Preti Taneja: Journey to Publication

Preti Taneja’s debut novel We That Are Young is shortlisted for this year’s Desmond Elliott Prize. We spoke to her about her journey to publication and her advice for aspiring authors.

What did you learn from the process of writing your debut?
That for me, writing is a question of feeling doubt more than anything else – and then of putting aside that doubt as the work takes over. Writing We That Are Young was definitely a lesson in my own stamina and stubbornness – looking back, my own obsession – drafting, editing and then proofing a 500-page book, over and over to get it right.

How did you celebrate the publication of your debut?
I have 15 notebooks of ideas and plans, countless paper drafts, folders stuffed with research, my finished PhD, and a bound proof copy of the novel with my notes in it. When a box of my books first arrived from my publisher, I got everything together and took a photograph for the friends and family who had seen me through all of it. It was the ultimate process picture. That first night I went to bed with my own book on my bedside table; it was an incredible feeling to wake up and see it. On publication day my partner and I went into London with one of my books and took it round some independent bookshops, did some shelfies and said hello to the booksellers who were very patient when we accosted them, and then excited with me. One of my mother’s best friends was over from Ireland – she’s known me since I was born. We met at Waterstone’s Piccadilly, and she had brought all these photos and letters my mother sent her in the ’70s. We put We That Are Young on the shelf together. Then I went for dinner with my partner and a couple of friends – all of us have been writing and making creative work and supporting each other through that for twenty years. I’m so grateful to have them, and to mark the high points together as well as surviving the lows. It was a perfect day.

Was there anything that surprised you about having your debut novel published?
My debut year has been a huge experience for me, and I’m still thinking it through. I’ve made friends with other debut and more experienced writers and found allies in the most unlikely places. Despite a competitive publishing culture, I’ve found that writers support each other with real advice and a sense of humour, and not just publicly on social media, and I’ve found that humbling and necessary. The biggest revelation has been realising just how the ecology of small presses exists parallel to, and almost despite, big publishing. There are some hard bottom lines that mediate what succeeds, and most people buying books aren’t always aware of that impetus. Prize shortlists can circumnavigate that, and when they do, it’s very moving and exciting; it sends a message to more experimental writers, often working away on the margins for a very long time, that their work can and should reach readers along with the books that have poster campaigns, or in-store promotions and so on.

Tell us about your first author event.
I think the first was a late night at Greenwich Book Festival in 2016 – it was a showcase (showdown) between literary frenemies Influx Press and my publishers, Galley Beggar Press. I read from a handful of A4 pages in front of a group of highly discerning writers and small press publishers. It was terrifying, but afterwards I heard that some of them gave the Galley Beggars a nod, as if to say they had backed a good’un. That felt like the beginning of something – becoming part of a loose confederation of people who love radical writing and beautifully made books, almost above everything else.

What are you working on now – and how different is the experience from writing your debut novel?
Finishing the novel has given me the confidence to tackle the story I’m working on now. It’s very personal, and I know it’s going to be tough to research. I’m going to have to step up my craft and focus my skills to get it right. I remember that feeling from beginning We That Are Young, but this is different: I’ve proved to myself that I can go a certain distance technically, so I’m not completely starting from nothing. I’ve also faced the machine and survived. The next thing is going to be wild.