Friday, November 25, 2016

Author Interview: Shatrujeet Nath

About the Author:

Door-to-door salesman, copywriter, business journalist and assistant editor at the Economic Times, Shatrujeet Nath was all this before he took to writing fiction full-time. He debuted with the Karachi Deception in 2013, followed by the Guardians of the Halahala and the Conspiracy at Meru, the first two books in the Vikramaditya series. At present, he is writing volume three of the series. Shatrujeet lives in Mumbai, but spends much of his time in the fantasy worlds of his stories. He can also be found at Nath.


Q. When did you first realize that you wanted to be a writer/ a storyteller?

A. The honest answer to this is, I never wanted to be a storyteller. Or let me say that in my growing years, I never dreamed of being a writer. Ever. As a child, I wanted to be many things… pilot, truck driver, actor… As I grew older, my ambition solidified at wanting to join the Indian Army and become a commando. But being a writer never crossed my mind.

I came to writing quite by accident, when a friend of mine who worked part-time as a copywriter with an ad agency in Cochin introduced me to writing. He read some stuff I had written and said it was good, so I could become a copywriter as well. I did that, and that is how, from copywriting to journalism to now writing fiction, I grew as a writer and storyteller. My growth as a storyteller and writer of long fiction has been evolutionary. I always say writing found me – left to myself, I would never have become a writer.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for your current story?

A. My current series of novels (the Vikramaditya Veergatha series) is the outcome of two unique and independent ideas that had been brewing in my mind for a considerable period of time. This was in 2011-12, just after the manuscript for The Karachi Deception had been accepted for publishing. I was exploring ideas for my next novel, and one of these was on how some of the Halahala (the mythical poison churned by the devas and asuras during the samudramanthan, which Shiva is supposed to have later destroyed) is still intact, and how it is a biological weapon that some evil characters want to possess for world domination, and how the good guys in the book have to stop the Halahala from falling into the wrong hands… It was for a thriller, something along the lines of Dan Brown’s works. However, I wasn’t happy with the plot – it was too gimmicky, too Dan Brown-ish to my liking.

At the same time, I was exploring the possibility of doing a story on the legendary king Vikramaditya and his navratnas as a band of superheroes. But I didn’t have a powerful enough story for them. Both ideas sat side by side in my mind for almost six-eight months before one day, by some inexplicable crossing of mental wires, it occurred to me that I could club these two ideas (or half-ideas) and create a good story. From the moment the thought first struck me, it took me all of 20 minutes to put the broad story arc of the entire series in place. This is the remarkable magic of the creative process.

Q. What question do you wish that someone would ask about your book(s), but nobody has?

A. The question I wish someone would ask is why I chose to make Indra the primary antagonist of the Vikramaditya Veergatha series, instead of someone from the side of the asuras. The answer is fairly simple: The story is about a three-cornered battle between the devas, the asuras and man for control of the Halahala. The story is told from the point of view of the humans, so they are the heroes. The asuras and devas, who want to take the Halahala from Vikramaditya, are the villains. While it would be natural to show the asuras as being evil (and they are), the idea of portraying the devas as being equally wicked and conniving appealed to me. After all, this is the crux of the story, as told to Vikramaditya by Shiva himself when Shiva comes to give the king custody of the Halahala. “…the tyranny of virtue is as unbearable as the stranglehold of vice. And as you will discover for yourself, the devas are not above deceit and viciousness when it comes to getting what they want. So, the question of good triumphing evil doesn’t arise.” From here, the decision to cast the lord of the devas as the chief antagonist was a hop, a skip and a jump away.

Q. What are your current/future projects?

A. I am writing the third book in the Vikramaditya Veergatha series. The Conspiracy at Meru, the second book in the series, came out only in late August this year, but readers have already begun clamoring for the next one. I hope I can bring Book 3 out by the end of 2017 – I don’t want irate readers carrying torches and pitchforks standing outside my drawing room window. After Book 3 is done, I will have to write Book 4, the last of the series. After that? Who knows… readers have been asking for a sequel to The Karachi Deception. Then there is another fantasy idea I am kicked about. There’s a historical fiction I’d like to do… Let us see.

Q. Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them?

A. I am not partial to any genre when it comes to my writing – or my reading for that matter. I quite enjoy a variety of genres, though my recent reading has tilted towards fantasy on account of my writing fantasy. I am more interested in the story than in the genre. I wrote a spy thriller (The Karachi Deception) because that story appealed to me. I am writing a mythology-based fantasy (Vikramaditya Veergatha) because this story excites me. I want to write horror, historical fiction, satire… But what I will write after I am done with the four Vikramaditya books depends on which story idea excites me the most at that point in time.

Juggling between genres can be tricky, but I think the way can be negotiated if one has read enough material in the different genres. It is a question of plugging into the genre conventions of one genre, then plugging out and plugging into the conventions of the other genre. Beyond that, storytelling is ultimately about how much control and mastery you assert over the story and the craft.

Q. Are you traditional or self-published, and what process did you go through to get your book published?

A. I am traditionally published. My first book, The Karachi Deception, was originally published by Grey Oak-Westland (in 2013), and has since been republished by Rupa Publications (in 2016). The Vikramaditya books are being published by Jaico Books. The process that I went through to get originally published was to reach out to an agent. I got in touch with three agents – one never wrote back to me; one sent me a mail telling me what their “professional editing charges” were. I doubt the second one even looked at my one-page synopsis and three sample chapters. The third agent I got in touch with was Kanishka Gupta of Writers’ Side. He took me on within two hours of seeing my first email, and placed The Karachi Deception within 30 days of agreeing to represent me. He continues to be my agent.

I have heard that there are a lot of options available today to writers who want to self-publish. I have also heard nightmare stories of authors being sucked to the marrow by some so-called self-publishing houses. I have also heard – and hold your breath here! – that an established and respected traditional publisher asked an aspiring author to shell out some funds to get her manuscript published! I don’t know how far these stories are true, but I would urge great caution. I know how desperate first-time authors are to get their manuscripts and stories out – I had contemplated self-publishing when the first few rejections for The Karachi Deception came in. But please, please do be careful whom you give your manuscript (and rights) to. The desire to see your book on shelves is fine, but if you go with a publisher who won’t guarantee you visibility on as many bookshelves as possible, you are only killing your chances of being discovered by readers. And that is never going to help you become an established author with steady sales (forget bestseller status for the moment, please). So choose wisely.

Q. Do you believe there is value in a review? Do you believe they are under rated, over rated, or don’t matter at all?

A. The value of a review is proportional to the value you attach to the review. A reader might read a negative review and still go out and purchase the book because he or she is intrigued enough to read it. Inversely, a reader might read a glowing review, and might add the book to her wish-list, but never end up reading it. How many times has this happened to us – it’s happened to me quite often. Does this mean the review is useless? Not at all. The review served its purpose in helping the reader make a decision over whether the book interests her or not. And that is the function of a review: helping readers decide whether they want to read a book or not, watch a movie or not. The book reviewer or critic’s opinion of the book is not God’s voice.

I believe that creators of content (authors, filmmakers etc.) attach far more importance to reviews than the lay reader / movie-goer does. This is natural – for the creator, his creation is his life’s purpose; for the reader or movie-goer, that creation is entertainment, a short diversion from the cares of life. So we feel elated when we get great reviews, and despondent when we net bad ones. Reviews are like post-Trump era democracy for liberals – you can expect the best all you like, but be prepared to accept the worst as well.

Q. What is your biggest fear about having a book published?

A. Rejection. The fear that one-third of the way into the book, readers will frown and say ‘This is just trash’ and throw the book aside for another.

Q. What makes a good story, why?

A. I don’t think anyone has been able to deconstruct a story and see what makes it good, mediocre or bad. That is because there are just too many factors and variables at play in a story – language, pacing, drama, characterization, tempo, narrative structure, style, depth and perceptiveness, universality and resonance of theme… these are some of the broad ones. And then the most unfactorable factor of them all, the reader himself. Every reader comes to a book with his own unique set of experiences and expectations, so every reader reads a different book and takes away a different story. In fact, I sometimes wonder if stories are not in books at all, but instead are entirely inside readers’ minds, and books are merely keys to unlock these stories in their minds. How else can we explain this bizarre phenomenon where the same book is loved by one set of readers while being reviled by another. It is the same book – what is different is the reader.

Q. Do you read your reviews? Do you respond to them, good or bad? Do you have any advice on how to deal with the bad?

A. Indeed, I do read all the reviews that my books fetch. Reviews from friends, reviews from bloggers… but the reviews that I care most about are the ones from readers who don’t know me, and hence own me nothing. They have invested their time and money on my book in the hope that I will keep them entertained and enthralled. The book is the only thing that links me to them – no shared past or present or future. The book is the only contract between us, so their opinion of it is paramount to me. As a rule, I do not respond to reviews unless they have been addressed to me by name. If the review is a good one, I usually click the ‘like’ button. If the review is poor, I ignore it. That is the only way of dealing with a bad review, I believe. What else can one do? You can’t take the criticism to heart, you can’t – mustn’t – rant a retort, you can’t sulk. So just ignore it. In a day or two, it won’t hurt that much. In a month, not at all.

Q. What is the easiest/hardest scene for you to write, why? (Love, action, fight, death, racy, controversial, etc.)

A. There are no easy scenes. Every scene is hard, especially if you want to make it stand out, especially when you want to steer clear of clich├ęs. Doing anything that demands originality is hard and painful. The thing about writing is that when it looks easy to the eye, you can bet it took many rounds of patient crafting to achieve the ‘easiness’ that the eye perceives.

Q. What would you like to write about that you have never written about before?

A. Erotica. The fine line between erotica and pornography is an enchantment and a challenge. One day I hope to walk it.

Q. Were your characters based off real life people/events or did you make it all up?

A. In The Karachi Deception, all my characters were fictitious, whereas in the Vikramaditya series, Vikramaditya and his navratnas are supposed to have been real people. But the point really is whether the characters authors create are entirely fictitious, or whether they are clever facsimiles from the author’s life. I believe every character is a bit of someone the author knows or has met in passing. This could be a friend, a familiar stranger, a teacher from childhood, some distant cousin, a nodding acquaintance in office… This borrowing may not even be conscious, or it might just be one aspect of the character. Height, build, baldness, manner of speech, an idiosyncrasy… I admit that in my books, characters have bits and pieces of people I know.

Q. What are the most important elements of good writing? According to you, what tools are must-haves for writers?

A. A vivid imagination; a perceptive and sympathetic mind; a basic understanding of human nature; the ability to draw the reader into a make-believe world and suspend the reader’s disbelief; to my mind, these are the most important elements of good writing. Among the must-have tool are a good understanding of pacing and narrative structure, basic knowledge of grammar and punctuation, and a bag of happy surprises for the reader.

Q. What is your most/least favorite part of the writing process, why?

A. The part that I love the most is building the basic story, main sub-plots and primary characters around the core story idea / premise. This is in the very early stages of story development, where, once the story’s premise has been put in place, the challenge of spinning the whole thing into a cohesive storyline kicks in. Here is where the idea really starts taking wing as we see plotlines emerge, characters define themselves and conflicts rear up like rattlesnakes. This is the stage where we are at our most god-like, painting the big picture in broad and bold strokes. This is so much fun.

The least favourite part comes right after, when I have to sit down and start hammering it all out. I know that is going to drain me of everything that I have, so I keep dodging and delaying. As a result, the work doesn’t get done and that frustrates me. I really hate this part. This is the part between ideation and writing, that horrible no-man’s land of uncertainty and procrastination. There is only one way of overcoming this phase, and that is to sit down and start writing – it sounds easy said that way, but for me it is hard. Once I actually start writing though, I am back to being a child in Disneyland.

Q. Do you read? Who are your favourite authors and how have they influenced your writing style?

A. I have a long list of favourite authors, and that list keeps growing as I discover newer authors. Right now, in fact, I am in the midst of reading Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan. I had never heard of him till a few weeks ago, and I am already in love with his writing. Other relatively recent discoveries include Joe Abercrombie, Paolo Bacigalupi, Gillian Flynn, Scott Lynch, Robin Hobb, Peter James, Bernard Cornwell and Keigo Higashino. I think Suzanne Collins is amazing. Among those I discovered a few years ago, I rate China Mieville, Mario Vargas Llosa and Conn Iggulden highly. Old favourites include Frederick Forsyth, John le Carre, Stephen King, Tolkien, Bill Watterson, Alan Moore, Dan Simmons, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne, Jack Vance… I am sure I am missing a dozen names here.

It is hard to say how they have influenced my writing style. While writing The Karachi Deception, I often wondered how Forsyth would write the scene I had in mind, and then I would try and write it the way I thought he would have written it. Very presumptuous of me to even pretend to have decoded Forsyth’s style, but that is how I moved from scene to scene, chapter to chapter, till I finished writing the book. The end product I had produced might be chalk to Forsyth’s cheese, but he inspired me to complete the book. I guess that was his influence.

Q. What is the best piece of advice you have received, as a writer, till date?

A. The best piece of writing advice I can think of comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who says: “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” His point is that when characters want something, it means they have an agenda and will chase that agenda to the best of their abilities. When this happens, characters are bound to cross one another’s paths and step on one another’s toes, which will create conflict. Now conflict is the key to good drama – and good drama is the bedrock of good fiction.

Q. What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone that wants to get into writing?

A. Choose the story you want to write wisely as it is something that you will be stuck with for the next one-to-three years. The story should be something that sustains your interest and your passion over long periods of time.

Q. Tell us three fun facts about yourself/ your book.

A. (a) In the first draft of The Karachi Deception, the last scene had Major Imtiaz Ahmed, the book’s hero, having breakfast with his wife at Wildflower Hall in Shimla. This was the only allusion to him having a wife, but as the scene never made it to the final draft, readers of the book never get to learn about Imtiaz’s marital status.
(b) The original title of The Karachi Deception was “Project Abhimanyu”. The name was changed at the last minute when a friend of mine pointed out that Project Abhimanyu didn’t suggest a spy thriller. I then used Robert Ludlum’s naming technique to pick The Karachi Deception.
(c) In The Guardians of the Halahala, the scene where Amara Simha beheads a corpse to force a confession out of a captured Huna scout is loosely inspired from a scene in Brian De Palma’s gangster epic, The Untouchables, which is one of my all-time favourite movies.

Books by the Author:

Thank you, Mr Nath for this amazing interview! I wish you success for all your future works. Keep writing!

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