Shatrujeet Nath is one of those rare persons who are so simple and modest that you never realise that you are speaking to a ‘National Bestselling Author’. Unlike many bestselling books in today’s Indian literary scene, that have huge marketing budgets attached to them, the Vikramaditya Veergatha series had an ordinary beginning and has been rising to fame based on the quality of writing, the intriguing characters and well laid-out plot. Today, we have Shatrujeet Nath talking about his writing career in a no-holds-barred interview.
- Door-to-door salesman to National bestselling author! That sounds like an interesting journey. How did that happen?
Unlike my writing, my life is poorly plotted. I’ve almost always drifted from one thing to another without putting too much thinking into it. For the most part, life has worked its patterns around me while I moved along without any clear sense of purpose or direction. When I was in college, I worked part-time at an ice-cream parlour, where I got a sense that I was good at sales and marketing. I did sell computer training courses for NIIT for a bit after that, but then a few friends in college said I was good at writing, so maybe I should get into an ad agency as a copywriter. I took their suggestion, and for almost four years, I wrote jingles and ad copy. But then I tired of that and wanted to get into journalism. Fortunately, because of my stint in advertising, I understood stuff about branding and advertising, so I got hired by A&M magazine in Delhi in 1998. From there all the way till 2009, I stuck to journalism, writing about advertising and marketing. It was during the fag end of that phase that I realized I wanted to write fiction, so I quit as assistant editor at The Economic Times to start writing what became my first book, The Karachi Deception. From there to the Vikramaditya Veergatha series to the bestselling-author tag was all more carefully planned, so I guess age and maturity have stood me in good stead.
- ‘Writing as a profession’ or ‘writing as a passion’? What would your advice be and why?
I would like to say that it has to start as a passion before it can ever become a profession. That sounds more romantic, more inspiring. But the truth is it doesn’t have to be that way. Take my example. All through my childhood and early adolescence, I never once dreamed of being a writer. In school, I never wrote anything of any significance, despite my mother’s best efforts to push me in that direction. It wasn’t until I was in college that I entered my first essay writing competition – which I incidentally also happened to win. Even then, writing as a career option wasn’t something I seriously considered. It was only after I got into journalism that I saw writing as something that would help me pay the bills in the long term.
I won’t even pretend that I was passionate about writing. I’ve never felt that itch to write, that undying desire to put my thoughts into words. Yes, it happened sometimes, but it wasn’t a constant, nagging thing. It is only now, over the last five-six years, that I approach my writing with some passion. This is not to say that I did not enjoy writing when I was in journalism. I loved words and what I could do with them. But it wasn’t the end in itself. I guess even today, it isn’t. I see myself as a storyteller first and then as a writer. The writer is the means, the conduit, for the storyteller in me. Storytelling is the end, not the writing.
I guess you can’t be a professional writer if you are not, at some level, passionate about your writing. You have to care about the words, fall in love with the rhythm of the sentences and set yourself adrift in the flow of the narrative to derive joy out of the writing process. And if you can’t derive the joy, it won’t be a profession for long.
- Who is your writing mentor? How did this person influence you?
As I said, I didn’t come into the profession of writing because I wanted to write. So I don’t have a writing mentor, per se. But yes, I have been influenced by many people whose writing I admire. My good friend and senior in college, Harikrishnan Menon, whose singular wit is something I hope to emulate one day. My good friend and ex-colleague at The Economic Times, Ravi Balakrishnan, whose ability to string together sentence after sentence of acerbic humour is downright enviable. My ex-boss Sreekant Khandekar, who is such an effortless writer. My wife Pragya, for her ability to surprise through minimalism. I also consider authors like RL Stevenson, Jules Verne, Frederick Forsyth, Alistair MacLean, John le Carre, Stephen King, and more recently, China Mieville to be influences from a storytelling point of view.
- What is the worst thing that you were asked as a writer?
The worst thing I get asked – and I am not the only one, other writers face this as well – is when people tell me that they want to read my book, so can I give them a free copy. That’s not the way they ask, of course. It’s usually like “how can I get my hands on an author-signed copy?” The right way would be by buying my book and waiting for an opportunity to meet me and getting that copy signed, but that’s not what they want, obviously. They want me to sign a copy and send it to them by courier or Speedpost – which, of course, I will have to pay for as well. Friends asking this is bad enough. But I get so many random strangers asking me this, and I wonder how they miss the irony of it. Writing books is my business, my livelihood. This is now I survive. How do you expect me to live if I hand books out for free. I mean, I am sure people have friends working at Maruti Suzuki or Apple or Voltas. They don’t mail those friends saying “mujhe ek Wagon R bhej dena please” or “can you have an iPhone 7 Plus delivered to me” or whatever. Then how does it become okay to ask authors for free copies? It just bugs me no end.
- Describe your writing routine.
I like to start writing right after breakfast. The sooner I start, the more I achieve writing. I like to write through the day, but that’s not always possible because some of the time, when a new idea or new possibility strikes you, you just sit and stare into space, tossing the idea around in your mind – which looks suspiciously like goofing off to the lay observer. I am at my productive best from the evening onwards, which could be a hold-over from my days in journalism, where stories usually get filed towards the end of the day. So there are times when my writing is in its finest flow between seven and eleven at the night. I view my writing as my job, so I do not write on weekends and holidays if I can help it. Should an idea or thought strike me on weekends or holidays, I make a note of it and return to it on the next working day.
- What is one thing that any newbie writer must do?
Realize that some days, the muse will not show up. Those days, specifically, the writer must.
- If you could name only one favourite author and one favourite book, what would that be?
One favourite author would be Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes. The favourite book would be Treasure Island by RL Stevenson.
- What is a genre that you can never see yourself write?
- Name one lesser-known writer that you would hugely recommend.
Lesser-known is a relative term. I had never heard of Ursula Le Guin until her death earlier this year. Quite shameful, but that is not my point. For me, she is a lesser-known author, despite being such an icon. But to answer your question, I think of a name like Paolo Bacigalupi, especially in India. He is a remarkable fantasy writer, and his ideas, concepts and world-building are really striking. I have read his short stories, as well as his novels The Wind-Up Girl and The Water Knife.
- What would be one thing you wish you could undo in your writing career?
I am not much of a fan of undoing things, using the reset button, control-zed-ing et cetera. I believe we are a product of everything that we have done, good, bad and indifferent. The road we have chosen to walk has brought us to where we are, what we have done makes us uniquely who we are. Remove or change one thing, and we stop being what we are. And once we start the process, there is no end to the cosmetic surgery. So no, I do not wish to undo anything in my writing career. Nor in my life.
- What do you prefer – writing books or writing for the screen? Why?
Writing books because in books, everything has to be built ground-up, everything needs to be handled organically, because your words are the only way your readers can access the world of your story and be amazed. There is no fancy camera work, no snazzy editing or sound engineering, no AR Rahman score, no Shah Rukh or Salman Khan or Tom Hanks to cover up for your sloppy writing. In books, it is the writing alone that shines triumphant or falls like a house of cards. There is something inherently granular in writing books, which is absent while writing for the screen. But at the same time, there is so much more money in the screen trade. I really wish there was a way of combining the pleasure of writing books, with the payoff of writing for the screen.
Shatrujeet Nath is the creator of the runaway national bestseller series Vikramaditya Veergatha, a four-book mytho-fantasy arc which includes The Guardians of the Halahala, The Conspiracy at Meru and The Vengeance of Indra. Described as “a new face to Indian mythology” by DNA, Shatrujeet writes for movies and web shows as well. He is also the author of The Karachi Deception, an Indo-Pak spy thriller.