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Mayuresh Didolkar on the art of fiction writing

Mayur Didolkar a young writer from Pune who sort of burst on the political writing scene three years ago when he wrote an extremely popular article for India Facts (here) Since then he has written for many popular web portals on varied topics dealing with social media, literature festivals and political thoughts. Didolkar has also been making his mark as a fiction writer. He was signed by Juggernaut last year who launched his popular novel “The Dark Road”. On the occasion of the launch of his latest fiction “Nagin”, Indic Today spoke to him at length on his progression as an author and political writer.

1. Welcome to Indic Today! How did you decide to take the plunge from a standard corporate life into writing. How did the idea or inspiration for writing fiction come to you.. walk us through that phase.

A: I think reading and writing have been inextricable linked with each other in my life. I began reading early (about six years of age) and was writing some stuff in Marathi when I was about ten or so. I started writing English fiction seriously when I wrote my first novel Kumbhpur Rising in my twenties. Very difficult to pinpoint inspiration in one place really. As I write event based fiction, I guess most of my stories start with a simple question- what if? (what if a group of tourists stranded in a seaside town in Maharashtra were attacked by a group of zombies (Kumbhpur Rising) or what if a family lost two daughters to violence eight years apart (The Dark Road) etc. Most of these ideas come at unusual time and places and as an author you have to examine if they stand up to the rigorous process of transferring them on to paper (most of them don’t).

Image result for the dark road mayuresh

However, contrary to popular perception, the inspiration is very rarely a bright spark that gives you an eureka kind of feeling, Most of the time, the thought could occur to you in such a mundane and low-key manner that you may not identify it as separate from hundreds of things you would be thinking during the course of a single day. So, you have to allow that idea to struggle a little internally, see if it insists upon coming back up to surface once or twice. Then you have to be willing to work really really hard building a story around it. Mind you, many times the initial spark may raise more questions than give answers so 10% inspiration 90% perspiration applies here too. If the questions it raises are interesting enough, you are duty bound to follow up on them.

2. How do you seamlessly work between fiction/non-fiction? In a week we see your messages on the Indic Author Network saying you finished 10,000+ words on your fiction story while some website posts a long form of yours on some political issue at the same time.

A: Someone asked me a similar question about how do I manage to be prolific and I replied saying “Because I am a maniac and have no social or personal life”:) . Seriously speaking, I guess my output goes through wax and wane pattern and there have been periods of inactivity between bouts of frantic activity. Though, over last two years I have tried to bring some discipline to the process to avoid the aforementioned lull periods.

While switching between fiction and non-fiction I think writing is downstream of thinking which in turn is downstream to reading. I have always taken pains to ensure that my reading list has mix of fiction and non-fiction and I am switching between the two for a long time so that in itself has helped me switch the thoughts between the two as well.

And not to blow my own trumpet but I do work steadily for about 10-12 hours a day. As I also have a full time business other than my writing, I have assigned about 3-4 hours a day for reading and writing and I divide that time between the two based on what I have on my plate. The key is to ensure the time assigned to writing is used largely for already formed thoughts onto paper. So whenever I am working on a project, I spend most of my time thinking about it, forming my thoughts (or incidents/characters etc in case of fiction projects) while I am driving to work, waiting at client’s receptions etc. Two things about it – this takes a little bit of discipline in terms of mentally switching on and off as the time available during office hours might be short. Second thing is because you are spending your time inside your own head even while you are around your family or co-workers so you might give an impression of aloofness or being uncommunicative. Thankfully for me, I have great support from both places. My family members and co-workers both know I am slightly different when I am working on my project.

A word of caution- for non-fiction writing, time spent on social media is detrimental in more ways than one. To start with, it is a real drain on time as there is an addictive element to it. Second, and more important, because you are creating micro-content on social media in form of tweets/ Facebook posts, you are not allowing the sort of creative build-up of thoughts and ideas that are essential to produce long form. Many times in past, I have found the sense of urgency or the motivation to write about an issue is inversely proportional to how much I have written about it on Twitter and Facebook. This is an area of improvement for me.

3. You said, “writing is downstream of thinking which in turn is downstream to reading”, fantastic thought! Would you give a list of books you would recommend that individuals should read before planning to jump into a fiction-writing career?

A: By this if you mean books about the craft of writing then I am afraid there is only one book, Stephen King’s ‘On writing’ that comes to mind. I share SK’s belief that writing as a craft can be learnt but it can’t really be taught and in any case those you can learn from are too busy practising the craft, i.e. writing books, to write a book about writing!

I have read popular fiction from many authors and I believe a lot of them have helped me and continue to help me improve as a writer. In my twenties I read authors like Jack Higgins, Alistair Maclean, Frederick Forsythe, Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith. In the last few years I have read more of crime/supernatural/thriller genre, authors like Stephen King, Jonathan Kellerman, Dennis Lehane, Jeffrey Deaver, Jeff Lindsay. I have not read them because I wanted to study the craft of writing, I read them because their writing gave me pleasure. I think that pleasure derived from reading is a pretty good test to determine what authors to read.

That said, there are two bits of advice I have. One, to improve as a fiction writer, you have to do at least some reading outside your own genre, to expand your outlook and have some fresh thoughts if nothing else. And mind you, sometimes books outside your comfort zone are the ones that have the biggest store of pleasure for you. Romance is really not my bit and yet I can’t speak enough about the joy books like Eric Seagal’s Love Story and Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County have brought to me.

The other advice is to not fall in the trap of reading only those whose politics/world view coincides with yours. Many times the writers whose writing you admire may have political view point completely opposite of yours. If you have to look at reading as a conscious exercise to improve your writing then you have to learn to compartmentalize. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said ‘ the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and yet retain the ability to function’ As a writer you require to develop that ability. And that will not happen if you insist upon only reading from your side of the pond.

4. English fiction in India is still comparatively a new genre. Some critics opine there is still a dearth of good writers. Would you agree to this assertion?

A. I do not read enough Indian writers so I don’t think I am the best person to answer this. As a rule critics always feel there is a dearth of good writers 🙂

5. Coming to a more political question, the left of the ideological spectrum have been known to produce many great and world class artists (authors, filmmakers, etc) for a long time both in the West and in the East. Why does the Right lag behind? 

A: Last year I was reading British provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos’s book ‘The Dangerous” in which he said if your favourite celebrity was not active on social media then chances are that they are conservative (right) leaning. Seeing how far left hounds those with a world view opposed to their own, Milo may have a point there. So I guess the real question is not why right does not produce enough talent, but why right has failed to create an atmosphere that would allow right leaning talent to express their thoughts without the fear of being hounded out of business.

Image result for milo yiannopoulos book

The situation is changing, albeit slowly as people even on the left are getting tired of the scorched earth produced by this humourless, cultural policing style of far left. To understand the rise of left ideology in USA I would advise all to read Ben Shapiro’s Bullies and the late Andrew Breitbart’s Righteous Indignation.

6. Speaking as an author, how do you choose a theme or a topic to build the story? What kind of research do you do before starting to write?

A: I belong to the instinctive school of writing. If an idea sounds interesting enough to me and if my time table allows, I would just begin to write, preparing to abandon after 5-7000 words if it didn’t work out. Lately, on the insistence of my wonderful editor at Juggernaut I have started writing plot outlines though I cringe using both those words. Life is largely plotless and hence almost all good fiction is built around the arc of characters rather than unfolding of plot.

Cadbury used to have a slogan for their management ‘ready fire aim’ which stressed the importance of taking action rather than spending forever in preparations. I think that is good advice for writers too. In any case it is more fun that way.

About research, you have to do it about topics you don’t know but are writing about. Often that includes charming subjects like what kind of instruments are used to cut open a dead body for postmortem and with internet there are enough resources other than your local help. For The Dark Road, I wanted to find out about postmortem and went to a retired police officer with a set of questions. However, I prefer doing it after writing the first draft. First draft is a very private document for the writer and I don’t like my imagination inhibited by the constraints of research at that stage.

One caution- many times if you spend significant time researching a particular topic, you might feel the urge to show off all the knowledge you have acquired through your writing. Resist it. Please remember the research is only to make your story sound authentic. Unless you are Arthur Hailey, research cannot substitute story. Very recently I read a highly acclaimed book from a young American writer. In the acknowledgement section he had thanked a few botanical experts for their help with the flora found in Californian coastline. Problem was in the story there was so much description of what flowers were found where that after about 40 pages I wanted to throw the book against the wall. Please, oh please, don’t do this.

7. Oftentimes, particularly for young authors, they start writing but never end up finishing. What advises would you give to them?

I have had my shares of did not finish and still do. However, many times it comes down to how serious you are about your writing and whether you see it as a hobby or an additional profession. Professionals very rarely abandon their projects. Many times while working on a project you may get a particularly bright idea about a different project and may be tempted to begin writing that instead. This is a slippery slope where eventually you start seeking new projects whenever stuck at a difficult spot in the current one. This often happens in the middle part of the project where the initial euphoria about the idea is over and the endgame is not in sight. Your character as a writer is on test. You have to put your head down and keep plugging away.

Cover of Mayuresh’s latest book.

Two things- one is it helps immensely if you have a writing schedule, a time that you set aside every day when you will write and two it is important to know that even in a book, you will not be at your best for 100% of the times. The parts you feel you have not done well in are the ones you will have to rework during the 2nd or the 3rd draft. Let perfection not become your enemy of completion.

8. Among the books you have written till now, which one is your personal favorite?

I don’t think I have written enough to answer this question. But I wrote The Dark Road after writing nothing for nearly 6 years and not only did I complete it in 30 days flat but I also managed to place it with a publisher like Juggernaut without any professional contact in the industry so in terms of confidence I will be thankful to TDR forever I guess.

9. And the one author whose writing inspires you the most?

Stephen King. Not only due to the originality of his stories but also how rooted his stories are in everyday America. Also he has been so prolific.

10. In 2016 you were Swarajya’s representative at Jaipur Lit Fest. What was your experience of it. What did you learn from it as an author?

It was very cold :). JLF was a wonderful experience for some personal reasons (met a very close personal friend for the first time in real life, got to hang around with Sanjeev Sanyal and Smita Barooh for the first time, met my amazing editor at Juggernaut Sivapriya for the first time) and a very instructive/ educational experience otherwise. To start with, for someone who hopes to make a living writing books, it was extremely heartening to see the kind of crowds an event about book can draw. On peak days that place resembled an open air rock concert or an IPL match than a lit fest. Also because of their vintage, they attract top talent from the world over. The year I attended, stalwarts like Richard Flanagan, Paul Beatty, Alan Hollinghurst, Nicholas Nasim Taleb, Sanjeev Sanyal, Ashwin Sanghi, Hindol Sengupta and Devdutt Patnaik were all on panels. It was wonderful to hear their thoughts and interact with a few of them. As a reader, I see the bookstall of the festival as an excellent place to browse excellent books from the world over. I discovered ‘all the light we cannot see’ /’narrow road to the deep North’/ ‘The sell-out’ and ‘ 23 things they didn’t tell you about capitalism’ there.

10. Continuing about JLF -now a days there are multiple Lit Fests happening in every city and most of the time the agenda is more about politics and social justice than literature. Your thoughts on it.

As you mention, many literary events around the world, are increasingly seen as platforms for people with highly political and polarized positions. Sometimes a few of them have at best an oblique connection to the literary world.

Not sure if the organizers can be blamed for it though, since I think lately more and more entertainers and writers think their political opinions are a legitimate part of their self-expression as celebrities so the organizers might be simply answering to the demand by the stars they depend on for their existence.

I think in long term this trend is dangerous, since the consumers, that is the readers, have their own set of politics like all of us, and I think the masses are getting tired of the entertainers who depend on them for livelihood also telling them how to lead their lives or whom to vote for. In my case I have learnt to ignore the artist and focus on art wherever I find the writer’s politics contrary to my own though many people have a much more emotional reaction if they find out their favourite writers/artists don’t support their political position. I think the artists themselves need to understand the pitfalls of talking down to the masses. What we see on social media is people get angry when their favourite celebrity thinks it is acceptable for them (the celebrity ) to pass a moral judgement on the same people who made them famous. I think with great power comes great responsibility and the celebrities need to understand that.

10. About the pitfalls of politics getting involved in lit fests, George Orwell once wrote “no book is genuinely free from political bias”. What is your take on this?

There is some truth in that. We live in more politically charged times than even Orwell did and that is bound to affect our outlook. And that is ok too. What is not ok is to start a fiction project with the sole purpose of selling your world view to your readers under the guise of telling them a story. In that case, the story only works like water you dilute a bitter cough syrup with and that is somehow dishonest as a storyteller.

You don’t need to make an effort to stay free of bias but don’t try to ram your world view down your reader’s throat.

11. The last question.. tell us about the journey of “Nagin”, your new book.

It all began with a query from my editor if I would be interested in writing short story/ies with the central theme of shape-shifting serpent (ichcha dhari). I was between projects, awaiting the editorial notes for ‘Tears for Strangers’ when this query came so I thought it would be a fun assignment. I wrote a few story ideas and sent them to my editor and before we knew, the 3 story deal turned to a 5 story deal and eventually a paperback/print edition deal. Juggernaut’s editor for fiction, R Sivapriya is among best editors working today and she harnessed my restlessness and enthusiasm for a new project to get enough material out of me in some four months (9 stories about 80000 odd words) and then pushed it within the publishing house to get everyone on board.

I think snakes hold a strange sort of fascination for us human beings. The stories of ichcha dhari nagas talk to some primitive, almost sexual instinct within all of us. It is no coincidence that the actresses who portrayed ichcha dhaari nagins on the silver screen (Reena Roy, Sridevi and Rekha to name three) were some of the most vital and intensely hypnotic personalities of those times. I think the idea of cutting lose with an alternate identity is appealing to most of us, kind of like Bruce Wayne and Batman. In Nagin, we have veered off the beaten track of love stories and revenge, at least the kind often portrayed in ichcha dhari nagin stories on silver screen. All but one stories have very urban settings and almost all of them revolve around strong female characters. As a writer the challenge was to get these women strong and sexy and independent even when they were in human forms and at the risk of sounding arrogant I would say the book does a pretty good job of it.

As an added bonus, we decided to add some new shape-shifting characters other than the serpents themselves, but I would rather you read about them in the book itself . 🙂

Mayuresh’s latest book Nagin can be bought here.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.

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