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Author Interview ~ Geetanjali Mukherjee ~ Part Two


It was in February of 2016 when we had our first interview with Geetanjali Mukherjee.

Geetanjali Mukherjee - Author A bit of Bio:

“She was named after a book that won the Nobel Prize for Literature ~ by Rabindranath Tagore. She grew up in India, spending her early years in Kolkata; then, attending high school in New Delhi. She went on to read law as an undergraduate at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom, where she joined as many clubs as possible while still giving the impression she understood the intricacies of trusts law. She went on to earn a Masters’ in Public Administration from Cornell University, United States, while trying not to freeze along with the famed Ithaca lakes. Geetanjali is the author of 7 books, although sometimes it feels like the one she is writing is the very first one. She currently lives in Singapore.”

Today’s session will cover a few basics about her writing life then catch up with recent events…

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So, when did you first start writing, how did you develop your craft, and where are you now?

I have been writing since I was 5 years old, I used to write little stories and poems and my mom really encouraged my efforts. I wrote poems in high school and my first non-fiction book was published by an Indian publisher while I was still at university.  But the entire time I didn’t really believe that I was any good, and didn’t really write with any regularity.

It is only in the last few years that I have allowed myself to write more regularly, and I have self-published several more books, and most recently, my first short story. I have also written a novel, but it is still in the editing stage.

I’ve always read lots of books on writing, and I still do. I read voraciously in general, and I think it helps enormously to read in the genres you intend to write. I also believe that you get better as you write more, so I do hope that with each new book I am improving as a writer. I have a long way to go in terms of where I want to be craft-wise though, as Hemingway said: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master”.

Great quote! Will you share a bit about your writing and editing process?

My writing process differs for each book, depending on how easy or difficult it is to write, what else is going on in my life at that point, and the subject matter of the book. My recently released follow-up workbook to the book I had talked about on your blog a while back, Anyone Can Get An A+ Companion Workbook, was written partly long-hand on a notebook in the library, and then typed up and edited. I worked on the edits almost non-stop for about a month, at home or in the reading room of the apartment complex I live in.

On the other hand, the short story I recently finished, my first ever piece of fiction, was written at coffee shops and edited sitting in bed with a cup of coffee. I wrote the first few scenes of this story over a year ago, and the story was percolating in my head, niggling away at me. Finally, I decided I simply had to finish it, and got it done in just over a week or so.

Lest it seem that I am a quite prolific and fast writer, the book I am working on at the moment, I wrote the entire first draft over most of last year, in sporadic bursts at coffee shops and the library. I am simply unable to work on this book at home, which is why it’s taken so long, and sometimes I worry I will never finish it.

So, who or what inspires you and how do you get your book ideas?

Usually I have to be really obsessed for a long time about a topic before I decide to write a book about it. I am talking years here; but, at least, a few months. Most of my non-fiction is the result of reading a lot about the topic, and finally realizing that I have a unique angle or something very specific to say, and then finding the best way I know to say it.

With fiction on the other hand, I get ideas randomly, usually in the most inconvenient of places. I find myself giggling to myself because I suddenly realize that the person standing next to me in the elevator or someone on the bus would make a great character, and their story just enters my mind. Of course, it isn’t “their story” but the story of the version of this stranger that my mind or subconscious has made up, so while I am inspired by real people, you can’t recognize them in the final version.

How much and what kind of research do you do; and, can you share some tips or favorite methods for research?

I love doing research for my books, one of the main reasons I started writing books actually. My day job is doing research and writing reports and analysis, so I am quite good at digging up just the right fact or theory to add to my writing.

My most preferred method of research is a combination of looking online and reading books on the subject. If I am new to a subject, then I try to find a few good books to introduce me to the subject. I prefer books that are easier to read as opposed to dense textbooks, and sometimes read 10 – 15 books before I feel comfortable and confident enough to write about it. I also do extensive online research, and while it can be fun chasing after each thread that comes up, I am mindful of the need at some point to stop research and start to write.

Do you ever get writer’s block; and, if so, what are some ways you get around it?

I feel as if I am constantly struggling with writer’s block, and feel dreadful when I read about writers who airily say things like “I am too much of a professional to ever have writer’s block!” I used to feel completely stuck when I got writer’s block in the past, but over time I have found many ways to go around it or break the block, but it is a constant presence in each project.

I find the nature of the block depends on the type of project I am working on. For my books on studying, I wasn’t blocked by not having enough to say or not having done my research, but at times I found it hard to express in simple terms some complicated concept from neuroscience or psychology. I had to frequently condense into a paragraph something that I read an entire book or two about, and that wasn’t easy for obvious reasons. Then I would simply work on another part of the book, and return to the blocked sections when there wasn’t anything else to work on and I absolutely had to press forward. I wrote multiple drafts, struggled as long as I could, and eventually accepted that they might not be the best written sections of the book, and moved on.

Writing this answer actually made me realize that probably, at heart, all forms of writer’s block can be boiled down to a lack of confidence in whether I can write a particular section of the book or the book itself. Over time I found many strategies for dealing with this – by doing more research, by trying to write a shitty first and subsequent drafts, by breaking the work into smaller and more manageable pieces, and sometimes just abandoning the work or not even beginning and working on something else. Ultimately, I feel the best antidote to writer’s block is probably expanding your skill-set, honing your craft and then writing only things that match your ability level. And this can be both good and bad – if your craft level matches the level of the books you aim to write, then great. If it doesn’t, you can either improve your craft or write simpler things, and then you won’t have writer’s block.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for me, because my ideas and interests exceed my ability level constantly, and as soon as I write in one genre, I immediately move to something else. I am hoping to either improve enough at my craft to be able to write everything I wish to, or become less ambitious about the projects I take on. I am hoping it’s the former, but until then, I am doomed to suffer writer’s block. Of course, if you believe Steven Pressfield (author of The War of Art), all artists suffer from it, and you can’t escape it, only keep showing up at the page regardless.

O.K. Now, four related questions in a row: How do you make the time to write? What other obligations do you have to juggle, and any tips for creating writing time? Can you write anytime or do you need to be inspired / in the right mood? Is there anything you do to prepare yourself to write?

I find that quite often it isn’t having the time to write as much as having energy and being in the right headspace. I can’t write or edit if it’s really late at night, or if I am exhausted or trying to juggle lots of deadlines or other projects. In those instances, I think about writing but don’t actually manage to get a lot done.

I find it’s easier to write or edit when the work feels manageable or I know exactly what I am going to work on next. I also notice that’s its best for me to work without distractions, and not checking my phone or email while I’m writing. I do tend to prefer to be inspired or in the right mood, but I also find that it’s easier to concentrate when I go to a coffee shop or a library where I have no choice but to get on with the work. Deadlines also help, but they need to be in the Goldilocks zone of being sufficiently near to inspire me to work, but sufficiently far away to stave off panic. In fact, I managed to write my first novel in 11 days during the 2015 Nanowrimo, by writing exclusively in coffee shops. So for me I guess it depends on how the book is going – if it’s going well, I will put off everyone and everything, if not, my house will be clean, and my chores all done.

Tell us about your most recent publication. The Brooch - A Short Story

It’s called The Brooch and it’s about a married couple who are keeping up appearances; but, one of them has a secret that, if and when revealed, will threaten not only their marriage, but their social standing.

I very much enjoyed it and can heartily recommend it :-)

So, what projects are you working on now?

I’m working on a book of essays about my time as a student in England. They are meant to be a humorous account of some of my adventures and exploits as an international student. I had the idea for this years earlier, and am finally trying to make time and the headspace for this trip down memory lane.

I am also working on a cookbook with my mom. Actually she is the author, I am the developmental editor and publisher. It’s an homage to my grandmother, who was famous for her incredible cooking skills, and to the food of our culture, which in my opinion is overlooked when talking about really great Indian or even world food. I believe Bengali cuisine is something more people need to discover; and, my mom and I hope to contribute to that discussion through this cookbook.

Any advice for aspiring authors?

I would say to an aspiring author to read as much advice on the writing / publishing / marketing process as they can, but not to take anything as set in stone, remembering that what works for one person may not for you, or vice versa.

I have found that reading the advice of authors can be very helpful, especially when they either validate something that you have been doing and were unsure about, or talk about something that would never have occurred to you or show you a new path. But I also took a long time to understand that sometimes advice that works for one successful author may not work for me, and trying to force myself to adopt it could be harmful and may even set me back from success. I used to think that I had to write at a certain time of day or in a certain way because that’s how several successful authors do it. Or, because I don’t write in a certain genre or I started out writing later than someone else, I was doomed. Now I remind myself of others who do things my way and have succeeded; and, remind myself to have patience.

And that’s the main thing I would say to an aspiring author. If you really want to be an author, for its own sake, then don’t let fear or comparison with others stop you from writing. The single best way to learn how to be a writer and be any good is by writing. Of course you should take courses and read craft books, but nothing substitutes doing the work itself. And write what you want to, what brings you joy, not what you think you should. This isn’t a profession with instant gratification or guaranteed success; so, if you are going to go down this path, you may as well do it by working on what you want to.

Thanks, so much, for a wonderful second interview :-)

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The Brooch: A Short Story

Michael Lim has a secret, one that he cannot tell anyone, even his wife. But how long can he keep it, and how will his wife react when she finds out?

Grace Lim cares about expensive things and outdoing her neighbours. Her husband’s secret can destroy her perfect world. Will she find out his secret, and will their marriage survive?

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Author Interview ~ Geetanjali Mukherjee


There are over 60 author interviews on this blog but today’s is only the second with a predominantly non-fiction writer.

And, I think the book she’ll be talking about could help many people

Geetanjali Mukherjee - Author Geetanjali Mukherjee is the author of six books. Her first book, Seamus Heaney: Select Poems, is in its 6th edition currently, published by Rama Bros. India. She’s written five other books, with the latest being about study skills.

She grew up in India, spending her early years in Kolkata, and then attending high school in New Delhi. She has a law degree from the University of Warwick, United Kingdom, and a Masters’ in Public Administration with a concentration in human rights and social justice from Cornell University. She currently lives in Singapore.

Let’s get underway

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So, how long have you been writing and what kinds of writing have you done?

Firstly, thanks for having me on your blog.

I have been writing since I learnt how to put words on the page. My earliest writing-related memory is sitting on the balcony of my aunt’s house, with a pad of paper, writing poems. I loved to write as a child, but at some point, through the combination of some overly critical English teachers and family problems, I stopped writing, and viewed writing as something difficult. My writing remained restricted to school assignments. I never gave up on my dream of being a published writer, reading every writing advice book I could find. I also wrote poems and the beginnings of stories, but since I didn’t really believe in myself and my writing, I couldn’t really take it far. Even after a publisher in India commissioned me to write a literature study guide for the poems of Seamus Heaney, while I was still in college, I didn’t really think of myself as a writer. It was only in the last few years, with the support of my family, that I decided to take the plunge and “really” write.

Five of my published books are non-fiction; some are study guides for students, and others are on topics that I was particularly interested in. One of my books is a compilation of poems that I wrote while in college. I have recently started writing fiction, I successfully completed Nanowrimo last year, and have plans for a few other stories.

Where did your love of books, reading, and writing come from?

My parents and my family.  I like to joke that I was destined to be a writer, because of my name. I was named after a book that won the Nobel Prize for Literature, by Rabindranath Tagore. Growing up, books were everywhere, in my home and the homes of friends and family we visited. My mum read stories to me, and once I learnt to read, I couldn’t get enough. I borrowed a book every time I visited the homes of family friends with extensive libraries, and even walked on the streets of Calcutta with my nose in a book (not something I would necessarily recommend!) Both my parents love to read, and ever since I can remember, I have always felt bookstores and libraries are like coming home. One of the first things I do in a new city is get a membership to the local library.

How did you become involved with the subject of your most recent book, Anyone Can Get An A+Anyone Can Get an A+

I have been interested in books on better study strategies since I was in high school. I was struggling in the first year of high school, and then I aced my 10th grade board exams, in the process learning a lot of study skills and techniques. I had the idea to write a book sharing these techniques, but it remained just an idea for the longest time. More recently, I started to read up on the subject again, and decided to put down all the things I learnt during my own university years, weaving in the scientific knowledge I had read about. Although there are many books out there on this topic, I think mine is pretty unique because it addresses common student problems such as procrastination, stress, and poor time-management, as well as giving advice on optimum nutrition and the right mental attitude.

What were your specific goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?

I wanted to share all the surprising things I learnt in the course of my extensive reading on this topic, and link the science to my own experiences. I had inadvertently stumbled upon a lot of useful techniques that I wanted to share with students, but in a simple and easy-to-apply manner. I also wanted to address some of the common misconceptions and myths that hold many students back from not even attempting to be successful at mastering certain subject areas and getting good grades at school. I really want to reach out to every student who lacks confidence in their own abilities, or who have been derided by peers or authority figures as not being smart – I want to assure every student that given the right study skills and approach, they can handle any subject or course.

I believe that I have been able to successfully convey what I most wanted to, and feel gratified by all the 5-star reviews I received. I can tell the book is resonating with readers. However, I won’t feel satisfied till I can reach out to many more students, and give them the benefit of the advice in the book.

What’s the most important thing people don’t know about your subject that they need to know?

Most students who are struggling at school (or adults contemplating going back to school), think that maybe they simply lack the aptitude for a certain subject, or that maybe in order to do well, they would have to become a grind and study every single minute. Neither of these things are true, and I found from my research and my personal experience, that good study habits can actually help you to study a reasonable number of hours and still do well. Additionally, if you’re not doing well in a particular subject area, it just means that your brain hasn’t had the chance to develop a solid foundation in that subject, which you can rectify by going back to the basics, simplifying the topic as much as possible, and mastering each aspect of the subject separately. When you put it all together, you will realize that suddenly you know a lot more than you did before, and more than you thought you could know.

What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

I loved doing the research for this book, because the subject is genuinely interesting to me. I also enjoyed adding in anecdotes and personal experiences to illustrate the principles I was writing about.

O.K., what was the hardest part of writing this book?

The hardest part was surprisingly the editing stage. Usually, I find writing the first draft of a book quite difficult, but for this book, the initial draft just poured out of me, and I completed it in less than 3 weeks. The editing process however, took much longer than anticipated, mostly because I was having some difficulty explaining the research underpinning the advice in the book, while still maintaining its readability. However, the hard work was justified, because I have been told several times that the book is very conversational and easy to read, which is a relief, because I am mostly used to writing for an academic audience.

Not sure if this is a fair question but where would you recommend folks go to read more about this subject?

I have a pretty comprehensive reading list at the end of my book that references many useful and readable sources on the subject.

So, what inspires you?

I feel inspired by beauty, art, excellence and goodness. I know that seems like a disparate list, but it’s more like a feeling really, the kind of feeling you get when you watch an incredibly beautiful movie, or read an inspiring book, or watch an athlete break a record. Inspiration is all around us, and if I am paying attention, I can capture it and use it. Just going for a walk in nature can inspire so many new ideas. I am incredibly lucky to live a few minutes away from the beach, and I go there often to be inspired. I look out at the sea and the natural beauty around me, and I am reminded how wonderful the world can be if we only open ourselves up to it.

What did you find most useful when you were learning to write and what was least useful or most destructive?

I have been reading writing advice books since I was in high school, and in some ways they were both encouraging and demotivating. They were useful because they stoked in me the desire to be a writer; I dreamed of it every time I walked into a bookstore, or read about a successful author. However, the avalanche of advice I read also made me think that it was incredibly hard to become a writer, and stopped me from even trying to write for several years. I had so many ideas, and I would pursue them for a few pages, and then give up, thinking it was too hard, and I just wasn’t good enough.

Then I read the books of prolific author Julia Cameron, whose books demystified the process, and encouraged me to start writing, even if, initially, just for myself. I highly recommend her work, and also that of Anne Lamott, Brenda Ueland, and Hilary Rettig, to a beginning writer just starting out. It is important to improve at one’s craft and put in the work, but you can only improve after you have given yourself permission to start where you are, write badly if you need to, and put your real self on the page.

This might be too wide a question but what do you think is the future of reading and writing?

I think that despite the articles that decry how people are no longer reading, there will always be people who love to read. There may be differences in what people read and through what medium, but I don’t think the written word is completely in danger of becoming obsolete. However, there is more competition for the attention of readers, and no one can be guaranteed an audience. In such an environment, I believe it is even more important to be true to yourself, write what you truly care about, and try to write something that makes a difference, that reaches out and touches the reader in some way. I believe that as long as a writer inspires, engages and connects through their work, they will find readers.

How do you find or make time to write?

This is the biggest hurdle as a writer, not having enough time. One thing you learn pretty quickly is that no one finds time, you simply have to claim the time you need, and work other things around it, or give some stuff up. Some things are easy to give up, others not so much. Sometimes (or most of the time) I am not able to devote as much time to writing as I would like. However, I have also recently noticed many ways to reclaim time from less important pursuits, or find ways to do things faster, and use the extra time to write more, or do writing related things like this interview. I am a big believer in scheduling time to write, although invariably I don’t stick to my own schedules. I also think it is important to lower one’s expectations of any one writing session – don’t expect to write a masterpiece, just expect to write a pretty average first (or second or whatever) draft. When I lower my expectations, I find time to write “magically” appears – just a few minutes in between housework and family responsibilities, or minutes that would otherwise just sink into catching up on social media.

What do you like to read in your free time?

Everything. Mostly I love reading non-fiction – business and personal development books, biographies and history, writing and creativity books. I also love fiction, but don’t read as much of it as I would like (except when I binge read through a series). I also read a lot of articles from my favorite blogs and online magazines. I read over 95 books last year, and my goal this year is to be able to hit 100, and also read a lot more fiction.

That is a lot of reading :-) So, what projects are you working on at the moment and what do your plans for future projects include?

I am working on a book of essays at the moment, and hoping to edit and publish the novel I wrote during Nanowrimo. I also have plans for a number of other books, probably in very different genres than the ones I have written in so far. You can come check out my blog or Twitter or Facebook page, to be the first to know when my next project comes out, hopefully soon!

Many thanks for taking the time to let us know about your writing life and your latest book; and, may you have much success! :-)

LINKS:

Anyone Can Get An A+
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Check out her Second Interview here

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Now’s the time to ask our author questions in the comments :-)
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