are all very similar. But between politics and ignorance and insecurities, the differences have cropped up. Telling stories, sharing contexts and having conversations about a fish in the bathtub should be a new norm.

 

An author’s feelings right before the book launch

 

How is launching the book in the US different to what you have been used to from India?

The scale is very different with Louisiana Catch as this was my first novel released in the States. Before Louisiana Catch, I have published mostly poetry books. Poetry is amazing, it has its loyal and devoted readers. The books have become bestsellers and I feel like I have little to do with it aside from the writing itself. Poetry has a niche audience. It is simple, pure, and it heals the heart. Fiction is a whole other story. The market is big and competitive. You are seen and judged on a very different scale. It is new to me.

 

How did you get the publishing house on board? How was finding a publishing partner in the US different from your previous experience?

I have worked with agents in the past and I have also done things myself. This time around, this story was so important to me that I didn’t want it to go through a lot of changes. I did query some agents, and the changes they wanted were not changes I was willing to make.

 

Then I found my publishing house (Modern History Press), submitted my work, and they made an offer. There are changes, there are so many changes my book has gone through because of my editor, and god bless her. But I know when the changes are good and when the change is being made only so that the book will fit into the American market. And I am not willing to do that.

 

That does sound like a strong non-negotiable. Were you OK risking not finding a publishing house?

There are risks involved. That’s why it helps not to rely on writing as a way of filling my belly or paying my bills. If this was how I paid my bills, it would make it harder for me to take that risk. I started consciously creating other revenue streams. I have a company and a whole entrepreneurial journey aside from writing so that I can nurture my creative work and find someone who believes in the story the way I believe in it. Publishing is hard to begin with. Getting the book out there is hard to begin with. If you and your agent are not on the same page, the process just becomes unbearable. You don’t wake up looking forward to working on it. And I didn’t want that to happen. I worked hard on this. I had my list of what I was willing to compromise on and what I was not. I had a previous experience of a New York agent reaching out to me when I had my first novel released in India. He believed that America was not ready for a happy immigrant story and made so many changes that my book would have ended up being a typical narrative of a sad South Asian immigrant. And I thought about it – the temptation was there – but frankly I had to turn that offer down. Because I wouldn’t be able to relate to the story, and if I can’t relate to my characters, how can my readers?

 

The importance of wellness and wellbeing for creators

You are a strong advocate for wellness and self-care, especially when it comes to writers. Why?

It has been a journey for me, too. Both my writing and my attitude around writing have changed significantly over the years. Now, I don’t write to impress anyone. When you start out and call yourself a writer, we all go through that gallon of emotions: Will this person read it? Will that person read it? It is normal, and over time, you’ll just write because of what that does to you, not to others. There is some darkness in my writing, and I don’t mean dark literature, but because the social justice causes I want to address are somewhat heavy, I need a wellness practice in place. Without it, it would be so easy to go down that rabbit hole.

 

That’s when meditation, pranayama, gratitude, time spent with my husband and people I like, cooking or a nice glass of wine come into place. I teach yoga to rape and domestic violence survivors and I have my own yoga routine. I like predictability and stability as well as having warm, solid relationships. My life and my wellness I work around that. Things still get done. You just have to be disciplined and know what your priority is.

 

At the end of Louisiana Catch you thank your husband for the support and faith he has in you. You also mention that he has to endure a lot being a husband to a writer tackling topics of social change. What did you mean?

He has to have a lot of faith to support a wife tackling social change. I often tell him: “I am working on this and I might be very emotional.” He gets it. He doesn’t have to understand what goes on inside a writer’s head. He understands this is something I need to do to be successful and gives me a lot of space, highlighting: “You write what you need to write, don’t listen to what people say. You are actually making a difference.”

 

Read more in the follow-up interview.

This interview was conducted in April 2018. Since then, both Louisiana Catch and Sweta went on a journey that has changed them significantly.

 

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Hi, I am Pavla..

Prague-based writer, company content creator, aspiring global journalist and future-of- everything enthusiast.

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