12 April 2022

Amita Parikh: ‘The most fun is when a story is taking shape and I can use my imagination to my heart’s content’

Photography by Helen TanseyPhotography by Helen Tansey
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Amita Parikh took our six-month Writing Your Novel course in 2014. Her debut novel The Circus Train has sold in multiple territories, it was published by HarperCollins Canada earlier this year and is already a Canadian bestseller. This magical debut is to be published by Putnam in the US and Little, Brown in the UK.

We caught up with Amita to find out more about her time studying with us and the inspiration behind The Circus Train.

You studied on our six-month Writing Your Novel course in 2014, how did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?

Getting accepted onto the six-month selective entry course was a gamechanger for me. I’d previously applied to the merit-based courses with CBC twice and hadn’t gotten a spot. But I’m quite stubborn and if I want something, I keep trying.

Fortunately, third time really was the charm for me. Being on the course forced me to treat writing as a career. Even though all of us had full-time jobs, we all showed up two nights a week and completed homework at the weekends. The time commitments meant not being able to do every leisure activity I may have liked. I remember cancelling my social media accounts because I knew I couldn’t have any distractions. I only reinstated some of them after I got a book deal. Solitude truly is a writer’s best friend.

So really, I think the biggest thing I learned was how to treat writing as a job. It’s easy to write when you’re feeling inspired. It’s much harder when you’ve just got off a delayed tube ride home, it’s raining out, and all you want to do is watch mindless tv. But I promised myself I would get into a routine of writing a bit every day. And the course really helped with that.

The last thing I’ll say is that because it did cost money (I spent a year saving up for the course), I was like ‘I better not quit until it pays off.’

What’s one piece of advice from your tutor Erin Kelly that’s stuck with you?

Oh gosh, there is so much – I still have my notes and Erin’s handouts and I refer to them to this day – but definitely the bit where she said, ‘Writing doesn’t necessarily get easier.’ I remember asking if it would feel different when I was published or had an agent – you know, all the milestones that make you think you’ve ‘made it’. But after the buzz and high of reaching those goals, it’s just you at a desk, alone. And you’ve got to start from scratch every single time.

I remembered that and now the blank page is my favourite part. I find so much joy in the process. Truly, the most fun bit for me is when a story is taking shape and I can use my imagination to my heart’s content.

Many of our students find a real community on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Yes, I am very lucky to be in touch with a few. Rachael Revesz, Laura Evans, Rachel Greene Taylor and I formed a writing critique group. Soon after the course finished, I would meet Rachael in the Starbucks on Conduit Street on Tuesday nights and we’d sit in the basement and write together after work. I bloody loved it, one of my most favourite memories of all time.

We’re all scattered everywhere geographically now, but we still meet on Zoom. We’ve been doing that for five years. We cheer each other on, exchange extracts of manuscripts and give feedback. They’re a lifeline, to be honest. They read so many drafts of The Circus Train and are a huge part of why I even got a book deal. I’m very lucky to have so many wonderful, supportive friends, but fellow writers are different breed. They understand what you’re going through and so it’s been helpful to have them around. They’ve listened to the lows but are also there for the highs.

I’ve also exchanged emails from time to time with other writers. Seeing my fellow classmates Caz Frear and Jenny Quintana succeed was very motivating. I hop on Zoom calls with Katherine Lim, too. My classmates are a lovely bunch. I’m really looking forward to being in London for the UK launch of my novel and hope to catch up with a bunch of them.

One of my other fond memories in the course was going to the pub after class. I think it may have been called The Three Crowns but I can’t be sure. But that was so much fun, we always had the best time and ate a lot of crisps (or at least I did). The journey is really the best part.

The Circus Train tells the story Lena Papadopoulos, wheelchair user and daughter of a renowned Greek illusionist, who lives with a travelling circus that moves across Europe. Can you tell us a bit more about your debut and the inspiration behind it?

Wow, where do I begin. This story changed so much over the course of the six years it took to get an agent and book deal and then it changed again during the two years between deal and publication day. I always knew how the book would start and how it would end. But the in-between part was a real struggle. However, I knew there were certain things I wanted to have in it. I knew I wanted to write about a young girl interested in medicine. Lena always had that passion. I like the contrast between her father’s interests, which were so fantastical, and Lena’s passion for logic, order and science. The magic part was always in it, too, as was Alexandre’s character (although he had a different name). 

As for the wheelchair part – Lena has polio, so that’s why she uses one. In university, I studied science and one of my courses delved into the history of vaccine development. I learned so much, not only about how the polio vaccine was developed, but also how the virus affected children and what types of methods were used to help alleviate symptoms before the mass vaccine rollout. I found it fascinating and I guess I filed it away for future use. I didn’t know then that I would use it in a book, but here we are. I’ve also spent a large part of my life working with individuals with special needs and volunteering at a children’s hospital. While the conversations around disability and inclusion have changed so much, the reality is that many people still face discrimination. I wanted to highlight a bit of that. At the end of the day, everyone wants to be treated with respect.

Funnily enough, the train part didn’t come into the picture until a few years after I had written the book. I wasn’t getting anywhere with agents and so had to make the hard choice to change the story and settings. It was painful at the time, but it worked out in the end.

The Circus Train was published by HarperCollins in Canada and will be out with Putnam in the US in Dec 2022 and by Little, Brown in the UK in 2023. How does it feel to be a published author?

Surreal. I went into a bookshop with my family in Canada to see the book for the first time and it was such an amazing feeling. The book came out in translation in Italy first, which is not normal. But it has been amazing seeing it out there in pictures and getting messages from readers who are touched by Lena’s, Alexandre’s and Theo’s stories. That’s the best part, getting reader messages, who are so moved by the story. It never gets old. I cherish each and every one.

Which book do you always recommend to others?

Oh dear I’m afraid I don’t have one that I always recommend. I guess The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is the one I recommend most. That book is like my gold standard. I’ve accepted I won’t ever write like Michael Chabon. It is just a triumph of the imagination.

What does your typical writing routine look like?

Like most writers, I work full-time and fit writing in around that. But I’ve come to love it. I think I work better that way because when you only have 45 minutes to write, you just focus and get it done. That being said, it is tiring, and I’ve had to learn to take breaks for weeks at a time.

Usually, I’ll be up by 5:30am. 6am at the latest. I am a big, big fan of meditation. It really helps me get set for the day and I credit it with improving my writing. Then I write and pack it in by about 8am It’s not a lot, but all those sprints eventually add up to a full book.

What advice would you like to share with the aspiring authors reading this?

I was going to say ‘Don’t give up’ but I think ‘Don’t be a victim’ is better. It’s easy as a writer to think that everything is stacked against you. That agents who reject you are mean or don’t have good taste. Same with publishers and editors. Writing is so subjective and so personal, it’s hard not to take these types of things to heart. I’ve seen writers blame things on external circumstances and my experience has been that that never works for anyone. It’s like drinking poison and hoping someone else suffers. Yes, there is luck and timing involved. But there is also a great deal writers can do to give themselves a good chance of success. I’m not saying it’s easy – I had tons of rejections, too – but I didn’t blame anyone for them.

One thing I’ve always tried to do is be objective. At the end of the day, traditional publishing is a business. Publishers need to make money. It’s not only about writing the most gorgeous prose – have you worked on the plot enough? Is the pacing good? Are your characters too one-dimensional? I really do think about those things a lot.

Also, just because you have an agent, it doesn’t mean your book will sell. I wish more authors knew this or talked about it. Everyone thinks once you get an agent, the hard part is done. That’s not true. I know many people who are agented, and their books didn’t sell. It’s so heart-breaking because you feel like you’re right there.

For me, I was lucky. It sold quite quickly in Canada, but then actually it didn’t sell in the US, which is the biggest territory I think, immediately. It was another year before it sold there. I’m being honest about that because we see so many deals that say ‘Sold in a bidding war for seven figures.’ I’m so happy when those things happen because this slog is so hard. If someone can get the money, go get it!! I’m genuinely happy! But it’s not normal. I want authors to know it’s not normal and to know they’re not a failure because they didn’t get a six-figure deal overnight.

Finally, what’s next for you and your writing journey?

I am writing book two, which is historical fiction with a magical twist. And I have a psychological thriller that’s done but that I need to make some final edits on – I actually took Erin’s short course on thriller writing for that (Writing a Psychological Thriller). I do have a couple of other books in the works but can’t say too much more yet. All I know is, I love to create and as long as I’m here, that’s what I want to keep doing.


Pre-order the UK edition of The Circus Train (out 2023).

Pre-order the US edition of The Circus Train (out 2022).

Find Amita online by visiting her website or following her on Twitter.

back to Blog

Our Courses

online

Plot & Story – The Deep Dive

25 May – 22 Jun
FOUNDATION
Starting to Write Your Novel
online

Starting to Write Your Novel

23 Jun – 04 Aug
FOUNDATION
online

Write to the End of Your Novel

23 Jun – 04 Aug
FOUNDATION
online

Edit & Pitch Your Novel

23 Jun – 04 Aug
FOUNDATION
london

Writing Your Novel – Six Months

01 Jun – 07 Dec
online & on zoom

Edit & Pitch Your Novel – Advanced

07 Jun – 21 Oct