Pooja Puri won a place on our Ideas Tap Inspires mentoring scheme (the national iteration of the Escalator Talent Development Programme) in 2014. Just a few years later, she is publishing her debut novel The Jungle with Black & White Publishing. We caught up with Pooja to discuss the experience of mentoring and the excitement (and fear!) of The Jungle‘s release in March 2017.
Congratulations on the sale of your first book! Interestingly, this wasn’t the book you worked on with your mentor during the Ideas Tap Inspires scheme – can you talk us through the Inspires mentoring and how The Jungle sits within that timeframe?
I completed the Inspires mentoring scheme between 2014-15. I didn’t work on The Jungle during this process, but the skills and encouragement I gained during the mentoring really helped me when I started work on this book.
Yours will be one of the first books to use the Calais Jungle as its setting – did you feel the weight of that responsibility?
Although my story and its characters are fictional, I wanted to ensure that the setting of the Calais Jungle was as accurate as possible. There were a number of sources I used to establish the landscape of the refugee camp, including newspaper articles, interviews and documentaries.
You took part in the Inspires mentoring scheme before securing a place on an MA course. For people thinking of applying to mentoring schemes, can you reflect on how your mentoring and the MA sit alongside, compliment or impact each other?
The mentoring scheme was really insightful because it gave me the opportunity to work alongside a published author. My mentor, Nicola Upson, was fantastic! She taught me a lot about the writing process as well as the publishing industry. The mentoring scheme also taught me how to use feedback and critique to improve my writing – a skill I’m currently developing on the MA course. Personally, I think the key difference between mentoring and a postgraduate course is the structure and time commitment. Mentoring is a little kinder with regards to deadlines than an MA!
The advice and knowledge you gain during mentoring is truly invaluable
You are currently studying for an MA in Writing for Young People. What do you make of the slippery line between fiction marketed as YA and its crossover into adult readerships? Have you ever had to consider your readership, or are you preoccupied with story first?
Firstly, there’s so much great YA fiction out there that I’m not surprised adults also want to read it! My primary concern is always with the story. Although it’s important to consider your readers, I think it’s equally important to get the story written down first.
If you had one top tip for a writer going into a mentoring programme, what would it be?
Go for it! I wasn’t sure whether to apply for the Inspires scheme at first, but I’m so glad I did. The advice and knowledge you gain during mentoring is truly invaluable and you’re given the opportunity to meet some lovely people!
…and one top tip for someone going through the thrilling, daunting experience of selling their first book?
Getting a book published is a bit like being on a rollercoaster – get ready for ups and downs – but most of all, enjoy the ride!
The Jungle (March 2017)
‘There was a story Jahir used to tell me. About how the first humans were born with wings. Can you imagine what that would be like? To fly anywhere in the world without worrying about having the right papers?’
Mico has left his family, his home, his future. Setting out in search of a better life, he instead finds himself navigating one of the world’s most inhospitable environments – The Jungle. For Mico, just one of the many ‘unaccompanied children’, the Calais refugee camp has a wilderness, a savagery all of its own.
A melting pot of characters, cultures and stories, The Jungle often seems like its own strange world. But despite his ambitions to escape, Mico is unable to buy his way out from the ‘Ghost Men’ – the men with magic who can cross borders unnoticed. Alone, desperate, and running out of options, the idea of jumping on a train to England begins to feel worryingly appealing.
But when Leila arrives at the camp one day, everything starts to change. Outspoken, gutsy, and fearless, she shows Mico that hope and friendship can grow in the most unusual places, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll show you the way out as well.
This isn’t dystopia, this is real life. Hard-hitting and important, this beautifully written debut novel examines what life as a teenage refugee can be like – and how friendship and hope can flourish even in the most inhospitable environments.