"Please keep writing!"
The handwritten words are in a letter that Rajdeep Paulus carries around in her purse. Two teenage sisters sent it to her. They raced through Raj's young adult novel Swimming Through Clouds and they wanted more. They urged her to write a sequel.
“I don’t know that I ever read a book where I saw myself, whether it was physically or my own journey just from a cultural point of view. I think it would have been really pretty amazing.... I love that I’m adding something to their bookshelf that’s different and unique.”
Raj has unfolded their letter and read it and refolded it so many times that it's bound to fall apart one of these days. She keeps it in her purse anyway. "It makes such a difference to know that someone's reading your work," she says. "It totally made me cry because I couldn't believe these two sisters stayed up all night with their Kindle, just going back and forth."
The sisters, like Raj herself, live in America and have family roots in South Asia. "They had never read a book like this," Raj says, "where they actually saw themselves in the book, in terms of a character who physically looked like them, with a hero that was actually from an Indian background. I love that I'm adding something to their bookshelf that's different and unique." Raj has a clear memory of "the lack of diversity in the market back when I was a teenager growing up. I don't know that I ever read a book where I saw myself, whether it was physically or my own journey just from a cultural point of view. I think it would have been really pretty amazing."
Swimming Through Clouds is a tough book. It's about hope and kindness, but it's also about child abuse, human-trafficking, domestic violence, and the isolation that can be part of immigrant life. Despair and cruelty haunt its pages. Raj's most heroic characters find the strength to be compassionate at moments when it would be much easier to stand by and do nothing. She hopes Swimming Through Clouds will offer young people a fresh way of seeing the quiet kid at school, the outcast, the one who doesn't fit in.
"Maybe some teen who picks this book up will want to reach out to that kid," she says. "I really want to be a writer who not just entertains but really challenges young people." She hopes teens will enjoy the novel's love story, "because I love a good love story. But I also hope their worlds will be kind of opened up a little to know that there's a lot of heartache out there, and recognize how powerful little acts of kindness can be."
Back when Swimming Through Clouds was just an unpublished manuscript, Raj won several writing prizes and got the attention of a few big traditional publishers. But all of them ultimately decided the story wasn't a good fit for their companies. Raj's agent, a veteran of the book business, wasn't ready to give up. He told her, "It's a book that needs to be out there. Let's get it out there." He recommended that she publish independently and reach out to readers directly. So Raj put the book out with a small press that uses Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon's self-service platform that makes it possible for anyone to put out a book.
Since then, Amazon customers have written 107 reviews of Swimming Through Cloudsand given it outstanding ratings, an average 4.8 out of 5 stars. Raj has gone on to have many moments of connection with readers, including those sisters who sent her the "Please keep writing!" letter that she carries around in her purse. "It's a reminder to me that – you know what? – somebody out there believes in me."
Raj wrote that sequel the sisters wanted. She published it independently and has earned an average 4.9 stars from Amazon customers.