Santanu Bhattacharya was longlisted for the BPA First Novel Award 2020 and we’ve enjoyed staying in touch with him ever since. BPA’s Emma Haynes approached a number of agents on his behalf but in the end we were delighted to hear he had signed with Jessica Woollard at David Higham Associates and even more thrilled to hear of his deal with Fig Tree. With his debut novel One Small Voice out on Feb 23, we decided to ask him some questions about his journey to completing the novel and securing a publishing deal.
In One Small Voice, Shubhankar (Shabby) looks for an escape from the violence of his childhood in Lucknow, India. Where did you get the inspiration for his story?
Shabby belongs to a demographic that can afford to look away from violence being done to others. In that sense, he is the norm rather than the exception. Most of the world is apathetic to the plight of the most vulnerable; we might feel empathy, but will we stick our necks out for them? Social media activism has made it only worse; we think we’ve done our bit by taking a stand on Twitter and arguing with a few people.
It is this sense of dissonance that I wanted to centre One Small Voice around – a child who is sensitive and has a defining experience, but is asked by his family to look away and carry on with his life. I was interested in exploring what that does to someone, and how one might then make choices later in life, sometimes to their own detriment. And if there were millions of such children, what that meant for an entire generation and the future of the country.
“Most of the world is apathetic to the plight of the most vulnerable; we might feel empathy, but will we stick our necks out for them? Social media activism has made it only worse; we think we’ve done our bit by taking a stand on Twitter and arguing with a few people.”
You’ve been mentored by the brilliant Max Porter – can you tell us a little about how the novel developed as you responded to feedback?
I won the mentorship of Max Porter as part of the Life Writing Prize. He only needed to read up to 30,000 words, but when I told him I had a full novel ready, he went ahead and read all 100,000 words of it! He’s very generous and honest with his feedback. When I started working with him, I’d written the novel in a linear way, but I was feeling that something needed to change about the structure to give the reader a sense of what is to come. Max worked very closely with me on this structural edit, showing me ways to think about organising the timeline by themes and feelings. It was an eye-opener for me.
What made you decide to enter the BPA First Novel Award and do you have any advice for this year’s entrants?
The BPA First Novel Award will always remain very special because it was the first time I’d got any recognition at all for my novel. Before that, it was just me sitting at my computer and typing away. It made me feel really proud to see my name published on the longlist, and also hopeful that perhaps all this effort wasn’t in vain after all.
All I’d say to this year’s entrants is to have the courage to take a chance and put their work out there. If we’re writing to be read, then there is no better way to send the work out and see how it fares. There will be a lot of rejections, and it can be heart-breaking at first before we grow a thick hide, but when there is a win, it makes up for everything else. It also makes people in the industry take notice. And I found that it made people in my life take my writing seriously too (whereas before BPA, most would treat it as a hobby).
“There will be a lot of rejections, and it can be heart-breaking at first before we grow a thick hide, but when there is a win, it makes up for everything else. It also makes people in the industry take notice.”
How did you know that your literary agent Jessica Woollard would be the best champion for your work?
In June 2021, I won the Life Writing Prize for a short memoir piece, and there was a lot of interest from agents. I was flooded with calls and requests to read more. But I didn’t have a full book ready on the same theme, nor was I planning to expand on it in the near future. What I had was this novel which was very different to the memoir. Jessica responded very enthusiastically to both pieces of work. I read and write quite diversely – from novels to short stories to memoir to non-fiction to essays. If I have a career as a writer, I don’t want to be boxed into writing the same kind of content over and over again. And it was important that my agent not only respected that, but themselves had the experience of representing a diverse range of work.
Has anything surprised you about the process of getting the novel ready for publication after signing the deal with Fig Tree?
Not surprised really, but I didn’t foresee the amount of work it takes. I was prepared for the several rounds of edits, but then there was the copy-editing and proof-reading, and discussions on the cover design, and planning out the promotion leading up to publication. It is a major commitment of time and effort from everyone involved.
“I was prepared for the several rounds of edits, but then there was the copy-editing and proof-reading, and discussions on the cover design, and planning out the promotion leading up to publication.”
How did it feel being selected as one of The Observer’s best new novelists for 2023?
It had always been an aspiration. I’d been following the list over the past few years, and they feature some amazing books and novelists. They also take really stylish photos! I’d been told by my publisher that this was going to be very competitive and I shouldn’t pin my hopes on it. So when I got the news, it was just the best feeling! It got even better when I was interviewed for the feature – I could tell that the journalist who’d read the book had done so very carefully and had picked up on exactly the things that I’d hoped readers would notice, even if they’re implicit in the novel.
What are you reading at the moment?
I just finished two brilliant books – A Sabbatical in Leipzig by Adrian Duncan and Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I’m still unpacking both in my head, and I’m sure I’ll re-read them at some point!
One Small Voice is available to pre-order here.
Santanu Bhattacharya is the author of One Small Voice (Penguin Fig Tree), an Observer Best Debut Novel for 2023. He grew up in India, and studied at the University of Oxford and National University of Singapore. Santanu is the winner of the 2021 Mo Siewcharran Prize, the Life Writing Prize and a London Writers’ Awards. His works have nominated for the 4thWrite Prize, Blue Pencil Agency First Novel Award, and Pontas/JJ Bola Emerging Writers’ Prize. His short fiction has appeared in Commonwealth Writers’ adda. He is a graduate of the Tin House Writers’ Workshop. He currently lives in London.