We interviewed a Professional Writer who says “broke but not starving”(with a bit humour). She is a columnist and Web TV Host. She completed her undergraduate degree in Economics and Statistics from St. Xavier College, Mumbai. MBA in Finance from Nanyang Business School, Singapore. Masters in International Management from the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland.
Her short story collection Happy Birthday! was published in July 2013 by Random House India to critical acclaim. The book was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize (2014), the world’s biggest short story award.
Her debut novel One & A Half Wife was published by Westland Books in May 2012. The novel received critical and commercial acclaim. On the bestseller list across many bookstores, the novel went into multiple reprints. It was shortlisted for the AmazonBreakthrough Novel Award, the Cinnamon Press Novel Writing Award, and Word Hustler’s Literary Storm Novel Contest. One & A Half Wife won the national literary Muse India ‘Young Writer Award’.
Let us know more about another professional writer.
What inspired you to start writing?
I think each one of us is a storyteller from childhood. After all, the first thing we do on learning how to speak is to ask our parents to tell us stories. We grow up regaling friends with small stories from our life. We go to work with a “suit-and-boot” story, listed by way of our resume, and try to impress colleagues with stories of our achievement. On a personal note, I was an avid reader growing up, and wrote my first short story at nineteen. But I became serious about fiction writing in 2007, and now can’t imagine living a life where there’s no story to tell.
What did you like to read when you were a girl?
As a child I read a lot of Enid Blyton, Sidney Sheldon, Jeffery Archer, Somerset Maugham, Ruskin Bond, Shakespeare and RK Narayan, the typical fare that Indian children growing up in the 80s-90s were given to read. Gone With The Windwas the first book I stayed up till six in the morning reading, and till today I don’t think there is a book as perfect as that or a character as finely etched out as Scarlett O’Hara. Margaret’s largesse is inimitable. In recent years I’ve enjoyed reading Rohinton Mistry, Leon Uris, Aravind Adiga, Alice Munro, Kamila Shamsie, Manil Suri, among others.
What is the greatest challenge in writing a book?
Writing is like jumping off a cliff and not knowing where you will land, or whether you’ll land at all.
Writing a novel is a soul-wrenching all-consuming process that demands you to put the rest of your life on hold. That is challenging, but writing in itself plays a small part in getting published. So the hardest part of being a debut author is finding a publisher. It is difficult to make a breakthrough, as publishers receive hundreds of manuscripts a week, but its also not impossible, especially as publishers are constantly on the lookout for new voices.
How much research do you do before writing the book?
In any fiction novel the greatest research is unearthing the stories people make up about themselves, as well as others, and the truth behind it. Writing about others also forces you to take a journey inwards, which is a powerful medium for self-realization through which I’ve learnt to be kinder, stronger, while coming to face with the fact that we’re all trying to do the best with what we’ve been given.
One & A Half Wife, my debut novel, pushed me to take an inward journey, as did my debut short story collection, Happy Birthday. But my latest book Men Without God, which takes place when a war between India and China breaks out, took over three years of intense research and data collection. It will be published in early 2016.
What motivated you to write the book “Happy Birthday”?
The whole point of my writing, if there can ever be a point to writing, is to capture duality; the beauty and horror that is our life. Life is a celebration in many ways, there is so much to be happy and grateful about, but it’s also a cruel, exhausting and poignant endeavour. This duality also exists within each person, each situation and each conscious conviction we hold, and that’s what the essence of my stories is, the place where society and the individual intersect and emotions therefore form the centrepiece.
Life, therefore, inspired Happy Birthday.
Can you tell us more about your latest book “Happy Birthday”?
It was not easy to publish a short story collection, that too by Random House.
I was taking several writing courses in New York at the time I began writing short stories. Every single writer, editor and publisher told me that I was wasting my time with short stories. They were difficult to craft, no one published them, no one read them and, certainly, no one bought them. One author called them the Voldemort of the publishing world, because they were there, they were powerful, but publishers pretended that they didn’t exist.
But I continued writing them. Why? Because short stories to me were like an explosion of a single truth, snippets that took me into another lifeworld in a brief mad moment of revelation and clarity. I loved this art form more than any other not just for this experience of it, but also its production, as each short story required an investment of a few months versus that mammothesque novel which took out a few years of your life.
I wrote about many things, fathers who didn’t know how to love, slum girls with ambition, parents abandoned on the street, prostitutes with abortion tablets, men driven blind by love, women who didn’t know how to confront their hubsand’s lover. Walking in different people’s shoes – however vicariously – made me realise how hard each person is trying with what they’ve been given.
Some of my short stories began to get published in literary magazines across the world, such as Wasafari, Avatar Review, EGO Magazine, Muse India and DifferSenses
Then Random House published the collection as Happy Birthday. It was so magical that I decided that the proceeds of the book would be donated to a friend’s charity, Safar Trust, that educates and feeds sex worker’s children. Then authors I revere reviewed the stories well: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni called them ‘surprising and moving’, Jeet Thayil ‘deft and merciless’ and Ashwin Sanghi ‘provocative and inspirational’. The reviews from both critics and readers have been overwhelmingly positive.
I was delighted when Happy Birthday was longlisted for the world’s biggest and most prestigious short story prize, The Frank O’Connor Award, alongside some of the finest writers we have in the world today.
I am so happy that people love the collection. It’s humbling and wonderful.
Who are your favourite authors?
Asking me who my favourite author is like asking a mother who her favourite child is. I love a lot of writer’s works ranging from Rushdie to Gabriel Marquez, Premchand, Tagore, Alice Munro, Kamila Shamsie, Aravind Adiga, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Tessa Hadley, Kafka, Khaled Hosseni, Monica Ali, Rohinton Mistry.
My favourite contemporary authors are Aravind Adiga, Kamila Shamsie, Yiyun Li, Manu Joseph and Deepti Kapoor.
How much time do you dedicate for writing on a daily basis?
When I was working full-time, my nights and weekends were dedicated to writing. Now I write everyday, something or the other, for at least six hours a day. And if I’m not writing I am thinking about writing or looking for inspiration in people, movies, cartoons, books, misspelled ads, lampposts … anything.
I am obsessed. I feel incomplete if I’m not writing or thinking about writing.
What words of wisdom would you like to give to aspiring writers?
The only way to become a good writer is to start out by writing stories, good or bad. Just write. Persevere, edit, persevere, edit. Don’t romanticize writing. It’s tough work. Write first, think of getting published later. Be prepared to fail. Once you are published, remain scared and humble.
Don’t envy published authors, they’ve been where you are.
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