Saturday, December 29, 2012

A Girl Called Alice

There are two things every writer yearns to do. First, to connect with readers through his or her work in a way that books cease being simply the product of the writer’s imagination, but something that readers help shape and create through their feedback and interest. Second, to work on books which seem to write themselves, where coming up with ideas and writing, far from being a drudgery, is such a delight that it feels like the book is writing itself- and the writer merely provides a means to do so.

I count myself fortunate to have experienced both through my Alice in Deadland books. Sometime in mid 2011, I began writing Alice in Deadland, set in a post-apocalyptic Delhi known simply as the Deadland, where human survivors struggle for survival against hordes of undead creatures called Biters and mercenaries unleashed by a tyrannical Central Committee seeking to enslave all remaining humans. I tried to weave a tale about a young girl coping with the discovery of her destiny in a post-apocalyptic land and through her adventures, understand the true nature of the evil that threatens our freedom. In a nod to a favourite author of mine, I tried to build in some elements of Lewis Carroll’s work. So Alice follows a bunny eared Biter down a hole in the ground, triggering off her epic adventure and her quest to discover what really brought about The Rising- the catastrophic events that destroyed human civilization as we know it.

When I uploaded the Kindle version of Alice in Deadland to Amazon, I was blown away by the reception. More than 50,000 readers bought the book in the first three months, and Alice in Deadland went on to become the #1 Horror and Sci-Fi bestseller on Amazon. More than the sales, what was amazing was the extent to which it connected with readers. In those first three months, I received more than two hundred reader emails, appreciating my work, describing how it struck a chord given the times we live in, and finally, telling me to continue the story. I had never planned to make a series of it, but as more and more readers wrote in, asking what happened next to Alice, asking what the back story of some of the key characters was, I got to work on the series. Through The Killing Glass (Book II) and Off With Their Heads (a prequel) were next, and I have just finished Book III, titled Hunting the Snark. The mere fact that the book has spawned a series that currently stands at four books is to a large extent due to the encouragement I got from readers to continue the series, but the role readers played in it goes much deeper.

 Some six months after uploading Alice in Deadland, I started a Facebook group, and over the last year or so, one of my most cherished achievements as a writer has been the direct interaction with readers this group has enabled. Through this group, I have got readers to help me on names (the title Off With their Heads came from a reader), suggest what they would like to happen next and also take that interaction into the `real’ world (one reader baked `Biter biscuits’ for a book club reading where she shared Alice in Deadland). I haven’t met any of these readers in the `real’ world, but now they feel not like distant readers who are statistics on a sales or royalty report, but individuals I know, who are friends and partners in my writing process, and our relationship goes beyond just the books I write. When my father fell ill and passed away in May 2012, many of the readers kindly wrote in to give me strength and to share in my grief.

This is what writing should be- a writer creating his work not in a vacuum, but with the constant interaction, interplay and feedback from readers in real time. Where readers and writers interact on a one on one basis to create work that delights both of them, and writing, far from being a drudgery, is something one wakes up each morning charged up to do. Now having written four books in the series, Alice is more than a character in a book I once created- she feels like a real friend, someone I have a long history with, and someone who has introduced me to some amazing people (my readers).

I consider myself lucky to have experienced this, and no matter what I go on to write in the future, or what lies in store for my writing career, Alice in Deadland will always have a very special place in my heart for enabling this. As a small tribute to my readers, in Hunting the Snark most of the key characters who join Alice on her new quest are modeled on readers from this Facebook group. These readers helped give me the strength and encouragement to breathe life into a girl called Alice, and now they get a chance to join her on her latest adventure.

Along the way, Alice also helped me get closer to one of my all time favourite authors. I had built in references to some of Lewis Carroll's work in my Alice books, and now, Alice in Deadland is featured in the official website of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America.

What’s exciting is that Alice’s story is far from fully told. She is set to help me meet many more new readers. In January 2013, the Turkish translation will be released by Elf Yayinlari and Alice goes back to the country where the story was set with the release of the Indian paperback edition by Duckbill. I look forward to Alice introducing me to many new readers and to us continuing to breathe life together into this girl called Alice and her adventures.