Friday, 8 May 2020

Publishing a Book in a Pandemic - Guest Post by Jonaki Ray

When I was a child, monsoons often resulted in schools getting shut down for a day—labelled the Rainy Day holiday, for obvious reasons. I would walk back home with my classmates, bags swinging around our shoulders (those were the days when bags had less books unlike today), jumping into puddles, and inevitably participating in boat races. The 'boats' would be made of paper, ruthlessly torn out of our notebooks, and folded into shapes resembling small triangles, and sometimes in the case of my more talented friends, mini-boats. I would equally inevitably watch my boat flutter on the surface, wobble a few inches, and then sink.

When the lockdown was announced towards the end of March, I had an immediate flashback to the boat sinking days. I had just finalized the edits on the manuscript of my first book, a collection of poems, some written years ago, and some as recent as a few months earlier. My book had been sent with the final edits to the printing press in mid-March. The next day, most of the offices were shut down, and we were told to work from home for a couple of weeks. I, along with the majority of people in my country, thought everything would be normal in a week or so.

A week later, the entire country was locked down, and everything was shut down. As I watched the news, the number of infected people kept rising, and panic spread. Thousands of daily wage laborers lost their jobs and due to public transport being shut down, started walking home, often without food or shelter on the way. In the middle of this chaos, for the first few weeks, I didn't think about the fate of my book—I was reminded of scenes from the partition in 1947 when millions crossed borders that had sprung up (for them almost overnight). Additionally, I was worried about my family, my elderly father living on his own, my friends, and of course, the deaths and uncertainty throughout the world. America or UK, Italy or India, we were all inside our homes (if we were lucky to have homes), and hoping to stay safe. Now that we are approaching nearly two months of lockdown, my mind has gone back to the past, the path I took to get to this stage, and how the commonality of our experiences was what led me to write a book in the first place.

Last year, after getting selected for a writing retreat award and a few months later, another writing residency, I finally gathered enough confidence to think about putting together a book of poems. During my residency, I started putting together the outline of my collection. Part memoir, part a travelogue, the book was going to be about memories—the memories of journeys I had been a part of—both mine and others. Mostly, I wanted to share how after almost a decade after my first poem getting published, and years of rejection, I had realized that the acceptance or rejections actually didn’t matter. I had come back to the core of why I write—to tell stories about the common threads that connect all of us, no matter where we come from, or where we are. I wanted to tell the story about the woman I met at a café in rural Tuscany, who had left behind a career in London, and years later, despite being from completely different backgrounds, how for a few minutes she remembered her life there and we connected about books and writing. Or the landlady of my apartment who shared her story of sacrifices in an arranged marriage and now lived alone at 78. I wanted to share my experience as young graduate student who saw snow for the first time while thousands of miles away from home, as well as the memory of the man at a restaurant in Barcelona who felt that all immigrants should be stopped from coming into his country because they take away the opportunities that should belong to him and other ‘citizens’. Most of all, I wanted to write a book about how time makes a reel of memories in our head, so that anything can trigger that back into existence, and how after years of looking for a home, I’ve realized that ultimately, we are all looking for a place that we can call home.

By the time I returned to Delhi in September 2019, I had decided on the 'theme' of my collection and the title. My book, I had decided, will be titled Memory Talkies. But, who would be interested in publishing it? After the inevitable round of should I or shouldn’t I ask roulette in my head, I had approached a few friends who were experienced in the publishing industry. "Poetry doesn’t sell", said someone. Some wrote encouragingly by beginning "You are a good writer," but the plaudits would fade to "Why don’t you write a short story collection first?" or "Write something that sells and then come back to poetry." I had nearly given up when I finally met a publisher of a small, independent press who simply asked me to send a sample of my poetry, and a few weeks later, asked for the complete manuscript. He next got it reviewed by an anonymous senior poet, and finally wrote to me that they would like to publish my book.

While "selling" a book is an inevitable part of publishing it, finding a home for it is essential. And I felt I had found one. After a few months of editing, working with an artist to get the cover designed, getting feedback on the manuscript and getting it reviewed, the book was finally ready to be launched into the world. The plan was to start with the paperback copies, and then the ebook version. But, ‘the best laid schemes o mice and men’…and at this juncture, the situation is unknown. While the lockdown restrictions are being relaxed at some places, the offices are still shut, and so are most bookstores. More importantly, deliveries and postal services are affected, therefore, the ebook version has become the primary mode for books.

Over the past weeks, digital communities have become more important than ever. Online classes, talks, videos, DIY recipes, virtual forums—all teach us to focus on our creativity and art and hope for better times. And as I write this, I have also decided to hope after learning to let go of fears of the future and the uncertainties of the past. If nothing else, publishing a book during this time has taught me this vital lesson.

Instagram: @jonaki_stories
Twitter: @Jona_writes


julia jones said...

that was a really interesting glimpse of biography & I'm sure the poems will be fascinating. Thank you - and good luck

Griselda Heppel said...

What ups and downs in life! The huge achievement of having a book of poems accepted for publication - for which many Congratulations! - only for the launch to coincide with the pandemic and simply not happen. I have a friend whose book has been sitting in a warehouse ever since it came out 6 weeks ago, because though many bookshops would happily still sell books, the distributors are not taking them so no stock is available.
Your poems sound wonderful, full of close observation of life and retrieving memories from deep down. Your evocation of Rainy Day holidays took me straight back to my childhood in Germany, where the opposite happened: in summer, if the temperature rose to 27 degrees, we got 'Hitzefrei' and were sent home (no air-conditioning in schools - or anywhere, that I remember). My house was on the way to school and troops of children would walk past it in the early afternoon, rejoicing in their freedom. Ah, those were the days!
Lovely post, thank you.

Jona Ray said...

Thank you so much, Julia and Griselda! And many thanks to Debbie for her patience while I wrote this, and for the various reasons it got delayed!

I am still waiting for the ebook version to be released--delayed due to some issues in the formatting...but that is a different story altogether!

The encouragement and support in this community is really appreciated! I will share the link to the kindle version, hopefully, soon!

Thanks for reading!