Author Shamlal Puri - Characters can make or break a story. An annoying character will kill the story.


By Aryeman

A brief about Author Shamlal Puri Based in London, author Shamlal Puri has been a journalist, press photographer, editor, broadcaster and author. Having started early in 1972 as a journalist, Shamlal has travelled extensively around the world (125 countries) on journalism assignments since the past 45 years. He has won several international media awards, his achievements have been cited in Contemporary Authors USA, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in Africa, and several other publications. Some of his books are being made into Hollywood films.

How long did it take to get your novel/book published?

There is an amusing story into how I got into writing books. I used to live in East Africa where I was a journalist working for the Daily News, the national newspaper in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania). I was content with being a journalist never set out to write books because to me, that was a different world!

In 1974 my friend Joseph, a Kenya-based journalist with an American newspaper, introduced me to Fred Ojienda, Publisher of Foundation Books in Nairobi. Diplomatically, Fred wiggled out a commitment from me to write a book for his imprint. In my youthful, careless way, I said "No problems!"

Little did I know that soon I would be facing a problem! It hit me when I got back to my hotel. I asked myself ‘where the hell is the book I have just committed to?’ I had nothing on mind on what to write. Not even an idea of what I would be writing. I should have thought before I leapt. Lesson learnt here.

On return to Tanzania, I took time away from work and locked myself away for three weeks. I cobbled up some ideas, furiously typing away and came out with something on paper. I fully expected it would get rejected and an exasperated Mr Ojienda yelling at me "Do you call this a book? Go away!" 

To my surprise, he accepted it and handed the manuscript to his editor Mark Ng'ulukulu. It saw the light of the day as The Dame of the Twilight, a collection of short stories on African culture and social habits. It was romantic, no doubt, and it had the ingredients of absorbing reading. My imagination did take off!

Being a keen photographer, I provided the cover as well!

I flew back to Nairobi to see the book roll off the presses. It was launched in Nairobi by the legendary late Mr Henry Gathigira, Editor-in-Chief of The Standard newspaper and the doyen of veteran journalists, amidst a blaze of publicity in the printed and electronic media. I was interviewed on Kenya Television.

What mistakes did you make with the publishing of your first book which you try not to repeat?

The first 'pleasant' mistake was committing a book when there was none on to offer. The learning here was when an opportunity comes your way, don’t think twice. Accept it and make the most of it.

The second happened with my second book in the Kiswahili language of Africa, Maisha, which saw a short life and ended in the grave of the world of literature.
The 1970s were not the days of computers but typewriters. I had typed my 30,000-word manuscript in duplicate carbon copy. I sent it to the Publisher. He called for the duplicate copy as he wanted two out-of-house editors to read them in different parts of the country.

One editor disappeared without a trace due to political reasons and left the country in a hurry without leaving behind a contact. That was the last my Publisher heard of him was in South Africa. The second editor delivered. The book's print run was small. The prevailing local economic situation at that time stopped the Publisher from taking the risk of a larger print. Sales may have been hit by people's purchasing power and reading habits.

But to his surprise, it sold out quick. Readers were fascinated by how an Indian origin man could write fluent Kiswahili. The Publisher had assured me that he would reprint, but alas, there was no reprint. His publishing business got hit in the crisis, and my Publisher was forced to close his business due to internal bickering and cash flow problems.

My biggest mistake was that I did not have an extra copy of the manuscript. I was left with five author copies of this book. Four were given to the people I met during my travels. I was under the impression that my Publisher would give me more on request.

How did you branch out to writing fiction?

I have migrated to writing faction – fiction based on facts. And, oh boy, it is hard work. I had to do a lot of planning, research and investigations when writing my thriller Axis of Evil: Blood Money. This is a book on elephant poaching in Africa.

I started following the ivory industry, built contacts, followed leads from like-minded people and connected with anti-poaching organisations. It took a couple of years to bring it all together.

In this book, I look at how local and international gangs of poachers, work towards decimating Africa’s elephant population. The book was sheer hard work, but, in the end, I got what I had set out to get. 

You won a lot of accolades with this book, didn’t you?

The overall result was a beautiful book offering. It won me this critical American review, “Shamlal Puri’s ‘Axis of Evil: Blood Money’ has out-scooped journalists and the intelligence community by unearthing how poaching in Africa is being used to raise money for Jihad in the Middle East.” 

This book is currently on a Hollywood film producer’s desk. An e-book of this has also just been released.

The travails of finding the right publisher, some solutions. Click HERE to read.

My later book The Illegals: Homeless, Visa-Less, Hopeless – Striving for the Good Life is also the true story of the trials and tribulations of desperate Indians trying to enter the United Kingdom using human traffickers. 

During my extensive travels around the world on journalism assignments over the years I used to come across a lot of young Indians travelling on trucks through a circuitous route in Europe for a new life, and this fired the zeal in me to write this book.   

I gained the confidence of some illegals living under a motorway bridge in West London after I joined a charity to serve them with food. These illegals can be violent if they believe you are out to shop them to the immigration authorities. Luckily, they opened up to me and narrated their stories on condition of anonymity as they feared they will be derided back home if I named them. I kept to my word. I spent some nights under the motorway bridge in the bitterly cold winter weather. 

One of them took me to a nearby grave where I met other illegals sleeping under the sky and newly laid coffins in the day. I spent some time with them and moved to a local council estate where yet another group slept in garbage areas among foxes, rats and other pests scavenging on garbage from the big wheelie bins. The Indians’ entry into the garbage area in the dark and dinghy, windowless basement was not through a typical door. I will leave it there!

How did your book Dubai Dreams take shape?
My third book Dubai Dreams: The Rough Road to Riches, is the true story of the Indian blue-collar workers, the sweating classes. Working in the Middle East.

I lived and worked in Dubai for a few years, during which I met many taxi drivers and construction workers and made friends with them. They would share their stories with me. I decided to put their stories together and the result was Dubai Dreams. I deliberately chose to feature them instead of wealthy millionaires because very little has been written about them. I felt that their story needed to be told.

I had heard a lot about Sonapur, in a remote outer part of Dubai city, where these labourers were housed in ‘camps’. It was a no-go area. The authorities had forbidden outsiders, more so, inquisitive journalists like me to set foot there. Penalty for this offence meant jail or deportation for foreigners. As a British citizen, I stood no chance if I was caught.

With the help of two labourers who knew the drill, I managed to smuggle myself in a shared taxi – five people - as an ordinary guy (no camera, no writing pad as I had often carried) and was able to gain entry – waved on at gate by a sleepy guard to whom we looked almost alike. I saw some very appalling living conditions, which I noted in my book. 

Dubai Dreams is now on a film producer’s desk awaiting finalisation of movie rights.

Can you focus on working on two books or stories at the same time?

Yes, I can. For me, it is like working on two different news stories in my newspaper. It takes training to stop working on one and then move to the second. I have learnt the safest way is to write a chunk of the first and then when you come to a grinding halt there for the paucity of ideas, you switch on to the other. Any danger of two book ideas getting mixed up? Nah!

Is there a modus operandi you follow and formulate before you actually start writing your next book?

Yes, there is a crucial part of writing a book. A writer always starts with a blank piece of paper and a pen. You have to work the story in your mind, build a plot, create characters allocate them 'role' so to say. You have to first play out the story in your mind, build up your imagination, and pump life into your characters. In fact, characters can make or break a story. An annoying character will kill the story. The character must grip the reader's mind. The moment that character slips out of the reader's imagination and curiosity to wait and see what happens till the end – like hell what's this guy up to now, you may as well kiss your story goodbye. You have to create characters and scenarios that people will like.

Does the writer's block actually exist? Any tips you would give to come out of it.

Some say it's a figment of a writer's imagination! Others say, it exists – especially among beginners but also writers who have seen their prime. It is no joke staring at the blinking cursor in the white screen for hours – waiting for inspiration to strike.

Some writers get stuck on that page 10 of their work, often bored of the whole thing. Ask any struggling novelist how many half-finished books they have on their computers and their answer will shock you.

If the writer's block and hits you, then it's time to do a different job. Yes, when the mind tires, like a car run out of fuel you have to stop for the day, get refuelling – but you should be rearing to get back to work soon after.

I have got up at ungodly hours of the night to sit on my computer desk fuelled with continuity. I think may be, God has opened a window in my brain and injected a wave of a fresh idea for me to continue.

Yes, fatigue is not impossible – writers are humans, not robots! But there is no reason for a writer not to continue after taking a rest. There are instances when one sets to write a story, the writer's block creeps in, and you end up shelving your project for a very long time. If that happens, valuable continuity is lost.

But on the contrary, who knows after an interval of a few months you may get a completely new plot for the same book! Mysterious are the ways of thought processes. You need to get that adrenaline to start pumping. Be determined that you want to finish that book. Complacency and laxity can kill any project.

Part 2 of this interview to follow soon.

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