Thursday, December 30, 2010

Curious Lessons for an Aspiring Writer: Looking Back at a Decade of Publishing

I just realised that not only are we approaching the end of a year but also the end of the very first decade of this century. Or should that have been last year already?  Regardless, this year, 2010, also marks my very first decade as a published writer. And what a difference ten years make!

Well, actually make that ten years, three countries, three books, a PhD and well over half a million published words.  Phew!  Not sure how I packed all that in, but it has been a fun ride so far.  And yet, today is a good moment to look back at that younger me, at that naive, wide-eyed writer with a bagful of a dreams, no idea of publishing, zero contacts,  and an ambitious manuscript.

There are times I laugh at that younger self, amazed at her absolute sense of belief in her own work (some have, and probably rightly so, called her arrogant).  In my mind, I watch my younger self sending off her chapters to agents who suggest that she make the manuscript more "marketable;" to publishers who respond with a stock letter of rejection that she still does not know means they haven't even opened her precious work; to literary "mentors" who she does not know trade more in sexual favours and big egos than in well crafted words and ideas. And I am amazed that she walks away each time, a little bit stronger, a little bit more convinced that those purveyors of literature are wrong, that her writing will eventually find the sympathetic reader - if only she looks hard enough.

But I also wish I could protect that young writer: from discovering that some of the "big" names in the literary field have feet of clay, that they wouldn't know good writing if it came and hit them on the nose; from realising that many reviewers are driven by their own thwarted literary ambitions and ideology rather than any knowledge or love of stories; from that slow and sickening horror when her very first review in a national newspaper pans her novel based on its chapter headings rather than content, demonstrating clearly that the reviewer could not be bothered to read the book; from the knowledge that much of publishing, like many other industries, is more about who one knows rather than any focus on literary quality.

Yet - now ten years since my first novel was published - I would not change a thing for that young writer.  Those years of fruitlessly pounding the pavement gave me immense strength and the crucial insight that no-one knows my writing better; that there are friends and support in the unlikeliest of places; that the most important quality for a writer is not talent or sensitivity or empathy, but rather absolute grit and obsessive self-belief. Without that messiah-like fervour, few of us can survive the cruel knocks meted out by the coterie of editors, publishers, reviewers (and no, the knocks don't stop with a publishing contract; that is just the first round of the punishing cycle).

But more than anything else, I would remind that young writer of the old Hindi proverb: अंधी गाय का धर्मं रखवाला (Dharma protects the blind cow), that the cosmic law protects the innocent.  How else could I send off dozens of emails to literary agents and yet end up signing up with the only one who believes with missionary zeal in absolute literary merit of my work?  How else would an Indophile reader in Barcelona pass on my first novel to a friend who also happens to be one of the most courageous editors in the country? How else would a naive kid like me, from a nondescript small Indian town, end up with an extraordinary international group of editors, publishers, literary agent, reviewers, readers and academics who champion my work in big and small ways? That in itself is a little miracle!

But most importantly I would tell that young writer-self of mine that she would find champions in other unlikely places: in chance encounters with other writers; in brief meetings and snatched conversations with unusual and unexpected literary mentors.  And perhaps there is no other way but to remind myself of two brief literary encounters with more experienced writers who generously shared their insight and kindness in that first year of my publishing trajectory.

The first would be a series of brief meetings with Ruskin Bond, that gentle chronicler of the Himalayas, in Delhi as well as in Landour, when he repeatedly advised me to focus on my craft and try to block out the distractions of the "publishing circus."  At an early meeting, he pointed out that it was better for a writer to not get early success as it gave them a chance to develop their own craft and ideas.

On one memorable occasion, we escaped a glamorous book event in a five-star Delhi hotel - to get chaat in the Bengali Market. The excitement he generated amongst the school kids when we walked in was the clearest reminder that a writer lives not in the inane chatter of the apparent literati but in the minds and hearts of his/her readers.  Through out that meal, Ruskin got wide smiles and gasps of recognition, shy, affectionate and utterly non-intrusive greetings, and a little kid's loud triumphant announcement: "he does love chaat, he does! Just like in his book!"  No amount of literary praise or prizes can replace that incredible warmth and affection that I noticed amongst Ruskin's many readers that night.  For me, it was an early lesson that good writing is not about royalties or prizes or reviews, but about the abiding affection a reader can hold for a writer.  I have since followed Ruskin's advice, staying true only to my craft, and have been ever grateful for his  gentle guidance.

The second lesson was even shorter and more unusual, with a single brief meeting - again at a book event - with the novelist, Shashi Deshpande.  That she knew me at all surprised and flattered me but the fact that she had not only read but liked my book came as the biggest shock.  I veered madly between pride and embarrassment through the evening, feeling giddy and slightly sick.  We spoke briefly, and later my brother and I gave her a lift back to her hotel in our dilapidated, dog-drooled, student-y Maruti 800 (she graciously ignored the dog toys and crumbs of dog biscuit on the seat, and was unfailingly courteous and lovely).  As we said goodbye, she said a strange thing to me: "Get away from this city; it will stop your writing. Go somewhere where you can continue writing."

For a young writer loving the glamour and excitement of book launches, and literary talks, press interviews and society chitchat, the advice seemed a bit odd. But in the months that followed, and I found myself unable to concentrate on my writing, I realised its importance.  Keeping her words in mind, I began drawing away from the literary circles, refocussing on my own work rather than the "networking." Soon after I moved, first to Barcelona, then to London, and to this day, continue inhabiting the fringes of the literary communities in both cities.

That decision to withdraw has come at a price: for example, only one national publication in India chose to review my last novel despite my editor's very valiant and concentrated efforts. And yet instead of that novel sinking without a trace, given how studiously it was ignored by the press, Indian readers continue to find it, read it and love it.  More interesting is its trajectory overseas where it continues to spark debate and attract readers. (An aside: its Serbian translation also brought back a long lost friend, who found the novel in a Belgrade bookshop and emailed, after over two decades of no contact).  I am now in a strange situation: even though much of my writing is about India, and often for Indians, now European and American critics engage and discuss my work more often and more thoroughly than those in my own country.  I often wonder what Ruskin and Shashi would make of this weird contradiction?

So what next for this writer?

The past decade has taught me many things, but one is more important than all else: my job is to write good stories, to consider ideas, to create debate and provoke thought. And to do all that to the best of my capacity!  The rest is neither my area of expertise nor my remit.  My agent, editors, publishers continue to work very hard to get my writing out into the world, and for that I am very grateful.  They are the ones who take risks, persuade and cajole, believe and hope, and most of all passionately champion my cause.  And they do so while fully conscious that my writing shall neither be the next bestseller, and without advising me to be more "marketable." Those are the true heroes of this journey!

But then, most of all, there are my readers who take choose to spend hours of their time and energy with my books, and short stories, and essays.  And they take the trouble of finding me and emailing me with their responses: indeed, not a week goes past without receiving an email from a reader somewhere (and often in very unexpected places).  And that keeps me focussed on what I need to do: think more, dream more, live more. And most of all, write more.

Happy 2011! And a very happy new decade!