Geetanjali Mukherjee

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Interview On My Writing Process With Rita Lee Chapman

Author Rita Lee Chapman, who wrote a guest post on this blog earlier this month, interviewed me on her blog on my books and writing. 

Here's the full text of that interview.

This week it is my pleasure to interview Geetanjali Mukherjee. Would you please introduce yourself to my readers, Geetanjali and share something about your life.

Hi Rita, thanks so much for this opportunity to talk about my writing. I am the author of 6 non-fiction books, which are kind of all over the spectrum. Three of my books are specifically directed at students, especially the most recent one, Anyone Can Get An A+. A bit about my background – I studied law and public policy, and I bring that academic background to my writing and research. I have lived in four countries on three continents, and am based at the moment in Singapore.

When did you write your first book and how did it come about?
I published my first book while I was in my first year of college – it was actually commissioned by an Indian educational publisher. I had always wanted to be a writer, and I read a ton of writing books. I got the idea from one of these books to turn the essays that I had written for my literature class into a reference guide for students. My mom took me to the book fair in New Delhi each year, so that year I insisted that we visit each educational publisher and get their information. I sent dozens of emails pitching my book, and never heard back. I went off to college in the UK, and forgot about it.

Six months later I got an email from one of the publishers, stating that while they couldn’t publish the book I had pitched, would I be interested in writing a book for them on a related subject? I was, and I wrote my book Seamus Heaney: Select Poems, which is a student reference guide to some of the late Nobel Laureate's poetry.

Do you always write in the same genre or do you mix it up?
I have published reference and educational guides, a book of poetry, a short biography of Hitler's architect, and a legal / historical / political account of the cluster munition ban process, so my writing is kind of all over the map. I have also written a novel as well recently (for Nanowrimo 2015), and hope to publish it someday soon. Besides that, I have plans for books in several different genres, including more fiction.

When you write, do you start with an idea and sit down and let it evolve, or do you make notes and collect ideas on paper beforehand?
My process does differ from book to book, but yes, I start with an idea and take notes on paper or on Evernote. Sometimes I jot down the headings of different sections or chapters, or maybe create a mind-map if I am having trouble figuring out the structure. Some of the structure emerges while I am writing the book, and much of it changes after the first draft as well.

Would you like to give us a short excerpt from one of your books?

An excerpt from my book "Will The Real Albert Speer Please Stand Up? The Many Faces of Hitler's Architect":

"For the commission to do a great building, I would have sold my soul like Faust. Now I had found my Mephistopheles. He seemed no less engaging than Goethe's.”

Over the years Berthold Konrad Hermann Albert Speer, commonly known as Albert Speer, has been given several titles – both official and unofficial. He has been called ‘the good Nazi’, ‘Hitler’s architect’, potential successor to Hitler and future Reichchancellor, and perhaps even the only penitent defendant at the first Nuremberg trial. There is no doubt that there are many faces to Albert Speer: he was a man who had far greater power during the war than any other aside from Hitler, and was widely believed to succeed Hitler; his tremendous powers of organization raised German production to its peak at a time when resources were at an all-time low; and it was expected by all, including himself, that he would receive the death sentence like the other Nazi leaders, instead escaping the noose with only twenty years.

In light of his extended involvement in the Nazi party, both as Hitler’s architect and the Minister for Armaments, and his contributions to the illegal war waged by the regime, the question naturally arises: did Speer receive adequate punishment?  Did the atypical verdict reflect the perception that Speer was somehow ‘less culpable’ than the other defendants, or did he mastermind his defence in a way that reduced his sentence? The events leading up to the Nuremberg trial, and the trial itself, provides clues to answering these questions: what can we learn about the personality of Speer from the evidence available, and why does it matter?

In the years since the trial, biographers have been fascinated with the life of Speer, and have attempted to understand the man behind the enigma.  The reason for the fascination is as much for his proximity to Hitler and the regime as it is for his actions at the end of the war. Van Der Vat quoted author Sebastian Haffner from a profile he did for The Observer, published on 9 April 1944: “Speer was by no means a typical Nazi; as chauffeur of the war machine he was more important to the Nazis even than Hitler”. By his own admission, Speer created miracles in German production, and prolonged the war effort through his efficient handling of infrastructure and armament industries. Speer also projected an image of quiet competence and intelligence, that however calculated, set him apart from his fellow defendants. Additionally, Speer proved to be a valuable source of information, both as an interviewee, and as a writer, authoring several books on his account of the Nazi machine. Both during his time in prison and after, he wrote about the regime and his role in it, and attempted to justify his actions, both to himself and to the world. Were they justifiable? Was Speer’s biggest flaw his ambition and his turning away from obviously inhumane acts? Or did Speer manage to pull off the ultimate conjuring trick, convincing the court of his unintentional involvement, all the while wholeheartedly supporting the Nazi regimes’ treatment of those they oppressed?

The evidence presents a picture of a complex man, one who was calculated and shrewd, as well as vulnerable and na├»ve. This book argues that Speer was an opportunist; he was willing to go along with Hitler’s plans to solidify his own career, and later at Nuremberg, he was willing to lie and use his charm to hide the truth to save himself from being hanged. Speer wasn’t as cold-blooded as some of his fellow cohorts at the trial, nor was he filled with remorse when confronted with his wrongdoings; however, his self-interested behaviour in turning with the tide and securing his own position at all costs, begs the question: was he really that different from the other defendants at that first, historic trial?

Which of your books gave you the most pleasure to write?
So far, I would say my most recent book, Anyone Can Get An A+, which I found relatively easy to write, at least the first draft. It is also the book that most closely matches in its finished form what I had hoped it would be like when I first imagined it.

What is the best marketing tip you have received?
To do it! I am really not the sort of person who enjoys marketing my work, but I have read advice from many other authors who also don't necessarily enjoy selling to think of it as giving your work the best chance to be read by people who will enjoy it or learn something from it. I also think the best advice came from Austin Kleon who suggests sharing pieces of your work through all stages of the process, something I am still not great with doing, but changes the process from "marketing" and "selling" to "sharing", which is a concept that resonates with me much more.

How would you describe yourself?
I am an introvert, so that's the kind of question that makes me run for the hills! I would prefer not to describe myself and let my work speak for me. But just in case that isn’t enough – I am usually shy (although most people don't believe me when I tell them this), I like to carefully choose the people I spend time with, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking, and can enjoy long periods of solitude. However, something not everyone knows about me, is that I have a quirky personality and can be quite impulsive and fun-loving.

What do you do when you are not writing or reading?
I sometimes have research and non-book writing projects, related to my alter-ego background in law and policy. Other than that, I have been volunteering with the local chapter of a global NGO since I was in high school (in different countries), and that takes up a fair bit of time.

If you could holiday anywhere in the world, where would you choose and why?
I have a very long list of places I would like to visit, but right now my top three places (sorry, I couldn’t pick just one) are Japan, New Zealand and Egypt - Japan because it is the home of my mentor, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda and I really want to see it in cherry blossom season; I have been obsessed with New Zealand since I saw the Lord of the Rings movies; and Egypt because some of my mom's relatives recently visited and sent us a steady stream of photographs that made me want to drop everything and travel there.

If you have owned pets, do you have a funny story you would like to share with us?
I have always loved dogs my whole life, although I didn’t always have a pet at home. I have a story from when I was around 8 or 9 years old. At the time I was struggling socially at school, and didn’t have a lot of friends, which probably was of some concern to my family. One day I came home and announced to my grandmother that I had 32 friends. She was really impressed (and probably relieved), and asked me questions about my new companions. She was particularly surprised to then discover that these new friends were of the four-legged variety. I used to go on long walks around our neighbourhood after school, and I had befriended a few dozen of the neighbours' dogs! (In later years I did manage to make human friends, but I still have a particular affinity for dogs.)

What is the biggest factor for you when selecting a book to read?
I have very little patience and a short attention span when it comes to reading, so the book needs to be interesting and hook me from the beginning. There are exceptions, and I do slog through a book even if it's slow to grab my attention, but usually only when I have already decided to read it or have to because I am reviewing it for instance.

I tend to read in a select few genres, and I will probably be more patient if the book is from one of those genres, but generally I prefer books that are easy to read. By which I mean, that the writing or story (this goes for both fiction and non-fiction) is so engaging that I am pulled along the page, setting aside everything else I am supposed to be doing. I usually read books to learn something, whether non-fiction or memoir, but even then I like the style to be simple and accessible. This is probably why I didn’t exactly read most of my textbooks in law school!

When I read for pleasure, I usually stick to a few authors I know I will enjoy, although lately I have expanded a bit, and found some new favourites. I guess like most readers, factors such as a good cover and an interesting blurb make me take a closer look, and definitely too many typos and grammatical errors put me off. Being a self-published author myself at the moment, I would never discount a book simply because it was self-published.

Do you have your own website?
My own website is on my list of projects to get to, in the meantime I have a blog where I write my thoughts and lessons learned in being more creative and productive. I have also begun to interview other writers on their writing process.

Are you working on a new book at the moment?
At the moment I am working on a book of humorous essays on my time at university in England. This is my first foray into comedy, which I consider one of the most difficult genres to write in, which is probably why it is taking me so long. I believe that only by trying to do something outside your current ability can you get better at your craft.

Do you have any events or book promotions coming up that you would like to tell us about?

Yes. My book Will The Real Albert Speer Please Stand Up? The Many Faces of Hitler's Architect, a short biography on Hitler's architect and cabinet minister, who was rumoured to be intended as his successor, will be available free on Amazon from April 2nd to April 5th, 2016. You can get it here:

Update: I was also interviewed by author Coreena McBurnie on her blog here.

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