Destined To Be a Novelist
Anju Gattani, like her empowered female characters, didn’t let the obstacles she faced as a writer deter her. Despite receiving hundreds of rejections, she persisted and has found success by forging her own path. A 2023 Georgia Author of the Year nominee, Gattani, who grew up in Hong Kong, speaks about her journey as a novelist and her Winds of Fire series, a sweeping Downton Abbey-like saga set in India.
Tell us about growing up in Hong Kong. How did the experience of being immersed in different cultures inform your writing?
Growing up in British Hong Kong was a blend of the East and West under one cosmopolitan skyline. I attended private British schools (affiliated with the University of Cambridge) that hosted over 36 nationalities. I completed my bachelor’s degree in English literature and psychology in India, then returned to Hong Kong, where I was certified in teaching as a London Montessori Teacher. The passion to learn and write continued to bite and I enrolled in a journalism and creative writing course from Australia. My life was a continual whirr of cultures, flavors, cuisines, religions, diversity, languages, and dialects. Think Bend It Like Beckham, but without soccer or any sport for that matter! Childhood summers were spent in Jaipur and Bareilly with family, relatives—and a total immersion in the Indian environment for two months.
I understood over time that irrespective of what culture, religion, or background we come from, we all want pretty much the same thing: to live in peace, harmony, and the freedom to live a life of our choosing. How we achieve those goals are shaped by our past experiences, practices, value systems, and beliefs. I also learned that it’s easier said than done. Asians, South Asians, and their respective communities have countless practices and traditions, festivals, celebrations, expectations, and unwritten modes and codes of conduct that members of society are expected to follow. They’re wonderful measures to help keep a community intact but when mandates of ‘My way or the highway’ come into play, that changes the rules of the game altogether. I question and explore those themes in my work. As a former freelance journalist, news reporter, and currently a fiction author, I question all these issues and more through my characters and their conflicts.
You said that the Winds of Fire series fell into your lap in 2001 shortly after moving halfway across the world from Singapore to the U.S. Sounds like magic! Tell us more.
The truth is anything but magic. My career as an international freelance journalist ended in 2001 after my husband, two little boys, and I moved from Singapore to New Jersey. The lifestyle magazines I freelanced for in Singapore, India, and Hong Kong would not assign me work because I was in the U.S. and I could no longer interview candidates or research material that was relevant to their audience. My H-4 dependent visa status did not allow me to work in the U.S. either. I was stuck and did not know how to move forward with a writing career.
One afternoon, in November 2001, I was taking a nap—mandatory for all mothers of young kids!—when I jolted awake, barely able to breathe and with sweaty palms and a racing heart. The daydream I’d snapped out of was so intense and I couldn’t remember where I’d watched this movie. For weeks I tried to forget about the daydream and, after a deep conversation with Mom in Hong Kong, realized this could be the seed for a full-length novel. I worked backward to figure out who these people were, why they were running, who they were running away from—and began handwriting the first draft. The original draft took 18 months and when I typed ‘The End,’ I had a sequel and more characters talking and running in my head. After countless rewrites, revisions, and edits over the next two decades, that one scene in my head turned out to be the end of what is now Book 2 in the Winds of Fire series. That single scene grew into a story. The story spawned across several books, generations, and continents.
Indeed! Tell us about the publishing process.
After 500 rejections from the publishing industry, four U.S. literary agents who couldn’t sell the books to a big publishing house, and two small publishers who published Book 1 but couldn’t do justice to the series or characters, I secured back all rights to the books and self-published and released Dynasties in 2023. It ranked on the Top 10 Amazon Bestsellers List just 72 hours after release! It was chosen as the January 2023 International Book of the Month Pick by the largest online book club in the world, the International Pulpwood Queen & Timber Guys Book Club Reading Nation, and is a 2023 GA Author of the Year nominee.
Writers have different techniques and tonics to coax their creative minds into motion. What’s your writing mantra?
I have another book project in the works outside of the Winds of Fire series and that project began in 2006 when we were living in Connecticut. A character popped into my dream with my vacuum cleaner. I had no idea who she was, what on earth she was doing with my vacuum cleaner and what she wanted. The only way to make any sense of this dream was to put pen to paper. I guess you could say my characters haunt me in my dreams! I do have certain writing patterns—the first draft of any manuscript is handwritten on blank sheets of white paper. Absolutely no lined or colored or fancy paper. It’s like an artist reeflowing paint with a brush on a crisp, clean white canvas. My characters bleed on the page, handwritten, and I am the vehicle that tells their story. I don’t know the story until I’ve written the first draft.
How is the experience of penning novels similar to and different from all your other writing endeavors like reporting and instructing?
Reporting and instructional writing or presenting a workshop on creative writing uses my analytical skills. I’ve presented writing workshops at regional and national level conferences—like Romance Writers of America, Atlanta Writers Club, Moonlight & Magnolias—and ran an eight-week kick-start writing course at the Milton Library [in Fulton County, GA]. I research in depth the concepts I’ve learned during the writing process, break down the content, and build it back again according to the end-user’s needs. There’s always a pre-defined goal I must meet and objectives I’m trying to attain in the process. And for every project I work on, there is a checklist. If I’m working with editors, contributing to a column, or working with other writers, I can brainstorm and approach someone else when I hit a roadblock. I’m not alone even though the writing process is lonely.
Writing the novel on the other hand is a totally free-flow process for me. I don’t outline or create a synopsis
beforehand. I sit with pen and paper and write what the characters tell me to write. I see the story visually like a movie running and most times the pen struggles to keep up with the speed of the moving images, characters, conflicts, and scene changes. Revisions and rewrites are far more analytical than the creative process. I wear my objective editorial hat at this phase of the writing process and look at my work closely with a critical eye. I’m also a member of several writing organizations like the Women Fiction Writers Association, Atlanta Writers Club, and several Facebook reading groups. I have a team of beta readers I trust with my work. Their feedback and critique are critical to developmental edits during revisions and rewrites.
Who are your favorite authors?
Authors whose works have inspired and changed me are Khaled Hosseini, B.A. Paris, Philippa Gregory, Jay Shetty, Jodi Picoult, Eckhart Tolle, Suzanne Collins, Lisa Genova, Anita Shreve, Jean Kwok, Amy Tan, Chitra Divakaruni, Alka Joshi, and more.
Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, go to ReetikaKhanna.com
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