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February 25, 2015

In The Grip of Words

Text by Nittal Chandarana

Head of romance giant Harlequin India, Amrita Chowdhury has a penchant for thrillers. The author talks to Verve about her love of romances and her roles of author and publisher

  • Head of romance giant Harlequin India, Amrita Chowdhury, Breach
  • Head of romance giant Harlequin India, Amrita Chowdhury, Breach

Amrita Chowdhury is a mother, an author, the head of a publishing house and much more. She doesn’t think twice before making a life-altering career move; maybe because she knows that whatever she touches is gold. Verve interacts with her just before she launches her second novel, Breach.

Which is your favourite romance?
Perhaps it is a clichéd choice, but I would pick Pride and Prejudice as my favourite romantic novel. I must have read it some 50 times in high school. Its characters drew me into their world. The on-again, off-again spark between Elizabeth and Darcy, their interactions and misconceptions are very real. I also love Mills & Boons books for their schmaltzy romance. It’s fun to be swept into a plush, glamorous world, rediscover falling in love with all its accompanied pain and the final resolution.

How drastic was the change from working at Silicon Valley to heading a publishing house?
My professional life has been a long journey, with multiple bends. I started as an engineer in Silicon Valley and post my MBA, moved into strategy consulting in the US and then in Australia. This is a very normal transition that many people go through. After returning to India, I worked in education management and then in publishing. Alongside, I have written two books and am now thinking of the next one. I have enjoyed my time in publishing because it allows me to bring together two things that I really enjoy – business and content.

Where did the idea of Breach come from?
I had started with the idea of a young girl facing cyberbullying. But while doing my research, I soon discovered the extent to which cyber crime happens in India, but no one had written about it. Hence, Breach became a layered story where the young characters engaged in cyberbullying and minor hacking collide with the larger story of corporate data theft for a major new cancer drug. The idea of bringing in cancer research simply happened — my mother passed away from cancer last year and much of what I had read, understood and seen during her illness crept into the story.

Are any of the characters inspired by real life?
Fiction, as I write it, is a reflection and an extension of reality. So definitely characters have been inspired by real people. They are also composites. Vir, the young CEO, embodies the best of an idealised Young Turk. Karthik, the ethical hacker, mirrors the young ethical hackers I have met during my research. Madhu, the girl being cyber bullied, reflects some of my own experiences from my early college days. Raghu, the brilliant closet hacker, reflects some of today’s college-going teens I have seen. That’s the fun of writing fictional characters — you can tinker with reality, take in small elements from different places and create someone new.

Both your books – Breach and Faking It – are thrillers about stealth of information or objects. Why this genre?
I like the intellectual stimulation of writing a thriller. It needs to be complex, plotted intricately and yet written simply, leaving little clues that connect the larger plot in the background so that the reveals happen slowly. I also like to write with authenticity about things that I know. What I don’t know, I research. I spend almost a year or more in research before I write. Faking It is about art forgery. I had been appreciating art for a while but I started collecting it in 2002. An art thriller set in India was a new premise, and remains relevant given the number of forgeries that continue to happen for the major Indian artists of the previous century. Breach is about cyber crime, medical ethics and cancer medicine pricing — all are very relevant and topical in India today.

Do you follow a particular discipline while writing?
I usually write on weekends. That said, my mind is always full of ideas and I carry a mini Moleskine and pens to jot down random ideas that can be strung together later. After I have laboured over the first draft, I usually rewrite it all over again. The structure of a thriller is important and hence needs some iteration to get it correct.

How difficult is it to separate the writer from the publisher when working on your own book?
It is tough. I had finished and sent Breach to my publisher at the same time as I had started my publishing role. It took me 18 months to slowly do the various revisions that I was asked to, and I must thank my publishers for their patience. But writing is also a craft. Working with many authors and seeing their work has helped me improve my craft.

Any plans of writing an M&B for Harlequin?
I would love to try one day. Writing a magical romance is not easy, and it is extremely tough to craft those moments of intense emotions, palpable passions, and mischievous humour that leap off the pages. It is not my natural style. So I would have to work very hard to even attempt it.

What other genre would you like to explore?
I would certainly like to explore non-fiction and narrative poetry. I love both those genres, and am comfortable in these spaces.

Who are some of the contemporary authors you enjoy reading?
In recent times, I have enjoyed reading authors who have authentically written about other parts of Asia. These include Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam, Tash Aw, Kevin Kwan, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar. I enjoy books that show the immense clash of cultures, ideologies, classes that our societies are undergoing at the moment.

Any advice for budding writers and for people who want to break into the publishing industry?
It always begins with content — as far as budding writers go. They should focus on learning and practising their craft through reading and perhaps short courses. They should complete their books and then revise them before sharing. Then relentlessly market their books. There is too much sloppy writing out there and too many me-too concepts. Try to be unique and revise, revise, revise. For people wanting to break into the publishing industry, they should be open to a lot of change. The way books are marketed and distributed is changing rapidly. Understanding of technology, digital marketing, attention to detail and managing strict deadlines will be crucial in this business. As with any field, people should follow their passions and enter publishing if they love the world of ideas.

Read a short piece of fiction penned by Amrita Chowdhury, exclusively for Verve.

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