Archive for the ‘Authors Speak’ Category

18
Jul

“I’ve always believed that tragedy and comedy always co-exist.”

– Jonathan Taylor

In many ways, the story of my novel Entertaining Strangers is based on, or at least inspired by, various non-fictional images. It all started about 16 years ago, when an Armenian friend of mine was talking to my wife, who’s Greek Cypriot, about a terrible disaster of which I’d never heard before: the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922.

In September 1922, the Turkish Nationalist army under Kemal Atatürk marched into the city of Smyrna (modern Izmir); subsequently, most of the city was burnt to the ground, thousands of people massacred, deported, mutilated and raped, and hundreds of thousands of refugees gathered on the quayside screaming for help from the ships in the harbour.

The image that particularly haunted me from this story was the attitude of the foreign ships in the harbour. The vessels moored there included British, American, French and Italian warships and cruisers; but during the initial stages of the disaster, these ships and their crews stood by, refusing to help the Greeks and Armenians on shore, many of them moving further back, away from the blaze and screams. There are even reports that sailors from the British ships (working under orders) poured boiling water onto the refugees who swam up to them, begging for help; and that, on some of the ships, music was played loudly on gramophone records, and by brass bands, in order to drown out the noise – the noise of shrieks, gunshots, explosions, fire.

This image fascinated me. On the one hand, it’s an image of absolute callousness in the face of terrible human tragedy; on the other hand, it’s a very human way to behave: on a much smaller level, all too often we switch off the T.V. if the news becomes too grim; or we ignore the hungry and homeless on the street, walking past them with headphones in, playing music to drown out their pleas for help. In the face of immense suffering, too much empathy and sympathy can seem psychologically – and, no doubt to those on the ships in Smyrna, physically – dangerous.

So I wanted to explore in the book questions of empathy and sympathy – and particularly questions about helping those ‘in need.’ The novel opens with the main character actually helping a homeless person in 1997; but it eventually flashes back to the image of those ships standing by in 1922, playing music to drown out the tragedy unfolding 250 yards away. In that sense, the foreground of the novel (the sections set in 1997) is more optimistic, and might be loosely labelled ‘comedy,’ whilst the backdrop (the climactic section set in 1922) is ‘tragedy.’ Of course, it’s not as simple as all that – life never is – and I’ve always believed that tragedy and comedy always co-exist, even in the most extreme circumstances; hence why my novel is called a ‘tragi-comedy.’

I believe strongly this is what literature is best at: highlighting the profound complexities and ambiguities of life – unlike, say, politics, or tabloid journalism. In literature as in life, comedy and tragedy, good and evil, kindness and callousness can co-exist, often in the same situation, the same person, the same symbol.

This is certainly the case in the central symbol of Entertaining Strangers – ants. For the main character, Edwin, ants represent the antithesis of human callousness, the antithesis, that is, of people playing music on a ship to drown out nearby screams. For Edwin, ant communities represent a kind of organic utopia, where all the citizens help one another, striving for a common good. At the same time, though, his ideas of ‘mutual aid’ in nature are haunted by their opposite – the neurotic terror that, even in his beloved ant farm, creatures might behave in violent, sadistic, callous and cruel ways. Throughout the novel, his ant farm becomes a microcosm, then, of the ambiguities and complexities of the wider world.

As I say, I don’t think it’s for a novel to solve these ambiguities, to straighten out these complexities. A novel doesn’t have to find solutions – and that’s the strength of the form. If the twentieth century, and events like the Great Fire of Smyrna and its aftermath prove anything, it’s that ‘solutions’ (to use a term which is itself haunted by twentieth-century history) to problems are often dangerous, even horrendous. The novel, to paraphrase Keats on poetry, ‘is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’

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Rating: 9.0/10 (5 votes cast)
28
Sep

“Writing a book isn’t easy. It’s a struggle. It’s exciting. It’s enormously satisfying.”

Prem Rao

It Can’t Be You: I was fascinated by the title. It gave tremendous scope for me as the writer to chart out the plot of a thriller. I had made up my mind. My first book would have to be a thriller. It would be a small tribute to the thriller writers I had read and admired for years, having been a voracious reader from my early childhood.

Frequently, the thoughts and wishes of writers remain dreams until they come across a catalyst which urges them to action, to translate those dreams to reality. For me the catalyst was the National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo as it is popularly called. An international competition held each year in which you need to write a novel of 50,000 words during the calendar month of November to be declared a winner.

The choice of a theme wasn’t too difficult for me. The story had to be at the intersection of two of my major interests, human psychology and the military. What better than to write a psychological thriller concerning a military man? I completed NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2009. The whole of 2010 was spent in refining it, finding a publisher, etc. until the magic moment dawned on November 29, 2010. The book launch at The Crosswords at Bangalore was one of the most memorable days of my life.

My advice for what it is worth. Take to writing because you love to write not because you have to. Income by writing alone seldom brings bread on your table. I write because I re-discovered this passion after a long gap of many, many years. It’s never too late for you to start. My debut novel was published a little after my 59th birthday.

Writing a book isn’t easy. It’s a struggle. It’s exciting. It shows you what you are capable of doing and at the end of it all, it is enormously satisfying. If this appeals to you, just go ahead and write that book, the one you have been thinking of for years,

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Rating: 8.8/10 (8 votes cast)
12
Jul

My Lucky Break – The Book Publishing Industry in India

Jane Ainslie

I began writing Chai for Beginners after several trips to India. I thought it would be a great setting for a novel. I wanted to try and parallel some of my heroine’s journey with that of Sita’s, from the Ramayana, which is why my Australian character is called Sita.

It took a few years until I was happy with the story. I rewrote the book about three times and had much to learn about the craft of writing. I had even more to learn about getting published.

At times, trying to get published seemed like a giant hurdle I would never get over.  Publisher after publisher in Australia turned me down. My heart would plummet every time I received a rejection letter, but I kept going. Even so, there came a point where I believed it would never happen.

An Australian writer once said, while telling the story of how he became published, that everyone gets a lucky break. The trick, he said, is recognising that opportunity and taking it.

So, there I was, walking to my writers’ group, depressed about another rejection. I remember stopping by the train tracks as a train whizzed by, and contemplating the utter futility of being an unpublished writer. I said to God, “This is it. No more. Give me a sign or I’m giving up, because clearly this is too hard.” I meant it.

When I arrived at my writers’ group, one of the members pushed a newspaper article across the table to me.

“You should read this,” she said. “It’s about the publishing industry in India. It’s much bigger than here, and I think it might suit your book.”

There it was. My lucky break. That article, from a newspaper I never read, was the key to Chai for Beginners getting published. I submitted the manuscript to Rupa & Co, and they published my book within the year.

Writing a book is hard. Getting published can be even harder, but it is all worth it in the end.  Just remember to keep your eyes open. Luck comes in many disguises…

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Rating: 8.4/10 (8 votes cast)
02
May

Twenty Seven Years to Write a Book

Murli Melwani

The idea to write a critical and historical survey of the Indian short story in English was born when an impression and a thought came together.

The book The Modern Short Story by H.E. Bates made a lasting impression on me. In his book, H.E. Bates surveys the development of the short story in England, France, Russia, Ireland and America in a relaxed style that your everyday Joe can relate to.

The paradox of Indian life is that, because of tradition, there is outward social and cultural conformity. The richness and variety lies below the surface, in the dramatic, lyrical and tragic moments of individual lives. When we focus on the broader patterns, we get books like, to give a recent example, the series of novels about IIT life; when we try to capture the nuances below the broad pattern we get the richness of the stories edited by Shinie Antony in Why We Don’t Talk.

The fact that there existed a number of books of criticism on other genres of Indian writing in English – the novel, poetry, drama – and that there was little criticism of consequence  on the short story presented both a problem and an opportunity. The problem: there was nothing that could serve as a standard to follow or to counter. The opportunity was to be a pathfinder. Interestingly, the character in Chinese for problem and opportunity is the same.

The Chinese character became my baton. I took on the ambitious task of reading and critiquing as many collections of short stories written in English by Indians as possible.

I started with what is claimed to be the first “work of Indian fiction in English”: A Journal of Forty Eight Hours on the Year 1945 by Kylash Chunder Dutt published in D.L. Richardson’s Calcutta Literary Gazette dated 6th June 1835.

My study was interrupted when I decided to make a mid-career change and move from Shillong to Taipei, Taiwan, to run an export company.

Taiwan was not classed as an “Asian Tiger” for nothing (one of four, along with Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea). The lifestyle in the charged commercial atmosphere can best be described as running to stay on the same spot. Business charts, figures and targets formed the staple of conversation and thought. I had fears of becoming one of those battery operated robots I exported.

What prevented the threatened robotisation was my decision to revive my study of the Indian short story in English. Taipei in those days had just one English book store that sold books mainly on how to learn and teach English.

I bought the books for my study, collections of short stories by Indian authors, when I made my annual trips to India.

These collections formed the diet that sustained me on a bookless island. There were a number of occasions when I ran out of reading material in my area of interest. I’d wait for friends travelling to India on business or for a vacation and give them lists of books to bring back.

I kept a work-book in which, along with my travel schedules, grocery lists and trips of inspection to factories, I jotted down notes about my impressions of the books I read.

I did this for the twenty five years I lived in Taiwan. Does two and a half decades seem like a long period of gestation for a book? Yes and no. Yes, at times when my business commitments seem to crowd my plate. No, when I saw it as the wonderful rejuvenating diversion it was. Let me put it this way, my commitment to my project was like a long marriage. In such a marriage there are ups and downs but the quality of the relationship remains unaffected.

When I moved to Dallas in 2007, I had the leisure to turn these notes into a book: Themes in the Indian Short Story in English – An Historical and a Critical Survey. The book was published in late 2009.

Although my study stops with collections published till 2008, the Indian short story in English continues to blossom, especially with the number publishers multiplying in recent times.

I had the common reader in mind when I chose to adopt a non-academic approach, without footnotes, cross references and other methodological features. The irony is that the book has appealed, instead, to students, teachers and research scholars in India. I’m fine with that. I’m also happy that the book has received heart-warming reviews in newspapers and journals, including the online Indian Book Reviews.

My book may not make it even as a footnote in the history of literary criticism of Indian Writing in English, but I’m satisfied that the objective I set myself was endorsed by a respected literary journal founded in 1984. The reviewer in Wasafiri, The Magazine of Contemporary Writing, London, Vol. 24, No 2 commented: “Melwani’s distinction is clearing a trail on a road less travelled in Indian literary studies.”

Check out:  http://indoenglishstories.blogspot.com/ for more on Murli’s work.

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Rating: 9.5/10 (4 votes cast)
12
Feb

“I’d love to be able to write with a whole story worked out in advance.”

Ruth Downie tells us about her experiences in writing the Ruso series of thrillers, especially Ruso And The Root of all Evils.

– Ruth Downie

Living with a writer must be a strange business.  While other people are off enjoying themselves, my longsuffering husband frequently spends his holidays trudging across wet and windswept hillsides while I enthuse over the stones and mud that are all that remains of the Roman occupation of Britain. Then when we get home, he has to share my attention with several dozen imaginary people – in particular a Roman Army doctor called Ruso, who’s stationed here with the Twentieth Legion.

One of the things that spurred me to write about the Second Century is how little we really know about the people who lived here. We have letters written by the Army and sporadic mentions in history books, but we never hear the Britons’ point of view in their own words. Part of the urge to write came from a desire to give a voice – an imaginary one, I have to admit – to the ‘barbarians’ whose thoughts and feelings  about being part of the Roman empire have been lost forever. So Ruso has a British partner called Tilla.

What I hadn’t realised at the beginning was that once the ancient tribespeople had a voice in Tilla, they might just start forming their own opinions about all sorts of things. And they might have some interesting observations to make about what their conquerors called Civilisation. After two novels set in Britain, it seemed like a good time to take Tilla across the sea and introduce her to Ruso’s family on their farm in the very Romanised South of France.

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Rating: 9.8/10 (4 votes cast)
31
Dec

“The call for which I waited months!”

By Vikrant Shukla

Looking back… it was hard to think that I would be able to write beyond a couple of pages.

I wrote a few pages, got tired, bored, exhausted and confused. A thought came up after every page – ‘Will someone like what I am writing?’ The answer was always negative. Nothing different. It is the human psyche, I believe. Negative always comes first.

No one but my family members appreciated my efforts.  “A writer in making,” my brother said one day, and I smiled in reply. I took that as a comment but later I realised he motivated me. He was indeed trying to pamper me to work harder. Thank you Brother!

A couple of pages became a couple of chapters and I spent many sleepless nights fighting and fixing the lives of the characters in the book. The characters used to come in my dreams, asking, “What’s next, we are waiting.” and I started feeling maniacal. I started loving them, started to like the way they communicated with me. I used to get up after three or four hours of sleep and tried to write as much as possible. But I would leave for work on time and always tried to make sure that my professional life didn’t suffers. I was late to realise that Week Off’s are the best days to work on the manuscript.

The toughest chapter to write was ‘A Night @ Holkar Bridge’ as I wanted to make the scene real. For that I went to the bridge at three in the night with a friend of mine. Initially, he seemed very brave and composed. We walked on the pedestrian walkway and felt nothing. I enjoyed the beauty. I noticed that people crossing the bridge looked at us with curious and questioning eyes; I assumed they wanted to make sure we were not psychos or spirits.

I wanted to spend more time but my friend was uneasy there. We came back. Feeling of being there at odd hours was amazing and I agree that the air becomes heavy there and you can feel the presence of the unseen around you.

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Rating: 9.6/10 (7 votes cast)
26
Nov

“I had detractors, Nay Sayers, and people drunk on Hator-ade. But I also had believers, supporters, and fans!”

The Journey to ‘The Journey of Om’

During the month of December, a monumental event took place. No, no, the other event that occurred in 2009 A.D. It was indeed a miracle, but more of a personal one. My first novel, The Journey of Om, was published by Cedar Books in India. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a Thursday, which is the day I usually fast. I rolled over and picked up my laptop and decided to do a search for my book, as I did every morning, except that morning was different. My book was listed! I wanted to scream it from the rooftops, but at the same time I was scared I was going to snap out of it and discover it was a dream. It truly was a surreal moment, one which Salvador Dali would have been thrilled to capture on canvas. Once my agent confirmed it was a reality, I got ready and hopped into the car with my mother, making our way to the Temple. As we drove down Edgware road, both joyous for different reasons (mum because she was making an unscheduled trip to the house of one of our numerous lords), it began to snow!

The news hit the wire and I was inundated with messages of congrats and inquiries how one could obtain the book. It was one of the best Thursdays of my life. I sat back and pondered about the winding and unpredictable road that brought me to this juncture in my life.

To answer one of the many questions I have been asked, I never set out to be a writer. In fact, one of my earlier dreams during my teenage years was to be a point guard for the Knicks. Lord knows they’ve needed help in the position for decades. But keeping in mind my height or lack thereof, diminishing vertical leap and ethnicity that desire would remain a dream. Little did I know that another desire would flourish instead.

I recall as a child writing stories and expecting to receive reviews worthy of Vikram Seth. After that unsuccessful venture, my crayons never saw the light of day again till I was 12. While schooling in the UK, I wrote stories mocking other people (which led to a chuckle or two), until my house-master read them and kicked me out of the lunch room. The crayons went back in the drawer.

While in New York, the urge to paint with the written word surfaced and I again wrote articles about friends, which brought them to tears. With no housemaster to punish me, I continued to write and post my work on the YSA (Young Sindhi Adults) group page. The fan base grew as did the encouragement. A friend, after reading a post, even said ‘Chandru, you’ve missed your calling.’ Those words haunted me. What if that was true? What if I did miss my calling? When did it come? When did I miss it? Was I on call waiting when it called? Why didn’t anyone tell me my calling was calling?

Little did I know, God, the Universe and Fate had a plan. The editor of Beyond Sindh contacted me after reading my posts and offered me a column in her new publication. I started to write and hone my skill. Truth is, I never considered myself a writer since I’d never been trained in the art, but with each article, my ability went from strength to strength as my work was well-received by a growing number of people. Still, I was never aware of where this Journey was taking me. I giggled at the absurdity of me having fans.

Years went by, the numbers grew and messages kept coming in about how much my articles were being enjoyed. People began to forward my articles (without my name), and some even tried to pass it off as their own. Random people approached me and told me they liked my writing, before asking me if I’d like fries with my happy meal. Maybe I was a writer! Many continued referring to me as one. I started to call myself a writer and one day, did so amongst a group of acquaintances. An individual scoffed and remarked:

‘What? You’re a writer because you write those Aunty, Uncle and relationship articles?’

His condescending tone and statement was like a kick in the family yakos (jewels). As well received as my article was, it wasn’t as though I was the star journalist for Rolling Stone or GQ. Was he right? Was I kidding myself?

I nodded at his statement but promised myself that I would become an accomplished writer by any standard, and I would then ask him:

‘So, am I a writer now?’

But would I ever get there? And How?

A few years prior to that incident, I had written a 12-page short story for a friend. Over time, I kept adding to it, wanting to see where it would and could go. I passed it around to friends who commended me on my work and effort, after which I left it dormant for months. Time went by and when the spirit moved me, I added to it. During those early months, I decided I wanted to publish it, but never pursued it with much vigour.

In 2007, that changed, and I pushed forward. It was 75% complete and I just needed to make that last push. A friend connected me to an agent who loved the manuscript. So much so that she stated it was worthy of being published overseas! Energised, I charged ahead and completed the book.

With a complete novel in hand, I approached the agent who, thankfully, welcomed me with open arms and went about getting me published in India. She pushed forth, finding publisher after publisher, but eventually she crossed off the last one on the list.

The voices echoed in my mind.

‘You missed your calling.’

‘You’re a writer because you write those Aunty and relationship articles?’

‘That’s not because of shrinkage!’

 

In 2008, she suggested I send one of my short stories into a competition. A few months later, I discovered I had won! And even though it was later than planned, I was published in early 2009! But was this my calling, calling? Or was I on course to be a victim of more scoffing and condescending comments.

Mid 2009, my agent called me and informed me a publishing house was interested in The Journey of Om and wanted to sign a contract. In July, I signed and waited anxiously to have it on the shelves. Months went by and we went back and forth with corrections, selecting the cover. Years of praying and visualizing were close to becoming a reality.

On one cold Thursday, The Journey of Om was available and I was a writer! By any and every standard. I had done it, but this was just the beginning. I knew I could achieve more and the end result was having my short stories and articles published in India, US, China, Canada and the UK.

Sure I had disappointments on this road. I had detractors, Nay Sayers, and people drunk on Hator-ade. But I also had believers, supporters, and as strange as it is to say it even today, fans! I had the Universe and/or God putting people in my life that brought me closer to achieving my dream. I had a path laid out, and its destination was my desire.

Did I always want to be a writer? Maybe I did, but I just didn’t know it

As for that ‘scoffing acquaintance’, it so happens that a few months later he passed those resounding comments, he followed up with:

‘I want to read your articles; I’ve heard they’re good.’

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those who have supported me on my journey. Your constant encouragement has been instrumental in making my dream a reality.

The Writer

Chandru Bhojwani

www.chandrubhojwani.com

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Rating: 7.5/10 (4 votes cast)