The art of writing: Sudha Menon

You had an illustrious and enviable career as a journalist, when and how did the thought of leaving it come to mind? Was it a tough decision?
In early 2010, a few months after I walked away from full-time job as a journalist, the idea of this book formed in my mind. But the seeds of my love affair with words began in my childhood when we grew up in a house full of books of every genre. By the time I was 10-12, I had read some of the Russian classics, Harper Lee’s How To Kill a Mockingbird, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, Emile Zola’s The Dram Shop, P.G. Wodehouse’s amazing books and consumed any numbers of James Hadley Chase even. The latter is not exactly literature, but I was so fascinated with books that I read anything that came my way. In some ways I think writing a book is my destiny even though I wake up sometimes and can’t believe it is happening to me..
The switch from journalism to writing book was a complete process of re-learning. Journalism makes you a cynic and a pessimist and sometimes a bit of a distant person from being constantly told to be objective and brief. For writing my books I have to open my heart and listen with my soul because the people I am interviewing are opening their lives to me and I have to be sensitive to that and grateful for it.
Did you always want to be an author? What inspired you to write your first book, Leading Ladies?
I think I always knew I would write a book. Leading Ladies was a culmination of a long personal journey. As a working woman raising a child and struggling to keep her family together, I often wondered how these women achievers manage so much with their lives. I wanted to be like them, scale new heights. Go to the places they had taken their life. I wanted to know what made those women so unflappable and what best practices they adopted to become such sterling people. So I embarked on my journey to answer all these questions. Leading Ladies was and continues to be a successful book even after two years of its launch and I think it is because a lot of women out there want to know about the journeys of these women.
Any difficulties you faced publishing the book? How important is it to find the right publisher?
Leading Ladies was published by a small publisher, Fortytwo Bookz I did not even approach a larger publisher because this was my first baby and I wanted to go with someone who would look after it with that much care and love. They did a great job with the product and I still get compliments about the production quality of that book. By the time Legacy came, I was wiser in that I realized that book retailers don’t really support the smaller publishers and my first publisher had to really take on a huge financial burden because while the books sold like hot cakes, they got their money from the retailers after long delays. Larger publishers have the staying power to wait out these delays and they can put your books in larger number of stores.
It is really important to find a publisher who shares your vision for your book. It never works if you want something from your book and the publisher wants an entirely different thing. You need to have a great equation with your editors at the publishing house so that you can work to get a great product to the readers. I was blessed to have that and more with both Fortytwo Bookz and Random House which has published my new book, Legacy.
Tell us about your latest book, Legacy. How did the idea of writing the book come to mind?
Legacy was the result of my concern that we no longer have the opportunity or the time to tell our children about the important things in life. My generation learnt a lot about life from just being with our parents, elders in the family and by simply observing them. We got our attitude to life, values, etc. from being around them. Our elders wrote letters to us and even if they did not have great philosophical or literary value, they were full of home grown wisdom. We no longer pick up the pen and write to our children and our lives have been taken over by social networking sites and gadgets that leave us with very little mind space for chatting with flesh and blood people. I wrote Legacy so I could tell my 21-year-old daughter about the important things in life. I hope Legacy outlives me and is an enduring support when she needs guidance. Somewhere in the midst of writing to her, I decided it would be great to get some of our contemporary icons to write letters to their daughters so that we can all benefit from the combined wisdom of so many of these inspirational figures.
Did your experience in journalism help in getting in touch with all the eminent personalities mentioned in the book? Did it also help in your writing?
I think having a credible reputation as a journalist helped immensely. People are wary of sharing their lives with strangers and rightly so. It was difficult initially to get the people in the book to write about their lives in a letter to their daughter. A letter to a daughter is such a private thing, but I convinced them that putting their wisdom down in a letter to their daughter could be a huge help for the other women in this country who are struggling to find answers to the daily struggle with life.
Which stories mentioned in your book Legacy do you personally like the most?
Artist Jatin Das’s letter to actor Nandita Das, legal ace Zia Mody’s simple and often hilarious letter to her three daughters, Narayana Murthy’s letter to his daughter, Renuka Ramnath’s letter to her daughter, are so evocative and full of little gems of wisdom gathered during a life well lived. But it is unfair to say I have a favourite letter because I identified with each of the letters in the book and think all of us will benefit from reading these letters.
How was the experience of talking to Deepika Padukone?
Meeting Deepika was a lovely experience. I walked into the Four Seasons Hotel in Mumbai expecting to meet a diva with a lot of celebrity tantrums and was charmed, instead, by the young woman who came in with her agent and spend time talking to me about her father and her life with essentially middle-class values. She stayed focused on talking to me, did not attend phone calls and certainly did not give me attitude.
Both your books are women-centric? Is it because of the feminist in you?
Women fascinate me. There are such complex people with so many facets to them, they have to deal with the world on so many different levels and they do all of it so well and so seamlessly. They are capable of a lot and then some more. They have so many different roles to play and they play each of them with great responsibility. I want to focus on the stuff that makes women the splendid people that they are and so, my writing is consumed with stories about and for them.
You are also a motivational speaker and have worked with many big companies. Tell us how your stint as a speaker begin.
After Leading Ladies became a hit, I started getting invited by a lot of large corporates to talk to their women’s networks about my journey and the experience of writing about the women in my book. I went to Wipro, IBM, SAP Labs, Cummins, Zensar and so many smaller companies and I talk to them about the stuff I have learned along the way in my role as a journalist and later, as a chronicler of the lives of successful women. It is a hugely satisfying thing for me to take inspirational stories to so many hundreds of women, young and old, who are struggling to face up to the challenges of work, life and all the things that they have to juggle with. I am struck by how the challenges women face remain the same, no matter what our age, our place in life, the money in our bank. Through my talks I try and address a lot of the questions these women have in their mind and are not sure who to ask.
You live and work in Pune and Mumbai, tell us which city is closer to your heart?
Pune is the closest to my heart, no question about it. My work takes me to Mumbai and other big cities and I love the pace of those cities and the energy there and the options in everything- clothes, food, theatre, but I am happiest when I am back home in Pune. Despite the pollution, despite the laid-back attitude of the people of this city, I ache to come back home.
Any writers who inspire you or whose work you enjoy?
P.G.Wodehouse is my all time favourite read, an instant dose of happiness when I am down and out. Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai, Ismat Chugtai are all favourites though I must confess there are so many contemporary authors I am keen to read, but don’t seem to find the time to read!
What advice would you give to those pursuing a career as a writer and a journalist?
You only become a writer when pen touches paper, so write a few pages every day, whatever it is that is consuming you at that time. Write until you find a voice that is uniquely yours and not a poor copy of another author. To be a good writer get a lot of experiences in your life. Be adventurous, experiment with stuff, meet people, be sympathetic to the conditions of other people, observe things around you and read as much as you can.
Any forthcoming projects you are working on? Any social media presence or blogs you might have, where our readers can get in touch with you?
I am already working on my next project that is also a book for women and about women. I am very much on facebook!/SudhaMenonAuthor?fref=ts and my twitter handle is @sudhamenon2006
Short and Quick ones
Your motto in life: Dream big and then go out and make them come true. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not good enough or that you can’t do it.
You call your book as your two children, your daughters reaction on it is: She said the other day, “Mom you are hardly even able to cope with me then why do you want so many other children!”  But seriously, every new book I write is like a new baby .  I invest everything I have emotionally and physically into them.
Writing for me is: as essential as breathing. It is my life. I am not a very nice person to be around with when I have not written my daily quota every day.
You are a Punekar because: this is the only place I know where I can put in half a day’s work, go out and have lunch with a friend, return to finish my work, go out for a walk and generally lead a life which my friends in other cities envy. Plus I like the fact that I eat out at nice places without blowing a hole in my wallet and that there is a personal connect with a lot of people because this is a smaller place  where you are not one of the lakhs of anonymous faces. I am a Punekar because I can only ever eat Khari from City Bakery, Shrewsbury biscuits from Kayani, missal from Bedekar, bhakarwadi from Chitale and soul-satisfying chai and bun maska at Diamond and Vohuman Café – any other place is simply not good enough.