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Why Su-prose? "Su" in Sanskrit is a prefix for "good". This is a place where we will discuss and analyze prose (with a South Asian Connection) - that which is good, awesome, excellent, and maybe rant about prose that could be better.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tête-à-Tête With Anjali Mitter Duva

Anjali Mitter Duva
Photo Credit: Penny Lennox
If there is one writer I would tip my hat to, for their resilience, and for standing by their work no matter what, that would be Anjali Mitter Duva. After writing a fabulous novel, which many traditional publishers loved, but did not stand by, she has published her book with a relatively new, "hybrid" publisher.

Her novel, "Faint Promise Of Rain,"is only first of a series of four books that Anjali plans to write. A Kathak dancer and teacher, a full time mom of two young kids and a novelist, she has realized her dream, through sheer determination, courage and passion for her writing. A lot to learn from this young woman, who is paving her way in the world of writing and publishing.  

Here is her bio in her own words --
Anjali Mitter Duva is a writer who grew up in France and has family roots in Calcutta, India. After completing graduate studies at MIT and launching a career in urban planning, she found the call of storytelling too great to resist. A switch to freelance writing and project management allowed her more time for her own creative pursuits. Her first novel, Faint Promise of Rain, is due out with She Writes Press in October 2014. She is a co-founder of Chhandika, an organization that teaches and presents India’s classical storytelling kathak dance. Anjali lives near Boston with her husband and two daughters, and is at work on her second novel, set in 19th century Lucknow.
Suprose thanks Anjali for taking the time to answer some questions, in spite of her launch and busy book tour.

How did you become a writer? Please describe the journey...

I never set out to be a writer. However, I grew up in a family of academics, many of whom had published books, both fiction and non-, so I understood from a very young age that writing was a worthy pursuit. I wrote in journals, and I penned stories and poems that I never showed anyone. I read voraciously. But I had many interests, and pursued a zig-zag of a career, obtaining a Master’s degree in city planning, traveling around the world helping to develop water and wastewater infrastructure, co-founding a non-profit Indian dance organization (Chhandika). Then a 6-month freelance writing gig landed in my lap just when a full time project I’d been working on lost its funding. I discovered what it was like to research and write on my own schedule, to be my own boss, to work from home. Around the same time, I traveled back to India with my husband and took him to Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, a favorite destination in my childhood. It was just as magical as I recalled. When I returned to Boston, I started studying kathak dance, and read up on its history. I learned that a “gharana” or lineage of the dance goes back to Rajasthan. With my impressions of Jaisalmer still vivid in my mind, I started jotting down notes, imagining characters, and next thing I knew, I was researching and writing a novel. The first of four, actually.

Q: Did you have formal education in creative writing? Is it necessary in your opinion?

A: No, I never acquired any formal education in creative writing, I don’t have an MFA or other degree in writing. I don’t think it’s necessary (right?) but I do think that what is necessary is to take one’s craft very seriously, to hone it, to show one’s work to others, to be humble and to take the time to learn from others. This includes taking some form of classes, reading a lot and truly paying attention to style, to narrative arc, to character development, to the rhythm of the writing.

Q: Please tell us how you honed your writing skills?

Once I realized I was working on a novel, I started frequenting workshops and classes at Grub Street Writers, an independent writing center in Boston. The first was a ten week workshop called “Novel in Progress.” It was my first experience in showing my work to others, in having it critiqued, in learning not to be defensive. The class was invaluable to me. After that, I formed a writing group with one of the other students, and, along with two other members, we’ve been meeting every other week for over six years. I have grown tremendously as a writer through my experience of being in this group. I also try consistently to have a book on the craft of writing by my side. My favorites are the works of John Gardner and Janet Burroway.

You juggle so many different things, dance, writing, being a mom, how do you make time to write a novel?

I take ten years to do it! No seriously, one has to maintain vision, so that when the momentum is lost due to life events, one can keep some form of momentum alive. I think it helped that I always knew where the book was headed, generally where the story would end, so that I had something specific to head towards. I think it would have been more difficult it I was groping around in the dark. Also, I have been so lucky to have a supportive family—an encouraging spouse, children who took long naps—who enabled me to steal bits of time here and there. Finally, I’ve had to be very organized, and to put in place measures to be able to get back to work when a little chunk of time opens up. This means having an outline, prepping scenes and chapters ahead of time with bullet points and bits of ideas, much like a sous-chef preps the kitchen with the measuring and chopping of ingredients, so that I can immediately get to work when given the opportunity. In a sense, parenthood may have helped with this, because while it did drastically reduce my available time to write, it forced me to learn to switch gears at a moment’s notice.

What has been the most challenging part about novel writing?

Revision. Staring at a 350 page manuscript, knowing that something is not working, and having to fix it. This is a typical feeling for any writer, but when it’s a novel-length work, the sheer volume of words to reorganize is very daunting. It’s all too easy to get lost and flustered, to want to fling the whole thing up in the air and watch, catatonic, as the sheets flutter to the floor.

What do you love most about being a writer and a creative professional?

On a practical and family level, I love the flexibility of schedule that it gives me. Being able to work from home (or elsewhere, often cafés), to be there when my kids get home from school, to not have to rush out of the house to get to an office at a specific time, that type of thing. On an intellectual level, I like the freedom it gives me, the place to put my ideas, the challenge of creating something compelling for readers to enjoy. On an emotional level, I delight in the fact that my work, and people’s appreciation of it, can be a source of true happiness. On a financial level, well, I am well aware of just how difficult and stressful this would be if my family relied solely on me for support, and I remind myself on a regular basis how fortunate I am that this is not the case.

If I came over and looked at your to-read pile what would I find?

Oh, you’d find all kinds of stuff. Right now, I’m in the middle of Island of A Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. And I need to start Moon Over Manifest by Claire Vanderpool for the kids’ book club that I run. There’s also Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, which for some reason I’m resistant to cracking open, and The Girl From Foreign, by Sadia Shepard. There are also a number of books on 19th century Lucknow, which I’m researching for my next book. And there’s Night, by Elie Wiesel, which I’m kind of afraid to read, but which I know I must.

Who are some authors you go to for solace, when you hit a writers block?

For inspiration and a taste of inimitable writing, I turn to Margaret Atwood, to Toni Morrison, to John Irving. For a reminder that it is possible to be a successful writer of several genres, I turn to Barbara Kingsolver. Among South Asian writers, I reread Arundhati Roy’s "The God of Small Things,” or Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone,” or anything by Rohinton Mistry. And from my teenage years growing up in France, I turn back to the works of Emile Zola and Honoré de Balzac.

You have a unique publishing set up, a hybrid between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Please tell us how this works?

Anjali Mitter Duva
Photo Credit: Michael Benabib
My book was put out by She Writes Press (SWP). It is a relative newcomer to the publishing industry, but in three short years has accomplished a lot. SWP seized on a wonderful opportunity by creating a model that combines some of the best of the “traditional” publishing route—vetting of manuscripts, professional editing and design, distribution to the trade through Ingram Publishing Services—with some of the best of the more indie approach: more collaboration with the author, more even distribution of risk and rewards and, therefore, significantly better royalty rates for authors. They refer to this as “partner publishing” or “the third way.” This model definitely involves a substantial amount of work for the author, and no advance, but I am increasingly convinced, based on the stories I hear from my contemporaries who are with traditional publishers, that this might have been the case for me under that model, too.

On the flip side, I have more freedoms: I chose my cover designer and worked closely with her, I retained the rights that I wanted to retain, I don’t feel under pressure for the book to perform wildly in its first few weeks. Of course, I hope it does, but I see this as the beginning of something that will gather momentum, especially as I have three other books planned. I’m part of a team that works with integrity and is very supportive of authors, I feel I have some control, I feel the arrangement is fair, and all these things fit very well with my personality. And that’s important, it’s a message I try to emphasize in any talk or panel discussion on publishing: take the time to figure out what matches your personality, your career goals, your idea of success. Because putting a book out there in this day and age is exhausting, but it can be exhausting-fun instead of exhausting-draining.

What advice do you have for budding novel writers?

First, tell the story. Tell the story that is inside you, the one you want to read, the one you need to write. Tell it like no one will ever read it. Second, when you are ready, show it to people, accept feedback, and be humble. Hone your craft, take classes, improve your writing, and don’t be in a rush. And finally, be open to new options and opportunities. Don’t limit yourself to a certain way of being published, or a certain format of stories, or a specific market. This is not to say don’t do your homework and research what is right for you, but the publishing industry is undergoing so much change now that it’s important to stay open-minded. Doors may appear and open in unexpected places. 

What's next for you?

A: Faint Promise of Rain is the first of a set of four books, each set at a time of socio-political upheaval in India which is mirrored in the world of kathak dance, not only in the dance form itself, but in who dances, for whom, in what context, and to what end. This first book takes place at the start of the Mughal era on the subcontinent, when kathak went from being a Hindu devotional temple dance to a Muslim courtesan art. Three hundred years later, in the mid 1800s, the British ended Mughal rule in India and established their own, and kathak was banned for being supposedly “immoral.” So my next book is set at this time, in the city of Lucknow, which back then, before a terribly violent rebellion destroyed much of it, was a glittering seat of arts, architecture and literature. Of particular interest to me during that time are the people who fell through the cracks, the people who did not belong to any of the very clearly delineated categories that the British established in order to govern. The main characters are a Muslim courtesan and her half French son.

After this second book, there will be two more, eventually bringing us up to present times. I already have a sense of some of the characters and the story lines, but I’ll leave those a mystery for now. Suffice it to say that they will involve some of my own background in Calcutta, where my father is from, and in Paris, France, where I grew up.

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