Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Tidbit Tuesday: This author's start

Hey beautiful people
Today I thought I'd share with you how I got started and sucked into this whole maddening world of writing and publishing.

You know those childhood dreams - one day when I grow up I want to be... I wanted to write, create stories, invent people. I never thought I'd get to do it though. Frankly, in Mauritius, nobody I knew personally wrote. I'd heard of the big names of Mauritian literature like Lindsey Collen, Marie Therese Humbert, Ananda Devi, Jean-Marie Leclezio (yes, the very same who won the Nobel Prize a little while ago!) - but these were people akin to celebrities, the ones you'd never get to see let alone meet! So the dream went on the backburner for that 'one day when I retire maybe'. A life in corporate sounded much more like what Mauritian women are used to.

In high school, flashes of the dream made it to the fore, when I took every opportunity to pen short stories for my languages essays. I remember in my O-level class, one story-writing prompt was 'The Traitor'. I actually wrote a 1,300 words piece on that. The setting -  a small fishing village in Italy. The story in a nutshell - heroine was from a Mafia family, but she was the one who pulled the strings behind her Mafia-boss father and fiance's works - putting to good use the saying "behind every great man stands a woman".
I think my mom still has a copy of that story in all the memorabilia she stored about my growing up!

That aside - here I was at 21. Married, mom to a toddler, first-level university student, avid dreamer, relentless reader. December of 2004 - in between two uni semesters, I grabbed the epic novel A Suitable Boy by author Vikram Seth. Set in India at the time of independence and Partition (1947), it follows the life of a few families and a heroine, Lata, against the backdrop of the emergence of the Indian nation in a world dominated by politics. Paperback-sized novel, 1200+ pages, TNR 8 font. I must've read it in less than 2 weeks!
In my currently-reading pile there was also a book called See Jane Date by Melissa Senate (Red Dress Ink). At the back of the book was a page with something like - think you can write a similar book? Give it a try, with a link to the eHarlequin website.

I started thinking of a story about a divorcee who faces Mauritian society and all its double standards for non-conforming women at that time (my first marriage to a British national had ended in divorce, and I too had faced this double-standard first-hand). I thought - I want to do for Mauritian society what Vikram Seth did for India and Indians; I want to do for other readers the kind of fun, light story of the RDI line; I want to do for modern Mauritian women what Gurinder Chadha did for modern Indian girls in Bend It Like Beckham.

Tall order - I know! :)

I started to pen this story. Longhand, on an old school copybook I still kept. The start back then saw the heroine, who I decided to name Lara (one of my favourite names!), getting a call in England from her Mauritian neighbour Salim, because Salim's mom and Lara's mom and every other auntie in the area have decided it's high time he be taken off the eleigible bachelors' list. Lara puts him in touch with her best friend Sameera, a career gal who has sworn off marriage, to get them to pose as a couple for a while so the old biddies will let off. When Lara puts the phone down, her husband of 9 years, Roy, comes in and the scene shows how mundane and humdrum their life is. Theirs was an arranged marriage, btw.

Fast forward 2 months. March, 3, 2005, I celebrate my 22nd birthday. No one knows I'm writing (badly at that, but lol, there was hope!). Nothing could be better in my world. Until March 13, 2005 - 11 AM. I'm taking a shower, and feel a golf-ball sized lump in my left breast. Run to the doctor. March 16, I have surgery to remove the lump. I'm told it's probably benign.
March 22, and my world totally collapses - the results of the standard biopsy come in. It's cancer. Malignant, and very aggressive.
That's the day I tell my husband I've started a book. I think we both grabbed onto this story-writing bit like a safety raft, because he told me, if you want to write, go for it. One day that might never come, starts today if you decide so.
On March 24, I have extensive surgery. Two weeks later, my surgery wound has barely healed but I've already been through a barrage of tests for potential treatment and I start chemo somewhere in April. 6 cycles, 3 weeks apart. The doctor gives me the biggest amount of medicine I can physically take on because I'm still young and my cancer was extremely aggressive (non-hormonal and genetic - the worse you can get!). In the early cycles, I can still eat some dry rice with some ground meat or chicken. By mid-term of the treatment, I can't even hold down one sip of water without throwing it up. This lasts 72 hours after each cycle.
Chemo is done, but I'm not out of the woods yet. I still need radiotherapy, which is basically radiation therapy to 'burn' every cell of the affected area. 5 weeks of this, every workday. By 3 weeks, my left side is looking like what a nuclear-bomb immediate survivor must've looked like. I had to always have 2 inches of a special cream on my burnt left side to be able to function normally.

That was 5 years ago, and thank goodness that's a nightmare time I have put behind me.

So back to writing - when did you think I wrote? Did I mention right after my diagnosis I had joined the eHarlequin boards where I met a writer who had her own critique group? (later that year she'd open the group into different genres and in 2006 I'd meet Lee Morris aka TJ Killian on the paranormal loop - see post of last Thursday for more info). I was honing my craft, and before that, I had found the link to Charlotte Dillon's site on the eHarlequin board. I must've read each and every link posted on Charlotte's site! I wrote, rewrote, and rewrote, since I knew the beginning I had penned in longhand was actually backstory and not the starting point of my story per se.

Yes - I wrote on the 2-3 days prior to a chemo cycle. The dread had me in knots, and I couldn't sleep. So I sat at the PC and I just wrote. Chemo was my propeller to get this story told.

I posted my first draft for critique around May 2005. Biggest revelation - I wrote in omniscient! No wonder, because that was the way Vikram Seth had penned his. Researched 3rd person since most romance books are in 3rd person (tried 1st person but we didn't click). Streamlined the opening - Lara is now already divorced, and what pushes her to leave London for Mauritius, via accepting a prestigious job, is the sight of her ex-husband of barely a year with his already-pregnant new wife. Oh yes - they broke up because Lara didn't want children.

So with my critique partners, I wrote. Reached about halfway (she meets her former love, whom she left because he was White and she Indian, the cultural clash, the fear of what their families would say) and the romance is burning strong between them. We are now in September.

In the papers, I come across an article on Editions de l'Ocean Indien, one of the biggest and most prestigious publishing houses in Mauritius. Known mostly for their non-fiction and school textbooks, they were issuing a call to local authors because they wanted to take their fiction line to a new dawn.
However, no submission guidelines, not even what they're looking for, word count, and all the lovely hoopla (can you tell I was seriously immersed in the publishing world information by then?). So I think, what would it hurt to call and ask? Which is what I do.

A man answers, and when I ask him those details, he tells me that it's the acqusitions manager who could better inform me, but the lady was busy in a meeting and to leave my name and number. Yeah, right, I thought. I know that 'excuse', having worked as a secretary myself. Still, I give him my details.

Would you believe it - the next day, the lady calls! I'm floored. I ask for the information, and she asks what I have in mind. I tell her I'm writing a novel. What's it about, she asks? (and here I think, pitch, pitch, pitch!). I go, it's the story of a 29-year old divorcee who comes back to Mauritius after 10 years and finds she's a second-grade citizen now because she is 'used goods. In the midst of it all, she comes across her first love, a White man, who now wants to win her back. Will she have the guts to go against this society that has already cast away to answer the call of love?

The lady goes, that's interesting. I want to see it.

Phone nearly slips. I go, you want the partial?

"No. The full."

This time, I do fall from my chair! I gather my departed wits and reply that I'd get it to her ASAP.

Cut the call, and I'm hyperventilating. Log onto the Net, go to critique loop, and bawl out - editor wants full and I haven't even finished the thing!

Manage to calm myself down. Panic in check. It can't be worse than studying for an exam and starting the course work just 3 days before said exam (which I did have to do, in the semester right after my son was born). Tell myself - you have to make this work, girl. First order of the day - plot the rest of the book. Figure out everything that happens till the end (I'm in radiotherapy at this time, btw). Write the story, get it critted, cleaned, and polished.

End of November - I go to the publisher's office in a town about 25 kms away, the thick, printed ms in an envelope under my arm. Ask the guy on reception to drop this parcel to the editor. He asks for my name, which I give...

...and he goes, that's your ms, right? I remember you, you'd called a few weeks back asking for publishing guidelines.

Side note here - always treat everyone with deference and respect! I'd only spoken once with that guy on the phone - 3 months later he still remembered me and my purpose.

I sit back and wait. January - a new uni semester starts. I hadn't signed up for the second semester of 2005 because of my cancer treatments. I also start work on my second story, which followed Lara's younger sister Diya and her plight to find Mr. Right in a world full of frogs (novel which would become Light My World, my second published book).

March 2006 - 5 months after I had dropped the ms, the acquisitions' editor calls. The verdict - we're gonna put the book out; will you please come in to sign the papers and meet your editor?

The book, The Other Side (under the pen name of Aasiyah Qamar) was finally released on its first print run in April 2007 in a book launch ceremony that commemorated World Book Day and saw the book being launched by the Minister of Arts and Culture of Mauritius.

I haven't looked back ever since! The book has been favourably reviewed by every major paper on the island. Mauritius' version of Cosmopolitan, a magazine called Essentielle, featured it as a Must-read book accompanied by an interview of me. Last year, a school friend of mine who is now a literature tutor at the University of Nottingham attended a conference in Europe and found that The Other Side was listed as modern Indian Ocean literature in the library of the University of Barcelona.
To this day, 3 years later, the book enjoys steady sales and keeps being referred to readers among romance-loving circles.

This, peeps, has been my start and debut in the writing world. I know, it's tough to beat that now in everything else I do, but you know what? I just want to write, and have people reading my books and enjoying them.

That's the real tall order!

From Mauritius with love,



Chicki Brown said...

What a story!

I'm just glad you didn't allow anything to deter you from writing. You have a unique voice and you tell wonderful stories. Keep it up, girl.

Sandy said...

I'm glad you made the five years cancer free, Z. That's the most important thing.

Zee Monodee said...

Thanks Chicki.

My mom always told me I was stubborn to a fault and would put a mule to shame, :) Guess that pays off where writing is concerned!


Zee Monodee said...

Thanks Sandy. I should get the all-clear at the end of this year, hopefully.

Unknown said...

Zee, you are an extraordinary person with a beautiful writing voice. You deserve all the good things that come your way. I'm always inspired by persistence and dedication xxxx

Zee Monodee said...

Thanks Angela! In many instances, I held on because I had wonderful people like you in my entourage.