At 16, teenage girls obsess over that stubborn acne mark, grimace at their dental dentures, gloss over their latest crush, or simply indulge in some random frivolous gossip and then forget about it. What does a 16-year-old author do? They do all of these and then put them down in words. That’s the difference and that’s how authors are born—whether they are published or not.
In conversation with TC46, Divita Aggarwal, the published author of It Was Always You and other upcoming books, shares her advice and experiences of writing, guidance for aspiring writers, paving the way for young entrepreneurs, being the torchbearer for 3 NGOs, and much more.
1. What is your educational and professional background?
I am an experienced author, marketer, and entrepreneur with a keen interest in emerging brands and their entrepreneurial journeys. I have been a lifelong writer and first began creating other worlds and characters through my debut novel, at the age of 16 years. I focus on reading and writing non-fiction books, articles that lend palpable significance to relevant matters. As a writer and essayist, my writing has appeared in ScoopWhoop, SheThePeople, Live Wire, and LBB.
I was born and bred in New Delhi, and hold a degree in Economics from Ashoka University. I like to share my experience and help budding writers publish their works, through my Instagram. One of the most exciting projects I’ve been a part of was as Asia’s representative in LinkedIn’s global ad campaign.
2. What prompted you to start writing and become an author?
I was born with a skin disease called Ichthyosis Vulgaris (in this condition, one’s entire body is covered with fish-like scales and wrinkles). This affected my confidence when I was growing up and impacted the way I saw myself and how I interacted with those around me. I struggled to come to terms with what I was feeling. But, this changed when I first started writing. I was challenged by its demand for honesty and vulnerability. Curled up in my dorm room at boarding school, I started writing fiction and creating a world of my own. I think it was the difficulty of my situation that lent me the resilience to write and publish my first book. “It Was Always You” was published by Rupa Publications in February 2016.
3. Did you always want to become a writer?
Writing has always been like a first love, something I did for myself, and to make my heart feel better. I never perceived it as a profession. I hail from a business family and have always been fascinated with the idea of entrepreneurship—being accountable to yourself while creating impact. For that reason, I pursued Economics & Finance. Distracted but not far removed from my passion for writing, I didn’t stop exploring my interest in creative non-fiction under the guidance of some of the world’s most renowned professors (Aruni Kashyap, Aditi Sriram, and Saikat Majumdar).
The idea for my second book struck me when India’s first nationwide lockdown was imposed. In the process, I realised that sharing stories (mine or others’) is what excites me and I moved to the non-fiction space. Writing has always been the epicentre I found my way back to.
Last year, after I quit my stable job in the middle of the pandemic, I decided to merge my interest in entrepreneurship and passion for writing to create a platform that helps discover young writers. In 6 months, INBW (India’s Next Big Writer) has run two successful seasons, discovered and helped over 5000 writers, and has reached a community of over 50,00,000+ writers. I aim to help budding writers like myself find recognition through the platform.
4. What was your first milestone and how did you get there?
As mentioned before, It Was Always You, my debut novel, was published by Rupa Publications when I was 16 years old. It was appreciated at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and newspapers such as DNA. The book sold out its first print on Amazon and received appreciation from personalities such as Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Producers of NH7, senior lawyers as well as a vast pool of book reviewers.
Like every other writer, I started from a concept, an idea, a form, a question, and a (sub)genre. Not a character or a setting. I wrote what I knew and struggled with as a 16-year-old – fragile friendships, the anxiety of trying to fit in, and self-image. I made sure I didn’t write into nothing; I always had a destination in mind where I was directing my thoughts. I was definitely anxious about writing the book. It was very stressful. I was constantly returning to questions like is it too much, and should I be doing this. And it’s weird to imagine people I know reading it. Strangers, I didn’t mind. But the idea of an old classmate or a relative reading it, it’s strange. I didn’t love the idea.
I thought about quitting many times but ultimately concluded that I should do it; I had to do it. I broke my writing process down into bigger and smaller deadlines – and crossed them off as I achieved them. It became a routine I savoured. Initially, my writing schedule was tailored to my general schedule. But, as my (personal) deadline came closer, it slowly became the opposite. One piece of advice I constantly reminded myself of was: Don’t cancel, judge, or decide for your manuscript until it’s finished.
5. When did you start making money as an author?
It was soon after the book was available for purchase on Amazon, Flipkart, other e-commerce platforms as well as bookstores across the country. The release of the book created a wave for young, budding writers at school. A large number of juniors started reaching out to me, sharing their ideas, and seeking inspiration for the process. This was the turning point.
Every first-time author needs an initial push and receptiveness from an audience. Fortunately, friends, family, professors, and classmates sent a lot of support my way and aggressively circulated the book. When Amazon featured me, it opened the book up to reviewers. This had a major impact on its sales.
A few months after the release, I received my first royalty cheque. I still remember the day, because I used it to purchase my dream laptop.
6. Could you share more information about some of the books you’ve written?
While my first book was a work of fiction, I explored writing non-fiction with my second one.
Tentatively titled A World On Hold, the book is an upcoming non-fiction book that is the only one to bring together the diverse voices of people living through this monumental time in history. It pens down 20 stories of unparalleled bravery, courage, and optimism. It includes authentic narratives of frontline workers, migrant workers, Ms Vidya Balan (Indian Film Actor), Dr Shashi Tharoor (MP, Lok Sabha), Nonita Kalra (EIC, TataCliq), a gravedigger, and people from various spheres of life. In addition to delving into the emotional turmoils of individuals, the book highlights the impact on various industries such as healthcare, education, aviation, cinema, business, etc. It gives a comprehensive insight into both the first and the second waves of the pandemic. It will be published by Om Books Intl. later this year.
7. Could you share more details about your next big project?
I’m currently writing India’s first book celebrating “Women In War.” Across the armed services, women make up merely 0.5% of the active-duty 1.4 million army personnel as of 2021. Undoubtedly, this representation is small and marginally growing — and their stories tend to be less often told to make room for legacies left by men who have shaped the narrative of service to the country.
To be potentially published by a national publisher and adapted into an audio-visual format by an OTT platform, Women In War will detail stories of fearless women in defence who have excelled at jobs that once weren’t even open to them.
8. What are your tips for an aspiring writer who wants to get published?
On being a young woman writer: Women writers do feel that there are limited spaces for success and that if another woman succeeds, there’s no room for them to get great assignments or land a dream job. That’s a lie. Each work is different and learning from one another is what will truly help in the long run.
On writing non-fiction: When you write non-fiction, you are in control of the story. Marginalised groups often do not get the power to communicate or control their stories. Hence, writing non-fiction changes which voices are being heard. For example, a grave digger’s, a migrant worker’s, or a police officer’s voice is rarely heard. I wrote what I wanted to write about.
On writing your first book: Through the process, you will doubt yourself. Especially, if you are writing about a real-time event that you are not an expert in. In this case, use your standpoint as an outsider to the information available to you. Do your research. Trust yourself.
9. Could you share some information about the non-profit organisations you have founded?
Climate Foundation Of India (2020): Founded in June 2021, CFOI aims to make climate action accessible. Using inclusive, innovative technology is building a platform that lets an individual help the planet – from home. On World Environment Day, 2021, CFOI carried out its first tree plantation drive in partnership with Khadi India, the Ministry of Ayush, and the Election Commission of India.
PAHIYA: PAHIYA was founded to make education accessible to students living in rural areas. The NGO collected cycles from urban residents and donated them to 50+ government schools to make education accessible.