Ashraf Engineer's life itself is a combination of a fantasy fiction and thriller. He has been working for more than 16 years with leading media houses of the India. He is one of those few of us who in 2011 took a leave of absence to train journalists in Kabul and his life space is now onto a chapter in Mumbai where he is into corporate to consult in communication and market space. I got to know about him as he approached for a review of his debut book -Bricks of Blood, with which he has taken a bold move to release it in a Kindle only version. I wanted to know more about his writing and inspirations behind them. Here is the conversation that took place:
A: I was a journalist for 17 years, which is how I gained my understanding of writing. However, I have always been interested in it since childhood. As a journalist, I would tell myself that I would write a book some day but I never got around to actually doing it. It’s strange that I managed it only after I quit newspapers, that too five years after doing so. Probably the time I took helped me to look back at my experiences and learning more maturely.
Towards the end of 2016, I simply made up my mind to write the book and managed it in two months flat. It’s a novella, so it was possible to do so in such a short period.
Q. How did the current story “Bricks of blood” occur to you? How did its characters, plot etc. take form?
A: First of all, it’s strange that I came up with a work of fiction. As a journalist, I dealt with facts so I always felt that my first book would be non-fiction. However, I chose fiction simply because the research for a non-fiction book would mean taking time off from my day job – communications and marketing consultancy – which I did not want to do.
What’s stranger is that ‘Bricks of Blood’ did not start off as a book. The opening passage – the fight between the central character, Nooh, and the builder’s henchmen – simply came to me on a sleepless night. Normally, I can’t remember what I have read or thought of at such times but the next day I could pen it down word for word. Initially, I thought I’d write a short story but as the narrative grew I thought it could be a blog series. Finally, as it was fleshed out further, as new plot twists occurred to me, I decided on a novella format. I was very clear from the beginning that I would not do a full-length book because the pace of the story was paramount. I felt that I could not sustain it over, say, 300 pages.
As for the characters, in journalism you come across varied people and I drew from my experience to etch them. Many of the places I’ve mentioned are real. For instance, South Pali village is Pali Village in Bandra, a suburb of Mumbai. Devkhop, Ghorpade and Manor are places I have visited in Palghar district. The dance bar I have described is typical of the ones that used to exist in Mumbai.
Q. What made you decide to publish via an online “Amazon only” platform instead of traditional publishing?
A: I believe that while the uptake is slower in India, the world is shifting rapidly to e-readers. I see this a lot among my students – I have been teaching since 2004; currently I teach brand communications but started off with media studies – especially, which is a good indicator of what the next generation prefers.
There were other reasons. I wrote this book as the fulfillment of a dream. I had no aspirations for fame, nor did I wish to make any money from it. In fact, I made a commitment when I announced the book that other than a token amount I would give away all my royalties to charity.
This made the process of approaching publishers, penning contracts, etc, redundant. Lastly, I think that self-publishing leaves you with more control of your work.
Q. What has been the most difficult part of this journey into writing? How did you overcome it?
A: As writers, we find flaws continuously with our work. We are constantly unhappy with it and nervous that inconsistencies have slipped in. While I did not have the services of a publishing house for editing or help with the issues I just described, I did run it by some experienced editors who I know. Once they said they really liked the book, I felt confident enough to publish it.
The other challenge is marketing a self-published book. I used digital platforms for this. To my surprise, given how little I spent, the tactic actually worked.
Q. Are you a methodical writer?
A: If you mean do I first write out the characters, a story outline, plot twists, etc, and then the book itself, then the answer is no. In this case, I let the story flow as it came to me. However, I am a very disciplined writer. I wrote without fail every single day, took the time to think through the story and was ruthless while editing it.
A: I have been deeply inspired by Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, the Dalai Lama’s ‘Freedom in Exile’ and Muhammad Ali’s ‘The Greatest’. As you can tell, I read a lot of biographies. Among fiction writers, it’s Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and Salman Rushdie, among others.
Q. Writing something currently?
A: Not at the moment. But I do have the plot idea for my next book. I’ll probably start later this year.
Q. When in a bad time how do you bounce back?
A: Normally, I just tough it out. Experience has taught me that nothing bad lasts forever; it’s a question of how well you deal with it while it lasts.
Q. Your experience being a published writer and any wise advise for budding writers?
A: It’s been fulfilling. More than the sales, it’s been the outpouring of goodwill and support that has touched me.
I have only one piece of advice: just do it. I put off writing my book for all the usual reasons: lack of time, lack of confidence, etc. I found that once I actually started doing it, I was very confident of how it was turning out. So, just go ahead and write that book!