How and when did you realise you wanted to be a writer? How did it all start for you?
I started writing when I was about 5-6 years old and wrote through my school and college years – writing was an integral part of my growing up years – poems that got pasted on the school board, essays that were praised by the teachers, the odd competition or two won in the local newspapers... editing the school and college magazines... that kind of thing. Then it sort of fell by the wayside, as I started first, my working life and then a family. The decision to become a writer came much later... one morning I woke up to the sobering realization that I was about to turn forty and I hadn't even begun to be the writer that some part of me had always assumed I would be.
How did your first novel come about? Are you satisfied with its performance? Every author feels his/her work could have been better. Do you have that feeling?
It grew out of a short story I was working on. My short story collection (which comes out sometime next year) is a bit of a Kashmir to Kanyakumari affair in the sense that the stories are all set in the different parts of the country that I've worked in, or lived in, or visited. This was one of the stories and I felt the plot was powerful enough to merit a longer treatment, thus the novel happened.
About being satisfied with its performance, I really don't know the answer. I'm happy that many readers have got back to me with words of praise and that it got short-listed for The Hindu Best Fiction prize... but apart from that I don't really know how it's done relative to say other books published in the same year. I'm just hoping that it will be around for a while and readers will come to it as and when they are meant to.
"Come, Before Evening Falls" is a novel about a long time ago. How did you discover what life was like then?
Well, it's set about 100 years ago. It isn't that long ago – the history of that period is quite well documented in terms of the independence movement and the socio-religious reform movements that were taking place then. In a way the area and people I was writing about – rural Haryana and the Jat community – were a bit more of a challenge but I drew on some excellent research papers by historians and sociologists in addition to drawing upon my own experiences. Also in some ways the essential rhythm, pattern and pace of life in villages in India hasn't changed all that much.
Did winning the "India Smiles" short story contest help in any way?
If you mean in any practical sort of way like a book contract then the answer is No. But, it got me off to an auspicious start and I took it as a sign that I was right in my decision to start writing again after a hiatus of about fifteen years. And the Sulekha folks set up a blog for all the contestants and I continue to post my pieces there, every now and then, till today. It gave me a platform at a time when I needed one and I was happy to use it.
Any advice for writers struggling with unpublished works and a lot of hope? Such as yours truly!
Well the stock answer to this question is persist, persevere, believe in yourself and JK Rowling got rejected x number of times... but I'm not going to say it... in the absence of an affirmation from a publisher and readers how are any of us to really to know which of us should persist and which one would be better off feeding the pigeons instead? My advice instead is to have a relationship with your writing that is independent of worldly measures of success like publishing, sales, reviews and honours. This couplet by Amir Khusrau sums up how I think any writer should approach their work:
"Khusrau, baazi prem ki mein kheli pi ke sangh,
Jeet gayi toh piya morre, haari toh pi ke sangh"
The bottomline is that if you love writing, whether you succeed or fail, you've spent your life doing what you loved.
You have said instead of writing what you know you write about writing what you want to know. Is there a risk in doing that? You know, sometimes research is difficult and material isn't available.
It wasn't meant as a blanket prescription for all writers. Some people manage to make very compelling literature out of their own lives – it's just that I'm not one of them. Writing for me is an adventure, a means of exploring my world, arriving at new insights. It's the way I'm structured – I find other lives, other places, other situations endlessly fascinating. To remain stuck inside the limits of what I already know seem like an awful deprivation to me.
How do you match family and writing? What's your most convenient time to write?
I write Mondays to Fridays, 9 am to about 2pm, longer and on weekends if something really exciting is happening in my story. I don't think family and writing go very well together. You have to carve out your writing time and space and say it loudly and clearly to all concerned till they get it – This matters to me, so don't mess with me on this. I am continually surprised by the innocence of many beginners – they seem to assume that all of their lives will continue to happen as is and they'll also manage to write that breakthrough novel. In truth, something has got to give... in my case I gave up the things that I felt I could do without to make that space for writing... I don't watch TV, talk to friends on the phone, or socialize much. Also, my parenting style is very hands off... I'm not as continuously involved in the minutiae of my children's lives as today's yummy mummy standards seem to decree.
Is there a fixed quota, as in 1000 words a day or something?
I rely quite a bit on word counts to keep me on course. It varies greatly along the way though... I break myself in slowly with something very easy like 200 words a day and keep stepping the required word count up as the work gathers momentum. At peak productivity it's about a 1000-1200 words a day.
Do you blog? What's your blog's name?
I blog only sporadically. I have a blog which goes by my name on the Sulekha site (http://manjul-bajaj.sulekha.com/blog/posts.htm). Then there is another called Kalamdawaat (http://manjulbajaj.blogspot.com/ ) where I post my poetry in Hindustani and Eh Mera Geet where I post my English transcreations of Shiv Batalvi's Punjabi poetry (http://ehmerageet.blogspot.com/ ), and a separate blog for Come, Before Evening Falls (http://comebeforeeveningfalls.blogspot.com/ ). I also have a poetry channel on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/ManjulBajaj ).
How do you write? Pen on paper or laptop?
Mostly laptop. Pen on paper when I'm stuck and need to doodle my way inside a piece.
What's your frank assessment of the Indian literary scene?
In my more dour moments I tend to think that there are more of us writers around in India than readers. But objectively speaking the Indian literary scene is in very fine fettle and we've come a long way in the last twenty or so years – there are more publishers, more imprints, more book stores and chains, more genres and some very fine writing coming out of the Indian sub-continent as a whole. I try to keep abreast of current writing from the region and every year there are at least 2-3 books which make one go 'Wow'. Of course, there's a lot of really tacky stuff being published too but if there are readers for it then how can you argue with that – you can't dictate tastes and really there is space and scope enough here for many different kinds of writing to grow side by side.
What is your greatest strength as a writer?
The fact that I'm a bit foolhardy and free spirited. I go pretty much where I want to, do whatever I feel like doing with my writing... as a result over the years you can expect a certain range and versatility from my work – it's unlikely to be very repetitive. That apart I strive for clarity of thought and language that is lucid but I don't think I can claim those as my strengths, just the underlying principles... some readers take to it, others prefer complexity.
Did online literary groups help in the writing process?
Yes, they are a wonderful place to test out your writing voice, experiment with new styles, get feedback when you're starting out. You just have to use them with a certain degree of discernment... make sure you don't get stuck in a cyber-ghetto of sorts. Many people get so complacent inside of the writing forums they are part of that they forget that there's a larger world out there with far more exacting standards.
Anything else you would like to say?
I think it's very important to have at least a couple of close, real life writer friends. People who like both you and your writing and vice versa, who you can trust absolutely to give you honest feedback, who'll hold your hand through writer-ly neurosis and despair, kick you in the butt if you're getting too bloody minded or complacent, and celebrate with you any success that you might have, and whom you'll do the same for unreservedly. It makes the writing life that much easier and safeguards you from the danger of taking everything that happens to you too personally... mostly its par for the course stuff.
Thanks John and best of luck with your own writing.