Shatrujeet Nath has sold ice-creams, peddled computer training courses, written ad copy, and reported on business as a journalist and assistant editor at The Economic Times. In 2009, when he was still at the top of his game, Shatrujeet quit journalism to write fiction. His first book, The Karachi Deception, was published in 2013. The Guardians of the Halahala is his second book, and the first in The Vikramaditya Trilogy series.
Shatrujeet divides his time between writing fiction and poetry, reading, playing with his daughter – and dreaming of buying a small castle in Scotland. Till that happens, he plans to continue living in Mumbai.
Q. You’ve spent a considerable time writing. First it was journalism, then a brief affair with script-writing, and eventually two books in fiction. Someone once said, “Writing is easy. You just put paper in the typewriter and start bleeding.” How would you describe your relationship with the pen?
Shatrujeet: Writing is perhaps the only thing I can do with some level of competence. Yet, the paradox is that I am neither a very prolific writer, nor an exceptionally gifted one. At least I don’t see myself as being prolific or gifted. In my opinion, I am moderately talented, and if I put in enough hours on the job, I can produce a piece of writing that is good.
For me, writing is hard work. I enjoy it a lot, no doubt about that. But it is still hard work. I am not the sort of writer who can sit down and write sparkling prose by simply throwing a mental switch. My muse is shy and temperamental, and prone to going on a leave without notice. I often struggle to write coherent passages, and I routinely end up rewriting what I have written. But then, as someone else famously said, the sum of writing is rewriting. I guess if I were half as talented as Hemingway was, I could sit in front of my word processor and bleed. Unfortunately, I am nowhere in his league, so instead of bleeding, I have to sweat it out.
Q. Is writing for you a personal pursuit or is it intended for a target audience?
Shatrujeet: Creative writing always has to begin as a personal pursuit. You are not going to make much headway as a writer unless the topic you are writing about interests you, fascinates you, holds you in thrall. The first person a writer has to satisfy is himself or herself, because the author is his first reader. Having said that, if you want to get your writing published – and want readers to appreciate that published work – you just have to keep your readers in mind. You have to be conscious of your readers’ likes and dislikes, their biases, their emotional and intellectual hot buttons, their attention spans, et cetera. There is no point in writing something purely self-indulgent and self-gratifying in the hope that readers will fall in love with what you have written. Today, more than ever, readers are ruthless and unforgiving of authors who try their patience. So, as an author, it is important to know what appeals to readers and to what extent you can play with their patience. If you don’t want to take that effort to know your reader but still want to write, I would recommend maintaining a diary.
When I say it is important to know what appeals to readers, I am not suggesting authors should write only those things that readers like reading about. I am not arguing that authors ought to follow narrative templates. On the contrary, I think readers look for novelty, and they like to be surprised. What I am saying is that a book is a contract between the author and the reader. The author has creative and literary ambitions, while the reader has expectations to be emotionally engaged and entertained. The contract will work only if there is a meeting between the two, and the onus is on the author to provide that middle ground.
Having said all that, readers are not a homogenous mass, and authors can tie themselves in knots trying to second-guess what will work with readers and what wouldn’t. This thing is counterproductive and programmed to misfire. So, instead of debating whether it is about personal pursuit or the intended reader, the thing that an author should concern himself with is the quality of his story – that is the only thing he has any control over anyway. Ultimately, an author should measure everything he does against one barometer – is this helping my story become better and stronger? If it is, good. If it isn’t, it has to go, no matter how close that thing is to the author’s heart.
Q. Your first book was a thriller, and this upcoming trilogy is epic fantasy. It is obvious that you’re not genre bound, but did you find the transition difficult? Each genre has its own script, some dos and don’ts – how did you find this gear shifting?
Shatrujeet: Transition is difficult everywhere as it is a move from the familiar to the not so familiar, from the tested to the untested. In that sense, moving from the spy thriller genre to epic fantasy did present some challenges. As you rightly point out, every literary genre has its own conventions, and readers of the genre are familiar with those conventions. The challenge lies in figuring out what those conventions are, and then either applying them dutifully to your writing, or cleverly subverting them to surprise your reader.
For instance, when I started writing The Guardians of the Halahala, I found that the first three or four chapters I had written were essentially about Samrat Vikramaditya and his human allies and enemies. The entry of Shiva and the devas and the asuras happens only later in the book. This structure was logical from the point of establishing the narrative, but there was a problem. As the first four chapters were only about human beings, the thing read more like historical fiction than fantasy, and this would have disappointed readers who would have bought the book expecting a fantasy. I finally solved the problem by adding a prologue at the beginning of the book, which told the tale of how the Halahala was discovered by the devas and the asuras. This introduced the element of fantasy right at the beginning, assuring readers that the book was an epic fantasy. I obeyed the genre’s conventions without necessarily tampering with the book’s narrative structure.
The real challenge for me was not so much the shift in genres. It was more the scale of the story. The Karachi Deception was a single, standalone book set in contemporary times. The Vikramaditya Trilogy is a huge, sweeping tale set against a wide canvas, filled with over a hundred characters, all battling one another for possession of the Halahala. I am still grappling with the size of the canvas and the epic nature of the confrontation between devas, asuras and mankind.
Q. Both TKD and Guardians of Halahala required intensive research, and it’s evident you did more than your fair share. Any interesting tidbit you stumbled across during this process that you’d want to share?
Shatrujeet: Yes, both did involve lots of research, and there are interesting bits of stuff that I did come across. But the really fun – and dare I say embarrassing – incident had to do with “research” of a different kind. This happened while I was writing The Karachi Deception. Towards the end of the book, our hero Major Imtiaz Ahmed engages in an unarmed combat with one of the story’s antagonists. I had decided that Major Imtiaz’s preferred style of fighting would be Krav Maga, so I spent a couple of days watching Krav Maga training videos on YouTube. This helped me get a sense of a lot of Krav Maga fighting techniques, but when it came to describing the fight on paper, I realized that the moves had to be fluid and continuous so that the fight looked natural.
I began choreographing the fight in my head, and just to be sure that I was getting in right, I started moving around my bedroom, throwing kicks and punches and ducking and shoving at an imaginary opponent. I was so absorbed in what I was doing that I didn’t realize that a lady who lives in an apartment overlooking my bedroom was standing at her window, watching me. Imagine what would have been going through her head – a balding, middle-aged man in shorts and t-shirt prancing around his bedroom, kicking and punching thin air, then tapping his laptop keys, then back to punching and kicking!
The moment I realized I was being observed, I looked at the woman. She immediately stepped away from her window and drew the curtains. The curtains have remained closed ever since that day, three years ago. I am willing to swear the poor thing crosses the street every time she catches a glimpse of me in the market.
Q. What is the best compliment your writing has received?
Shatrujeet: One of the best compliments I received for The Karachi Deception was from a woman named Deepal who wrote to me on Facebook, telling me she had bought the book a couple of months earlier and read it. She made no mention of what she thought of the book – all she said was that her husband had never been into the reading habit, but one day he picked up The Karachi Deception and started reading it. She wrote that he loved the book so much that he had started reading books of a similar genre. She was overjoyed that her husband had started reading books, and she thanked me profusely for having written a book that got her husband interested in reading. I think introducing someone to the world of books is quite an achievement, and I am glad I made a small difference in Deepal and her husband’s life.
The best compliment I have got for The Guardians of the Halahala is from the father of a friend of mine. The old man is a Tamil Brahmin very well versed in Hindu mythology and the scriptures. It seems he told my friend that the book has been so cleverly written that it is virtually impossible to tell where mythology ends and where my own fiction begins. Coming from a scholar like my friend’s dad, that was special.
Q. It’s been a couple of years in this industry. Looking ahead, what’s your view on e-readers & books being digitized for downloadable versions? How big a threat is it to traditional paper- and hard-backs?
Shatrujeet: I am not a big one for predictions, so I really can’t say with authority what the impact of e-books will be in the days ahead. What I do know is that many of my friends read books only on Kindle. They insist of using Kindle, which is why some of them still haven’t read The Karachi Deception (yes, it is just absurd that the book isn’t available in electronic form). But then there are other friends who swear by traditional paperbacks, so the war is far from decided. I do think paperbacks will continue to sell in India for a significant period of time, but discounting e-books by saying nobody reads them would be foolish. E-books will grow.
I personally prefer paperbacks, but I have been gifted a Kindle device a while back. Both have their unique advantages and disadvantages. Will e-books wipe out paperbacks? I don’t know, but I don’t think paperbacks need to feel threatened right now. Who knows, maybe ten years from now both e-books and paperbacks will be wiped out by some all-new technology! Such questions have arisen every time a new technology has entered a market, challenging an older technology or system. When printing technologies were first developed, I am certain a section of society would have wondered if this new technology would render calligraphers redundant. Perhaps for a long while it didn’t, but then slowly more and more people adopted printing techniques and made calligraphers redundant.
Q. You have a young daughter you adore. How important do you think is the reading habit for children? What does she have to say about your books?
Shatrujeet: I think reading is extremely important for children (and adults) as it helps build a rich imagination. When you are reading, you have no choice but to imagine every little thing described by the author. There are no easy crutches in the form of visuals, nothing comes to you pre-digested. That said, I am not against comics or movies or television or gaming. To me, all these are forms of storytelling and each helps deliver the story in a unique manner. The immersive nature of a video game, for instance, is unrivalled. Being visual mediums, a comic or a movie is a great way of understanding perspective, and both capture the sweep of drama in a way books struggle to capture. Again, the intimacy and detail that a book brings to the reader cannot be matched by any of the other mediums. So all of them are important, all have their place in our lives as storytelling devices, and all are good in moderation.
My daughter is just under twelve, and she insists that she does not want to read my books. Perhaps this is partly because she thinks my books will be too violent, and partly because she doesn’t know how to deal with the fact that she is reading something written by her dad. It’s okay – she will come around some day.
Q. Any comment to struggling writers?
Shatrujeet: I think we are all struggling writers. I definitely am – every time I sit to write something, I struggle to write. On a more serious note, all I can say is keep at it. You will find that the struggle was worth it when you hold your book (or watch you movie or TV show) in your hand.
Thanks a lot for your time! We wish you luck with this brilliant trilogy.
Thank you for your good wishes! And thank you for this opportunity to be a part of VaultofBooks.