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Interview with Geetha K

Geetha K, a trained memoirist and self-proclaimed dreamer, believes in the power of real-life stories in a world dominated by digital noise. She sees a shift where everyone, not just achievers or survivors, shares their experiences. Through her writing, she seeks to celebrate the significance of everyday stories.

Q.1 Tell us something about yourself that not many people know.
I’m a sorry excuse for an Indian, particularly a Malayali, as I don’t like tea made the Indian way and have never tasted chai in my life.

Q.2 When should we expect your next book? What will it be about?
I’ve been commissioned to write a book about the premier library of a state in Malaysia, called Pustaka Raja Tun Uda, which is due for a launch in December at the Selangor International Book Fair 2024. 

It may sound like a complete departure from my training, but my approach doesn’t differ as I’m focused on bringing out the human elements of the library, and the people behind such a beautiful library that make up the soul of the project.

Q.3 What inspired you to write the Racket Boy: Where's My Country?
In early 2021 a relative of mine called saying his friend from childhood who left Malaysia in 1970 as an an 18-year-old to make something of himself in England was now settled in Italy and was looking for someone to write his story and he only wanted to work with a Malaysian writer as he felt a western person would not be able to understand his thoughts and experiences with the kind of depth that was required.

That led to the first of many week-in, week-out Facetime calls (the COVID-19 lockdowns were in force at the time) between KL and Tuscany. Phil and I developed an immediate synergy and hit the road running with the project. 

One of the main reasons for our collaboration was because of my background in memoir writing, having been trained at a Masterclass program in London with a leading English newspaper. 

After the release of my first book, The Seat, which blends fiction with non-fiction, I was thrilled at the chance to work with Philip. His colorful life experiences spanning decades in Malaysia, England, Italy, and other parts of the world, his various fields of work, and his extensive travels provided great fodder for my debut memoir.

Q.4 What challenges did you face while writing this book?
A big challenge was trying to streamline and vet the volume of stories and recollections spanning decades and trying to develop a chronology, then creating a narrative arc and trying to put it all together in a cohesive manner, especially considering I never recorded any of our conversations which always ran into hours. 

Also, we were total strangers and I needed to make sure I completely understood his story, and him. What really helped me was Phil’s preparedness to share everything about his life, he was ready to lay out everything to the barebone, and there simply wasn’t any no-go area.

Q.5 What do you want readers to take away from this book?
We hope to etch the message that there’s only one of you so go out there and give it your best. We can confidently say readers will enjoy this book as it straddles the border between fiction and autobiography. 

There’s energy, pace, spirit, humor, history, and melancholia, and the book encompasses Phil’s many interests including sports, law, cultures, people, psychology, mentoring, empathy for the underdog, dealing with setbacks and loss…

Q.6 What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given to you?
If you do something do it to the best of your ability, or don’t even bother - my mother.

Q.7 How long, on average, does it take you to write a book?
My first novel The Seat took about 10 months from the conception stage to completing the first draft while Racket Boy took me 15 months.

Q.8 If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in this book?
Nothing at all.

Q.9 How do you describe your writing experience with Philip George? If you have any different opinion on a particular situation, how did you resolve it?
Memoir writing is an intimate process that involves getting deep into someone’s life. For someone who was doing it for the first time, I had to learn on my feet, especially about asking the right line of questions to extract as much as I could from Phil to identify the themes in his life and develop the spine to get the story going. It helped because I’m a good listener and I soak up stories like a sponge and I’ve always had a knack for synthesizing a story out of flush of information. 

This was a man who thought, acted, behaved, and lived in ways that were difficult to fathom, let alone emulate. It was also a big help that Phil’s a brilliant storyteller, in fact, as he narrated the stories of his life the scenes would play out like a movie in my head! To answer your question, there were no major disagreements because we were both very focused on finishing the book and getting on with it and for the most part operated on the same wavelength.

Q.10 Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
Travel, travel, travel.

Q.11 What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
Writers I feel are naturally curious people. Also, wanderers who enjoy being lost, literally and metaphorically. Add reading, practice, and hard work and you can’t go wrong. Don’t wait for that magic moment, just start somewhere and keep at it. If a chapter or even your whole story refuses to follow your carefully laid out notes or beautifully sketched out narrative arc so be it. That’s success too.

Q.12 Your narrative is rich in detail and historical context. How did you approach the process of crafting your story to resonate with readers?
Blending Phil's experiences with the backdrop of major historical events was a natural process as Phil remembered them happening alongside his own journey. My job was to create a relatable connection between his personal anecdotes and memories and the broader historical narrative.

Q.13 Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with good or bad ones?
Not avidly so there’s no question of dealing with it.

Q.14 What's your work schedule like when you're writing?
As a full-time writer, I don’t adhere to a strict writing schedule, but I allocate at least two hours a day to doing some form of writing and this includes social media posts. I always seize moments of inspiration when they arise so pulling the car over to make notes or working at airports and hotel lobbies is common. 

In fact, the copy-edited manuscript of Racket Boy from our first U.K. publisher arrived smack in the middle of my holiday in Kashmir which meant working while taking in the sights so there I was with my laptop on an open field and by the bank of a river in Ganderbal Gund and Pahalgam - it was so gorgeous I relished the experience!

Q.15 Where do you hope to take your writing in the future?
Philip and I are charting a unique path for Racket Boy. It’s now been published in the UK, Malaysia, and India and we’ve had launches in Germany during the Frankfurt Book Fair, in Kuala Lumpur where we also premiered the docufilm we’ve made based on our book, and now our India launch in Mumbai. It is being translated into Italian, Spanish, and Odia, with Tamil, Malayalam, and Bahasa Indonesia also looking very promising.

In fact, at this point, we travel with a little audacity. The audacity to believe we can sell 3 million copies of Racket Boy. The audacity to think a story told with simplicity would win perhaps not awards, although those will be good too, but rather win the hearts and minds of people who have uprooted or been uprooted to rebuild and rediscover hope. It is on the back of such motivating progress that Phil and I are in India from May to July for an extensive roadshow covering seven states of the country from the north to the south to promote the Indian edition of this book.

Q.16 Do you believe in writer’s block? If yes, how do you deal with it?
When faced with a block I shift to my other loves - gardening, walking, reading, spending time with my dog

Q.17 Do you have any quirky or interesting writing habits?
I’m not in the habit of recording my interviews no matter how many hours the conversation might run. At best I’d make little notes. I’ve always followed a process of systhesization as I call it, which is to accumulate as much information as I can get then let the old brain work it out and come up with a cohesive narrative. Until that happens, I’d be in a zombie-like state.

Q.18 How do your friends or family feel about your book or writing venture in general?
Very supportive and proud of my work. In the past two years, I’ve been away from home a lot, for weeks at times. Being away from home aside I’m also very occupied with promotional activities which has naturally altered the home dynamics. 

I’ve missed weddings and gatherings and have been conducting my life through WhatsApp so much. I get asked all the time how my family is handling this change. Well, I’m very grateful for the unconditional support I get especially from my husband and also the rest of the family without their support it would be very difficult for me to operate like I do.

Q.19 Are there any particular authors or books that have influenced your writing style or the creation of this book?
None. That said, there are two writers whose works have impacted me from a young age. I read Frederick Forsyth’s Odessa File at 14 which sort of annihilated my age of innocence! Then there was Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the only novel that she wrote, which has gripped me ever since I read it for the first and only time when I was fifteen. It’s been decades since and I don’t remember much of the story and yet her protagonist Heathcliff still haunts me.

Q.20 Share the experience of your writing journey so far?
Despite the grueling periods, the hours of listening, imbibing, writing, researching, and the occasional meltdown, Racket Boy has been at once introspective and emotional for me, an experience that will always be a meaningful, significant part of my life. This book has been a transformative turn in both our lives too - of boundary-pushing and continual elevation.

Following the first draft of the book, we embarked on a series of backshadowing trips across Malaysia, the European continent, England, and India when I got to see the places and meet some of the people I’d written about in Racket Boy. I carry happy and haunting memories. It’s been a whirlwind of absolutely unforgettable worldwide travels.

There’ve also been long hours on the road, being crammed in a ferry for eleven hours, a three-day train journey, washing up in public toilets, and eating in some of the unfanciest roadside joints in India… I managed because I’d heard Phil say so many times “Boots on the ground that’s the only way. You gotta walk the talk.” I also knew our backshadowing discomforts were nothing compared to the hundreds of grueling hitch-hikes Philip had made back in the 1970s and '80s when he had no money or means.

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