Who can say that they’ve published a book at the age of 12 years old? This feat is something that Shalini Nanayakkara, a fourth-year English and PWC student, can boast. She is the current editor-in-chief of the English undergraduate journal With Caffeine and Careful Thought and has works published in UTM publications such as Slate, and The Medium, as well as the University of Toronto Quarterly. The Medium sat down with Nanayakkara to glean insight into her experience in the publishing industry.
When commenting on her studies in English literature, and how it has affected her writing, Nanayakkara said, “I hope to become an English literature professor and be a part-time novelist. I can’t imagine a world where I’m not writing and putting my work out there.”
Nanayakkara later described a unique aspect of studying English literature: “Doing a degree in English literature has helped build my confidence in writing. It allowed me to read a great variety of books I never would have touched otherwise, Nanayakkara continued. “I get to forge my own path [in the English department]. I feel at home in this degree […] that’s really at the heart of it. I enjoy everything I do and that makes me want to succeed.”
Nanayakkara also noted that studying English literature has expanded her exposure to different literatures that she would not have noticed on her own.
“Even writing academically has helped because you have to be concise, so you’re not too flowery in your writing,” she added.
In the past, Nanayakkara has worked on two research opportunity programs in the English department. In these roles, Nanayakkara has refined her creative and concise writing skills.
Nanayakara’s science fiction book, The Time Has Come, was published when she was just 12 years old. At the point of publication, Nanayakkara said that she had been writing her entire life. She recalls juvenile memories of creating a makeshift book by stapling her childhood drawings and stories together.
The Time Has Come has elements of fantasy. The story centers around teenagers plopped into a fictional planet. The teenagers are granted a year to reverse climate change, war, and animal abuse.
“If [the teenagers] don’t succeed, Earth will be destroyed. [It is very] dramatic, I know, but something that I think about very often in my writing and my English literature research as well,” Nanayakkara said.
In terms of the self-publication process of the book, Nanayakkara stated that she did not find the process difficult. Her father, a writer and a professor by profession, who owns a printing press, helped her through the process. With its own ISBN number and Amazon purchasing page, The Time Has Come was picked up by a book-selling company in Sri Lanka.
“All I had to do was write the book and then have my father take the manuscript to a printing press he already worked with,” Nanayakkara said.
Nanayakkara then stated that the tough part of the process was marketing The Time Has Come. Without a community of writers guiding her, Nanayakkara did not have the same marketing leverage other budding authors can pool from.
“I think the biggest hurdle is getting noticed by the right agent when you’ve never been published before,” Nanayakkara continued, “After you have an agent, at least you have someone batting for you.”
By the time Nanayakkkara had published The Time Has Come, she realized that she loved “being immersed in [the writing].” Writing, it seemed, was the where she found happiness and strength. All it took was a laptop and one idea that struck a cord.
“I said ‘Today, I’m going to write a story that’s going to change my life,’” she continued, “That’s so dramatic—I was 11 years old. I sat down and started writing and that was probably the happiest time of my life, because I was just writing the story that had been in my head for a long time.”
However, the publishing industry is riddled with new challenges. As Nanayakkara observed, the publishing industry is trying to reimagine the process of publishing with the rise of online forms of publications—such as e-books and self-publishing.
“There’s so many avenues the everyday person can take to get their work noticed, without going through the elite gateway of traditional publishing,” Nanayakkara said.
Through the academic internship that she received through the PWC program, she was able to land an internship at CookeMcDermid, a publishing agency in Toronto. Working at the agency exposed her to how publishers seek out manuscripts, as well as checking out how writers and publishers come together.
On March 9, Nanayakkara will be presenting a conference paper at the University of Ottawa. The paper talks about the role of fantasy when tackling issues surrounding the environment. This coming September, Nanayakkara will start her studies at UBC, completing a masters in English literature.