09 May 2017

Staying On the Creative Course

At a time when the decline in print journalism jobs has left many scribes wondering how to apply their skill sets to related fields, Ashraf Engineer is a good example of someone who ventured to make a successful transition from an ace journalist to a PR professional and corporate content specialist. He is now also an author of a novella, Bricks of Blood that has been published on the digital publishing platform, Amazon. Here's finding out more:

Would you say it was a love for writing and language that got you interested in journalism in the first place? 

I knew from a very young age - I think I was seven or eight years old - that I wanted to be a journalist. Yes, I enjoyed writing and was good at the language but the primary reason I wanted to be a journalist was the proximity it afforded me to the events shaping the world at any given time. I found myself devouring newspapers and magazines from that age itself.
I understood early the importance of compactness in writing and the need to keep the reader engaged, even if it was news writing.   

After many successful years as a journalist, you made the decision to move to the corporate world. You took on the role of a content specialist and PR professional. How easy was that decision? Did you find the two worlds disparate or was it an easy transition?

I was a journalist for almost 17 years, but in the last year and a half I knew I wanted to move on. I think I had done it for very long and wanted to do other things with my life. At the same time, I had a lot interest in the corporate world. I knew that when I moved I would have to take up something that involved my core skill - content. I couldn't, obviously, go out and sell steel or something. Once I had that clarity, it made my task easier.

No, it wasn't easy to leave behind something I had done since I was 19 years old. Yes, the worlds were very different but I had the good fortune of having a great boss and being part of a wonderful, forward-looking organisation.

How I got the job is interesting. I was in Afghanistan for two months in 2011, training journalists there as part of a USAID-funded project. I was - and continue to be - very active on social media, and got into a conversation with the India digital head of MSLGROUP, a strategic communications network that is part of the Publicis Groupe. He introduced me to MSLGROUP's India CEO, Jaideep Shergill, who asked me to meet him when I returned to Mumbai. I did, and the rest just fell into place.

Moral of the story: don't believe anyone who says social media doesn't work!  

Journalists turning into authors is not unusual. However, most of them choose to write non-fiction as the format is closer home. Fiction is the more challenging genre. Tell me why you took up a fictional story for your debut, and what was the inspiration behind Bricks of Blood?

That's a great question. I too always felt that if I ever wrote a book it would be non-fiction. However, Bricks of Blood happened to me in the most extraordinary way.
The opening passage - the fight between the protagonist, Nooh, and the builder's henchmen - simply came to me on a sleepless night. I found myself saying it out loud. Normally, I can't remember what I am thinking about or saying just before I sleep but the next morning I was able to pen the passage down word for word.
At the time, I thought I would simply reproduce that as a blog but it seemed like I wasn't closing the loop. So, I decided to write a two- or three-part blog taking the story forward. Then, as the plot evolved, I thought I'd write it as a short story. But, the story kept growing as I wrote it and I eventually settled on the novella format.
I was very clear that I wouldn't write a full-length book because for this story the pace was paramount. I wasn't ready to sacrifice that.

Many great writers have said that fiction served them to unburden themselves - and give vent to their inner most feelings. What was the one great emotion that drove you to write this book?

I didn't feel like I needed any unburdening, but Bricks of Blood fulfilled the dream I had of writing a book some day. I dipped into my journalism experience, weaving in shades of people I had come across and places I have seen. For instance, Devkhop, Ghorpade and Manor - where much of the story unfolds - are actual places in Palghar district. South Pali Village, described in the beginning, is Pali Village in Bandra - the suburb of Mumbai in which I reside. The 'dance bar' I have described is typical of those that dotted Mumbai till they were banned a few years ago. Nizamuddin Dargah, which is sacred to me, is also described as it actually is.
While there was no one overwhelming emotion that drove me, I did want to use the opportunity to fulfill my dream of writing a book as well as to make the special people in my life proud.

You chose Amazon instead of a traditional publisher for your book. What would say has been your experience on the Amazon platform?

It was very good. It is very easy to use and it lets me track in real time how the book is doing. Their customer service is good too. Also, I have never had any delays in payments.

World-over, the decline in print is turning the publishing industry into a niche business. How do you view the future of printed books vis a vis ebook platforms like Amazon, and what does this do for aspiring writers?

I do know that readership - whether its newspapers, books or magazines - is shifting rapidly to digital platforms. I know that in India this is a slower evolution but the younger lot - and I see this a lot in my students - lives life digitally. And this includes the way they consume content - all content.
For writers, it means the future is digital - cliched as it sounds. But, it also means that the way we promote our writing and engage with our audience has changed forever. I had no publisher backing or marketing support. I spent a minimal amount on digital promotion and it worked wonders.

 Less than a decade ago, most journalists would look upon a transition to marketing or PR with distaste, but today, with the decline of journalism as an industry, content specialist/content marketing jobs are viewed as comparatively more creative options for ex journalists who want to continue writing. Do you have the satisfaction of hindsight  - that you saw the trend coming? Or you hold a different view?

Actually, PR has had former journalists for longer than a decade. And, yes, I agree that many journalists now see content as a viable option for many reasons: the state of journalism today (that's a wholly different discussion and I could write reams about it), many finding it difficult to adjust to digital-first newsrooms, the fact that traditional media loses out to new media on news delivery every time... I could go on and on.

While I - and many others - did see the trend coming, my primary motive in shifting out was because I wanted to do something different with my life.