Journo-authors: Telling a story, both ways

05 Jan,2012



By Archita Wagle


“Modern journalism, which is about 100 years old, has a tradition of journalists going on to write books,” feels Naresh Fernandes, Editor, Time Out and author of Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age, which was launched recently at the Goa Literary Festival.


And probably that is the reason that so many take the plunge from writing a story to writing a book. So then in spite of having a day job, why does a journalist, whether a reporter or one of the editing team, take the time and trouble to write a book.


Sometimes it is just the desire to share the experiences that the person has gone through like Rashmi Kumar, Features Editor, Deccan Herald, whose first book, Stilettos in the Newsroom is an effort to chronicle her experiences in the newsroom. “I felt that I was a misfit in the newsroom, I was not well-connected or aggressive or as street smart as others. I still am not. But I was always sure that I wanted to write,” she said.


Sometimes it is a personal passion that translates into a book, as with Arunava Sinha, Head, and, who translates Bengali classics and contemporary literature. Mr Sinha said that he has been translating for a long time but he started publishing only five years ago.


There is a story waiting to be told in every subject, so how does a journalist decide on the topic to base his/her book on? Is it something that they are passionate about, or something that they want to explore in depth? Mr Fernandes’ Taj Mahal Foxtrot was an idea that took root when he was doing an article on jazz for Man’s World. “While doing the article I realized that there was a story in there aboutBombay’s cosmopolitanism. I decided to explore the idea in-depth in a book.”


For Siddharth Bhatia, author of The Navketan Story Cinema Modern and consulting editor, Asian Age, the book was something he had toyed with for years. “I was fascinated by films made in the 50s and 60s, especially those made by Navketan. I would have written this book much earlier but it was only recently that Devsaab agreed to give time for the book.”


Writing a book while continuing with the day job of being a journalist isn’t an easy task. Sitting up late at night, working on weekends, fitting time around a busy schedule become a part of a journalist-author’s life. There are times when they suffer from the classic writers’ block. They go away, keep the book aside, take sojourns, or sometimes just keep hacking away. But they don’t give up. And if they do, the publishers are always there to remind them. “I pitched the idea to the publishing house and they accepted. After that I just kept it aside, it was they who reminded me that I had a book to write,” said Ms Kumar.


If one were to look at the books that have been written by journalists over the years, one notices that there is a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Though almost all journalists agree that non-fiction is easier to write as it deals in facts, something that is a “natural progression from being a journalist” as Mr Fernandes says, but he is also quick to point out that writing non-fiction is tougher than fiction as “we have to construct the narrative out of facts, we can’t let our imagination take over when we hit a blank spot”.


Writing is a book is never easy but what after the book is written or even halfway complete, how easy or difficult it is to get it published. Do the journalists pitch their proposals to the publishing houses or vice versa?


Priya Kapoor, director, Roli Books explained the process of publishing a non-fiction book. The publishers have a commissioning program. Sometimes there might be an event of interest like the IPL controversy. They then research on what has been written about the topic, who has been covering it, how has the person covered the topic and then approach the person they feel is best suited for writing the book.


“When we commission non-fiction books, 70 percent of the time, we approach them. Sometimes it is because the person has been covering the subject for a long time or because they have access and contact required to do the book or if writing about the topic excites them,” she added.


She illustrated her point by citing an example: After 26/11, Roli decided to come out with a compilation of articles and perspectives on the terror attack in a book. Everyone was working around the clock. It was here that the journalistic discipline of sticking to deadlines came useful. The book was on the stands in January the following year.


That makes it sound as if it is easy for the journalists to get their books published. But that is not the case all the time. “It is not very easy for journalists either to pitch for getting a book published. We might get an extra point for our ability to adhere to deadlines, but that is all that we get as an advantage,” feels Mr Bhatia. He is the first one to point out that he isn’t an authority on films, but when he approached the publisher, Harper Collins, something did click and the rest has been published as Cinema Modern, a look at Navketan, cinema in the 50s and 60s and India’s history along the way.


But not all journalists stick to writing non-fiction. Some like Sidin Vadukut, Sonia Faleiro and Rashmi Kumar also venture into fiction. “I would not say it is all fiction. My book is part fiction and part autobiography. I have left it to the reader to figure out which is fact and what is fiction,” explained Ms Kumar, whose book Stilettos tracks the journey of Radhika Kanetkar’s slow raise in the world of newspaper and finally her wedding.


Some even venture into other territories like translating. Arunava Sinha has already translated works like My Kind of Girl by Buddhadeva Bose, considered to be one of Bengal’s foremost writers of the 20th century, Harbart by Nabarun Bhattacharya and Three Women by Rabindranath Tagore. Mr Sinha would love to give up his day job but agrees that he doesn’t get paid enough to pursue his passion full time. “It is not a profession, but a passion. Money is not my primary consideration,” he stated.


After the book is complete, it goes to the editor to be edited. How easy is it for a journalist to give up something that s/he has toiled for to another person who will very critically edit it? Most reporters say that they are used to the fact that their ‘copies’ would be ruthlessly edited. As Mr Bhatia very succinctly puts it, “The book editors have a particular way of editing. They look at continuity, the flow of the book, contradictions in chapters and so on. I was fortunate to work with one of the best editors of Harper Collins. He pointed out several things that I would have never noticed as I was too close to the subject.”


Even Ms Kapoor agrees, “It is not as if journalists interfere more with the editing process than any other writer. But sometimes looking at a particular subject we might give them some leeway, with respect to their sources and contacts.”


But Ms Kumar begs to differ, being from the editing side of the business. “I never had a problem with the way my story was edited. But I also edit copies and that is something that is now internalised. I made sure that the material I submitted was clear and concise,” she said.


Mr Fernandes took nearly eight years to complete his book, working around his job. Bhatia could only focus full time on the book after he quit his job. Mr Sinha makes it a point to sit at night and focus on his translations. Ms Kumar is now ready with her second “tongue-in-cheek” book on a 30-something girl’s matrimonial adventure search. But they are not ready to quit. “After all one day I will retire from my day job, but I can continue to write as long as I want,” says Mr Bhatia. Indeed aptly summed.


Coming attractions


After the release of Mumbai Mirror editor Meenal Baghel’s debut novel Death in Mumbai, which Priya Kapoor, Director, Roli Books describes as a “well written and well researched book which makes the effort to get inside each character, 2012 will see the release of S Husain Zaidi’s book “From Dongri to Dubai” on Mumbai’s underworld and the history of gangsters.


Mr Zaidi, resident editor of Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, already has two books on the underworld connection to his credit, Black Friday (which was made into a film) and Mumbai Queens, which chronicles the tales of Mumbai’s female gangsters.


He took four years to complete the book according to Priya Kapoor. If there are no further developments or twists, the book is set to be released in the first quarter of 2012.



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