An Interview with Sunil Patel – Author of “Marcie’s Waffles Are the Best in Town”

Stanley Lee: So, let’s start at the beginning. When did writing become a regular part of your life? Was this something that you had aimed for since a young age or did you stumble into it in adulthood?

Sunil Patel: Writing was definitely in me since I was a kid. The first thing I remember writing was “The Disastrous Dino War.” In 3rd grade, there was a children’s book contest called “Written and Illustrated By.” I drew it all with markers. Growing up, I only wrote for contests or class. I didn’t even think to write for fun. That eventually changed. I finally wrote a story for the sake of writing it, and that’s where my Twitter handle, ghostwritingcow, comes from.

SL: Tell me about ghostwritingcow.

SP: It’s a variant of a name based on the video game ToeJam and Earl 2: Panic on Funkatron. In the game, there’s this ghostly cow that possesses your character and makes your character shake. I called it a “Polter-Cow” and thought it would be a fun story. There was no contest or assignment at the time. I just wanted to write the story. It came out to be 4,000 words. Quite long for high school.

SL: And how did you continue to develop your writing?

SP: I took creative writing classes in college and honed my craft, but it wasn’t anything I could consider doing professionally. I told my parents about it, and they thought that writing was a great hobby, but they asked, “What else do you want to do?”, you know? It’s a question that so many writers hear. All the same, I kept writing for many years and have been writing plays since I moved to the Bay Area.

SL: Why plays?

SP: I started writing short plays because the Bay Area theater community is very supportive of new writers. There are opportunities to get produced. So, I had this outlet (like a contest or class), and I had several things produced. My words! Performed by actors! The real catalyst for my writing career came during Worldcon in San Antonio, in 2013.

SL: What happened there?

SP: Well, Worldcon was my first fan-run convention, my first writer-focused con. It was there that I realized how supportive the SciFi community is. So, let me give some context. Creative writing classes force the genre out of you. I thought that if I wanted to be a writer I had to go LitFic all the way. I didn’t know how that would happen, didn’t know how I would break into that market, but when I went to Worldcon, I realized, “I read mostly SciFi and Fantasy, so why don’t I write SciFi and Fantasy? Here are Sci-Fi and Fantasy authors and they can tell me where to submit.” Here were authors who wanted new writers to come out. This was also when the Diversity in SFF conversation was going on. Saladin Ahmed, who wrote Throne of the Crescent Moon, had a reading and an hour-long slot, but he didn’t have an hour’s worth of reading so he said on his blog that he would use part of his time to give some exposure to a new writer of color. Well, I e-mailed him and said that I didn’t have a short story, but I did have a play about superheroes. So he read the stage directions and a couple of other people and I read the lines, and amazingly, it went well. I received great feedback from people who wanted more from me. I hadn’t been thinking about writing as a career, but now I had fans and exposure, and I knew I needed to capitalize on that. When I came back from Worldcon, it was near my birthday, September 12th, and I decided to make a birthday manifesto. By my next birthday, I would be a published author. Technically, I didn’t get published in that time, but I did make my first sale in that time. So much of this has been a strange combination of luck and hard work.

SL: After you came up with your birthday manifesto, what was the work and struggle like?

SP: So another thing that happened around the same time was that Julia Rios, who was co-editing Kaleidoscope, an anthology of diverse YA SciFi and Fantasy, encouraged me to submit. Well, it gave me something to write. I hadn’t written short fiction in 6 years, so I needed to put the training wheels back on. After years of writing plays, it was hard to have to write all the words, not just the dialogue! I tried to write as much as I could. I wasn’t writing every day but was writing when possible. I learned so much about writing from working on that project.

SL: And has it been consistent since then?

SP: The ideal work ethic is “write every day,” but I’ve only managed to adhere to that this year. Regardless, the only way to “find time” to write is to “make time.” I made a conscious decision to watch less television and say “no” to social events, because, well, the time had to come from somewhere. I challenged myself in February of last year to write a piece of flash fiction every day. Some pieces took two days. Although I didn’t emerge from the month with 30 first drafts, I did get 5 or 6. Not all were viable, but some of them were. I sold two of them!

SL: So, when I was preparing this interview, I was told that this is your first “non-Indian” sale. What does that mean and what can you tell me about your previous publishing history?

SP: I actually never wrote an Indian character before I began writing to submit. Everyone was, by default, white, because that was just the world I lived in. Most of the people I interacted with were white. Most of my friends were white. I just gave my characters a white name and went along with it, Susie or what have you. But if I was going to be Diversity in SFF, I was going to add diversity in SFF. After Worldcon, I had my first idea for a novel, about an Indian girl superhero. The story I wrote to submit to Kaleidoscope was based on my experiences as an Indian teenager. The story I wrote after that had Indian characters and I did it just for the hell of it. When I wrote the story for the anthology that was my first sale, it was based on Indian culture because I thought it would give me a leg up. What can I do that no one else, or not enough people, are doing? But then I’ve also had other sales where the only “Indian” aspect of the story is a character’s name. My first four sales all had Indian characters, and I had a huge complex about it because the ones that lacked Indian names did not sell.

SL: So what was it like selling “Marcie’s Waffles”?

SP: When “Marcie’s Waffles” sold, I was ecstatic. There was nothing Indian about it! And knowing that this story was read anonymously was incredibly validating. I worry about slush readers and editors seeing my name and having an unconscious bias: “Oh, we need some diversity.” But knowing that it was just the words on the page that got it to the top was encouraging.

SL: As someone who writes female characters and as someone who is a writer of color, do you feel any pressure or burden to be representative and a pioneer?

SP: I THINK ABOUT IT ALL THE TIME. I can’t describe how important of an issue representation is. There’s no argument – none – against the fact that the way people are represented in media influences how people see them and how they see themselves. We see how stereotypes lead to violence. Even before I tried to be published, I had a real angstapalooza about it. Every time I saw an Indian writer, the book was all about India. I couldn’t find a book by an Indian author that wasn’t super Indian. I felt like the only way I could write as an Indian was to write “Indian.” Now, I’m not the most Indian person in the world. Some people have a much richer understanding of the culture. I don’t want to mess up the representation but if I don’t do it, who will? Other writers may want to add an Indian character to their story, but they don’t have the same investment that I do. They didn’t grow up loving Christopher Pike novels because they always had Indian characters and Indian culture, which made me feel like I existed. But I don’t want to be pigeonholed into that kind of writer. In a way, that feels selfish, but I also don’t want to contribute to the idea that an Indian writer must write about Indian stuff.

SL: Who are your personal heroes in the field?

SP: Oh, where do I begin? Seanan McGuire. She’s just such a model for how to be an author. John Scalzi’s someone I look up to and not just because of his massive deal with Tor! When I discovered him, it was like he was writing what I, specifically, wanted to read. He’s well spoken on issues of social justice and politics and a model for how to be a good author and a good member of the community. Mary Robinette Kowal is another. She’s a wonderful writer, and I admire her dedication to teaching. I love Kameron Hurley’s open and honest discussions of publishing. N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon was the first time I read a fantasy book that had brown people in it. Usually, Indian characters were minor characters. But with that book, I had cognitive dissonance because I could not comprehend my experience. Brown people. As main characters. And one of my non-SFF heroes is Lorrie Moore, who I discovered in my creative writing classes. I admire her dry, sardonic wit and the way she explores characters.

SL: You are active on social media! Do you have any advice for less experienced writers on establishing a digital footprint and engaging with others on Twitter and Facebook?

SP: Well, one thing I do is I often ask for writing prompts on Twitter. “Marcie’s Waffles,” for example, came from a writing prompt on Twitter. Last June, some of us Bay Area writers formed a small writing community on Twitter, #baywriters. We did writing sprints on Twitter, where for 30 minutes, an hour, or another set of time, we all decided to write 1,000 words. The experience makes you feel like you’re not writing alone: “We’re going to do 1k in one hour!” During one of those sprints, a friend told me to write about “apocalyptic waffles,” which was an absurd turn of phrase but look, it turned into a story! Twitter is all about the interaction. It’s not about promoting yourself but sharing yourself. I have bought books because I liked the authors on Twitter. So, my advice? Make connections. Talk to editors and other writers, get advice from them. It’s just a big giant community that’s there as long as you engage with it. You won’t get much from it if you just Tweet your stuff and don’t have conversations. The best way to make use of Twitter is to go outside of your shell and have conversations, and that’s where the magic happens.

SL: Am I right in sensing an extrovert aura about you? A great percentage of the writers I’ve met are proud of their shells and would hate to abandon them, but it seems like you thrive in a group. Is writing a shared and communal activity for you or a more private and individual?

SP: I actually see myself as an ambivert, an introvert with extrovert tendencies. I really love talking with people who I enjoy, but sometimes I completely lose all my energy and feel like I need to go to a corner and hide. For me, writing is private and individual work, but sometimes I’ll attend writing parties where I get together with other writers for a few hours and write. Writing together gives accountability. We get together as a way to get away from the couch and the TV and the world of distractions. When you’re at these parties, you can’t sit there and be on Twitter. Everyone else is writing. And it’s a great way to bounce ideas off others. One time, I was listening to the conversation of my friends, and I just figured out a character’s motivation in a story I was stuck on.

SL: Now, for my last question, I want to ask you something that I ask all the writers I interview. You are being raptured. The comet Hale-Bopp is coming for you. Your mission is complete, and the mothership is calling you home. What advice do you have for up and coming writers?

SP: Use Submission Grinder.

SL: That’s it?

SP: That’s it. It’s an amazing website. It’s free. And it’s been an indispensable help in the process.