Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I Hate You Like I Love You: My First Reading

Nayomi Munaweera, and I were writing together as we do most Thursday afternoons. Out of the blue, she said, "I'm organizing a reading." Her eyes flew to me across the table. "You're going to be one of my readers."

I laughed. "I haven't published yet. I can't be a reader."
She looked at me in that way she does when I talk in that way I do.
"I don't like reading out loud," I hit my head against the table. "I don't have to. You can't make me. I'm a writer, an artist, a recluse."
After I exhausted myself, she opened up her laptop and said, "You're reading."

The whole week, I cursed Nayomi. Bollywood, as it so often does, gave me solace and I sang the following song to her in my head (warning: extreme Bollywood ahead):

Weeks later, I awoke to a gloomy, rainy Thursday, the day of my first reading. I tried applying my makeup three times, wiped it off three times, reveling in the drama of the moment, planning even in my frustration the line I would one day write, "Her hands shook so hard her eyeliner cast zigzags across her lids". I drove up to San Francisco cursing the world, cursing the weather, cursing Nayomi. I thought, if I get in a horrible car accident right now, that would actually be okay with me, preferable, really, to this.

The coffee shop where the reading was to be held was perfect. The warm red walls, the Moroccan light fixtures in shades of teal and purple, the Samba music. Ordering my latte, I saw at the counter a flyer for the reading. 
"That's tonight," said the cheerful barista.
"That's me," I whispered.
"You're Phiroozeh!" he said. I was on their website, Nayomi told me later.
And with that revelation, it was officially too late to back out.

I had gotten a bit carried away with the invite list and was touched by how many people came. It was like our first year in Canada, when my mum invited Perviz Aunty to my first clarinet recital out of sheer excitement at having her daughter on stage and Perviz Aunty, bless her heart, came because she didn't have the heart to tell my mum elementary school band concerts were a torture reserved for parents only. But like Perviz Aunty, my friends came, braving peak hour San Francisco traffic in the rain (which does make city folk forget basic driving skills), were excited to be there, supporting me.

My cutest friend and husband, Hormazd

L to R: Usha, Dilnavaz, Mazarin, Naomi 

L to R: Nazneen, Elher, Darius, Mazarin

As I read the first line, people laughed. In a good way. Throughout the eight minute reading, they were engaged, entertained. And, I noted, these people weren't my family, they didn't have to regard my work with that particular brand of blind love your family is pre-programmed to. I was in awe. Because for the last two years (six if you want to go back to the beginning), I've been working in my head, with no idea what came next. This was my first taste of that. And it was powerful.

The most unexpected gift that came out of this experience was it gave me the kick in the pants I'd so desperately been needing. I'd been in another woe-is-me-when-will-this-torture-end rut for weeks. This reading broke that rut. In fact, in the few weeks since, I've completed revisions and am gearing up for final edits.

And what of Nayomi, the cause of all this? Over the year I've known her, she's dropped several gems-disguised-as-atom-bombs onto my writing, always using her spectacular smile and melodic voice to ease the pain. Indeed, each time she gives me a gift, it hurts because she's pushing me to do things I don't wanna. But every time I come around, beauty results.

Ultimately, I stand by my word: I hate her like I love her: passionately.

My godsend, Nayomi

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bombay Jam: A Writer's Greatest Tool

 I really didn't want to become a Bombay Jam instructor. The last time I took something I loved a step further was when I said to myself, hey, I like reading books, why not write one and now I have two bald spots and one giant bruise on my forehead from pulling out my hair and beating my head against a wall from that bright idea. Despite all that, I got certified. And then, amazing things started to happen.

In case you haven’t heard me rant about Bombay Jam, it’s a dance based fitness program that uses the latest, hottest Bollywood tracks and engineers brilliant routines that simultaneously incorporate the moves from the big screen while achieving target heart rates so that you’re too busy feeling like Katrina Kaif to notice all the calories you’re burning.

I had pictured myself getting certified, spending the winter memorizing routines, practicing cues (stressing out) and starting to teach early next year.

One week after my certification, at a Sunday morning Bombay Jam class, my teacher said, “Phi, which track are you teaching this morning?”
I laughed. “I just got certified.”
“Which track?” She was not laughing.
“I don’t even have my CPR.”
“Great, 'Dhaeon Dhaeon' it is.”

And with that, she slapped her microphone onto me and hit play.

My body began moving and words came out of my mouth. “And clap it. Hip sway. Looking good!”
Just like that, my teacher began my teaching career. No stress, no mess. The following week, I took on a regular gig and next week, I add another.

I began to wonder if the same applied to my writing. It’s been two years, nearly two and a half. Yes, it’s hard work and yes, I’m learning as I go and no, there’s no certification program for publishing a book but still. There comes a point when you just do it.

The other really groundbreaking event happened last night. I was asked to sub a class three hours before it began. No time to stress, lose a night’s sleep, did I mention stress? Again, the mic came on, the music played and then it was over. At the end of class, people said nice things. When people say nice things about my writing, I smile but in my head, I’m thinking, you’re an idiot. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Last night, though, about twenty people high fived me, patted my shoulder, smiled smiles that didn't seem malicious or even patronizing. And I thought, maybe I should believe them. Maybe I’m not bad. Maybe I’m good. Maybe I’M the idiot for being so hard on myself.

Photo courtesy of awesome hubby

So it turns out this thing I was so afraid to take on has become like the aircraft that the Space Shuttle Endeavor was strapped onto as it made its way home last week. It’s pulling me along, guiding me gently to accomplish my life's big endeavor.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Persistent or Pig-Headed?

This book just won't finish. I'm getting closer and closer, I see that, but I'm still not done. I have to ask myself, am I being persistent or just pig-headed?

I ask myself which school of though to subscribe to (and since the teacher fled long ago, it's up to me to flail between the two trying to come up with a decision):

On one hand, writing is 0.01% inspiration, 99.99% revision. I've heard this countless times, seen it quoted by famous writers over and over again. But they're famous, their persistence paid off, so it's easy for them to talk.

On the other, they say your first novel is your worst novel, it's your second or fourth or seventh that will actually sell. It's like what I tell my friends when they're having a hard time with a guy: if it's this much work, it's not worth it. What if I should put this one into the proverbial bottom drawer and start anew?

I used to picture the line between the two as one drawn in the sand, by one's big toe or a piece of driftwood. Now, though, it's a spiderweb, invisible but for when the sun shines onto it, revealing the places it's broken altogether, the dredges that remain clinging for dear life to some unknown entity, possibly my ego.

Just when I begin to wallow in its tender tattered state, the seeming hopelessness of it all, a small, quiet army sneaks up in the middle of the night and mends it, pushes me forth. Were it not for these people (who know exactly who they are) I would have given up a long time ago.

Because of them, I persist pig-headedly.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Sublime Foolery

After this entry, a dear friend offered a quote by Ray Bradbury:
“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.” --Ray Bradbury, 

 which tickled every fold of my brain, in particular the line:
You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads.

The first library I lurked in was at the Karachi Gymkhana. I spent hours, days, years among close friends: Famous Five, Secret Seven, and on less intellectual days, Archie and the gang. It was there that I climbed the stacks like ladders, in particular the one closest to the window. At the top, I hid my favorite book (the cover bore a terribly racist depiction of Chinese men peeking out from straw barrels) so that it would still be there when I returned and I would not face the stress of an absent friend.

In Canada, the bookshelves weren't as exciting to climb but the lending limit (twenty-five glorious books at once) more than made up for it. In fact, I lurked about these shelves so much that when I applied for a job there in my early twenties, it was a no-brainer for the librarian, who had watched me grow up and had no doubt of my bookworminess.

The most titillating library I ever visited was when I came full circle back to Karachi in 2002.

I'm sure my cousin thought it would be a quick round of Frere Hall when he pulled up to its gates to show us the famous heritage building. He probably didn't expect me to actually enter the small library tucked behind the structure. He certainly didn't expect me to march on in and make myself at home.

But my feet moved of their own accord, delighting in the rickety wooden floors, the shafts of sun streaking into high up windows, lazy dust motes nearly still in the calm of the room. I passed rows of men reading the paper at heavy tables, vaguely processing that I was the only female in there, that all eyes were on me, but my feet had found their destination.

I climbed the circular stairs which groaned under my weight from years of disuse (or possibly my increased paratha/biryani/kulfi intake). I ran a finger along the endless leather bound volumes, pulled one out, breathed in the musty perfume.

A frantic librarian chased me back down- the upstairs is off limits madam- and as he escorted me swiftly to the exit, I inhaled one last time the musty air, filled my lungs till they hurt so I could carry it with me, reveling in my sublime foolery.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Happy Birthday Old Friend

Today is Pakistan's Independence Day. Today, I finished the (hopefully) last draft of my novel, which is set in the country of my birth.

We all hear about Pakistan in the news, we all know the other buzz words that follow in the same sentence. But the Pakistan I remember so vividly is different.

My Pakistan was so hot that after a rigorous game of hide-and-seek in the compound, I could squeeze the sweat from my sudrah. After an evening of swimming at the Gymkhana, where I always won the freestyle at the annual swimming contest, I cradled hot-from-the-tandoor naan in my lap in the back seat of the car, head spinning from too  many dives to the bottom of the pool. Once a week, I stood quivering in Sister Bergman's office at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, unable to explain how it was I'd lost my Blue House badge yet again.

On the night we left for Canada, my best friend, Mehereen, and I stood in the passage of Nani Nana's house in front of the lattice work through which I had always been able to see her apartment, hugging and crying our goodbyes.

I went back twelve years later to a different Pakistan. Each day brought forth a torrent of memories, wave after wave of things that no longer were. I wasn't allowed into the pool area of the Gymkhana without a member accompanying me (no one cared I'd been the free style champion from 1986-90). We weren't allowed to enter the Convent our first two tries; Mehereen had moved away. It was a trip filled with nostalgia long felt, wishes not quite fulfilled, not fully understood in the moment.

Years after that, I began to write a novel. My main character decided to go to Pakistan. I tagged along to show her the way.

I know it's a place of perpetual turmoil. I know the political history, the literacy stats, the predictions for its future. I know that when I tell people where I was born, they judge me. I know that whatever I've made Karachi out to be in my novel comes from a place of naive nostalgia, of seeing the lassi glass half full.

But what do you do with the place that holds a part of you in its dusty grip, that calls you back to its raging sea at sunset which you know will glow brighter, thanks to the pollution in the air, than any you've seen the world over? How do you keep from tearing up when you speak to your family back home, the crows nearly drowning them out, hearing the ayah- your old ayah- come in and, you imagine, get on her haunches to sweep the patterned floor with the graying chindi in great damp arcs?

Even Pakistan's Independence Day is rife with controversy. Even in my myopic state, I see that. Yet today, like many other days, it is on my mind, in my heart.

This is a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek song I discovered in my research of Pakistani pop music. Its depiction of the state of things gets closer to the truth than I've ever managed to.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Kill the Critic

They say in order to write, you must kill the critic. You know, that little voice in your head that watches every word you write and hisses into your ear how awful it all is, forcing you to second-guess yourself till every last ounce of self-confidence is depleted and you slap shut the laptop and slump before the TV. That's the inner critic, a writer's worst enemy. 

I told this to a friend who was saying her writing's crap and she described her inner critic to me (in a way that proves how un-crap her writing is). Inspired, I thought about mine.

My inner critic is a prissy Parsi girl who sits atop my shoulder twirling the end of one of her perfect plaits and, squinting at my writing, sucks in her breath sharply. "Really? You think that's how Parsis are?" she asks incredulously. "That's not how it would happen in Karachi," she laughs.

I'm from Karachi, I insist. Offering me a simpering smile, she crosses her legs daintily and lists my offenses: I was a mere child when I left, I know nothing of its politics, its history, its day to day occurrences. My Gujarati comes out a bastardized hybrid of Gujrati and Urdu and the Hinglish I've picked up from Bollywood, every other sentence caught in a downward spiral of confused tenses and misplaced pronouns till I give up and finish off in English. 

I continue to type. She goes in for the kill. Didn't I attended... the Convent of Jesus and Mary, she asks, patting the emblem of her Mama Parsi Girls High School uniform. 

People will see you for the fraud you are, she preens, plumping the ribbon at the end of her braid. You may as well give up now before everyone finds out, she smiles, revealing for an instant the flicker of a pronged tongue.

I wait for her to slink off to do her sadra kasti- being a good Parsi girl, she does her prayer ritual five times a day- and then, while her eyes are closed in prayer, I push her into a closet and get back to work.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Boss is a Five Letter Word

My boss is a stone cold B-I-T-C-H.

She has ridiculous expectations, constantly forcing me to edit and re-edit till I go cross-eyed from staring at the computer screen and my wrists burn with tendinitis. The only way I get time off is by buying a plane ticket somewhere far away. And the pay- well, I made more when I babysat the Daruwala brothers at the age of eleven, splitting the five dollars an hour with my sister.

How do I survive? The same way all those who live under an oppressive regime do: I seek out the silver lining. I wake up at 7:50, an hour and a half later than when I was a teacher. At lunch sometimes, I sneak in a rerun of the Gilmore Girls. She does allow me to leave home early, beat traffic, and work from my car till my 6 o'clock Bollywood Cardio class- bitch don't care where the work gets done so long as it does.

I know what you're thinking: what a slacker. Phi is the real five letter word.

Luckily the nausea (when will this book ever finish), the anxiety (am I piddling away my life on this whim I once had?), the self doubt (it's been two years, oughtn't I get a real job?) still reign strong so clearly I'm doing something right.

My boss, you see, is also my PR agent, and she works hard to maintain my tortured artist-ness.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Creative Constipation

Yesterday I began a new painting. What should have been a pleasant afternoon lost in brush strokes and classical music in my sun-drenched living room was instead a nail-biting, inner-lip-chewing sweating-behind-the-knees afternoon spent sketching and measuring and colour-coordinating till I was sick to my stomach. All I had to show at the end of two hours was a 2x2 (that's inches) royal purple diamond . 

I've done the same thing with this blog as well. I wondered what witty, snappy entry I could entertain you with and before I knew it, months had gone by. 

What is this thing I do, this strife for perfection which leads instead to a kind of creative constipation? Why can't I just grab a canvas and splatter it with paint like I once did? Why can't I just write whatever comes to my head like I once did? Those were the good old days. If  growing up means getting anal, then no thank you. 

So in the interest of going back to to the way things once were, I shall attempt to write this simple straightforward blog entry whose simple goal shall be to update you on the progress of my novel.

I "finished" my novel in February. That means I got it out of my head and onto the page. Then I sent it off to a few select suckers, angelic souls who were writers or avid readers or both, whose daunting task was to a) get through it and b) tell me their thoughts (which is hard for some people to do as they don't want to hurt my feelings). And these people, these poor schmucks who never dreamed when they offered to help that I'd promptly send them 400+ pages of mush, stepped up. Not only did they read all 432 pages, but they let me pick their brains after. For hours. And hours. More on them later.

The good news was the feedback was consistent: melodramatic in places but overall passable (my words not theirs). After a couple of days of stroking and mending my bruised ego (hey, it happens no matter how sweetly and politically correctly you're told your weaknesses), I got back on the proverbial horse.

Since I'm learning and doing at the same time, it took me a while to figure out the next step: how to incorporate friends' feedback and my own, how to cut out the extraneous and deepen the good stuff, and how to do it all while maintaining the spontaneity and initial integrity of the work. So basically how to change everything and nothing all at once. 

Easy peasy.

After several days- or was it weeks or maybe months- of chewing my nails to the quick, staring dejectedly into my latte (while contemplating how I really couldn't afford it as I approached my third year of unemployment) and eyeing several alternate vocations (barista, pizza dough flipper, grocery bagger at Wolfe India Bazaar where I could enjoy delightful Telegu/Hindi melodies and the soft scent of samosas that arises every time someone opens the door), I came up with a plan, a system, a way of maintaining the spontaneity of the piece but in a planned and precise manner. I made...a graphic organizer. Hey, if it helped my 6th grade students plan their stories, why couldn't it help me?

That's what I've been up to for the past days- or weeks or months. I've taken all the aspects I want to include, maintain, highlight, lowlight and made a handy dandy chart. The chart (which is freaking ingenious if I do say so myself) has allowed me to work on the novel with a birds eye view without getting caught up in the  minutiae of the text.

Filling it in has been akin to having a colonoscopy while getting a root canal but, having resorted to charts in the past, I know that the next step, the writing/fixing/whatever you want to call it, will be smooth(ish) because everything is now accounted for.

There. My own personal hell in 500 words or less.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Not Now, SRK, I'm Married

I first fell in love with Shah Rukh Khan as he- and his hair- bounced around the Swiss Alps falling in love with Kajol. His devotion to her as he followed her all the way to India, miraculously finding her in an undisclosed marigold field, his attempt to win over this man 

I'm sure he's a big softie underneath

by spending morning after morning caw-cawing to the pigeons alongside the bug-eyed, deep-voiced patriarch, which 16 year old wouldn't fall in love, I ask you?

I loved the King of Bollywood through his kitschy early years filled with neon colored Gap hoodies, his dramatic years playing a steady stream of NRIs, and his melodramatic years which some say includes everything he's ever done but of course they're just jealous.

Like this clip, (begin at 1.07), pure, understated drama, subtle as a Vancouver rainfall:

My love for him caused many a domestic dispute in my personal life. My then boyfriend was not a fan of my phone's screensaver, a picture of King Khan I had begged my sister to take at a London tube station. The night before my wedding, I got an email from the Mona Khan Dance Company saying they would be dancing with SR in San Jose the next night. Fortunately, we were wed in Vancouver; it might not have made for an auspicious beginning to my marriage to be found missing at my own wedding reception.

Sadly, my undying love wavered after one too many single-syllable action movies.

But like the 30 minute conclusion of Devdas, it's a slow death, not quite there, just hovering at the haveli door, crying, dying.

And now, in a plot twist even more surprising than when his reincarnated character crosses paths with a carbon copy of the woman he loved a lifetime ago, ladies and gentlemen, Shah Rukh Khan is chasing me. Like when you're five and the boy you love doesn't love you back till you stop paying attention and then he chases you around the playground incessantly, SR is everywhere. Begging me to come back.

How else do you explain me being mid-agent-hunt, on the website of a hard core New York agent and seeing she represents this book:

You see what he's trying to do, don't you? He obviously wants me back. He's arranging it so that we'll both be represented by the same agency and then meet in Bombay or New York or his next video shoot in front of the Golden Gate Bridge or the pyramids or the Swiss Alps.

Well, Bollywood Ki Jaan, I'm married now. So the answer is obviously an unequivocal, resounding 'we'll see'.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Progress: Slow but Sweet

Perusing the daily email I get from Publisher's Market Place over my morning coffee, I noticed something.

Like Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering when Eliza finally masters her vowels, I sat up, observing carefully to make sure it was real. I read some more of the newsletter. It was. It was real.

I was understanding what I was reading.

I understood that the first section was talking about book deals made the previous week, I understood their various breakdowns into foreign rights, film rights, etc. 

More exciting, I recognized the names of the big shots making these deals. Mostly from my research but also because I've been hobnobbing with some of them at the Squaw Valley Writer's Conference I've attended the last couple of years.

I found myself chuckling like an old timer:  Donald Maass scored a deal, he's on my list of agents to approach. Al Zuckerman is retiring from Writers House? But he's the founder; that's huge. Reagan Arthur scored another deal? She's so powerful; I wish I'd have known that when she drove me to the conference hall last summer at Squaw Valley. I would have talked about something much more enlightened than the quality of the Chunky Monkey smoothies at the Mountain Market in the main village.

I am now off to do a celebratory dance much like minute two below:


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On the Prowl

For the past thirteen days, I've had an exquisite headache that moves around from the space between my eyes to the space behind my earlobes. I can't fall asleep at night and I have even more road rage than usual (close family shudder at the thought here). All this is due to the new phase in my writing life: the hunt for an agent.

I read some wonderful books on how the heck to find an agent (my faves were The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, which was actually laugh out loud funny, and Noah Lukeman's How to Find- and Keep- A Literary Agent which kept me from jumping off any bridges with a clearly defined plan of action).

I'm starting with agents of writers I love, as per the advice in the above books. As with every other step along this journey, it's a roller coaster.

Yesterday, I found Sandra Dijkstra, who represented not one but two of my all time favorite authors, Amy Tan and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (whose name makes mine sound like Sandy Smith). After an hour of gleefully cross referencing her across various sites, reading her interviews in literary journals, and imagining our instant bond based on difficult to pronounce names, I came upon the sentence that I didn't read so much as cover my ears as it jumped off the page and shrieked: Ms. Dijkstra will no longer be accepting unsolicited queries after March 16, 2012. Yesterday was March 13.

By dinnertime, I came up with about five plans to get over this obstacle but you can imagine the toll on my nerves.

Today has been just plain bad.

I spent an hour this morning researching an agent who no longer represents one of my role models, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

                                         Chimimanda Adichie's inspiring TED Talk

This afternoon, I hit more walls as I discovered that many of the set-in-India books I love have authors who are British. Which of course means so are their agents.

The first book I ever read that was set in Karachi. It did for me exactly what the above TED talk is about. 

Some books I've enjoyed are by one time authors whose agents happened to choose them but the rest of their roster is completely different.

Such as the agency I just read/disqualified whose current releases page featured those bodice-ripping covers you see tucked into the back of drugstores, the ones you, as a lofty literary, walk right by with a mental scoff.

I've been doing this long enough now to know that every step along the way is a learning curve. I'll get there, I know.

In the meantime, the extra large bottle of Tylenol is moving from the medicine cabinet to my bedside.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Ann Patchett Gives Stephen Colbert Smack Down

This is hilarious. Two of my favorite people go head to head as author Ann Patchett tells Stephen Colbert why independent bookstores are making a come back. And for once, Stephen is stumped.

Watch the interview here.

Or go to:

Friday, March 2, 2012

So Phi, when's your book coming out?

This is the question on everyone's minds. Possibly because, contrary to Parsi superstition that people's najar (evil eye) will annihilate any hope that I had, I did some chicken counting before any hatching took place and announced on Facebook that my book was "done".

What that meant was that the book was out of my head and onto the page. Its fate now rests in the hands of some dear friends who have bravely agreed to critique it.

So what's next?

1. Write a query letter where I describe my 350 page book  in 150 words, conveying clearly that my idea is original yet universal and doing so in a manner so succinct (yet expansive) that in the 30-60 seconds that any run-off-her-feet agent (whose inbox is crammed with at least one hundred of these letters a day) will devote to me, my letter will make her drop her venti latte and call me right up.

2. Find the right agent for me through careful cross-checking across various publishing websites, agency websites, Amazon, etc, weed through the scammers, and settle on one who is new enough to take on a first timer like me yet established enough to know the right people though not so big a name as not to be taking on new clients.

3. Send out flurries of query letters and in the interim, which could last one to 365 days, while away my time biting the skin around the beds where my finger nails once lay and wash it down with the dredges of whiskey remaining in the liquor cabinet.

And that is when the book is coming out.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Phi MIB Romer

This is what I do these days:

Replace the guns with peering at people's book spines and identifying alien life with scoping out potential future readers at every coffee shop/train station/bus stop and it comes down to the same thing.

As you know, writing has made me shameless. Shamefully shameless, mind you; I do feel genuinely bad about my newfound callousness. For at least two-four seconds. Over the last year, at weddings and funerals, in line for the bathroom and at the dentist's office, I've been brazenly self promoting.

But what happened today is a gray area; I'm not sure if I had ulterior motives or was being a nice human being for a change. You tell me.

On the big comfy couch at Barefoot Coffee this morning, I saw that the woman beside me was reading HUNGER GAMES, a book my sister has been recommending to me for years. Asking her about it led to a twenty minute conversation. It was delightful, she was actually incredibly helpful and gave me amazing ideas on how to market the book (it was her MBA training, she said, in the breaths between listing ideas).

All I said was that it's hard for me to read books these days, what with writing my own. And I had to tell her about my blog; she started talking about marketing yourself, etc. And yes, I happened to have my business card within arm's reach but that's because I happened to be using it as a bookmark today. I did not hand it to her till she asked.

Did I scope her out? Did I just want a quick break from my 450 page tome on publishing? I truly don't know.

I like to look at it as a win-win: she got access to my blog and I have a future contact in case I ever pursue that MBA story line.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Plea and a Laugh

I feel very much like that white-haired PBS fundraiser man who would interrupt Anne of Green Gables/Three Tenors marathons to do his fund drive but for the sake of my art, I shall press forth. So I've finished my book (a term I use loosely and will explain in a future blog) and am researching the route to publication.

The recurring theme in all I read is BUILD AN ONLINE PRESENCE. So here I go. I'm going to reformat this blog, write entries that are shorter and more frequent. You, dear reader, can help me build my presence in any of the following ways:

1. "like" my blog posts on Facebook (this means everyone on YOUR wall can see it, read it, love it, become a follower of mine). It takes .001 seconds of your time and you could singlehandedly launch my career.

2. Forward my blog site ( to anyone on your email list who you think might be interested in following my blog.

3. Shout from the top of the next mountain you climb.

                                    We now return to our regular programming.

Today, I read an ebook (How to Find- and Keep- A Literary Agent) and a paper book (The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published) alternately till my eyes gave out.

Here are some things that made me laugh/cry/think:

1. After a reading, an author was asked by an older man, "I'm a retired cardiac surgeon and I'm thinking of writing a book. What advice do you have?"
He responded, "When I retire from writing, I'm thinking of becoming a cardiac surgeon. What advice do you have?"

2. Charlie Baxter on writing: "Part of being a  writer is going through dark nights of the soul. In these nights you confront your own doubts, lack of self-confidence, the futility of what you are doing and the various ways in which you fail to measure up. But a lack of self-confidence can be turned to your own purposes if it helps you to take pains, to take care, to avoid glibness."

NOTE: Having a husband who talks you off your self-generated cliff about once a week also helps.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Smart Art

Right after yesterday's blog post about meeting the curator, inspired by my own determination, I called another curator I had been told about by the fabulous Zara Contractor. A little schedule juggling and I was able to meet them both in a slim two hour window in two different parts of town before they headed to their afternoon meetings.

Through sleet and snow I drove (I'm not being dramatic, people; I'm in Vancouver), just me and my little black rental Fiat. The first interview was so successful I nearly cancelled the second. Thank God for my aforementioned determination.

The first curator worked at the Emily Carr University Gallery on Granville Island, where some of the best local art gets made, exhibited, and sold. With her twenty-five years of experience in the Vancouver art world, she gave me an incredible overview of the art scene outside of the Vancouver Art Gallery which, being a plebeian, was all I had known before (and relied heavily on in my novel). A nice little coincidence was when I discovered she had been one of the founding members of Artspeak, which as you all know was my original destination today and where I headed next.

At Artspeak, I realized that persistence really pays. It was there, thanks to an incredibly helpful curator who spent nearly an hour answering my haphazard questions, (and, it must be said, her co-worker, the artist who helped me figure out how to use the voice recorder on the ipad I pilfered from my hubby) that I found the pulse of the Vancouver art scene.

Now, like any good writer, I have to stare into the distance as the sun presumably goes down behind a thicket of clouds and the rain continues to fog up the coffee shop windows and think about what it all means to me and to my book.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Working Vacation

Avid readers recall from a previous blog entry my main character is breaking into the world of curating, a world I know squat about. You may also recall last year I happened upon a wonderful curator in the Bay Area who spent her lunch hour filling me in on my two page list of questions. It was a good start but I always knew I had to check the Canadian scene.

Last week, I scoured the Vancouver Art Gallery's website and left a message for the chief curator, hardly believing my own ballsiness as I did. She called me back within hours and with shaking hands (she was CHIEF curator), I made frantic notes as she graciously answered as many questions as I dared ask her. She spent eleven glorious minutes on the phone with me but she left me with about 150 more questions than I'd had before.

It's a tricky business, this: on one hand, I can't learn an entire profession in a month or two or six, on the other, I have to. I could look up a a university website for the curator program, but I don't care if Theory of Composition is a prerequisite for Theory of Space. I need inside knowledge, salacious tid bits, scandals, you know, the good stuff.

I'm in Vancouver this week, supposedly on vacation. My first afternoon here, I googled local galleries and started cold calling.

Tomorrow at noon, I have an interview at Artspeak in Gastown.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

70 Solutions to Writing Mistakes: A great resource

Last night at Bombay Jam , I was talking to a regular and it turned out she writes too. It made me wonder how many other dabblers in writing there are out there. For those of you who are interested, here is an awesome resource I just came upon, which is so extensive, it will help no matter which stage of writing you may be in.

The link is:

If it doesn't work, you can go to Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents blog and download it for free, it's the really big bar on the very top.

Have fun!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Woman I Love: An Accidental Muse

Across the table, over a glass of red, she said, "Let's go back to the room."
We changed quickly, throwing off our jeans and slipping into Something More Comfortable.
We pulled out our laptops and began to write.

The first time I heard her name, I was hiking with my husband. Dave, my high school best friend, was in town for a computer people conference and asked if he could bring his old university friend along to dinner. I turned her name around on my tongue: Radha. I gave her jet black hair parted down the middle, a saucer-sized bindi, and of course, an accent.*

As she rounded the corner of the Santa Clara Hilton, the first thing I saw were her boots. Stocky, chunky motorcycle boots. Directly above them, a knee length skirt which looked like the gold leaf pallu of a Benarasi sari. Her forehead was disappointingly bare. We ate at an Afghani Restaurant where among the tech talk (I was severely outnumbered in the company of a Googler, an IBMer, and an Oracler), I asked her questions, tried to get to know her. I emailed her that very night, asked her to dinner.

We had a lot in common: we were both immigrants several times over, we shared a love for SRK, and then she dropped the bomb and the reason I had been so attracted to her that first night became clear: she was a writer too.

Years later, she asked if I wanted to go on a writing retreat with her. I pictured wine soaked nights sharing our deepest thoughts, most personal secrets, and maybe some writing on the side. We arrived at a wind swept hostel perched on a cliff in Half Moon Bay. She took the top bunk, opened her laptop and began typing. I went to the bathroom, got some tea, put on wooly socks. From above I heard nothing but thunderous typing. Sighing, I began to write.

Over a divine dinner, I got my wine, some deep thoughts, some secrets. She paid for dinner with a wad of cash she had received at Google for showing up to the Christmas party. (Note: I, as a teacher, had received for Christmas, ants in my classroom from all the candy the kids had eaten behind my back.)

It did not register the first time she said that after dinner there would be more writing.

"Write on a Friday night?"
"It's a writing retreat."
"I hate you."

It was not the last time I said that to her that weekend. After breakfast  the next day, we wrote. After lunch, we wrote. After dinner we wrote. I had snuck along a book and like a petulant child, I took reading breaks, Radha be damned. But every time I did, her typing rattled my conscience from the bunk above. I cursed her, put down my book, pulled out my laptop.

We did it again a few months later. Same hostel, same rules. But this time, it was a tiny bit easier to follow her oppressive schedule.

Our third retreat happened exactly two years ago: MLK Day long weekend. We holed up at the Fort Mason Hostel. More windswept scenery, but this time, we were surrounded by city folk and tourists having fun on their long weekend. She did not notice them. She did not hear the group of 30+ middle schooler stomping down the hall outside our room. She wrote and wrote. I copied her. We wondered why we were getting special treatment at the cozy candle lit restaurant where we dined. We realized it was Valentine's Day weekend. She allowed us a quick chuckle before marching us back to our room.

What happened next was a double edged sword: it was these writing retreats that she engineered that made me realize I could write all day everyday, not when the mood struck or the stars alligned just so. She inadvertently aided my decision to quit my job and write full time. Which in turn ended our writing retreats because I no longer wrote on the weekends. I think often to our waterfront hostels, the marathon writing sessions, a giggle here, a laugh there, well-deserved meals wolfed down between talk of writing, of life.

Last Friday, she accidentally pushed me again, brought the journey she had initiated full circle. I had asked her to read my almost complete manuscript. She texted that she would do it on the weekend. I had been having the hardest time finishing the last chapter, it had dragged on for weeks. Knowing someone was about to read it provided the kick in the pants I needed. I jumped off the comfy couch where I had been wallowing in self pity all morning, bought a fresh pot of black tea, and pounded the last two scenes in five hours straight.

The Bay Area, like any metropolitan city, brings people in and out of my life. Radha stomped into my life in her chunky black boots and threw my world wide open. She did it without fanfare, without expectations, just by being her fabulous self.

*The only time I heard an accent was when she was on the phone with family on one of our retreats. It was the thickest, most wildly exaggerated Indian accent I could have asked for, one I myself use when speaking to family. She hung up and blinked at me, unaware of the switch she had made. It made me love her that much more.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Phid Back

My last post may have been a little different from the rest but man did it make for some interesting comments and discussions. For the record, it took me over a month to write it for the very reason many of you reacted so strongly to it: it was so serious and I'm usually upbeat on this blog. But as the great Meera Syal titled her 2005 BBC mini series, Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee. Shit happens. As the Americans say, it is what it is.

In writing this novel, the line between fiction and myself is blurry at the best of times. It works both ways. I use so much of my own experiences in the writing:  vivid childhood memories, the aesthetics that I experienced last year in Karachi, some of my own neuroses (those are particularly fun to evoke and splatter onto the page). But on the flip side, some of the scenes I've created have come alive to me. I feel like they've really happened- like in the real world. When I go to Vancouver, I can tell you where Katya and her mother had a huge fight, the exact spot at Kits Beach where she ...oops, that was close. You'll see.

Similarly, the line between fiction and reality in that last blog was a wavering one. Everything was essentially true: it's been a rough ride. But I will confess that as I wrote that last image of me and my frost bitten hand, etc, I was sitting in my backyard among my fully bloomed roses with the California sun beating down on me. Sometimes, it's fun to be a drama queen.

Then there's the feed back I've received (sorry about the title, but ever since a certain someone called  me Phinomenal, my name has been too much fun to play with). The comments within the blog, the personal emails assuring me everything will be okay. I've even heard from third parties about what some of you said. Even though a writer is supposed to write only for herself, for her art, not for fame or accolades, it feels good knowing there are so many of you out there with me on this roller coaster.

I took a week off over the holidays, packing away all evidence of my writing life. The most strenuous thing I did was tackle a new knitting pattern. That blog was actually very cathartic; it felt good to get it all out and leave it all behind.

Yes,  it's only been three working days of 2012 but I feel recharged and rearing to finish this mother- this novel (you're all so sensitive, I don't know if you can handle a potty mouthed Phi).