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Suruchi Mohan: Fulfilling her dream to become a writer

 
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Suruchi Mohan, author of "Divine Music," would rather be a writer than a marketer.

But, even though she chose to go with a small book publisher rather than publish her first fiction book herself, she finds she's spending much of her time promoting. She says she'd really prefer to go back to the eight to 10 hours a day she spent creating "Divine Music," spread out over several years.

Mohan didn't start out to be a writer -- although "when I was 10 I remember telling my grandfather I wanted to be an author, and he laughed."

That was in India in the 1970s, where after earning a master's degree in English Mohan found that her options, after taking very competitive exams, were working in banking or civil service. She chose the bank.

After marrying, she and her husband moved to the U.S. in 1985. Armed with a visa that prevented her from working, she headed to San Jose State University, where she earned a master's degree in mass communication and journalism.

Writing at first was a struggle, with English not her first language, but soon she was freelancing for South Bay Accent, the San Jose Business Journal, India Currents and Peninsula Magazine, eventually landing a job at McGraw-Hill.

Family responsibilities drew her back to freelancing when her daughter was 5 and her mother-in-law was dying in India. She also started taking classes in creative writing through Stanford Continuing Studies. There she would write a couple of paragraphs, then read and discuss them in class.

"It's a very good way of seeing how people react to your work. As a writer, you sit by yourself. It was so different from journalistic writing," she said, adding there were a lot of rewrites and throwing out.

Mohan became used to having her stories critiqued by editors: "I really developed because of the constant feedback I was getting. You learn to look at your work very differently. Now when I write I have that editor's voice," she said.

Mohan, who was born in Lucknow, India, set her novel in a music school in her home town. While studying English literature during the day, Mohan attended music classes six evenings a week, earning the equivalent of a master's degree in vocal music.

Her characters and plot are fiction, but the richness of the setting, the rhythm of life at the music college, the relationships between teacher and student, and competition among students -- all are drawn from experience.

After years of work ("Because it's a first work of fiction, I threw out at least twice as many pages as you see there," she said), Mohan sought a literary agent. Her best resource was "Literary Marketplace," a reference tome available at local libraries.

Each agent was listed under areas of interest (literary fiction, ethnic, foreign) and the listings included what they required from the writer. "Some want the first three chapters, some a synopsis, others a first chapter," Mohan said. "Some are very nice and say why they rejected it. That helped me. Then I went back and rewrote the whole book."

Mohan estimates that she sent out between 100 and 200 queries, with most agents sending back just a form letter. But she ended up with an agent who dealt only with large publishers. "One liked the book, but didn't think it would sell," she said.

"Publishing is changing so much; they publish so few of what they see that they get very cautious. It's all about market share, what will sell. Publishers need to make money, too."

Self-publishing was discussed in her writing class. But a key missing piece is affirmation for self-publishers, she said.

"Even now, when self-publishing is becoming more accepted, I still think you need to get something from the establishment," she said, noting that many distributors will not carry self-published books.

So she started looking for a less mainstream publisher. She found many not only wanted sample chapters but a marketing plan. Mohan wondered, "What do they choose, the best book or the best marketing plan?"

She found Bayeaux Arts Inc., a Calgary-based small publisher, through a referral. She checked out its website and discovered it had even published something that was short-listed for a Booker Prize.

Published by Bayeaux in September 2009, Mohan's books are distributed by Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, as well as Ingram Book Company. She was paid no advance, but earns royalties on each book sold. The sticker price is $19.95. But marketing falls entirely to her.

"If you are a large publisher, you have more clout; you can market your book more aggressively. A small publisher doesn't have $40,000 to $50,000 to spend on marketing," she said.

So she started calling: bookstores, libraries, schools. Her book was launched with a book signing at Books Inc. in Town & Country Village in Palo Alto last fall; she appeared at a book discussion at the Milpitas Public Library in June; she's led discussions at both Castilleja School in Palo Alto and at Los Altos High School.

And when she's not marketing her first book, she continues to take courses at Stanford -- and reads a lot. She's also beginning work on two more books, one set in India and Silicon Valley about a woman living in an amoral world, and a second set in Silicon Valley -- but that's all she's willing to share right now.

At age 50, Mohan calls her aspirations "a different kind of American dream. It's not panning for gold, or coming for the Gold Rush, but the dream of becoming a writer."

She said she's proud of Divine Music: "I'm happy that some people read it and loved it; that's all I was thinking when I was writing. If some people really get the message, that's really all I want.

"When it gets published, it takes on a very different life, which you don't expect as an author -- market, number of books sold, was it reviewed in the New York Times? You never thought about those things because you were writing from your heart."

— Carol Blitzer

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