- Tell us something about yourself.
I’m a Cosmetic Dentist and an Implantologist as far as my professional training goes. But, there is a pleasant diversion I got when I realized I could pen down more than a few lines or couplets that I wrote close to three decades earlier. Busy with my professional obligations and family responsibilities, the creative streak lay hidden for years until the day I brushed it off and started giving words to my thoughts. Trust me; it was an onslaught of emotions that paraphrased themselves into a plot, energized each character with life and before I knew it, I’d written my first novel; ‘AFTERLIFE’, the 1st of Afterlife series.
But it’s definitely work in progress. Life gives you challenges and you evolve accordingly.
- When/How did you start your journey writing?
It was the spring of 2017, if I remember correctly. My son was already in engineering college and my daughter just promoted to class 12th. I was exhausted after helping her with her history notes and psychology revisions. Yes, before you ask me; history and psychology after being an out and out science student and a medical professional; I loved going back to reading history again more than three decades later after I did my class X. And it felt pleasantly refreshing especially after learning that there is a lot more than what we learnt back then. Psychology was a very brief chapter during my Dental training, so yeah; it was exciting to learn psychology as well. But little did I know that while helping my little girl with her studies, I would evolve. I took a break from helping her giving her time to settle down in her new grade and took to writing something light, something frothy, and something romantic. And there I was, stepping into a new terrain; unknown, challenging and expressive knowing little how will it shape me in times to come. It felt awkward to share my writing even with my family members in the beginning for the fear of being judged but when I completed the first draft and a round of editing, I felt at ease with owning my work. It sure was received with a lot of astonishment, which turned into appreciation once they read it. Well, I was immensely motivated to move further with a positive response.
- Has your profession as a doctor helped you in your writing journey for character or plot inspiration?
I think we give a way too much importance to our profession in our life. A profession is just about a practical training to perform certain job with as much perfection as it is required of a person. But at the end of the day, it’s just about a means to an end. With medical profession, definitely, your responsibility is way higher than the other professions but at some point, you have to detach yourself from it and look at yourself holistically. We as human beings are a lot more than slaves to our professional duties.
The upside of being a doctor is that people discuss their lives with you since you work in a very close proximity to them over a much extended period of time. It helps you to understand their life, its challenges, their family, their body language better than you would otherwise. There’s a story in everyone’s life and I guess, that’s the essence of my stories; there’s something for everyone in there. Anyone can find them relatable to their own circumstances or of their loved ones. Maybe in parts but that’s the response, I’ve got.
Writing Romantic Fiction, I felt was taboo for a medical professional because everyone in the beginning reacted with a small frowning, an element of surprise, maybe. The standard question was; ‘How come? How did you manage to write a fiction and not a Medical journal? And how did you find time?’ Well, I just acknowledge their response with a Sauvé smile. But I guess, I enjoy the mix of appreciation as well as disbelief in their demeanor as they flip through the books.
- Your books deal with characters that are unique yet relatable, how did you prep yourself to pen them? Was there any research involved?
Well, my characters represent some reflection of me or women like me who are free-spirited. I derive inspiration from people around me and try to make sense of their actions, deconstruct their behavior and try and learn their perspective. I guess, my interest in human psychology coupled with being analytical comes in handy. And yeah, in all my books, the central characters are women; a story from their perspective and of course, since my genre is Romantic fiction, there has to be a hero. My books deal with relationships; be it between a man and a woman or a mother and her children, a father with his children or even friends. I believe that as human beings, we are entangled in an assortment of relationships much like a Venn-diagram; some overlapping or others personal. And at some level, you have to justify them all and be honest to them. Maybe, that’s the reason, these characters are relatable.
About them being unique; I don’t think so. My protagonists are your everyday men and women trying to live their lives through life’s various turmoil. The fact is every person is unique in their own right. We just don’t know their story. So, for my characters, when I give reasons to their actions and justify their viewpoint; right or wrong, it brings out their uniqueness. Most of my characters fall in the grey zone, each one with their set of imperfections. That, I think is my USP. “IMPERFECT LIVES’ happen to be the title of my book of ten short stories, resonating my understanding of the people around me.
- Readers’ response to your book has been very warm. How do you feel about it? Is there a special review/comment you would like to share with us?
I think, here we are talking about my book on the now abrogated Article 370 of Jammu and Kashmir; ‘THE BATTLE AHEAD…? And yeah, it’s very heartening. ‘The Battle Ahead…?’ though is a romantic fiction as it begins, it takes a turn to being a socio-political pot-boiler. It is my take on a Political legacy that shaped a societal paradox about the identity of half of its population; the women, the daughters of Jammu and Kashmir.
It is a story told through the life of a young girl born in Jammu, and I emphasize on Jammu from Jammu and Kashmir, because every time we talk about J&K, it is Kashmir that dominates the conversations. This girl named Srishti embodies the issues of inheritance of a girl as well as that of the next of kin of a martyr. On one side in the first half of the story, she walks us through her childlike enthusiasm, her efforts at understanding relationships and a level of maturity seldom seen in young adults today. It’s the other half of the story that’s intriguing because that is when her formidable grandfather takes her on an emotional and a thought-provoking journey handing her down the information about the aspects of history of accession much less documented and largely spoken about. It is then she understands the plight of people living along the borders where shelling from across the border is a regular occurrence, the condition of Kashmiri Pundit refugees whose existence is merely used as an adjective for misery and that too of West Pakistan refugees. It is a story of the life of men in uniform, their challenges and the way the families of the martyrs deal with their loss over an extended period of time. This is a story of transformation of a girl from a dreamy teenager to woman of substance. In all, this story runs parallel on many tracks much like a society where it is the cumulative effects of various issues that transform our emotions build a collective conscious of the society.
One of the reviews I instantly connected to, though it was not taken up by Amazon for reasons I don’t know, so the reader sent it me on my social media handle, and I quote;
‘I grew up listening to how my mom felt as a step daughter of the state after she married my father who was in Indian Air Force. She wondered why her own state would snatch away her rights and sense of belongingness when for her home, Nation always came first. She understood boundaries across borders but not within her own country.
I fell in love with this book the moment i held it. It took me down the memory lane and the time spent listening to ma came back
Read the book with lump in my throat and tears wouldn’t stop
I am glad that the daughters of the state will not go through what my mom did
Kudos to you Dr Sonia for penning this book. I love you and your writing
All the best for your upcoming work
Waiting for the next eagerly
It is the love of such wonderful readers who go beyond only looking for the books of star authors is what keeps me going.
- You write fiction as well as poetry. How do you decide if a particular idea can be expressed well as poem or a story?
I started writing poetry when I was a dreamy teenager but I’m glad, some of my work still finds relevance nearly thirty years hence. Being from the state of Jammu and Kashmir where the official language was Urdu and thanks to PTV, which was broadcasted there while I was growing up, I learnt to appreciate Urdu poetry as well. So, sometimes, I write Hindi/Urdu poetry too but those are fairly transient emotions; in the moment kind.
Fiction is the real deal for me. It brings out a life you create by your perception. It invokes emotions I didn’t know I was capable of feeling. Like, in ‘The Battle Ahead…?’ I write from the perspective of the family of a martyr and about the children of officers who for the love of their country and safety of their children have to live far from them. These were alien emotions to me but if you’ve read the book, you can feel the chill in your bones when you read that account. That’s the beauty of a fiction that it plays like a movie in your head when you read it. I love that about writing stories, short or novels; they should imbibe the spirit, a life is made of. One of the reviewers on Amazon had written that she would’ve wanted to see this story on screen, but neither do I have resources nor the contacts to make that happen. So let my readers’ head be their own screen and they perceive the story as they deem fit.
- Do you have a writing process?
That’s the thing. I’m not a literature student and I never took training in Creative writing. I was a reasonably good reader, a little short of voracious. If I start a book, I’ve to finish it as fast as I can but at the same time, it’s okay if I didn’t read for a while. Maybe, my language skills in respect to reading and writing were good but bred in a small city has its challenges when it comes to fluency of speech especially in pre-Google and pre – English media. It enhanced over the years as I graduated from Amar Chitrakatha and Tinkle to M’n’B’s to Robin Cook, Danielle Steel and Sydney Sheldon. That’s my first taste of novels and my initial teachers for the world of fiction. So when I took to writing, I wasn’t aware that there’s something called a process by way of which, a story develops. The journey of my writing began with ‘AFTERLIFE’, a story about a woman’s life who had stopped living her life after a failed relationship and how she found love again and reinvented herself. But this wasn’t the only story that began that day. I already had four plots, four situations in my head as to how a person, a woman can react in her given circumstances. All I had was the circumstances and I began with the first book.
I created Aneesha, a Gynecologist and thus began her journey. I let her walk, let her fall, let her guide me through the joyous days of her carefree life and through the dark alleys as well all the while feeling what she felt. I don’t know if you find it superfluous or this is how everyone writes but that’s exactly how it started with me. The dialogues I wrote are hers, the words I normally don’t use in my everyday conversations and I loved every moment of her life. And then on, that’s what I did every time I sat down to write a story. I let my characters speak to me and guide me. And you won’t believe; in AFTERLIFE 2, the story that I had in my head changed course because my protagonist, Sarika won’t budge. She was persistent on how she wanted to tread after she had reached a cross-road and it was fascinating because I was debating with her and negotiating in my head. I’m so glad; I listened to her because it came out beautifully.
In AFTERLIFE 3, the story about a woman, Mahima’s struggles with a lost memory, a condition called Dissociative Amnesia, I got stuck after I’d written about a third of the story. Everything I wrote for days, I junked. Then one day, while helping my daughter revise a chapter of Psychology about the similar condition, I had a break through. I started writing the last third, a couple of chapters before the climax and then went back to complete the middle third.
‘THE BATTLE AHEAD…?’ was stressful but again, I let Srishti in the driving seat, unearthed all the sentiments I’d pushed back in my sub-conscious while growing up as a girl in Jammu and Kashmir and let my emotions flow. I recollected a couple of old memories walking close to fenced border at my mother’s ancestral village and how people constantly lived in fear in those areas but still held their ground. Some research into the history of accession, some angst about the exodus of Kashmiri Pundits in 1990, a few months before I left for college; trust me, it was painful.
I’m sorry, if I’d gone on this for too long but that’s it. This is my process, if you can call it one.
- Is the transition from writing one book to another smooth? How do you rejuvenate your mind?
Like I stated earlier; I had a lot of clarity about what I wanted as a theme for AFTERLIFE series, the stories of lost will to live your life to the fullest in the given circumstances and then how it changes as love knocks on your door. So yeah, that didn’t take much effort to change gear. Now, at one point, I’d the layout of all four on my desktop. In between, I read about a short story competition by Write India, A Times group initiative. Just to gain some confidence, I wrote three short stories in three different heads but never got any response. Maybe, there were better writers than me but I consoled myself that maybe, the mentors didn’t have enough time to go through thousands of entries and mine skipped their scrutiny. So, I wrote seven more; stories about the people who are not perfect, flawed but genuine and I self-published this book of short stories by the name ‘THE IMPEFECT LIVES – A Collection of Short Stories.’ Alongside, the traditional publication of AFTERLIFE in the month of September; 2018.
Always the one to follow news religiously, the issue of Article 370 was hot amidst the debates on national media but what always irked me was the narrative, which was being set. There were and still are discussions about Kashmir as though Jammu and Laddakh were non-existent. Now that I’d taken to writing, I thought of writing from the perspective of Jammu, the Gateway to Kashmir. I stopped working on the other books and started researching about the history of accession of Jammu and Kashmir. It definitely was a tough call because history books tell you the chronology of events and I wanted to write a psycho-analytical point of view, about things that aren’t written or omitted deliberately and are passed down by the word of mouth through the generations. And that too without offending the sensibilities of people in different spheres. I indeed did. This, transition from AFTERLIFE series to THE BATTLE AHEAD’ was surely not easy.
Regarding the rejuvenation part, I must remind you that I’m not a full-time writer. I’m a full-time Dental Practitioner and it is writing that rejuvenates me, liberates me. I guess, I’m a people’s person but being a doctor, my reach is limited. Writing has opened my wings, and though claustrophobic is a very intense word, but working in smaller set ups and meeting the same people repeatedly over the years, the feeling is closer. So like I display in the dedication column of each one of my book, ‘Dedicated to Myself- My Me-Time Indulgence’, I truly mean it, only with the exception of ‘The Battle head’. It is the marketing part of the book that is time consuming and challenging. I’m trying to work on that because howsoever good you are, you can’t grow if you don’t find the right readers, people who challenge you to write better.
- What books have most influenced your life? Which is the one book you will suggest everyone read?
Recently, I read Nicholas Spark’s ‘BREATHLESS’ and I truly loved it. He’s one guy who can make the most hopeless person believe in love. That kind of love stories are missing today. My writings identify with him because my stories do not have definitive antagonists. They are about the challenges people face because of their perspective and how things become better when we try and understand the other person’s standpoint.
Though I don’t read biographies but I did read a biography on ‘Maharaja Hari Singh’ the last ruler of Jammu and Kashmir before the accession by India during my research for ‘THE BATTLE AHEAD.’ It was a book called ‘THE TROUBLED YEARS – Maharaja Hari Singh’ a book by Harbans Singh with a foreword by Maharaja’s son DR. Karan Singh. This book was an eye-opener about the way politics was played during the last leg of British rule and how the events unfolded with vested interest in the region of Jammu and Kashmir. It debunks a lot of theories being floated to malign the then ruler and how he was ousted of his kingdom, he’d nurtured to be crowning glory of INDIA. My book has excerpts from this true account. His ouster was followed by occupation of almost 40% of the region of Jammu and Kashmir being taken over by Pakistan and some of it later by China. The boundaries, the Dogra Army protected for over a Century from Russian Czars, Afghan Tribes and China was allowed to be gone by much larger Indian army because of the myopic vision of the then national dispensation.
- Are you working on a new book? Any details about it that you can share?
‘AFTERLIFE-4 An Illusion called Forever’ is complete and I’m into the final rounds of editing. This is a story about a half Indian American woman, a Neurologist and a Psychologist by profession in love with an Indian man. A woman with a traumatic past who develops phobia about loving people because she feels that she loses everyone she loves and even though she’s a Neurologist, she does a diploma in clinical psychology alongside, it isn’t always easy to council yourself. It is the story of her strength how she overcomes her phobias, learns to love her children, learns to love herself before she finds love again. And there’s a twist and for those who’ve read my books, that is what makes my stories interesting; a twist when you expect it the least. I needn’t say more. This book completes my series of four books from AFTERLIFE series. And mind you, though ‘AFTERLIFE’ is available in print and on Kindle, ‘AFTERLIFE-2 A conflict b/w Love & Desire’ and ‘AFTERLIFE-3 Love Will Find A Way’ are available as e-books.
There’s another book I’m working on is titled ‘A LIFE LESS WORTHY’. It is the story of an Air Force officer who died and not martyred and how the way a soldier dies defines his worth. It’s a very challenging work, so I’m going very slowly.
- What is your advice to aspiring authors on writing and publishing?
I don’t know, if I’ve reached that stature to hand out advices as I’m just about three years into writing and about two since I published. But yeah, I’ve already published five books; two by traditional publishing and three by self-publishing.
I can only say this; if you are passionate about writing, do it unapologetically. But before that, try and work on your language skill. It’s not always about how good a story is but about how it is told. I learnt the art of storytelling while I helped my children, especially my son’s Cambrige board. I refreshed History and Psychology helping my daughter. I got the resolve to write a book about Article 370 listening to conflicting narratives on Primetime every day. We all need a source to intrigue us, an imagination that pokes us and a thought-process that doesn’t let us sleep. So let it out and own it. There will always be more criticism than appreciation but that should only help you become better.
Publishing is yet another ball-game. Traditional publishing is good as your work passes through an expert scrutiny before hitting the stands and it gives you a lot of exposure, an already established platform but you have to be ready to bear the cost. Self-publishing is good if you already have an audience. But, it’s everyone’s own call. We all have our journey to follow. My mantra is;
“When the roadblocks happen – FLY” by Dr Sonia Sharma
Visit me @ http://www.drsoniasharma.info
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