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How an editor knows she's reading the next big book

Manasi Subramaniam of Penguin Random House India on publishing since the pandemic, and how the ideal workspace reframes her approach to things 

Books are not going anywhere, says Manasi Subramaniam 
Books are not going anywhere, says Manasi Subramaniam  (Picture Courtesy Manasi Subramaniam)

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For two years until the beginning of 2022, when Manasi Subramaniam was an executive editor and head of literary rights at Penguin Random House India, she’d published some of the world’s most recognised titles.

This included Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara, A Burning by Megha Majumdar, Rising Heat by Perumal Murugan, and Jaipur Journals by Namita Gokhale. Some of these headline-grabbing books came out through the pandemic, a time when life was brought to an uncertain and panicked pause. 

During this time, for many of us, it was books that kept us going through the never-ending sameness of days.

“One thing I’m absolutely dogged about is this: books aren’t going anywhere,” says Subramaniam. “I think it’s fair to say the world will never be the same again…these are, of course, utterly exceptional circumstances. What will the post-Covid world look like for publishing? No one can honestly claim to know the answer to that. What I can say is this: publishing has survived wars, recessions and even technology, and it will survive this.”

While she works at her desk, Subramaniam reads manuscripts at a designated reading nook
While she works at her desk, Subramaniam reads manuscripts at a designated reading nook (Courtesy Manasi Subramaniam)

Having started this year as associate publisher and head of rights at Penguin Random House India, she already has her hands full.

“I think it’s safe to say that this is a year of intense and deep work in translations for me,” Subramaniam says, listing some of the titles she’s working with: in June she’ll have The Woman Adorned With the Sun by K.R. Meera, translated from the Malayalam by Abhrami Girija Sriram and K.S. Bijukumar; in December, she’ll have Karisal by Ponneelan, translated from the Tamil by J. Priyadharshini.

She is also excited to see through to publication, the translations of Tejo Tungabhadra by the writer Vasudhendra in September and My Poems Are Not For Your Ad Campaign by Anuradha Sharma Pujari in October. The first will be translated from the Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor, and the second from the Assamese by Aruni Kashyap — both of whom also published their original works of fiction in the Mint Lounge Fiction Special this year.

In this interview, Subramaniam takes us behind the scenes of her work with books, and talks about how giving into a romantic ideal of a picture-perfect workspace has reframed the way she approaches work.

To start off, tell us about first memorable read or discovery as an editor. What about that moment or the manuscript stuck with you and why? 

The first book I acquired when I joined Penguin India in 2017 was We That Are Young by Preti Taneja, and it’s a devastating and wonderful transposition of King Lear in contemporary India. I remember so well how the manuscript dazzled me with its incredible cleverness and how utterly desperate I was to be its publisher. It will always be very, very close to my heart.

Describe your current workspace to us.

It might sound old-fashioned, but I’m utterly lost without a notebook. I have a wide desk with a notebook and a laptop side by side, and I probably use both with equal frequency. I pair the desk with a reading chair for reading manuscripts and submissions. The other notable feature is that there are about half a dozen coasters spread between the two, because I get through more cups of tea and coffee a day than I can count. I’m partial to low lighting, so I tend to use a soft desk lamp, and I’m always playing music while I work because it really steadies my pace. I have bookshelves overflowing with books too—I suppose that’s an occupational hazard—and I always have my Kindle e-reader close at hand for sending manuscripts to.

Her desk at home, with a notebook open
Her desk at home, with a notebook open (Courtesy Manasi Subramaniam)

Has it always been this way? Or has it evolved over the years?

Like everyone else, I began working from home in 2020, but I think it’s fair to say that my desk at work wasn’t remarkably different from what I’ve just described. The thing that’s changed for me, though, is that I’ve probably become neater over the years, finding designated spaces for things and being quite particular about my routine. Of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the camaraderie of working in a bustling office—and I’m looking forward to heading back—and especially that moment when the first copy of a book arrives from the printing press. I moved houses in January, and I loved spending time recreating my workspace in my new home. I kept my old desk for reasons of comfort and familiarity, but I added a second desk which I now use only when I’m on video calls.

How would you define your daily relationship with this space?

I always joke about how when people hear I’m an editor they assume a romantic idealization of my daily routine—you know the kind: curled up with a masterpiece, reading in cafes, cosy book nooks, that sort of thing. The reality is quite different, of course, but I decided quite consciously that my workspace would play into that idealization quite nicely. It’s quite a ‘picture-perfect’ workspace, and I find—as much to my own astonishment as anyone else’s—that it reframes the way I approach things too.

What's the one thing that has always been at your workspace over the years. Why?

A notebook!

Tell us about some of the eureka moments you have had and major works that you have done from here.

My eureka moments happen when I’m reading a manuscript. They often come in the form of quick, visceral feelings in my gut, a sudden stab of knowledge that I’m reading something special. In recent months, I’ve had the extraordinary good luck to have that moment with a few books: we published the spellbinding novel Tell Me How to Be by Neel Patel (January 2022), a book that I read and fell in love with in a single setting; Superpowers at the Shore by Sejal Mehta (April 2022) which talks about the marine creatures at our intertidal zones, literally sent thrills of joy up my spine; I’ve loved growing our wonderful translations list over the years and I had such goosebumps reading Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s fluid translation of Resolve by Perumal Murugan (November 2021) and Hemang Ashwinkumar’s sensitive translation of Vultures by Dalpat Chauhan (April 2022).

If you were to trade in this place for another, what would it be?

Doesn’t everyone want to give up the city life for a shanty by the beach or a cabin in the mountains? I certainly do!

 

Creative Corner is a series about writers, artists, musicians, founders and other creative individuals and their relationships with their workspaces

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