Author Interview: Sangu Mandanna Reflects on her Publishing Journey

By Suma Subramaniam

I’m thrilled to welcome Sangu Mandanna to the Cynsations blog today!

Could you tell us about your latest book?

My latest book, Kiki Kallira Breaks a Kingdom (Penguin Random House, 2022) is a middle grade fantasy about what happens when a young girl’s sketchbook world comes to life. My main character, Kiki, struggles with OCD and uses art, creativity and specifically her sketchbook to cope with it. Inspired by the South Indian folklore her mother has told her about, Kiki’s sketchbook world is a mixture of her present-day life in Britain and the ancient Indian mythology she loves so much. But when a powerful and wicked demon king brings her fictional kingdom to life, Kiki, who is anxious, afraid, uncertain and has never felt less like a hero, discovers it’s up to her to save the world.

In many ways, this is the book closest to my heart because it’s the book I most wish I’d had when I was Kiki’s age. I didn’t get to see myself in fiction as a child, so a protagonist like Kiki, a brave, creative, whimsical, brown-skinned heroine, would have meant the world to me.

Getting to explore and reinterpret the folklore of my childhood was also a tremendous joy.

But perhaps most importantly, I wanted to explore mental illness in a way that made it part of the adventure and not the whole of it. As a neurodivergent adult with OCD and depression, I’ve had the luxury of research, treatment and time to figure out how to manage my mental health, but as a child, like Kiki, all I knew was that I was different from most of my friends and was pretty sure that there was something wrong with me.

I imagine that a lot of children feel that way when they first notice that they’re a bit different, or when they begin to struggle with feelings they don’t yet know the right names for. So it was important to me to write a book that would hopefully speak to those readers, and give readers who don’t struggle with the same things an insight into what it’s like for those who do.

When and where do you write? Why does that time and space work for you?

To be honest, I don’t think I have a time and space that always works for me! When I first started writing as a child, the when and where of writing was always, and everywhere. I’d spend hours hunched over my laptop at my desk. I’d get home from school, write, eat, write, sleep, dream about writing, go to school, daydream about writing…

Of course, parenthood, housekeeping and other adult responsibilities make that impossible now. I love writing by the sea, or with a spectacular view, but that’s not often practical or possible. These days, the when and where of writing is when I can, where I can, and if I can. Sometimes that might mean I write for three hours on the sofa after everyone else has gone to bed, and sometimes it might mean that I write for five minutes in the car while I wait for one of the kids’ schools to finish for the day. It’s not ideal, but on the other hand, one of the best things about writing is the flexibility to do it whenever and wherever.

If you could tell your younger writer-self anything, what would it be?

I’d tell her to enjoy it while it’s still something that’s pure joy. I occasionally look back at the stories and snippets I wrote before I got published, and I marvel at the freedom with which I wrote. I wrote what I wanted, how I wanted, and didn’t spare a thought to what might be “unique” or “commercial” or “marketable.” That does mean that those books were largely unpublishable, but when I look back at them, I still see so much joy and life in them that I find is so much harder to come by now.

Now that I am published, I’m grateful and excited that this is what I get to do for a living, but that does necessarily also mean it’s now my work. And work is work.

It’s not just about me and the blank page anymore; I have to consider things like what my editor will think, what the audience will think, whether my sales numbers will justify another book, whether I’ll still be able to provide for my family in three years’ time, and so on.

It’s impossible to bear these thoughts in mind and still write with the reckless abandon of my younger self. So I would tell her to enjoy every minute of it.

What are you working on next?

I tend to work on at least two or three different projects at a time, so there’s quite a lot going on at the moment! I’ve just wrapped up final edits on the second Kiki book, Kiki Kallira Conquers a Curse (Penguin Random House, 2022), which came out in May. In August, I debuted my very first book for adults. It’s called The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches (Penguin Random House, 2022), and it’s a magical, cozy, romantic story about found families and what it means to belong.

I’m also working on my first graphic novel, Jupiter Nettle and The Seven School of Magic, which will be out in 2024 and is going to be illustrated by the fabulously talented Pablo Ballesteros. And, as if those three weren’t enough, I’m outlining a new middle grade fantasy series that I can’t yet say anything about!

Cynsational Notes

Sangu Mandanna was four years old when an elephant chased her down a forest road and she decided to write her very first story about it. Seventeen years and many, many manuscripts later, she signed her first book deal. Sangu now lives in Norwich, a city in the east of England, with her husband and kids.

Suma Subramaniam’s interests and passions in writing for children are mostly centered around STEM/STEAM related topics as well as India and Indian heritage. When she’s not recruiting or writing, she’s volunteering for We Need Diverse Books and SCBWI. Suma was the short story contest winner of the We Need Diverse Books short story contest.

She is also the author of Namaste Is A GreetingShe Sang For India, and other books for children and young adults. Suma lives in Seattle with her family and a dog who watches baking shows. She has an MFA in Writing from Vermont College Of Fine Arts. Learn more on her website.