Fiction co-editor Kathrin Hutson recently had this exchange with Issue #48 fiction author Prisha Mehta. Here’s what Prisha had to say about the submission process, the revision process, her approach to narrative style, and more.
You are currently a junior in high school and already have an impressive list of short stories and poetry published with various online journals and magazines. Did you enter high school knowing this was something you wanted to do?
Yes, definitely. I’ve been writing since I was seven, and I’ve known that I wanted to pursue it as a career since I was twelve. By the time I got to high school, I had quite a few pieces lying around, and it felt natural to start putting myself out there and submitting to journals. It was kind of amazing to be published for the first time and realize that people other than my parents and my teachers were actually reading my work.
We hear so much about writers balancing their writing time with “work and family life.” You’ve given us an excellent opportunity to ask this from a different perspective. How do you balance your writing time with school, friends, and other hobbies?
It’s always been tough to balance school with other pursuits. I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my schoolwork, so I tend to prioritize next week’s history test over the short story that I want to finish. To counterbalance that tendency, I try to dedicate every Saturday to my writing. That system worked really well up through sophomore year, but more recently, the sheer volume of work has made it difficult to commit to such a rigid schedule every week. That being said, I still write as often as I’m able. Plus, right now, with school shut because of the coronavirus and distance learning protocols in place, I have a lot more time on my hands than I usually do, so I’m hoping to channel more of my energy towards doing what I really love.
Tell us about your writing process. Is there anything you must have with you when you sit down to write? Do you try to get a certain amount of writing in per day/week, or do you wait for inspiration to strike and follow its lead?
I’ve heard some writers say that they need to do their first drafts the old-fashioned way, pen and paper. That isn’t the case for me; I almost always start my pieces on my laptop. Revision is a different story, though – when creating a second draft, I like having a paper copy of the first draft and marking it up in pen. Waiting for inspiration to strike has never really worked for me; I think it’s important to write as regularly as possible, even if what you’re writing isn’t inspired or even particularly good. Writing well takes practice; if you don’t keep exercising the muscle, you won’t be able to use it if and when inspiration does hit you.
How much of this story, if any, is based on your own personal experiences?
I think we all struggle with questions of identity and purpose as we grow up, and I think we all try to find a balance between who we were as kids and who we’re becoming as adults. I also think that at some point or another, most of us have lost ourselves on the path to self-discovery. Those parts of the story definitely resonate with my own experiences with adolescence and young adulthood.
What do you hope people take away from reading “Coming Home”?
I’d like readers to look at “Coming Home” as a story about transformation, self-discovery, growth, and, above all, the complexity of love.
What compelled you to write this story, especially in the narrative style of jumping quickly through the most poignant moments of the character’s life?
The idea for this story popped into my head on a Saturday afternoon, when my parents and I were driving into New York City. A lot of the themes of “Coming Home,” like self-discovery and transformation, had been swirling around in my mind during the previous weeks, and on that car ride, something just clicked. I usually have an idea of who my characters are and where they’re going before I start a story, but with this one, everything developed organically as I wrote. I began with the image of a girl in a crib, and then I let her tell me where she needed to go. The narrative style of jumping through time has been in place since that first draft; in the moment, it just felt like the most natural way to approach her story. It let her tell me who she was and who she was becoming instead of the other way around. Instead of laying out her path, I let her find it for herself, one year at a time.
Your story, “Coming Home,” like much of your other work, approaches a wide range of current issues in the world—from a teenager’s perspective and with a maturity and insight that really hits home. What are your thoughts on writers using their voices for social justice in these times, specifically younger writers in high school or just starting college?
I think it’s essential. There’s a lot going on in the world right now, and I think young writers are in a unique position. In them, the energy, passion, and unique perspective of youth combine with the reflective and storytelling qualities of the literary profession. I truly believe that telling stories is one of the most effective ways of humanizing issues and bringing about social change.
Who are some of your favorite authors, books, or series and why? How much do they influence your own work?
Where do I even begin? Stylistically, I really admire Hemingway. I first read him in eighth grade, and his short stories in particular had a huge impact on my approach to imagery and brevity at the time. I’m not sure why, but post-WWI “Lost Generation” literature tends to resonate with me a lot, as does post-WWII existentialism. I also love Virginia Woolf’s brilliant A Room of One’s Own, which inspired me to try my hand at creative nonfiction and essay-writing. As far as contemporary writers go, I really admire Jhumpa Lahiri, Ocean Vuong, Salman Rushdie, and Alice Munro.
As a writer of both fiction and poetry, do you feel that working with these two genres affect the way you write in each? Do you prefer one over the other?
For sure. I’ve heard it said that fiction operates on the level of the paragraph while poetry operates on the level of the word. Writing poetry has definitely made me more aware of how even the smallest syntactical and rhetorical choices can transform how a piece reads, and writing fiction gives me a better sense of narrative structure and cohesion when it comes to poetry. I love both genres, but I’m definitely a fiction writer at heart; I think my writing style lends itself a little better to prose. Right now, my favorite form of expression is short story.
What has the process of submitting your work for publication been like? Do you have any pointers for young writers (or those of any age just starting out on their writing journey) when it comes to the submission process?
To sum it up? Lots and lots of rejection letters. When you start submitting your work, I think it’s important to go in expecting to be rejected. It’s inevitable, and it happens to every writer. In On Writing, Stephen King actually recommends starting a collection of rejection slips to ward off discouragement. If you keep reading, keep writing, keep seeking feedback, and, above all, keep believing in your work, you’ll get your voice out there.