Tag Archives: Enter Title Here

An Interview with Rahul Kanakia

23 Oct
Rahul Kanakia

Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel Enter Title Here is “meant to make you uncomfortable,” according to a New York Times review.

Rahul Kanakia is the author of a YA novel Enter Title Here. His short stories have appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Nature, and the Intergalactic Medicine Show. He holds an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University and a BA in Economics from Stanford University. He previously worked for the World Bank in their South Asia Environment division.

To read an exercise on turning desire into motivation and plot based on Enter Title Here, click here.

In this interview, Kanakia discusses likability and didacticism in YA literature, the inspiration of the Kaavya Viswanathan plagiarism story, and his approach to writing about racial and cultural bias.

Michael Noll

In films about high school students (particularly in stories like this one), characters tend to be likeable. If they’re not, we understand that they’ll become likeable at some point. But that’s not really what happens in Enter Title Here. As one character puts it, Reshma is “too intense.” She pursues her goals a bit like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White. Obviously, the question of likeability, especially for female characters, has been a hotly-debated issue. I’m curious how you approached her character. Did you ever worry about whether readers would like her? Did that even matter to you? Or were you more concerned with making her, say, interesting or compelling?

Rahul Kanakia

During the drafting process I never worried about her likability, because I actually never thought she was unlikable. I still don’t! I like Reshma immensely, and if I was a teenager I’d totally be her friend (except that she doesn’t have friends). In fact, in real life I’m friends with more than one person who bears a resemblance to her, and I value them all for their insight and charm, even if I wouldn’t necessarily take my moral guidance from them.

I’m actually a little perplexed as to why everybody doesn’t love her as much as I do. I think part of it is that this is the YA field, which is still a little on the didactic side: there’s a definite emphasis on teaching students and providing role models. But I think it’s also to some extent a mismatch with the audience. Lots of YA readers really identified with their teachers and enjoyed the academic side of school. They got good grades because they cared about learning, and they take justifiable pride in that performance. To them, cheating is anathema. Whereas to me, it’s intuitively obvious that school is BS and that grades are just made-up numbers. I think the more you fall on my side of the equation, the more you see Reshma as a rebel rather than a villain.

Michael Noll

Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

This novel bears some resemblance to the real-life story of Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergraduate who plagiarized two novels in her own book. How much did you pay attention to that case when writing this book? Did you consciously write toward that story or away from it? Or was the novel simply inspired by it and you ran with the idea in your own way?

Rahul Kanakia

Her story was definitely an inspiration. Although I haven’t read it, I know that her novel How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life is about a type A Indian-American girl who comes to believe that in order to get into college, she needs to “get a life” and so sets out consciously to acquire a boyfriend and a group of friends and all those other teen contrivances. Sound familiar? That’s basically the novel that Reshma is trying to write.

However I obviously took my book in a different direction. I think part of the reason the Kaavya Viswanathan story got big was because it was too delicious. It played into all these stereotypes we have about uncreative (usually Asian) perfectionists. People who can say the right thing, but who have nothing inside them. In my novel, I wanted to show that there is something inside. I wanted to show that there is a lot of courage and determination and intelligence involved in the struggle to rise to the top. In fact, I think Kaavya Viswanathan herself demonstrated a lot of that canniness when she, a teenager who’d never completed a novel, cobbled together bits of Salman Rushdie and Megan McCafferty to write a book that was, by all accounts, eminently readable. In the process of doing which, she hurt nobody (did Salman Rushdie’s sales go down as a result of this incident?) and would’ve made quite a bit of money for herself and for her publisher.

Michael Noll

There are moments when Reshma says some pretty pointed things about race/ethnicity—particularly about how America adjusts the rules to benefit white people and disadvantage Indians and Indian-Americans. What I found so interesting is that I’d be nodding at one of these passages, and then the novel would quickly introduce some element that threw the passage into an entirely different light, often complicating it. Did you do this naturally? Or were you consciously trying to avoid moments where the novel was trying to “say something important”?

Rahul Kanakia

I think that a lot of Indian-Americans perceive a bias against themselves in a lot of arenas. I think that in many cases that bias is real, but it’s difficult to prove because it’s hidden by the generally good results that Indian immigrants have, collectively, achieved. I mean lets face it, Asian-Americans have the highest median household income and the highest average educational attainment in America. (And out of the Asian subgroups, Indians have the highest numbers, so all of this is even more true for Indians.) When it comes to Indians, at least, we’re also well-represented in business and culture. An Indian-American has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. There are dozens of Indian-Americans on the cast of major television shows (including several starring roles). Pepsi, Google, and Microsoft are all run by Indian CEOs.

So for a person to say Indian-Americans are discriminated against, they would have to make a pretty nuanced argument, and it would go something like this, “Given our educational levels and family income, we should be even more successful than we are.” And I think that’s an argument which needs to be made because I think its true. Discrimination hobbles Indian-Americans and prevents us from doing as much as we could otherwise do.

However, I still cannot go out there and write a book that says, in an uncomplicated way, that Indian-Americans have it tough because that’s just not true. Some Indian-Americans have it tough; the ones who are already poor or whose parents have little education. But in general our lives in this country aren’t that bad. And that’s where Reshma finds herself. She’s making true arguments, but she’s also better off than 95+% of people in America.

Michael Noll

You write in the Acknowledgements that the novel wasn’t always about Reshma’s relationship with her parents. That relationship, which is a major piece of the novel, was suggested by someone and developed after you’d already written a lot of pages. That seems like a major revision. How did you approach changing the novel to include that conflict?

Rahul Kanakia

Well it wasn’t easy!

But I now have a lot of experience at revising novels to change major plot points, and you’d be surprised at how doable it is. You don’t need to rewrite the entire book. The thing is, a novel is composed of layers. And each of these layers shows a different facet of your character. So in some ways it’s not terrible if your character acts slightly differently in different parts of the book, because that contributes to the impression that they’re multi-faceted.

Basically what I did was I rewrote every part of the book that contained the parents, and I toned down or eliminated some parts that dealt with Chelsea and the perfects. I just started at the beginning and went through the novel, scrubbing as I went. It’s actually a very powerful and fun feeling, this sort of alteration, because it’s almost like you’re writing the book anew, but you don’t actually have to rewrite the book

October 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Turn Desire into Motivation and Plot

27 Sep
Rahul Kanakia's novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble's Teen Blog called "a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants."

Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here has a main character that Barnes and Noble’s Teen Blog called “a genuinely unique protagonist: unintentionally funny, often mean, and uncompromising in the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants.”

Any writing teacher will tell you that one key to finding a plot is to find your character’s desire: the thing that the character wants badly and will fight for. It doesn’t matter, really, what the desire is (love, money, applesauce) as long as the reader believes it matters to the character. Simple, right?

The problem is that, at the beginning of a draft, we tend to think of characters in a vacuum, floating there waiting to feel and act. But desire has no effect on the world (on plot) when there is nothing around it.  So, one way to build a story is to put your character in the midst of other characters. Once one character begins to state beliefs and desires, it’s likely that your character will react. As in life, many of our desires and feelings are clarified once they’re contrasted with others.

A great example of this strategy can be found in Rahul Kanakia’s novel Enter Title Here. You can read the opening pages here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a high school student, Reshma Kapoor, who wants to be valedictorian but worries that someone might beat her. Her desire is clear, but it’s not enough to build a novel on. More is needed. In this passage, we see some of that more:

When I first told Mummy about the perfects, she laughed and said, “No one can be perfect.”

People say that all the time, as if it’s obvious.

But is it?

That’s the problem with people. They think perfection is about things you can’t control: your intelligence or your wealth or your beauty. But if they thought of it as avoiding mistakes, they’d understand how achievable it is.

We all know that it’s impossible to go one hour without making a mistake. And if that’s possible, then it must be possible to string together twenty-four consecutive mistake-free hours into a perfect day.

Having an entire mistake-free day is difficult, but it’s doable.

She lists the ways she didn’t make mistakes (studying, dieting, etc) and then says this:

And if I can have one mistake-free day, then I can have two, and three, and four, and eventually whole weeks and months and years will pass without mistakes. Is that so insane?

This is a nifty piece of writing. It starts with the idea that some girls are perfect, gives one character’s response (no one’s perfect), and then considers whether that’s really true. If perfection is possible, how would the narrator achieve it? She develops a plan.

Kanakia has used that basic desire (be valedictorian) to create plot. Take out the specifics, and you get this: “Main Character wants ____, and some characters seem to have an advantage in getting ____, but So-and-So says that’s not true. But if it is true, then here is how Main Character will beat those characters at their own game.”

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s use desire and community to create plot, using Enter Title Here by Rahul Kanakia as a model:

  1. Find something that your character wants. It can be anything, and there are a few usual suspects: love, money, success. Try using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: food and water (and other basics required for human survival), safety and security, love and belonging, respect, and the ability to pursue happiness (self-actualization, American-style). In Enter Title Here, Reshma’s desire is a mixture of the last four. If she’s valedictorian, she’ll be assured of a successful career and the financial security it brings. She’ll feel as if she belongs with a group like the perfects. She’ll gain people’s respect and will be able to pursue the life she wants (or so she thinks). Your character’s desire doesn’t need to tap into all of these categories, but it should hit at least one of them. If it doesn’t, it’s probably too fleeting to drive plot forward.
  2. Give the character competition. Reshma wants to be valedictorian, but the perfects might beat her to it. Of course, competition doesn’t necessarily require other characters pursuing the same goal. They might have other goals that put them in the way of your character’s pursuit of her own desire. In the way is the key phrase. If nothing’s in the way, there’s no story: I wanted to be valedictorian, and so I did it.
  3. Create a philosophical framework. Resume’s mother doesn’t say, “You’ll never be as good as the perfects.” Instead, she says, “No one can be perfect.” She’s suggesting a way of seeing and understanding the world. Reshma doesn’t just reject her advice, she also rejects this philosophical framework for another: You can be perfect if you have the willpower. In your story, let a character comment on the competition. Is it possible to defeat it? To be like it? Is it desirable to try? We hear versions of this almost every day: when we fail to get something we want, someone will say, “It’s probably for the best.” Whether we agree or disagree with that statement determines what we do next.
  4. Let your main character disagree with this framework. Reshma decides to beat the perfects at their own game. She can be perfect. She’s saying, in effect, it’s not for the best. How can your character refuse to see the problem the same way as the philosophical character?
  5. Develop a plan. Once Reshma decides to do what seems impossible—be perfect—she creates a plan: be perfect for an hour, then a day, then a week, then for months and years. What is your character’s plan to outwit, outwork, or outperform the competition/obstacle?

The goal is use desire as a starting point for creating character motivation and plot.

Good luck.

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