Changing careers can be both scary and exciting, and Preeti Chhibber experienced both emotions when she quit her job in publishing to become a full-time writer. Since taking the leap in 2019, Preeti has gone on to write a Spider-Man book, an Avengers book, and contribute to a Star Wars anthology. Her most recent work is called A Jedi, You Will Be — a picture book celebrating the 40th anniversary of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I spoke with Preeti about her transition from full-time office job to full-time writer, the joys and challenges of writing about the pop culture she loves, and the added curveball of doing it through the COVID-19 pandemic.
I want to start with your career path. How did you get where you are now?
I worked in children’s publishing from like 2008 to 2019. That was my life, but I was also freelancing, because I’m a millennial. So I was working in children’s publishing, first at Scholastic, then a brief stint at HarperCollins, and then back to Scholastic. And all the while I was writing on the side at sites like Book Riot, Syfy Wire, Nerds of Colour, and all these online geek culture publications, because I grew up on the internet.
So I was writing about things I like on the internet, and then I finally started getting paid for it. And that was great, but part of that was kind of a perfect storm of being in publishing, understanding how children’s books work, how the publishing industry works, all while getting to write about all my favourite pieces of pop culture, which included Spider-Man.
I got an email in late 2018 from Disney being like, hey, we’re looking for someone who can do a really quick turnaround on this Spider-Man tie-in novel for the next Spider-Man movie. My initial reaction was like, I can’t write a book. Prior to that, I had published just a short story in a YA anthology with HarperCollins. But a whole book? Spider-Man? Sure.
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I was able to send them some ridiculous Spider-Man stories that I wrote for Syfy — which, I’m blessed to have a space where I can say that I have a really stupid idea and ask if I can I write about it, and my editor would say “yes, go for it, why not.” So I sent those clips and they said it was the perfect tone, that exactly what they were looking for — because this book is for 10-12-year-olds. And that’s kind of how it started.
I wrote that book in about six weeks, and when it came out I was like, this is what I want to do. I realised how much I enjoyed it, and I was in a space where I was getting enough freelance work that I figured if I could continue to freelance and write books at the same time, I could actually support myself doing them.
Of course, I had to leave New York. So I left New York and my full-time job in January 2019, and just started doing all this full time.
What’s the difference between how you structure your day now, as someone in charge of their own time, versus when you worked in a traditional office?
It’s actually remarkably similar, I think. I asked for a lot of advice from friends who who freelance full time, and the number one advice I got was to make sure you structure your time. Make sure you have a clear understanding of how you want to spend your time and your boundaries for when you’re going to stop working, because the trap people tend to fall into when you work from home — and I’m sure a lot of people are dealing with that right now — is that you end up working all the time because there’s no differentiation between office life and home life. It’s just all work life all the time. So I’m very strict about my hours.
In New York, when I was working full time at a company, I had hours when I had to be there: you get there by 8:30 a.m. or whatever and you leave around 5:30 p.m. or six o’clock, or later if you have to stay late. But now it’s very much like, OK, I get to my computer at about 8:45 a.m. and I try to be off by 5 p.m. or so, barring any calls, meetings, podcasts, or what have you. I try to be very good about the hours I spend in front of the screen and making sure that I’m not up at 10 p.m. on a Saturday trying to sit down to write. I don’t want to be in a position where I’m burning myself out by not structuring my day.
For my space, I like to sit at a table and I make sure I’m not in my room when I’m working. Having a dedicated space to work is very important. Having a set up is very important, which is what I had in an office. Now, the only difference is I don’t have to go somewhere for it. I just move to another room in the house.
What’s that set up is like? Do you absolutely need certain things in order to be productive?
This is actually kind of a learning process for me. I had this plan where I was going to take a year to live at home with my family and figure out how to live my life. I wanted to do it where there’s less pressure. And then COVID happened. And so I’m still here — which, again, I imagine a lot of people in the country are going through [something similar].
I’m in this position where I don’t have a permanent space or permanent office like in my ideal world. In my old apartment, I had a separate office where I could do work, which was so nice. Now it’s like, I have my laptop stand; I have my mouse and keyboard; I have my little letter holder to keep any important documents or whatever I need; I have a few empty book plates if I need to sign some books; I have stamps and envelopes and office supplies. But at the same time, I’m sitting at like a dining room table, and it’s a very strange experience.
I ended up ordering a folding desk so that I can move around and get privacy when I need. But I have to figure out a way to make it less chaotic, even though it’s just a temporary space. Trying to learn how to do that at home has been an experience.
Writing on pop culture can blur the line between work and procrastination. Can you talk about how you balance those things? What’s the difference between working and watching something for sheer enjoyment?
It’s so hard. I think it’s a lesson a lot of us are learning, and I’m definitely learning, [is] that not everything has to be monetised. You can have a hobby just to have a hobby. But that’s a hard thing to think about because I think our instinct, especially as millennials, is to be like, oh, I’m not using my time productively. And what what does that mean, “productively”? I find myself watching something or playing games or whatever it is, and being like, can I write about this? Like, how can I use this to inform the work I’m doing, versus being able to just sit back and enjoy it.
What I found is that with entertainment, it’s not something I’ve managed to do. I can’t stop my brain from being like, oh, you can use this as fodder when you have to write. Even when I’m not looking for it. I just wrote a piece for Polygon about a video game that came from an Indian development studio, and it’s one of the first of its kind. And I was excited about it because I was like, oh my god, this is the dream — it’s an adventure RPG with an Indian girl as the main character. And then I got an email asking if I’d be interested in writing about this, and I’m not going to say no. Of course I would like to write about it! And then all of a sudden finishing the game became work. It’s certainly a fun experience and I still enjoyed it, but it’s no longer just an escape.
How do you feel about that?
I’m in a very fortunate position where I get to write about the things I like. So it’s not something that I would ever stick my nose up at. It’s not something where I’m like, oh, god, it’s so overwhelming. I get to watch and play things, and then hopefully get paid money to talk about them.
But on the other hand, I’ve had to find some sort of hobby where it’s not something that I can immediately monetise. And what that’s been for me is something like cross stitching. I can cross stitch while a watch, and these little cross stitches are just in a pile in my like room and I’m not going to do anything with them. I might give them away, but they’re just for fun. And it’s not something where I’m thinking what can I do with this? Nobody wants my four-by-four-inch cross stitch.
It’s complicated. I don’t know if I’m the kind of person who could sit back and engage with any kind of art and entertainment and not want to talk about it or respond to it a critical way. Even prior to being paid for it, I was talking about this stuff. My friend likes to joke that I used to just start blogs over and over just to talk about the things I was enjoying. I can’t really fathom being able to sit back and ingest without any sort of response. Even in publishing — I got into publishing because I wanted to contribute to the literature that people were reading. I wanted to be a part of the process of creating art. And so, to me, It always goes hand in hand.
Is there anything you need before you can be productive writing?
I have a hard time starting my day without a cup of chai. It’s really, really difficult for me to get started without it. I’m trying to get into space where exercise can be that thing, but we haven’t gotten there yet.
That’s harder than the daily chai, huh?
That’s a lot harder than a daily chai. For now I think the daily chai is the thing getting me through the morning.
Are there any apps you use for productivity?
Oh, yes. I used Todoist every day. I love this app. I know when every deadline is for every single thing I’m working on it, and it yells at me when I haven’t done the thing and checked it off. It’s really nice to have because I have a very bad habit where I start a lot of projects at the same time, and I end up with four podcasts, several blogs, and all these things. Having one app that can delineate all the different ways I’m working is so important. I don’t often subscribe to apps, but I absolutely bought a subscription to this one and it has been incredible.
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Who else would you love to know how they work?
I’m cheating a little bit because I know how they work, but I’m so impressed by Swapna Krishna. She’s my co-host on Desi Geek Girls and is one of the smartest, most impressive, most organised people I know. She’s the person I go to whenever I’m like, “how do I do this, please help me.” When I first started trying to balance freelance and author life, I was asking for her advice. I’m just always so amazed at how good she is.
There’s another person though who I don’t know exactly how they work, and that’s Greg Pak. It’s so incredible that he can put out so much quality work consistently but still also manage to be politically active and smart about the way he works. I just think that’s amazing.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.