Making up the rules

My first ever rejection letter came when I was eight and it was written by Sarah Walker telling me why I could not be in her gang; “you ain’t got no friends ‘ere skinny,” was one of the reasons so eloquently stated. I remember going home, howling inconsolably and then going back to school the next day and setting up my own gang. Granted, it consisted of the rejects who were the last to be picked at games, i.e. Fatima and myself, but at least I had a gang and I learnt that if no one wants you to play by the rules in their gang, you make up your own. It was second nature then, when twenty years later, after being rejected by nearly every major publisher, I set up my own publishing and PR Company to produce and promote my first novel Gypsy Masala.

Gypsy Masala was a story written in my twenties about doing what you really want to do in life and following your dreams. I clearly wasn’t doing either, working as a management consultant in the City. I had always wanted to be a writer but my mum and dad considered it “the hobby”, having sacrificed so much by staying in England just to give my brother and I an education. At every opportunity, the old story came out about my dad having no shoes and having to walk twenty miles to school, together with the fact that when I was about six, my dad had spent an entire three months’ pay package and got into debt buying the Encyclopaedia Britannica so we could have a better start.

So I wrote secretly every morning before going to work and then, after three years, I decided naively to take a leap of faith. I handed in my notice. Just before doing this, I was avidly packing jiffy bags with my manuscript and pre-paid envelope and sending it off to publishers hoping that leaving work would coincide with being snapped up by one of them. It was not to be. The first jiffy bag came back with a “Thank you Preachy but no thank you” note. The fact that they had called me “Preachy” sent niggling doubts as to whether it had ever been read but I tried to remain optimistic as my leaving day loomed.

It was raining the day I left and instead of being elated, I remember crying on the tube home and only to arrive back to more rejections. “Good day at work?” My dad asked, and instead of telling him that I had left to become a bestselling author, I imagined him walking twenty miles with no shoes and replied, “Yes, good, we got a new client.” I went to bed that night in tears. The following day, I pulled myself together, put on a suit and pretended to go to work.

What I actually did was go to the library. I came up with this plan to self-publish and as the week progressed I got more and more excited by this idea and told my friends and family that I was going freelance. Taking the deposit I was saving for my flat, I found a printer and together we sat and designed my novel Gypsy Masala. My publishing company, which was a PO Box faraway in Northampton, was called “NineFish” and I told everyone that I had been signed up by them.

At this stage, I realised that PR was fundamental but having invested £9,000 into my first print run, I had no money left. There was no alternative but to set up my own PR agency. That was how Pru Menon, my alter ego, publicist and Director of the Creative House was born – out of sheer necessity. I got two of everything: email addresses, phone lines, fax numbers – and began hyping myself shamelessly.

It was a nightmare to begin with and my incompetence was evident, what with me stammering all over the place, but somehow I fumbled my way through and by the end of three months’ hyping, it was almost a slick operation. I could even change voices effortlessly, depending upon which phone was ringing. And yes, when I wasn’t busy, there were pangs of guilt at all the deceit but this made me work even harder.

After securing a modest number of interviews, I remember happily driving up to Northampton as I went to collect my books from the printers. My parents had invited a group of friends to our house for the homecoming but as soon as they began congratulating me, this little voice inside my head said, “Look at p.179.”

Chapter 13 began on p.179. It was absolutely blank. I was horrified – you can’t sell a book short of a page, even if it is indicative of the author’s state of mind. I panicked while trying to appear composed, and when the guests had gone, I went upstairs and broke down. The media were waiting for books; it had taken me months to set up and if the books weren’t delivered on time they would move on to someone else’s work. After getting the printer to admit that it was his fault, and being told it would take weeks to rectify, I asked him to courier me 3,000 copies of p.179 so I could “Prit stick” them in, and this is what I did. Coming up with a reason why the house was full of books is difficult I can tell you but looking at the surplus copies gave me yet another idea: I decided to exhibit at the London Book Fair.

But, in the midst of all of this, there was the book launch to organize. Being stopped by two policemen and asked to explain how I came to be driving a blue Fiesta crammed with an African dancer (long story but symbol of a dream – theme of the book), four musicians and a huge drum which was seat belted to me or trying to explain to my mother why her entire wardrobe of saris was hanging from the restaurant ceiling was not easy either.

The stress of it all became too much for me to handle. At breaking point I had to confess the whole story to two of my closest friends. It was an enormous relief and despite thinking it was madness, they offered to be Directors of my PR and Publishing companies on my stand at the London Book Fair. Amazingly, it was at the Book Fair that things really started happening: while the big publishers were giving out leaflets, NineFish were giving out books.

When press articles started to appear, there were no books in shops. I had overlooked the entire distribution network, assuming that copies would magically appear on the shelves. It doesn’t work like that! Publishers’ sales reps go into bookshops six months in advance of publication date to “sell in” their books. Rapidly, I had to learn the art of door-to-door selling, so armed with a travelcard, I pounded round most of the bookshops in London and pleaded with store managers to stock my title. A few of them looked at me with a strange expression and sent me packing. Others actually read it – and placed orders.

When it all came together, when one book shop alone sold over 2,500 copies, when Pru was bizarrely short-listed as Publicist of the Year, when interviews with the press coincided with other bookshops supporting me … there was the oil protest – an oil protest complete with a lorry blockade so that the books could not move from the warehouse as orders came in. Momentum, so hard to capture, had escaped me. Had two years of work come to nothing?

I was left to explain to my dad what I was doing in the Express with a headline saying “The double life of Preethi Nair,” All things considered, he took it surprisingly well.

Due to the press coverage, I thought that every publisher would be clambering at my door – but this was not the case. The phone was not ringing. Not surprisingly Pru and Preethi suffered an equal identity crisis. Exhausted, disheartened, jobless and in debt, I just wanted to give up. Then, at my lowest moment, I got a call from Lynda Logan, one of the original WI Calendar Girls whom I had met at the London Book Fair. I told her the whole story and she invited me to stay with them in the Dales. After getting to know them all, Tricia Stewart another one of the women suggest I contact her agent Diana Holmes.

Diana and I clicked instantly and we spent hours talking. She advised me to put all the Pru stuff behind me and to write about me, my experiences, my story.

I went back to the Dales and began working on my new novel 100 Shades of White. It poured out of me in six weeks and this was because for the first time someone had complete faith in me – Diana was my reader. We spent weeks together getting the manuscript right and then she took it to publishers.

100 Shades of White was sold as part of a three book deal to HarperCollins and the BBC have bought it for a 90 – minute adaptation. The Colour of Love, a fictionalized account of the whole adventure has just been published, along with a revised reissue of Gypsy Masala. The greatest irony probably is that for all the double life business, what worked for me was being me and forging amazing friendships. All these women now join Fatima as being amongst my closest friends.

And so I will end by saying dream big even if you don’t know the rules – and if no one wants to play, devise a different set, keep believing… and your gang will find you.

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