From a background of research to being a writer of a thriller book – what has been your source of inspiration?
I always want to write the books that I would like to read but feel have not yet been written. I enjoy reading satire and comedy in general. So my first book, ‘May I hebb your attention pliss'(MIHYAP) was written in that vein. Often writers are advised to stick to a specific genre while writing, to avoid market diffusion. Since writing is a hobby of mine, I am not motivated by commerce. Hence I feel no hesitation in jumping from one genre to another.
Your blog is more towards general topics topped with sarcasm and parodies. Did you have any issue convincing the publishers to pen a book within the horror genre?
In India, the market for English books is growing unlike say the US, where it has been stagnant for many years. Niches also have not been defined as rigidly here as they have in the US. While romantic comedies do remain the eternal flavor of the season, mythological fiction and political fiction have also turned out to be very popular of late. Since I already had a successful book to my credit, convincing a publisher to sign me on for horror was not difficult. If I was starting out, this would definitely have been a tougher sell.
Do you think having an award winning blog helped you in getting your first book published?
Yes, it definitely did. Left to myself, I would have never got over the fear of rejection and would definitely not have send the manuscripts to publishers. Had Harper Collins commissioned me to write a book, I would never have been an author. And since MIHYAP perfectly rested in my comfort zone, since it was close to my blog RTDM, in terms of style of writing and topics covered, the publisher felt assured that the final product would be of a certain quality.
What has been the response of your readers to your changed style of writing, from comedy to thriller?
It’s not that I only write comedy. I have also written some serious posts on politics and economics, like the one where I’ve done a 3-part series on the Wall Street collapse in 2008 which I explained using examples from the movie ‘Gunda’. Since it is difficult to write horror or thriller in a blog-post, people have never seen this part of me. As a matter of fact, based on my use of B-grade Bollywood as a motif, many of the readers expected ‘The Mine’ to be a homage to Ramsay brothers, and the seriousness of its trailer an elaborate gag. However, after reading the prologue of my book on CNN IBN, I suppose I put all such doubts of my readers to eternal rest.
As we gather from your blog, you faced disappointment after your boards, like many other students. So, how big a role has academics played for you, now that you are an established writer?
I did fairly well in my 12th Boards. But in the Engineering entrance examination, my performance was sub-par. Computer Science was what I wanted, but because of my scores I got admission in Metallurgy. This made more than slightly confused as to what road to take. I had also got admission in Economics course at Presidency College and was, for a few weeks, pursuing both Metallurgy and Economics at the same time. Talk about multi-tasking !
But neither Engineering nor Economics was what I really wanted to do. Since early school days, I actually wanted to study English literature, but my father was of the opinion that in the field of Arts if one needs to be successful, he needs to be exceedingly good at it. An engineer can be mediocre and still be a success. Since I could not say for certain that I would excel in Arts, I continued with Metallurgy. A year later I gave my joint entrance again and this time qualified to study Computer Engineering.
After graduating in Computer Engineering, I was once confused whether to pursue MBA, as was the norm, or whether I should take up a job. I did neither. I choose to pursue Ph.D. in the U.S, primarily because I wanted to do research. I am glad I did my PhD. It has helped me to be a better writer. Writing research papers hones the skill of writing analytically, of layering arguments one after another and of being able to anticipate challenges to presentation and logic.
You have never monetized your blog despite it being so popular. Was it a conscious decision or you never wanted to take that course?
I did try to monetize it briefly. I ran Google Adsene in its early stages. However, I discovered that the advertisements are best suited for a photography site, or a technology portal. In short, anything that had a coherent theme. In terms of subject matter, my blog is very diverse. As a result I never got the targeted ads that one needs to generate revenue. After some time, I came to the conclusion that the few cents they brought in did not justify the clutter they brought along with them.
Since you come from a research background, give us your valuable insight into how the research education in India different from that in US. What are the dilemmas and its possible solutions?
In India, there is a significant disparity in the salary between those in research labs and academia and those in core industrial development. While one does understand that the independence and excitement of research should come with a financial, for want of a better word, penalty, in India that penalty is just too much. In the US, the situation is more manageable. An assistant professor of Computer Science draws about USD 75,000 to USD 80,000 for 9 months. You add summer support and the total goes up to about USD 1, 000, 00 per year. This is not too different from what the same person would get in industry.
With two published books already to your credit, what do you think are the challenges that a first time writer face in India and how can they overcome the same?
The biggest challenge faced by any writer around the world, not only in India, is to find a publisher. While Indian publishers are looking for new faces and new voices, there is no doubt that romantic comedy set on campuses is the safest bet. So for those first-time authors writing outside this genre, they will face higher hurdles than those who play safe. But then again, as a creative mind, why do what everything else is doing?
A lot of your readers wonder, how does a writer make money?
In India, it’s difficult for authors to make a decent livelihood solely through writing. If you take a look at pro-authors in India, i.e. those who are full-time authors and nothing else, you will find that they have become full-time authors only after financial success in something else. In the US though, things are different. There the bar to getting published is much higher. Higher also are author advances and sales in general.
What would be your advice to the aspiring writers?
Please write what you would love to read. Focus on being authentic and inventive. If you feel you can write well on bacteria found in Antarctica, then that’s what you should do. Don’t write campus romances just because everyone is. The odds are that, you may not find a publisher at the immediate outset, but I believe that if something is really good, then it will somehow find an audience. J K Rowling is the biggest example of this, of someone who found it initially tough to convince publishers how good she was.
There are many people who will ask you to, ‘go live your dreams’. This might sound great and exciting at first, but eventually it just might end up finishing you off. Personally I feel this “living dreams” is somewhat selfish, since there are others whose hopes and expectations are pinned to you. I believe compromise should be a part of life, no matter what books and movies tell you. Hence do what you want to of course, but balance it with what you must. That I believe is the key to responsible happiness.
Arnab Ray is a famous blogger turned Indian author, who is popularly known as Greatbong in the virtual sphere. His second book ‘The Mine’ is available at Flipkart.
Arnab Ray is known for his sarcastic takes on the Indian film industry, Indian politics and society in general. His blog was awarded the “Indiblog of the Year” at Indibloggies in 2006 and 2008. He has written for several media outlets such as the Washington Post,Outlook magazine and Live Mint.He graduated from Jadavpur University as a Bachelor in Computer Science and Engineering and went on to finish his PhD in Computer Science from State University of New York at Stony Brook.
He is presently employed as a research scientist at the University of Maryland and resides in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. He is an agnostic with moderate political beliefs as he has written about in his many blogposts. His first book May I Hebb Your Attention Pliss, published by Harper Collins, was on India Today’s Bestsellers list. His second book, The Mine, has also been well received.