The first interview of 2013 coincidently happens to be the wordsmith who penned one of the best books I read in 2012 – Kunal Mukherjee, debuting author of My Magical Palace and our very own WordMaverick of December 2012. Consultant, traveler, writer and much more, he dons many caps (the one in the picture not counting ;)). A real setting, very real issues and a magical story that what he gives us in his first novel effectively commenting on religion, politics, homosexuality, social taboos, culture, nature, meddlers and relationships. Read him inKonversation about his specially focused inspiration, dealing with writer’s block and most of all writing tips. Read on:
Masters in Physics, postgraduate work in Energy Studies to being called the Crown Prince of gay storytelling in India. How did the tryst with story telling happen?
Growing up I did not have too many options to select a career based on my passions. I could be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer—the three respectable career for middle class Bengalis. So I studied science, solar energy and technology. The passion for writing and other creative expressions was strong but the idea of a degree in English was not encouraged as a principal career by my parents.
My parents are very accomplished writers and encouraged my passion for writing but as a hobby, as it turned out when I finished high school. My great-grandmother wrote poetry at the age of 99. So writing runs in the family and I naturally wrote poetry at a very young age and contributed to the school magazine each year. Even then, I did desperately wanted to make a difference in the way we humans treat animals, the environment and each other. But I did not have a channel to express myself yet.
Fate or call it destiny intervened, and through a series of synchronous events I ended up moving to a new home, and seeing a flyer for a writing class on my street light pole.
I found myself in a fertile setting in this class and my future mentor and teacher Linda Watanabe McFerrin gave the class an assignment. The assignment was to write about the human experience of loss of a beautiful place I could never go back to—which for me was an old Nizam palace I grew up in, in the city of Hyderabad. My teacher told me then that it was the blueprint for my first novel. The loss of this place was so extraordinarily painful, that it was unthinkable to write then. A few years later however, I had some time on my hands and revisited the essay I had written, after all. When I first started writing this book based on that essay, it was a series of vignettes. These vignettes then evolved into chapters and stories and the manuscript went through several versions over a few years.
As the novel developed, all the themes that I really wanted to write about such as punishment for forbidden love, care for the environment and living creatures, bullying, parental expectations, patriarchal tyranny and more, emerged in the plot lines. My characters popped out of my subconscious and started asserting themselves firmly in the story line. So I kept writing the novel. And I started getting complete with my loss of my magical palace.
And that is how it happened.
What is Kunal, when not a writer?
During the day, I am a corporate IT consultant in Program and Project Management. Not quite as exciting as making up plots and writing, but actually quite creative, considering that it is a lot of relationship management.
When not working, I spend time doing things that feed my spirit and desire for a life of adventure and excitement. I love to travel to historic places and immerse myself in a foreign country for a week or two, absorbing the local culture and seeing them from inside out, away from the tourist traps. I like physical activity and have a gym routine. I am an environmental and animal rights activist and am trained in wildlife rehabilitation so I do that whenever I can. I love to visit the museum to see works of artists that inspire me. Music is my lifeline and I go dancing when my favourite DJs play. I go to the theatre and watch films, to be entertained and also learn techniques to help me write my screenplay. To relax, I read and people watch in cafes which I find endlessly entertaining and get to hear some pretty unbelievable conversations. As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. And to ground myself, I take walks in nature. I have a large family of friends that I am blessed with in San Francisco.
Because the city of San Francisco is very close to the ocean and mountains and redwood forests, even after living there for several years I still have plenty of exploring to do yet, and it takes me less than an hour to be out of the city and somewhere completely non-urban.
You, in My Magical Palace, nearly took your reader to Hyderabad and Mint House. Any personal connect with the city?
I was born in Hyderabad and lived there for several years before moving. My father was the Mint Master and we lived in Mint House which was an old palace. The palace that my novel is based was inspired by the same Mint House. It is an enhanced version of the beautiful home that the government had set aside as government quarters for the Mint Master.
So yes, I have a deep connection with the city, and so many childhood memories. I have never gone back to Hyderabad though wanting to remember it as it was, idyllic and magical.
What has been your biggest writing block?
Hmmm…..That is a good question. I think that self-doubt creates my biggest writing block. That can happen easily when a letter from an agent or publisher politely declining a manuscript arrives in the mail. For me, it is easy to get into a mindset of why any of this is worth it and if my work is publish worthy and that is when I have a real block and can’t write much.
However, I do have a system for addressing the general writing block which manifests itself, as the inability to think of anything exciting or interesting to write about when I sit down to write. As a writer I like to have a structure and writing space. I create and cultivate this, by outlining the novel creating a blueprint when I start on a project. It helps to create a plot line and a chapter by chapter breakdown of my book. I know that this will change. I know that my characters will speak to me and surprise me sometimes. But when I sit down to write and look at the current blueprint I can almost always find something to write about. If I am not inspired to write one chapter, I look for another. If all fails, I write poetry or edit an old piece. For me, leaving a writing session without some creative activity is not an option.
Homosexuality has been a reoccurring theme in your stories – your earlier short stories and now the novel. What inspires you to tell stories on a theme that is still a taboo?
What inspires me to write about this theme, even if it is still a taboo, is the vision of a society where we accept and relate to each other and recognize that deep down we are all the same. To me, the greatest satisfaction as an author is when a reader reads my book and can say, “I can relate to that experience. I know what that feels like. I can empathize with the experience of this character.”
Also, I use the theme of homosexuality because if we do not have gay characters that are more visible in books, we will have gay books and non-gay books that will continue to perpetuate the stereotypical images of homosexuals as those people. I want to show that there is nothing scandalous or outrageous about having a gay character in a book or film. Whether they are out or not, you will find gay people in every cross-section of urban society. But I feel that people have trouble understanding and relating to homosexuals as normal human beings who have relationships, have jobs, pay their bills, and struggle through life just like everyone else.
My Magical palace is an offering to the reader to pause and to consider that, no matter what our perceived differences are, we are all the same and go through the same life experiences: growing up, not fitting in, and wanting to be accepted. We learn early in childhood and at school that it is dangerous to stick out and be different because we will be taunted and tormented. Once we learn this, we start hiding parts of ourselves and doing what is expected from our peers in order to be accepted by them. It is because of this driving need to be accepted and belong, that people live a life of lies and deceit.
A society where individuals cannot express themselves and live honestly and openly is a foundation for a society where discrimination and tyranny by the majority thrive. So much violence, discrimination and suffering exist in the world today based on our lack of understanding of each other. But really, when all is said and done, we all just want to love and be loved.
Because of this, I am moved to write about these and similar themes. And to inspire all to fearlessly break the rules to follow their hearts.
You have been on the literary scene for sometime now. Was finding a publisher for your novel as tough as most debuting writers cite?
Yes, it was not easy to get published when I started sending my manuscript around. In the US, one has to have an agent because the agents work with publishing editors and represent writers. I was declined by agents who were concerned that I had no history of published books and would be deemed too risky to publish, by US publishers due to the state of the publishing industry there. I did not give up and instead turned to India where the publishing scene is exploding with talented writers and excellent books. I am very grateful to Harper Collins (India) for reviewing my manuscript and seeing the potential of publishing it. We did do some serious work on the novel for over a year first. I will assert though, that whether one is a debut writer or not, if one is consistent and committed to getting published, it will happen, even if it takes some time to find the right agent/publisher. And now, I also have an agent in the US.
We don’t find many good reads on homosexuality. Which books have inspired the writer in you? Suggest our readers some good ones on the theme.
My interest in writing was inspired by great works of fiction that caught my imagination as a child and kept me reading voraciously. Books related to homosexuality did not move me as a writer necessarily more than books on other themes since I was most passionate about the writing. My true and greatest inspiration was actually Daphne du Maurier. She has been the single most influential writer in my life. Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek, Jamaica Inn… these books shaped my world and my writing style in a way that none have.
Among gay writers from earlier centuries I love Oscar Wilde and E.M. Forster. Among contemporary writers I admire Hoshang Merchant of course, and Vikram Seth, Rita Mae Brown, David Sedaris and Alice Walker whose books are rich beyond measure. I would suggest books by these brilliant writers to the readers of this column.
I also love books by Amitava Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Rohinton Mistry, AJ Cronin, JK Rowling, Amistead Maupin, PG Wodehouse, Agatha Christie and Isabela Allende.
Rahul in My Magical Palace is so real, so vulnerable that his pains and joys get to the reader. He is like someone you know next door. Do you know him?
Thank you. It is so gratifying and humbling at the same time to know this as your experience reading My Magical Palace, because it means that my intention has manifested.
No, Rahul is not based on anyone I know. He is a character I created when I was inspired by the desire to write about a young man who is tormented by his childhood memories of loss and being ostracized for being different, and who has to face his past and truly own who he is before he can truly love and be loved by his life partner.
Having said that, we can only write about something we know from direct experience or from reading or hearing or seeing a related situation. So I drew from all those situations to create Rahul, the character.
Any one who reads My Magical Palace will definitely have two questions – What next and when?
My second book is based in Bollywood and San Francisco. It has an unlikely bunch of motley characters thrown together and their lives get entwined inexorably, creating unimaginable crises, resulting in unexpected danger and drama. It combines my interest in the film industry, the mafia, a clash of cultures, forbidden love and transformation in the face of dilemmas.
I am also working on a screenplay for a film adaptation of My Magical Palace, which when made, will be historic in Bollywood, for its depiction of the themes, situations and minority characters.
Your words of wisdom to newbie writers.
Follow your heart and be true to your passions in life. If you have a burning desire to write above all else, just do it, no matter how much your friends or family tell you that it is too difficult to succeed. Stick to your goals and sooner or later your commitment and dedication will pay off. The universe will align with your intention, once you are committed.
Now, having said that, if you have a day job, giving it up to write full-time on a shoestring budget is not always a great idea. You may think you will have more time to write, but too many artists give up when they do not see immediate results and are tired of not having the income they are used to. So keep your day job and write at night. It might take a while to get established as a published author, but once you are set, you can then think about doing it full-time.
Here are some practical steps that I recommend to all newbie writers:
1. Have a writing routine, even if it is two days a week.
2. Create a list of characters and do a short sketch
3. Create a chapter by chapter outline
4. Follow the blueprint you created and then change
5. Join or form a writing group so you can read you work and have it critiqued and do the same for others in your group
6. Be ready to do revisions
7. Do not keep rewriting the first draft. Make notes and keep going till it is finished. Most novels are never finished because writers keep going back and editing. This is the most important point to note!!!
8. Take a creative writing class
9. Network, Network, Network. Attend book readings and writing conferences. Have a card ready to hand out to publishing professionals. Have an elevator speech prepared in case anyone asks you what your book is about.