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My Writing Life: Bidisha Mamata

Author Bidisha Mamata
  • 15 January, 2024

Bidisha Mamata is a writer, broadcaster and an artist who makes films and stills. She is the author of the novels Seahorses (1997) and Too Fast To Live (2000), the travel memoirs Venetian Masters (2008) and Beyond The Wall (2012) and the narrative non-fiction work Asylum and Exile: Hidden Voices (2015). Her most recent publication is the essay The Future of Serious Art (2020). She has judged most of the major UK literary prizes and was a trustee of the Booker Prize Foundation for nine years.

  1. What book should every writer read?

Want to know how to tell a story? Read any book of fairytales, in whatever version or tradition you like. It’s all there.

One thing about writers reading: I’ve noticed how wary writers can be of their own peers and contemporaries. Why? There’s no need for such prickliness. We should have solidarity as people and as artists. Writers shouldn’t be competitive, envious or intimidated by each other. So, every writer should read, full stop. And don’t be snobby about other styles or genres! Browse, go for whatever you feel drawn to and never begrudge any other artist their success, talent or luck. Every work of art can be an inspiration to you in some way, if only to teach you what not to do.

  1. What is the one thing you wish someone had told you before you started your writing career?

Don’t give up the day job. There are certain inconvenient worldly realities which those who dream about solely writing books for a living may butt up against. Unless you are very commercially successful, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to live by writing books alone. Neither does being high profile mean that you’re rich, and having one really great hit also doesn’t mean you will have a solid long term career.

  1. What is the best advice you’ve ever received about your writing?

There are lots of clichés that have a little core of truthfulness to them. Show don’t tell. Write what you know (that is, what you know emotionally). Trust your instincts. Write the kind of book you’d like to read. Don’t force it: going for a walk and a gentle think is better than staring into your computer willing something to happen. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Write long and edit down. Let completed drafts sit before returning to them. If there’s a project you really want to do, just go for it.

“The thing about writing is that you’ve got to do it, or it doesn’t get done.”

  1. What is the most underestimated challenge about being a professional writer?

What’s sometimes shocking – especially to emergent writers who are bringing out their debut – is the difference between their expectations and reality. The private experience of creating a project is very different to the worldly experience of publication and publicity. It can be difficult to know what to expect or how to weather the strangeness of your inner vision meeting the outside world. Success is just as jarring as failure, and it’s always tricky when you move beyond a period of artistic creation and into the area of commerce, promotion, competition and sales.

  1. What was the proudest moment of your writing career?

I began my career in 1993 when I was 14 writing for arts and style publications including the NME, Dazed and Confused and i-D magazine. I cut my first book deal, with HarperCollins when I was 16, and that first novel came out when I was 18. The deal was set up in its entirety by Jonny Geller from Curtis Brown, who is of course a legend in the industry. The novel’s editors were John Saddler and then Philip Gwyn Jones and the marketing and PR lead was Karen Duffy. I’m naming names because, to this day, these people are revered within publishing for their artistic, personal, intellectual and professional excellence. So I was very lucky to have worked with the best of the best.

6. What is your typical writing day like?

The thing about writing is that you’ve got to do it, or it doesn’t get done. At the moment I love writing short stories, particularly for brilliant independent presses like Comma Press with whom I’ve worked on three anthologies over the pandemic year. I love writing ‘long shorts’ of around 10,000 – 12,000 words and each one takes me a month to research, about two weeks to write, a week in between to re-read and think about, another ten days to perfect. When I’m writing a story I wake up, make tea, sit down, write all day, eat, watch the news, work out, sleep, repeat until it’s done. It’s rare for me to have long stretches where all I do is write. I can only do it in small doses, even though I’m happy with what I produce, I’m always strangely depleted afterwards.

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