Hema Sukumar

X: @hema_sukumar

Instagram: @hemasukumarwrites

Agent: Diana Beaumont

Agency: Marjacq Scripts

Website: www.marjacq.com

Check out our #Agent121 page to book your own appointment.

Hema Sukumar

Found her agent from an #Agent121

I wanted to say a BIG thank you to you both for arranging your Agent121s – I met my agent Diana Beaumont through your service and I am very thankful for the part you’ve played in taking me closer to my dreams of being a published author.”

Why did you decide to write a book?

I had a love of books growing up and I used to submit stories to children’s magazines in India. My first story was about a dinosaur eating the ships that crossed the Bermuda Triangle. My stories used to be a bit geeky! I have an aptitude for math and science, so I stepped away from writing while I was studying engineering. Then I got a job that involved a lot of travel and I felt compelled to write about the interesting places that I went to with my job, and that’s when I started writing about travel and submitting them to magazines in India and some of them were published which was a good confidence boost.

Then I used to have a blog. It was 2010 and everyone had a blog and friends would comment on articles. It was good practise to write thoughts down and have a go at some poetry.

I think around six years ago, I took a three-month sabbatical between jobs and wanted to do a project that was personally satisfying. I wanted to access the creative side of myself and I also like to paint which helps me feel more creatively nourished so I did some painting and some writing. That led me to writing a draft of this book in those three months.

When I started, I was away from Chennai, my hometown, and this book is based in Chennai. Because I was away, I was feeling nostalgic and kept writing about the food and the daily life there. And it was during the pandemic that I started getting it to a point where I thought it could actually be a book.

Can you tell us about your book?

It’s called Minor Disturbances at Grand Life Apartments. It follows the lives of three residents who live in an apartment block optimistically named Grand Life Apartments in the city of Chennai in South India. It explores how the residents navigate the turbulence in their lives and also come together when the apartments come under threat. It’s life-affirming, and funny, and happens in a place that you don’t typically see in mainstream publishing.

Some feedback I had said, “Reading it can make you hungry!” And I admit there is a lot of focus on food, which I enjoyed writing.

Yes, we have seen on your Twitter feed that you’ve got your book next to lots of lovely Indian dishes!

Yes, I actually heard from a reader in Japan who felt compelled to go and find one of the dishes in their local Indian restaurant and take a photo of the book next to it, which really made my day!

The cover is lovely. Was it always going to be the apartments on the front?

I was sent a rough sketch and I loved it because I think having the apartment and the words was similar to how I had imagined it. It was a little interactive as I gave feedback on what the people could be doing. There are usually clothes flying on the terrace when you go to Chennai.

Did you write about the apartments and Chennai from your memory as you are currently in England or have you been back since?

I spent 18 years in Chennai and then university in the north of India. I used to go back quite often. So I could write from memory and didn’t have to do research or go back. But when I did, I found things that you think of as normal over there, like a funeral van being parked in front of your house with a guy in the street hustling for business! In England that would be absurd so that perspective of moving away and going back and viewing things with different eyes definitely influenced me and I brought those elements into the book.

Did you always have the same title for the book?

I had a different title when I started out: The Belief Shop, and it was actually an agent that asked why it was called this. They said as it is a funny, quirky book you should have a funny, longer title. When I spoke to another agent, they said they liked the current title better. So, it was actually feedback from an Agent121 that helped me change the name!

From our records, we can see that it was the 15th of June 2021 that you had your Agent121 with your current agent.

Yes, I think I had about 4 or 5 Agent121s with you, which were all helpful. It is an extremely useful thing to do. I haven’t done a Masters in writing and didn’t have people to give me feedback, except friends and family. I found the agent feedback super insightful and one of the most useful things you could do to improve your book.

And the agents took it very seriously. Even when I met with Diana Beaumont, who ultimately signed me, I still remember some of the feedback she gave me during the session. One of it was ‘make the building a character of the book’. Even if she hadn’t signed me, three or four things she said during the session really changed the narrative and made the book much better. I think one of the most useful things you can do to improve your book is to speak with agents who are experts in the field. Agents read so many books and really understand what makes a story work.

How many agents did you submit to before finding your agent?

Diana would have been my eighteenth. When I did my first round, I didn’t hear back much at all, and I think that is normal. There was one who asked for the full and gave me some feedback, which kept me going. I also did a Guardian Masterclass on writing a cover letter, which was really useful.

How did you find writing your synopsis?

This was more tricky, as my book has multiple points of view. I think many agents look at the sample first, before moving to the synopsis. I would say make sure the first page of your sample really stands out.

When you pitched it to Diana, did you pitch it as commercial fiction?

I was pitching it as upmarket fiction as previous feedback said it didn’t quite fit as commercial fiction.

In my first #Agent121 they asked for the full manuscript, and I thought this was it! They passed on it in the end but gave some incredible feedback and so I stopped querying for a while and continued improving the book so that it had a better chance.

I think it’s also very important to add that you should do a lot of research on the agent before booking an #Agent121. There is no point sending it to 50, when only half of them look at your genre. Are they the right fit for your book? Do they represent similar authors? There needs to be a 5% chance that they could like your book.

How long was it from 15th of June 2021 until you signed?

Diana asked for the full and was reviewing it and giving feedback, so I wanted to incorporate that before I continued querying. It took another five to six months before signing with her. I think it was almost a test of the working relationship to see what I did. I have a full-time job, so it took maybe three or four months to incorporate the feedback and I sent it to her in September/October time. And then she almost immediately signed me. It wasn’t an isolated process either. She kept in contact throughout the time I was making the changes.

Who is your publisher?

Coronet Publishing at Hodder & Stoughton. Melissa Cox was the one who signed me.

To get an idea of the timeline, you signed with Diana in September 2021 and then it came out in July 2023? Were there more edits to do with Melissa?

Yes, because I’m not a professional writer I was grateful for people giving feedback and with someone like Melissa who’s published so many great books, if she told me that we should improve this paragraph I took it seriously and also felt like I agreed with a lot of her feedback. I felt completely aligned and in sync with what Melissa recommended.

I think it was from March to July that I did the edits. Then there was a lot of lead time. Publishers need time to give the proof to other authors and arrange the publicity, so it is a process that takes a while.

Did you come up with the characters first or did you have the idea for the story and then fill in the characters afterwards?

I began with the characters and a kind of slice of life situation. It was only later that I tried to work out a plot. That is a lesson I learned for my second book, to plot better. So the characters came first and what they did, then came the plot and the relationship between them.

One of your characters is an engineer. Is this based on you?

It is actually very common for a middle-class Indian family to have a girl study either engineering or medicine. They are lucrative fields and there is always socio-economic mobility in play. They are also very respectable professions so it’s a very common story. So that is a reason why I made her an engineer as it is the most representative of someone in her position.

Would any of your family members recognise themselves in any of your characters? Have you based them on anyone you know?

I didn’t consciously do it, but there were snapshots of dialogue that stick in my mind, so I wrote it down. My parents don’t usually read in English, but my dad read the book and was upset that my mum is in the book but not him! I don’t think that was the case, but I had some feedback from family members saying the female characters were similar to people we know, which again, I didn’t do consciously. I would say it was definitely influenced by the people I knew growing up.

Your characters also span several age ranges. Did you do this intentionally?

I thought the problems you have are often different when you are at different ages. So having Kamala at an older age hopefully locked in the comfort that friendship brings in middle age as well, which I also see with my folks back home.

It’s community-led, isn’t it, living within this same residence?

It is, and at its core it is about relationships. The push and pull of mothers and daughters, the comfort of friendship in middle age, and finding yourself in a new place and how you view the world.

How did you find writing in multiple narrative?

I really enjoyed it because it meant I got to lose myself in that person’s world for a while and then could switch when I needed a break. I enjoyed getting into different perspectives and because of the experiences that make us who we are, we see the world a little differently, so it was interesting to see how someone like Jason who had never been to India would react to a certain situation compared with Kamala who’s grown up there.

So, for your second book, are you writing in multiple narrative again or would you like to try something in first person?

I’m trying to write from one person’s point of view, set between Chennai and London because I want a location change. The idea is still percolating but I do want it to be different from the first book and I want to lose myself in that world. You spend so much time writing that I want to make sure it is in a place I like.

Were you given advice on how to promote your book?  Did they say you need a website or to make sure you’re on social media?

Melissa connected me with one of her authors, Kate Sawyer, who was super helpful. She was generous with her experience and what she learned which I thought much more useful than a specific To Do List. My experience has been to do as much or as little as you like, because time is quite precious and I don’t think me tweeting every five minutes is going to help. I think it’s word of mouth that will be the thing that helps.

How do you build in time to write around working full time?

I try to write early in the morning. I feel that writing first thing helps your brain get into the day. I think I would need to take some time off work to make any significant progress with the book. You need a continuous amount of time to sit with it and put it into shape. I think the edits can be done in mornings and weekends because you have clear direction of what is needed, but when you are writing the book you need to spend a lot more time thinking about what works and what doesn’t. You treat it like a job, at least for a small time.

Have you ever suffered with writer’s block?

I don’t think I would call it writer’s block but there have been periods where I have not felt inspired. You need to feel inspired to write. I think it’s quite human when you’re in the middle of a draft and think the story is going nowhere for it to feel a bit overwhelming and you start to wonder who wants to read this anyway? I think doing something else that is creative also helps, like painting.

Your book was the stellar book for August in the Good Housekeeping magazine. That is amazing!

Liking a book is very subjective so it was very lucky that this gentle, quiet book was picked out by Good Housekeeping magazine. It is lovely that people found it charming an enjoyable and I am very grateful that it has been featured several times, even though it was not a heavily publicised book.

Is there anything you wish you had known before you started writing?

I would say that having patience is very important. Get it right, rather than trying to do it fast. Take your time.

X: @hema_sukumar

Instagram: @hemasukumarwrites

Agent: Diana Beaumont

Agency: Marjacq Scripts

Website: www.marjacq.com

Check out our #Agent121 page to book your own appointment.