'Brilliance is defined by other people, excellence is for yourself' - the advice Zuni Chopra gets from her father, Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

August 31, 2018

Like her books, her mind seems to be full of words, fantasies and fictional characters, like talking otters, and houses that speak - yet the clarity of her thought is inspiring. Her last book, written at the age of 14, was A House that Spoke. She was the youngest speaker at Jaipur Literary Festival and is the daughter of well-known film critic Anupama Chopra and filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra. We spoke to Zuni Chopra about her new book of poetry and fiction - ‘The Island of the Day Before’ and what goes on in her highly imaginative mind.

Zuni Chopra’s debut book, The House that Spoke - a story based in Kashmir and her fictional debut made it to the top of the bestseller charts. Besides this book of fiction, she had published two poetry books by the age of 15. “I think in words, ideas, chapters and then a book,” says Zuni, when we speak on the phone.

Zuni Chopra

Zuni wrote her first poem at six - when most of the kids her age are usually getting ready to learn their first sentence.

“I got into writing stories at a very young age. I loved telling stories even as a child. I used to play with Lego figures and make stories around them,” she explains.

And she has had plenty of people to look up to and take inspiration from. Zuni’s uncle, Vikram Chandra, is an Indian-American writer who has won the 1996 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. Her mother, Anupama Chopra, is a well-known film critic, her father is filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Anupama, in a BBC interview, said that Zuni goes to her father for plot inspiration and fleshing out her stories but comes to her for boring grammar checks.

But how does it feel to be the daughter of two successful people who are in the spotlight? “Well, they are normal parents, except their pictures get taken more often. But I do look up to them for a lot of advice. One of the main things I learned from my dad is to chase excellence, which you define, and not brilliance, which is defined by other people. And you have to be the best that you can be, rather than being what others tell you to be,” Zuni says.

But celebrity daughter or not, no one can escape the pressures of the dreaded board exams. One of Zuni’s poems, Mountain Range, chronicles the pressure of school examinations. Her parents encouraged her to concentrate on her writing career, even when her board examinations were around the corner. Eventually, she fared very well in them.  

Her new book Island of the Day is a collection of poetry, prose and short stories. The book has stories around a little Matchstick girl who looks for a companion, an otter who wonders why humans are the way they are, and an island that wakes up to storms and danger. “Each short story was inspired by something different, so it depends on the short story,” she explains. In the credits, she graciously thanks her six dogs in the book.

On her writing process and what she can advocate to aspiring young authors out there, she says, “Just start free-writing. You don’t know what can inspire you. Anything could be the core of a book. It could be a short story or the central skeleton of a novel - you never know what could be in that spark. I feel you have to go out there, explore and find that something that gives you that spark.”

Is there another book in the works? “At the moment, I want to go to a university to explore different writing styles - that’s next on my agenda. So, no book at the moment.”

Zuni is a big fan of authors like Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl and Agatha Christie. She remembers fondly the Twitter conversation she had with Neil Gaiman. “On that day, my mother and friends called me up and asked me to check my Twitter feed,” says Zuni recalling the entire incident. “I was so excited that he had written to me.”

For a young author, feedback is paramount. And a little appreciation and encouragement go a long way too. “Someone posted a detailed feedback on Instagram and they also congratulated me on a Goodreads review - I had no idea that there was a review there! I went and checked it out and I was blown away by some of the things people were saying. I was so touched. I wanted to write back to all of them and thank them for the reviews,” Zuni exclaims.

Besides books and poetry, she has contributed articles to Vogue India, Hindustan Times and was the youngest author at the Jaipur Literary Festival. “It was quite incredible and I felt like I had come full circle as I have been attending this literature festival since I was eight or nine. And to be the youngest speaker was a dream come true for me.”

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