WriteWords talks to novelist, screenwriter and storyteller Shahrukh Husain about her writing routine, and how it feels to work on an Oscar-nominated film.|
Tell us something about your background.
I’m working on a screenplay for Gurinder Chadha, (Bend It Like Beckham, Bride and Prejudice) a historical epic – I love writing epic drama – this is my second, apart from a rewrite I did for Buena Vista. I’ve also got two books to write in a children’s series I devised, called Ancient Civilisations, retelling the myths of different cultures. It’s part of my crusade to introduce children to mythology and its universal themes. I truly believe that knowledge of myths hones our instincts for the workings of life - a basic framework which spans the whole spectrum of human thought and action and makes us aware that it takes all sorts to make up the world from the average good guy and bad guy, through tricksters and funsters and liars or ‘tellers of tall-tales’, wise and kind people, you name it. The function and the value of good and less good. With luck it makes us more aware and less judgemental of our fellow human beings. Sorry, I got a bit philosophical there… I’m also working – for the first time since 1985 on a project that hasn’t been commissioned. It’s a novel I’ve wanted to write since I was seventeen. I suppose my best known books are the Virago Book of Witches, which I compiled, edited and to which I contributed some original retellings. It was sold out within 10 weeks of publication in hard back and is a bit of a classic now. I wrote three others for Virago and the latest, The Virago Book of Erotic Myths and Legends has gone into twelve languages! That beats Witches by four. Another bestseller was a children’s book for Barefoot Books, Tales from the Opera, illustrated by that fantabulous artist, James Mayhew. He has magic in his fingers, really, he does. That was a dark horse because publishers had been a bit coy about it. They thought opera was ‘elite’ and wouldn’t appeal to kids. It was seven years from conception to publication. Barefoot took a while to decide they’d publish it but once they did, they put everything into it. I don’t know why there’s such great resistance. These are stories full of fun and acventure; as long as you go lightly on the romance, children love them. The great thrill came when Placido Domingo who provided a quote for the cover requested copies for his grandchildren. The Goddess which I wrote some 9 years ago, a non-fiction book, has gone into several editions including one published by the University of Michigan. It made me big in San Jose, California for a while!!! They treated me like a celebrity when one of the booksellers saw my name on my credit card. It was a very strange feeling. Oddly, I ended up more convinced than ever that I do not ever want to be a celebrity author. I love my privacy too much. I’d briefly experienced something like it after In Custody (adapted for Merchant-Ivory with Anita Desai) was nominated for an Oscar. Not nice, and nothing can compensate for the nuisance quotient.
In my parallel life I’m a psychotherapist and that feeds my thinking and therefore my writing. Not, as people sometimes assume, to get stories from clients - that would be a hideous breach of confidentiality - but with styles of observations and ways of approaching and understanding human nature and ‘the impossible’. Other work includes coaching clients with writing: working through ideas, writing and setting targets. I teach occasionally – in fact I’m planning to set up a series of practical writing workshops as well as days on self-publishing and putting books on CD. I do some script editing from time to time for independent film production companies or individual screenwriters, also consultation on typescripts for children’s books and writing non-fiction proposals. But I’m jealous of my writing time and try to keep all other pursuits to a minimum.
How did you start writing?
I’ve always written. For a long time my mother preserved a dreadful rhyme I wrote when I was 5! My first pieces were published in the Children’s Corner of a Women’s Magazine in Karachi, called Woman’s World, when I was eight. I remember one was about dogs and I was severely reprimanded for using the word ‘bitch’. I’d already written a saga when I was six – I remember just one line in it ‘…and then he kissed her and kissed her and kissed her.’ I wonder why my fledgling career as a romantic novelist never took off? My father travelled a great deal and we frequently went with him, so I began to contribute short stories to magazines and write feature articles whenever and wherever I found an outlet. I reviewed my first movie when I was fourteen – The High Bright Sun, starring Dirk Bogarde – and I assisted with an interview of Agatha Christie when I was 16. Why I started writing? I can’t answer that. It sounds horribly pretentious but I write because I must ; I love it and during the one period in my life when I didn’t write, I was making a lot of money but I felt unhappy and unfulfilled.
How did you get your first agent/ commission/publication?
Gosh, that was all a very long time ago. My first three books were commissioned before I had an agent. I came across the Eurobook series of myths, handsomely illustrated coffee-table books, read the others in the series and offered to do the Indian one. They asked for a sample which I wrote in a great rush between caring for my three year old son, editing a bunch of directories and coping with my new part-time job as a film censor. Luckily, I mentioned this in my covering letter and the editor came back with some sharp comments, saying if I hadn’t acknowledged that I’d rushed, she’d have rejected my proposal. So I paid attention to the revision and got the commission. A flat fee of a magnificent £5000 in 1984, no royalties. I wrote Demons, Gods and Holy Men from Indian Myth and Legend in three months and it was published in 1985. I’m delighted to say it’s still selling and is on a several educational resources all over the world. Two non-fiction children’s books followed – the first, Focus on India (written in two weeks over the Christmas break) was also published in 1985, received several commendations and went into five editions, one still on sale. It was not until two years later that I met my first agent, Xandra Hardie through a friend. She later merged with Toby Eadie. They agented my break-through book The Virago Book of Witches, an anthology of witch-tales from around the world which I compiled and edited. That sold out in hardback within three months. It taught me the might of good marketing. I wrote three more for Virago. The last one Erotic Myths and Legends is another compilation and between them, they’ve gone into more than 20 languages. I moved to Blake-Friedmann in 1995 because they cover all aspects of my work, movies and books, non-fiction and fiction for adults and children and Carole Blake who represents my books is reputed to be one of the best editors and agents in the business, specially for novels. Conrad Williams looks after my screenplays. I haven’t written an uncommissioned piece since 1985 – which is both good and bad.
What’s the worst thing about writing?
The middle bit – when I get to the third quarter, roughly, and get severe labour pains in my head. Hideous contractions, making me wonder why I’m stupid enough to believe the publisher will spend all that time and money printing what I’ve produced. But they usually only last a morning or an afternoon – I’ve worked out the psychology of this phase and just look through the reviews and my books on the shelf and on Amazon and remind myself I’ve been there before – more than a dozen times. Oh, and deadlines – I hate them but I know I wouldn’t function without them.
And the best?
Getting an idea commissioned. The buzz of seeing a good first reaction from my publisher or agent
Tell us what kind of response you get from audiences/readers and if/how this affects/influences your writing
The only readers who influence my writing are children. I test my books with groups of school-children. I listen really carefully to what they say and I follow their guidance as literally as possible. I remember the initial response of the editor when I submitted the first story in the Barefoot Book of Stories from the Opera. She said, ‘at the moment it’s like a cross between a fairytale and a film script.’ I stuck to my guns about the dialogue because the children who test drove the stories approved of it. I firmly believe that this is what made the book a best-seller. The demand was so great that the initial print run was 30,000 in the USA and 10,000 in the UK – more than three times the usual circulation figure. That was in 1999. It’s still selling. And I was delighted when another author told me that Barefoot had advised him to ‘use plenty of dialogue’. As far as critics are concerned, I can take’em or leave’em.
On the whole, I get very pleasant feedback from readers and other writers and the Witch book seems to have become a bit of a standard. You do get lots of cookie letters. Then there’s the screenwriting which is more collaborative so obviously, you listen to directors/producers,script-editors.
What was your breakthrough moment?
For books, the Witch book idea, I think, and knowing exactly where to place it. In movies working for Merchant-Ivory on the adaptation with Anita Desai, of her book In Custody. The film was nominated for an Oscar. Then Buena Vista commissioned a rewrite of a script Goldie Hawn was producing.
What inspires you to write?
Everything. I just don’t have enough bodies to execute all the ideas.
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