Leela Panikar writes fiction "when the cat isn't on the keyboard." She has lived in Vietnam, Malaysia and Wales, and has been in Hong Kong for 25 years. Unlike most writers, she had no desire to be a writer, until her mother needed full-time care. Leela gave up her antique shop and restaurant in 1999 to look after her mother and to write.
How far do you plan a book before beginning your writing?
Personally, I've never planned a book. I didn't plan to be a writer, I had no ambition. It just happened as a coincidence. All my writer friends all wanted to be writers and first started writing when they were five. I always wanted to be painter.
What would you say is your biggest weakness when it comes to writing?
In your opinion, what are the easiest mistakes to make while writing?
Repeating. Repeating something you've said before. Because you're so excited to get all the ideas out, you tend to forget that you've already said something. You look back on it and think "Hang on a minute, haven't I already said this in different words?"
What areas should a writer focus on while writing?
To finish the first draft and not to keep going back and polishing the beginning. It's a big mistake, and I kept making it at first and many writers I know do too. Say you write half a chapter. The next day you go over it and rewrite the whole thing, after which you only write five more sentences. Then the next day you go over it again and do it all over. You never get anywhere! So just keep going to the end.
When it comes to editing, how many drafts you do normally do?
Many. Many. So many I can't tell you! I just do it over and over. What I've been told is there comes a time where you just have to stop. You can never be really satisfied. In my experience, there comes a time when I just don't want to look at it again!
Do you find it easier to edit by yourself or have someone else help?
I keep editing myself, but there are some mistakes you make that you can't spot yourself, so you need a good editor.
Who is the first person you show your completed work to?
The person closest. I don't like to say "husband"! My mate, Don.
When you write, do you try to incorporate any symbolism?
No, I don't. I'm told I should, but no, I don't.
How do you create and plan and follow your characters?
The idea for characters… they just come to me. I don't copy the people I've met. It might be because I started writing at such a late age, so I have the experience.
What do you find to be your biggest motivation when you feel like giving up on a piece of writing?
I never feel like giving up. But I always find an excuse to do something else, like go for a walk, or read. Especially read.
What surprised you most as a writer? What's the best thing, and the worst?
What surprised me was that I could write! I look back on some things I've written and I think "I wrote that?" I've never thought of myself as good.
The best thing…it's the pleasure it gives you.
The worst thing is that you get addicted and you miss out on a lot of socializing.
Is there a certain time of day when you work best?
How easy was it to get published?
Not at all easy, not at all. These days, especially, you need an agent. Publishers have so little time and money that if you don't have an agent, then they don't want to see your work. Basically, you send an agent your work, and they'll see if they want to represent you. Then they also know which publishers would like your work. Publishing is very time consuming. It takes about a year to find a publisher, then it can take the publisher two years to get it out! So publishing can take one to three years.
What advice would you give to someone trying to get published?
Persevere. And make sure your writing is good! A lot of people think they're good, but they're not. I found out when writers, writers I have respect for, told me that my work was good.
Do you work a specific time every day, or just when you feel like it?
I'm trying now. It's what I said about discipline. Before I used to just write when I felt like it.
How do you find your ideas?
I can't say. It just comes from things I see, things I read. Observing and reading. Good ways to get ideas. Like an artist.
Do you think research is important?
Yes. I think it's very important, whether fiction of non-fiction. So it's important to research. You can't just say "Oh, it's fiction" and make it up. Fiction is the plot, not the actual things and places.
How do you research?
On the web. Google! I google everything. Sometimes I go to the library, but I get distracted with all the books.
How long does it take you to write a book?
That, I think, nobody can answer. It depends. Sometimes, you have two or three pieces going at the same time. So maybe the one you like best will be done in a year, but the other takes four.
If you could go back to when you wrote your first book, would there be anything you would do differently?
No. I prefer to move on. When I look back on the work, I can see what I would change, but there's so much inside me that I want to work on that it's not worth looking back.
Any last words?
Non-fiction sells. You can never live on fiction. So travel books, or writing for a magazine. Do what interests you. If it's fashion, write for fashion. Then that can be your bread and butter and you can write fiction.
2 July 2007