Author Interview with Rachna Singh

Setu managing editor Sunil Sharma talks to editor and author Rachna Singh about her recent book Phoenix in Flames and allied aspects in the series “Author Interview” that aims to discuss books and ideas behind those books being discussed.

 

Q:  Rachna Singh in third person singular.

A: Rachna Singh is a writer and the founding editor of The Wise Owl, an international literary and art online magazine. Her latest and fifth book, Phoenix in Flames, is a book about the fortitude and struggle for survival of 8 women from different echelons of society. She has previously penned two books on economic issues, Penny Panache: Piecing the Economic Puzzle (2016) and Financial Felicity: Making Sense of Money Matters (2017). Myriad Musings (2016) is a collection of her published articles and travelogues. The Bitcoin Saga: A Mixed Montage (Bloomsbury, 2019), the fourth book from her stable, narrates the exciting story of the birth and growth of Bitcoin and the blockchain technology underpinning it. She has also edited & curated two anthologies, namely The Repertoire (a poetry anthology) & The Collectibles (anthology of short stories) and a chapbook of poetry titled ‘The Ides of March.’ She has been penning articles, creative non-fiction pieces and reviews for National Dailies in India for the last two decades. Her poetry and articles have also been published in international magazines like Poetica Review, Khabar, Setu, among others. She runs a YouTube Channel called Kuch Tum Kaho, Kuch Hum Kahein where she discusses and recites poetry by well-known Urdu shayars & Hindi poets. She loves classical music and is learning to play the piano.

Rachna Singh

Q: Please briefly share with us your journey as an author and editor so far.

A: I always loved books and even as a child would find myself a secluded corner to read, where I would become completely engrossed and totally oblivious of the world around me. I don’t remember the exact moment when I transitioned from reading to writing. It just happened spontaneously with me jotting bits and pieces in my diary. In school and college, I began writing sporadically for the school/college magazine. And then one day my article on Lucille Ball (of the I Love Lucy fame), was published in a National Daily. There was no looking back after that. But after two decades of writing articles and short features for National Dailies, I was hit with the realization that my articles in newspapers were dying a daily death. That was when I decided to switch to writing books. Since I had been handling taxation matters and finance in my day job as a civil servant, I decided to meld by literary inclinations and financial learning. My first book, Penny Panache: Piecing the Economic Puzzle was a collection of essays on contemporary financial issues. This book was well-received and was included as a part of the syllabus of a Civil Services Study Circle in Delhi. Emboldened by this success, I wrote another book on similar lines called Financial Felicity: Making Sense of Money matters. In the meantime, I had also written a book called Myriad Musings which was a collection of personal essays, musings and anecdotes. My fourth book was a book on cryptocurrencies called The Bitcoin Saga: A Mixed Montage.

But you must remember, that I was first and foremost a student of English literature, with a masters as well as a doctorate in English Literature. My foray into the field of finance was purely on account of what I would like to call a whimsical fate. Also, financial issues are very dynamic and any book on such issues has a limited shelf life. So, when I caught a glimmer of a chance of going back to my first love, literature, I grabbed it with both hands.

I quit my day job and began writing in earnest. I also started an international literary and art online magazine called The Wise Owl which offered a free platform to upcoming poets, writers and artists to showcase their work. This work gave me immense creative satisfaction and the opportunity of not only nurturing literary genres but also connecting with the best creative and literary minds of the world. My interviews with creative giants in the field of literature and art gave me an insight into how great creative minds work & inspired me to hone my craft.  In this atmosphere of literary creativity, I wrote my first book of fiction Phoenix in Flames which was released just last month.

Q: What prompted you to select the theme of your new book Phoenix in Flames?

A: My book is about ordinary women, who scale extraordinary heights because of their resilience and fortitude. The subject of women empowerment and freedom is a subject very close to my heart. I always enjoyed talking to women from different walks of life. I was a good listener and perhaps I inspired trust. Whatever be the reason, women tended to confide in me. They would talk to me about their life, their pain and suffering, the treatment meted out to them, the social ills and adversities they had to face as women in a modern society still fettered by a regressive, patriarchal mindset. I felt their stories needed to be told. But I also did not want to break their trust. So I decided to dress the stories in a fictional narrative. I also made sure that my stories do not replicate the original tales but only seek inspiration from them. The result was Phoenix in Flames.

Q: How relevant is it to the new-millennial readership?

A: Very relevant, I would say, as the stories are about contemporary, urban women who are caught in the crosshairs of a society transitioning from traditional beliefs to modern values, but still shackled by a regressive, patriarchal mindset. As the stories are inspired by real women and their struggles in the present-day Indian society, they will strike a chord in all contemporary women readers and also sensitive, empathetic, progressive male readers.

Q: Increasing violence against women in a gendered society with archaic patriarchal values stifling female voices is worrisome and unhealthy trend. What kinds of resistance and survival strategies are available to women, especially in developing economies on the cusp of change?

A: To be very honest, no government policies or awareness building exercises or education will help to improve the status of women in society, unless women take it upon themselves to wrest their freedom and control from a rigid, patriarchal society. They need to make their own financial decisions, resist the patriarchal constructs that are an indispensable part of society & most importantly they need to teach their sons and daughters about gender equality and the necessity of accepting and respecting women for what they are. 

Q: Tell us about the interesting title?

A: A lot of my readers have asked me why I felt the need to call my book ‘Phoenix in Flames.’ There is an interesting story behind that choice. Phoenix is a bird in the Egyptian mythology. It is said that the phoenix bird lives for 500 years and after that it self-immolates. From its ashes arises a brand-new phoenix. So, for me phoenix becomes symbolic of regeneration and rejuvenation. My book is peopled with women from different walks of life, facing different tragedies but they are all united in their anguish and grief and in their ability to rise out of this suffering like the mythical Phoenix. So, I thought that the phoenix was a very apt metaphor for my women protagonists. Hence the title.

Q: What are the recurring patterns of these eight inspiring stories?

A: The pervasive metaphor of my book is that of regeneration. The focus in all my stories is on the pain and anguish of my women protagonists and their ability to rise out of their suffering in a new ‘avatar’ like the mythical phoenix I have referred to above.

Q: How did you go about collecting the material of the book? Were subjects ready to share life stories with a stranger for a wider public consumption?


A: I never regarded my book as a project that needed research and input from real-life subjects. Over a life time, I have been interacting with women from all strata of society. A friend who listens without being judgemental or sanctimonious or sermonising is what they look for and when they find a kindred spirit, the stories come tumbling out. The women trusted me and I did not want to break their trust, so the stories are dressed up in a fictional garb with a narrative that does not replicate their stories but only recreates the essence of their story. When you read my book, you will probably realise that you have also met a Malini or a Sahar or a Mrityunjai in real life.

 

Q: Are there some unforgettable encounters or incidents? Things that impact and haunt?

A: All my women characters go through terrible tragedies and traverse a very dark landscape. Their poignant stories linger and haunt even after you turn the last page of the book. There is Malini, who loses her 15-year-old young son to terminal illness and fights the anguish of loss by nurturing orphans and giving them all her love and care. There are many more such heart-wrenching stories as you turn the pages of my book.

Q: How has been the journey from writing to publishing the book? Hiccups? Or smooth transition?

A: The writing of Phoenix in Flames was a cathartic experience for me as I empathised very strongly with all these characters. I carried their pain and anguish in my heart for the 8-10 months it took me to write the book.

Like all writers, I had my share of hiccups. Fortunately, they happened after I had completed the manuscript and started writing to publishers. For one, post-covid, publishers were not accepting ‘unsolicited’ manuscripts which meant I had to go through a literary agent. My agent, although listed as the Top 10 in India, was not particularly helpful. He sat on the manuscript for almost one year and was not able to push through the preliminary talks with a big publisher. He eventually found me a publisher who was very competent and did a great job but it skewed my time lines.

And then I hit a road block. When I refused to sign up with the literary agent for the next book (after the contract period had expired), he contacted my publisher and told them to stop the publishing process as there was a legal dispute. I did not know about this. I waited for the dummy copy of my book to arrive in the promised 15 days. When it did not come despite a lapse of 45 days, I called up my publisher and was told they were not going ahead with the publication till the legal dispute was resolved. I was stunned but fortunately my publisher was a man of reason and when I explained what had happened, he went ahead with publishing my book and did a great job of it too. But such obstacles did increase the incubation period of my book.

Q: What is the basic message intended for the target audience?

A: My book will inspire women to believe in their ability to rise above personal tragedies and become stronger, bolder and more resilient.

Q: Very best wishes for the success of Phoenix in Flames!

A: Thank you so much for the insightful questions and your support and encouragement.  

 

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