Sunday, March 30, 2014

9 untamed questions: Interview of fiery Pakistani author Natasha Ahmed

Natasha Ahmed is the kind of woman whose words are as unabashed as her personality. Trapped in a morass of social prejudices and restrictions, she has tried to breathe free by unleashing her pen and wielding a story where the protagonist is a woman with a rebellious streak (much like the author herself).

The 40-plus author from Pakistan shatters established norms, pens a story under a pseudonym to conceal her identity and publishes a controversial work at the risk of getting a Fatwa on her head.

Here is how she introduces her work:

My book, Butterfly Season, was launched on March 20, 2014, on Amazon and on my publisher's site, Indireads. The story is basically a romance, but it's about a Pakistani woman who falls for a guy and contemplates sleeping with him – something most Pakistanis/Muslims will identify with as 'No Sex Before Marriage' has been drummed into our heads since childhood. My protagonist, Rumi, has to make a choice between love and culture.  

A deeper probe into her mind helped me extract a few more words out of her:

Q1)  Dear Natasha, congratulations for your debut novel. A lot of authors are already a few novels old by the time they hit 30. Do you have regrets you didn’t pick the pen earlier?

Natasha: The last time I tried writing a book was when I was 16. A friend and I got together and tried to collaborate on a mystery that went nowhere. Around that same time, we got a new art teacher, a young dynamic woman who inspired me so much, I dropped the idea of writing in favor of art. I went to art school because of her and now I’m a graphic designer, have been for 20 years. I draw, I paint, I create websites, I design logos and campaigns, and I have loved it. So no, I don’t regret it.
Lately, however, my design work has become mostly corporate, which is very stale and repetitive and I’m ready to give that up. On the other hand, I fully intend to continue drawing; in fact, I hope to get more time to do so if good book sales mean I can give up corporate design. Maybe I’ll even write a graphic novel!

Q2) Your book slams social prejudices and even goes on to advocate adultery. So why a title like ‘Butterfly Season’ and why not something more rebellious, something more barbed, more direct?

Natasha: At the end of the day, my book is popular fiction – it’s a romance, not literary fiction. The social aspect of the book is secondary to the fact that it’s pure entertainment. All the classics we read in school—Austen, Shakespeare, Shaw, Hardy—they wrote for the masses, not for the select few. That’s how nations change. Voltaire’s Candide was one of the catalysts for the French Revolution. Harriet Beecher Stowe sparked the American Civil War with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, shining a light on the blight of slavery.
I want people to read my book for the entertainment and come away with ideas for social change. I would rather be a popular fiction writer read widely than bring out a book that may win awards but will be read by a tiny fraction of the world’s population. So my title reflects the lighter side of the book.
Just to be clear, I don’t advocate adultery. I advocate an individual’s right to make his or her own decisions (especially decisions that don’t harm anyone else) without censure. We’re not here to judge other people, because none of us have clean hands, no matter how pure we think we are.

Q3) Rumi is the protagonist in your book. Can you tell a bit more about her? How much of Rumi is Natasha and how much of Natasha is Rumi?

Natasha: Rumi’s words are all mine. Her ideas and her views on life are also mine. I gave her different circumstances in life—she’s an architect, her parents have both passed away, and it’s just her and one sister—and gave her different choices, some of which I never had. But I think Rumi is far braver than I was. She took the risks and the leap of faith in herself that I haven’t. After all, look how long it took me to write my first book!

Q4) Okay, now a question about writing technique that I always toss at an author- How many days did you take to write this novel? Were there mental hurdles (writer’s block, procrastination, etc) that you had to overcome?

Natasha: Writing the first draft was easy. It took me 3 weeks. Doing the rewrites after the beta reader and editor feedback took me 9 months. I write at night because I’m still working, still have commitments to clients that I can’t delegate just yet, so I had less time to put into the rewrites than I would have liked. Fortunately, my publisher was patient enough to wait for me.
I started off with a whole stack of worksheets on character sketches, plot sketches, dialogue, scenes, and a myriad other details that I had downloaded from Guardian Books (How to Write a Novel in 30 Days). I think I filled out about 3 of the worksheets. Then I got bored and just started writing. I’d write a brief outline of what each scene needed to achieve (in terms of moving the plot forward) and then I would just write out the chapters.
With my next book, however, I don’t want the characters to be clones of Butterfly Season, so it’s a lot harder. I’m paying more attention to how my characters speak, what their motivation would be to do something, and it is really tough.  There’s a temptation to bring pieces of Rumi or Ahad (from Butterfly Season) into this new set of characters, which is hard to resist.

Q5) Currently, the book is available in the e-format. But there are a lot of people who prefer the hard copy version of a book. How do you wish to convince them to read your work?

Natasha: I’m hoping my readers will do that! I ran a competition on March 8 and gave away 10 copies of the book. With the exception of one reader who wasn’t very impressed (she gave me 2 stars on Goodreads, but when I checked her profile, she’d given Reluctant Fundamentalist one star, so I’m basking in the glory of beating out Mohsin Hamid!), everyone else has not only given me glowing reviews, they’ve recommended it onwards. And that’s just gold. There’s no better way to market than word-of-mouth. Almost all of them follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads, and all of them continue to push out any promotional material I release. I trust them to convince their friends and acquaintances that the book is good enough to overlook technological preferences.
But the book will be available as print-on-demand via Pothi in a few months. And if it does well, if any of Indireads’ books do well, they’ll start printing their books.

Q6) Can we have a few words about your publisher IndiReads? Take us through the experience

Natasha: Indireads is small press. They’re new, barely a year old. Right now, the atmosphere is like a family. They have two senior editors, both with very different approaches and tastes, which works very well in balancing out our stories. One is very blunt, one is very kind. No prizes for guessing who everyone’s favorite is! But they’re very supportive. They’ve taken on a number of first-time writers and provided all the support a new author needs to actually write a good book.
The only thing they really need is a good marketing network. I’ve heard a few nightmares about publishers who won’t market for you unless you’re a big ticket item, but I haven’t seen that with Indireads. They’re still working out many of the kinks in their system, but they are extremely proactive and aren’t afraid to try out new things.
One of the best things I like about them is that, while they’re publishing popular fiction from South Asia, they don’t have a formula for any of their books. The stories are fairly unique, and they are now branching out from romance to crime, which should be great! I’m really looking forward to that. Mind even try my hand at it.

Q7) Will it be too early to talk about your next project? Do you have something going in your fertile mind? Readers will be glad if I can extort a few snippets out of your next.
Natasha: Absolutely not too early! I have already started my next book. I am still working out the intricacies of the conflict in this book, so I’m not revealing that as yet. I will tell you this much: my heroine is, at first glance, an elitist bitch. My hero, also at first glance, is bitter, unlikeable and struggling financially. Both of these are popular stereotypes here and I’d like to change that mindset. My goal is to make my readers love them both by the time they put the book down.

Here’s a small snippet, though be aware that this might be ruthlessly edited by the time it comes out!

“Now?” One of the porters yelled to the driver behind the wheel of the jeep.
“Nope! Nothing!” The driver yelled back. Samir couldn’t understand why they were yelling. The desert was deathly silent, a vast sea of salt plains without sounds of life for miles around. The pale moon hung low in the sky, a bright light source that bounced off the salt marsh and rendered their lamps and torches irrelevant.

[Read the full snippet at the end]

Q8) Arrange them in order of your preference: Arthur Conan Doyle, Sidney Sheldon, JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, DH Lawrence

Natasha:   D. H. Lawrence, Sidney Sheldon, Salman Rushdie, Arthur Conan Doyle and J. K. Rowling

Q9) A final question- Is it true that a cat is a writer’s best friend?

Natasha: It’s true that my cats are my keyboard’s best friends. They love to drape themselves over it, especially when I’m writing. If I switch to pen and paper, they think the pen is a toy and keep swatting at it. If they weren’t so adorable…

Snippet (continues): 

The whine of the engine cut across the plain as the driver tried yet again to start up the jeep. What a fucking disaster, Samir thought. Their convoy of two jeeps and a Prado was stuck in the middle of nowhere. There was no cell coverage so they couldn’t call anyone, and while one jeep had stalled and refused to start up, the other one had a flat tire and no spare. The Prado was fine, but they were a group of fourteen people and they couldn’t all fit in one SUV, no matter how luxurious it was. He’d have to send someone back to Mithi and have them bring back a spare tire and a mechanic.
Samir surveyed the group of people scattered around the Prado. He should probably send a few of the ‘guests’ along as well. As many as will fit in the Prado, he realized. But who goes? Older guests first, then the goras, have to keep them happy. Zulqarnain needs their money. That’s seven people right there. Seven plus the driver—they could squeeze in, he thought. It was a three-hour drive back to Mithi but the seats in the Prado were fantastic, the shock absorbers as phenomenal.
Behind him, the porter and the driver were still at it. He marveled at their patience. He’d have given up on the damn jeep thirty minutes ago. His gaze swept over the remaining three guests—a young college kid, interning with their organization for the summer, and two women. Zulqarnain’s friends along for the thrill of being able to tell their high society cronies that they were doing ‘charity’ work.
He’d met them all for the first time less than six hours ago. They’d arrived in Mithi the night before and it was his job to ensure they got to Nagarparkar without incident. He didn’t remember their names, nor was he interested in learning about them, except for her.
She definitely did not belong in the desert. She was elegant, casual and the epitome of an elitist bitch. She barely looked at him, or at any of the staff working in Mithi, but everyone had taken a second glance at her, including him, albeit reluctantly. Her hair was shiny, her skin smooth. Her hands were perfectly manicured, and it looked like she’d just stepped out of a beauty parlor. What the fuck was she doing in the middle of nowhere?
Yeah, she’s definitely staying, thought Samir. A night in the desert without a hairdresser or manicurist would take her down a peg or two.
“Listen up.” Samir raised his voice as he strode towards the stragglers. “I’m sending a few of you back to Mithi along with Nasir Jan here. He’s going to bring back a mechanic and some supplies for us.” There was an immediate clamor from the group.
“Some of us?”
“Go back???”
“Why not all of us?” Donald was a stuffy older man, prim in appearance, fastidious in his actions. He had regretted coming on this trip the moment he had left Hyderabad. He’d envisioned a smooth highway to Mithi, a comfortable trip with a view of the desert on either side. Nothing, so far, had gone as expected. One day into the expedition and he was ready to go home. He was sure he wouldn’t be included in the convoy back to Mithi. Surely this he-man would be sending the women back first?
“Because I can’t fit twelve of you into the Prado. I’m good, but not that good.” Samir’s voice was dry.
“So, who gets to go back?” That was… Samir couldn’t remember her name. She was the Australian, full of enthusiasm and energy. Dressed in shalwarkameez, she was the most relaxed of the three foreign women. But she was over fifty and shouldn’t have to camp out in the desert. With precise movements, Samir pointed out the seven people he’d picked to return to Mithi. Donald breathed a huge sigh of relief and made a beeline for the Prado. The others picked up their bags hastily before Samir changed his mind and followed. The remaining three looked at each other in dismay.
“Shouldn’t you send the women home?” One of Zulqarnain’s friends stepped forward. She was the bottle-blonde who had decided to wear jeans to the desert. As a result, she had been sweating profusely since they’d started out. She’d progressively taken off several layers of shirts until she was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt that clung to her non-existent curves.
Samir looked at her. “I’m sending back the older members of this excursion.” He raised his eyebrows in a mock query. “Would that include you?” She shut up.

             You can check out/buy the book here


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