Out of Print talks to MURZBAN F SHROFF
Featured publication: Breathless in Bombay, St. Martin’s Press NY, 2008, Picador India, 2008.
Thank you, Murzban, for agreeing to be part of our blog series that honours the work of Out of Print Authors. We loved featuring your story Mind Over Matter in Out of Print, and are curious to know more about your collection, 'Breathless in Bombay' and its writing.
We are writers and editors; so before we get to talking about your collection, we have questions about the way you approach writing and revising.
Writing and Editing 1: Do you ever go back and read your stories after they’ve been published. If yes, do you itch to revise them one more time? And what do you do about it, do you ignore the itch? Or create a newer version of every story?
If, in fact, you don’t go back to your stories after publication, why don’t you? Are you embarrassed, frightened, anxious about them, or have you simply just moved on?
Murzban Shroff: I publish extensively with journals in the U.S., where editors tend to be picky. So pre-publication, I do, on an average, anywhere between 20 to 30 edits, or should I say reconstructions where I flesh out the stories on various counts: character-development, setting, narrative pace, narrative tension, irony, and most important, premise. In this manner, I work on two to three projects simultaneously to keep myself stimulated. Post-publication, yes, I do get tempted to change things a bit. But that is more in terms of (a) fine-tuning the flow and making certain mechanical tweaks, for smoothness (b) ensuring that the ending comes through as a revelation, as much for the main character as for my readers. It’s all about strengthening the work, really, so that when I return to it – especially for readings – I enjoy the story and don’t have regrets.
Writing and Editing 2: Are you a systematic writer, that is do you invoke your muse routinely, lighting the proverbial lamps and incense sticks at fixed times, for fixed periods, or do you immerse yourself, blocking out all else when the muse deigns to visit?
Murzban Shroff: I am not a disciplined writer in that I don’t work to a fixed routine daily. But I do find myself diligent. I research my subjects thoroughly, giving myself more information than I need to work with; I look out for details and am not afraid to discard chunks if they are, in the least, not doing anything for the character or the plot. I manage to write at least four days in a week – except during the period when I went through my litigation on ‘Breathless’ – and I don’t let go until I have laid out the structure, the flesh and bones of the story. And, yes, I do tend to get obsessive, living in the heads of the characters I create, belonging entirely to their lives. I work in slabs of intense commitment, then need two three days to recover from such phases.
Writing and Editing 3: Was there a particular event that prompted you to start writing or have you always done so? And what convinced you to keep going? What was your first success, your first sense that the world was aware of your creative effort?
Murzban Shroff: I knew even as a boy that I was going to be a writer. I wanted to be nothing more. I wrote for my school magazine, edited my college magazine, then gave up to join advertising. There came a time when I tired of corporate life; I felt all the pressures were self-created and would only lead to self-deception. You know, this feeling of importance that sets in once you are successful. So I whittled down what I was doing, which was running my own creative consultancy service, and I committed to writing, to simply learning the nuts and bolts. My clients thought I was nuts. One of them actually came home to appeal to my family to drum sense into me. A couple of them wanted to invest in my company. They thought that would bring me around.
My first success was when I made it to the pages of a journal that had two Nobel Prize winners on its board, and the editor – a very successful, acclaimed writer – said some flattering things about my work. But this took me two years to achieve. Then, in my third year of writing, I won an award – the John Gilgun Fiction Award – for the best submission of the year. By then I was on a conveyor belt, not because of the success, but the failures that came with these: those poignantly sweet rejection letters, after months of waiting.
Writing and Editing 4: Are you a reader or are you one of those who doesn’t read other people’s work when writing? Do you engage in other literary process – review, criticism, journalism, blogging? And, how does that affect your writing?
Murzban Shroff: You can’t be a serious writer if you don’t read. I read voraciously: four to five hours a day. I socialise mostly at book stores. And I don’t dabble in any other form of writing. There are enough people doing that anyway, and reviewing – especially – is a highly specialised art.
Writing and Editing 5: The juxtaposition of the stories is something we think about a little in Out of Print, the flow of one to the other, similar stories together or apart. We do this even though certainly the sequence matters less in an online format. So before we get to the stories in your collection, ‘Breathless in Bombay’ we were curious about the order of stories in your book, particularly as your title story is the last one in the book (as in Alice Munroe’s Too Much Happiness). Did you spend a lot of time on the order – did you consult with editors or decide on your own?
Murzban Shroff: I let my editor at St. Martin’s decide the sequence, and I had a couple of suggestions that she took into account.
Collection 1: You are candid in your introduction that this collection is driven by striving to make sense of the great, complexities of Mumbai, a city which you both love and hate. The stories are ripe with characters in different strata of society, different levels of privilege, of different genders and persuasions. When you were writing, did you feel as if you were entering your principal character’s persona, or did you feel a distance, were you an observer?
Murzban Shroff: I totally lived my characters, to the extent that I would need days off to unwind from their lives and problems. In the more researched stories like ‘Dhobi Ghat’ and ‘The Queen Guards Her Own,’ I had to return to the milieu many times over, just to corroborate my facts, to sensitise myself and get it right. I made to make sure that what I was portraying was true not just of one kind of person but of the entire subset. Often what started as research went on to become a friendship pact with the people I was interviewing. So it was important, no critical, that I get them and their issues right.
Collection 2: Did you think consciously about veering away from the sentimental – a trap that is easy to fall into when exploring the kind of complexities that you do – or did your story drive your writing?
I think of the paragraph in The Queen Guards Her Own where Simran, who earlier has had things done to her that ‘tore at heart, mind, body, youth’ begins to feel the ‘cracking of a hard layer of topsoil’ below which she feels ‘a tributary stir’ when she discovers she is expecting a child.
Murzban Shroff: My kind of writing is character-led, issue-based fiction; so it is the character and premise that drives the work and sets the tone and tenor and, of course, the moral obligation to be true to the kind of person I am trying to depict. The premise could well emerge as a denouement later, as part of my own journey of realisation, or sometimes it is the starting point, emerging from an issue I want to address and that I feel keenly about.
Collection 3: You have a subtle humour in your writing that doesn’t shy away from hitting deep. Your story, Mind Over Matter (http://www.outofprintmagazine.co.in/Shroff_Murzban.html ) in Out of Print 5 is one such. In ‘Breathless in Bombay’ there are of course many examples: in Dhobi Ghat, your first story in ‘Breathless in Bombay’, I love the line when Mataprasad Mahadev thinks ‘...damn those washing machines: front loading, top loading, tumble wash, bungle wash, ...’. Also, when the wonderful Angelina in This House of Mine talking of her upcoming 40th birthday says, ‘He (her yoga instructor) feels I have awoken some kind of inner energy from the base of my spine, which is going to keep me from aging.’ Could you tell us about this aspect of your writing?
Murzban Shroff: It’s certainly an externalisation of my sense of observation, which sees me on the fringe of any social interaction/event. This helps me to flesh out my characters and give them nuances and traits that would go with their persona. What you see in characters like Lulu Aranha (Mind over Matter) or Mataprasad in his interaction with the fisherwoman (Dhobi Ghat) or in the wannabe actions of the socialites in the title story are just examples of ironic play, of light, bemused character shading. At some level my writing must also entertain me; it’s too much hard work otherwise.
Collection 4: When writing, do you feel bound to a place? ‘Breathless in Bombay‘, is obviously centred in the fine city of Mumbai. But in your other writings, does location play an important role?
Murzban Shroff: Yes, a sense of place is very important for me. It’s the terra firma on which I write.
Collection 6: What are you working on now?
Murzban Shroff: An India collection and a novel.
Collection 7: Finally, do you have any words of advice to our readers and writers?
Murzban Shroff: I am afraid I can’t take myself so seriously. I am only one book old and would rather lean on my readers for views and advice.
Murzban F Shroff is a Bombay-born writer. His fiction has appeared in over thirty journals in the U.S. and UK. He is a recipient of the John Gilgun Fiction Award and has three Pushcart Prize nominations. His debut collection, Breathless in Bombay (St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2008, Picador India, 2008), was shortlisted for the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the best first book category. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on facebook.