(Published in Sify.com, on December 4, 2013, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/the-travails-of-a-first-time-author-news-columns-nmekctgadai.html)
When you’ve known all your life that you want to spend it writing books, and finally get your first one out a quarter of a century after you articulated your career plan, you think the questions will stop. And, to an extent, that has worked.
No one clicks his or her tongue sadly and asks why I didn’t become a doctor or an engineer or a lawyer, like everyone else in my family. But, in the months since my book Hitched was released, I’ve had to confront several questions from the press, family, readers and myself that leave me wondering whether I should have, in fact, become a doctor, engineer or lawyer. Here’s a list of the most loaded, and most annoying:
“How did you have this idea for your first novel?”
No one seems to understand that ‘non-fiction’ and ‘novel’ are mutually exclusive terms. This is why I created an FAQ page on my website, with a link to the Cambridge Online Dictionary’s definition of ‘novel’. But, when most reporters don’t bother reading your ‘non-fiction novel’ before they interview you, it’s perhaps too much to ask that they go through your website.
“When am I getting my autographed copy?”
I’m not sure how many copies people think I received. I have a feeling they assume my publishers delivered a truckload to me for free distribution. Either that, or they think I will be so flattered at the idea of being asked for an autograph that I will go out and buy them a copy of my book.
The fact is, I received 10 copies, which were quickly depleted by everyone who had access (and some people I genuinely wanted to gift copies to).
The fact also is, the book costs Rs 299 and is available at a generous discount on Flipkart.
The fact also is, when an author starts buying copies of his or her own book, everyone assumes s/he is doing it in order to distort the market figures by creating a false idea of the demand for the book.
“Would you have an arranged marriage?”
As my Autocorrect would say, ‘How the duck does that matter?’ First of all, it’s a thinly disguised attempt to find out what my relationship status is. And not even Facebook has succeeded at worming that out of me.
Secondly, I know that means the person who has asked the question hasn’t read the book, because if s/he had, s/he would know that the book does not recommend either course of action, and doesn’t even concern itself much with the love-versus-arranged debate.
The point I make at every event is that having an arranged marriage does not mean one is an idiot. If a woman hasn’t been forced into it, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to give it a try. It can be just another way to meet someone. Similarly, it’s perfectly fine to be repulsed by the whole prospect, just as I’m put off by the idea of speed dating or dating websites.
I used to be wary of speaking about my personal prejudice, for fear that it may be interpreted as a comment on the institution of arranged marriage. But I’ve started being open about it, partly because everyone assumes an answer anyway, and partly because I foolishly hope to drive home the point that it is a personal choice.
Also, for as long as I refused to answer the question, people would assume I was single, and solicit me for a lifetime of happiness with their sons.
“How much of it is autobiographical?”
Sigh. Of course, every novel – even a non-fiction novel – must be autobiographical. I’ve prepared myself to fend off this question at every audience interaction for when my first novel comes out, but I was to discover I had written one already. One journalist wrote that I “insisted” it’s not a novel. Another asked me about my work of “semi-fiction”.
“What do you do?”
Introducing yourself becomes terribly awkward when you’ve written a book. I’m not exactly a journalist, because I’ve cut back on my journalistic writing heavily. I hesitate to say I freelance, because everyone assumes I need work, and approaches me with everything from content-writing for educational websites to reviews to event coverage (which I last did when I was a 19-year-old rookie).
But, to say you’re an author sounds either like you’re selling yourself, or sets you up for the discovery that your interlocutor hasn’t heard of either you or your book. Even worse, it sometimes prompts your interlocutor to pretend s/he knows about your book, and come up with something so vague you return their nervous blankness with an equal measure of your own. And even worse-er, it leaves you obliged to pretend you have heard of your interlocutor and his or her work too.
If you say you’re a writer, people want to know what you write and whom you write for. Which takes you back to having to identify yourself as either a journalist or an author. So, you mumble, “I write books.” The next question is, “Are they published?” Until a couple of months ago, I didn’t know you could be an author without having been published.
So, you say yes, and then you wish you hadn’t because:
(a) “Are you self-published?”
Okay, first of all, that’s offensive. Second, when I say I’m not, everyone wants to know who my publisher is. When I say “Random House”, their eyes widen, because they were clearly hoping it was an obscure publishing house that was either desperate for a book or desperate for a bribe. Immediately, they want to know whom to approach. When I say it was commissioned, they want to know whether I went to school or college with my editor.
(b) “Does writing pay?”
It’s bad enough when people ask you whether you got an advance, and how much it was. Then, they want to know how much money you make. If you tell them it’s not about the money, they assume you’re not selling. If you tell them you don’t need money, you’re a rich, spoilt brat who’s showing off, and your family is full of arms dealers and corrupt businesspeople. There is no right answer. So, I tell them the truth – that I haven’t checked with my publishers yet. Well, it was true until last week, when I worked up the courage to sheepishly ask my editor how much I was selling. I did get the number, but I also discovered that my contract gives me details of when I will be briefed on the figures.
“What do I wear?”
This is definitely the most horrible question I ask myself. When I decided to take up voluntary retirement to dedicate myself to watching sitcoms and writing, in that order, I didn’t notice that my wardrobe was shrinking and my waistline was expanding. At one point, I could go two, even three, months without repeating my clothes. Now, I can go for about five days. Worse, I have very few clothes that I can wear to events, because the only times I ventured out of the house were for play rehearsals and film previews. Repeating clothes when you’re trying to work yourself into Page 3 is a terrible idea. It’s even more terrible when you’re trying to work yourself out of Page 3.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been only in long-distance relationships. I had assumed this had to do with my need for space. I would discover that it had to do with my fear of a trip to the salon. When you meet your boyfriend once a month, it’s easy to let him think your eyebrows are naturally beautiful, you have no unwanted hair, and pimples were horrors that happened to other people. When you have hi-res photographs being taken of you for the first time in your life, outside of weddings, you find yourself going to the salon more often. Now, I must deal with, “Want to go for hair-straightening, ma’am?” twice a month instead of once in two months.
But for all this, there is a silver lining, and it struck me as I spoke to a friend, who is also a journalist and (published) writer. When you’re straddling the two fields, you know people who can’t refuse to review your book. Better still, even if they hate it, it becomes awkward to say so in the review.