This year is the third year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in its entirety by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 11 to 15, 2018 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 700 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, with today’s interview being with Puja Changoiwala. You can also read the responses from Fatin Abbas and Nora Shychuk!
Puja Changoiwala is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, and author of the widely-acclaimed true crime book in India, ‘The Front Page Murders.’ This book, Puja’s debut work as an author, is recipient of awards and unanimous acclaim from the most reputed quarters of the country. As a journalist, Puja is a contributor to some of the most esteemed news publications in India, Europe, and North America. Her writings have featured in The Guardian, BBC, among other renowned outlets. Previously a human rights correspondent with a London-based political magazine, Puja has also worked as a senior crime correspondent with Hindustan Times, a leading Indian national daily. She has produced award-winning work, covering Mumbai’s sins, and their casualties.
How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?
I learnt about the Retreat through a post on the website of the International Journalists’ Network. In an instinct, I knew I had to apply for the Alumni Award. The opportunity seemed surreal – a five-day writing program in Iceland, which includes small-group workshops with some of the greatest stalwarts of the writing world. Plus, it hosts cultural tours with a focus on Iceland’s literary heritage. The program seemed like a perfect fit – it would enrich the writer as well as journalist in me. I’d be over the moon if I won this opportunity, I thought. And with the full scholarship I’ve been awarded, I’m now on my lunar expedition!
Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?
I’m afraid I haven’t attended a Retreat before – but now I’m guessing it was worth the wait!
As a journalist, does your writing process differ at all when it comes to your creative writing?
I’m not sure if it differs per se, but I do think that being a journalist certainly adds to one’s approach as a writer. In my opinion, more than the skill of writing, all of creative script is about thoughts that make your readers think – to say something beautifully, you have to have something beautiful to say. And as a journalist, I feel you own a treasure trove of such ideas since you’re well-acquainted with the world – you’ve seen its highs, its downfalls, and the people in those stories. You’re equipped with your interpretations of the world, and when you put them down on paper, you’re bound to create magic – more often than not.
What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?
This year’s theme – Literary fiction, Non-fiction & Memoir – perfectly complements my interest since I am a true crime writer. Although fiction remains a more lucrative genre worldwide, I believe there are several true stories, which essentially need to find their audience. And I’m certain that interacting with some great minds from the non-fiction space at the Retreat will not only strengthen this belief, but also fuel my passion further for the craft. I believe that it’s only unreasonable passion, which truly drives a writer.
Also, I’ve been scouring through the workshop details lately, and I’m amazed at the eclectic mix of subjects to be covered – so contemporary, so integral to writing, and just so fascinating. I’m also looking forward to the cultural tours. Reykjavik, I understand, is world’s first non-native English speaking UNESCO City of Literature, and I’m certain that it’ll leave me with several things to think about, speak about, and write about.
What do you find inspiring?
Lately, I think commercial art, which imitates life. I believe that as humans, we thrive on escapism and fantasies. That’s why, successful art today mostly comprises of stories and depictions, which transport you to an alternative reality. And that’s also probably why it’s so difficult to blend truth with commerce. I think, for me, any form of art, which manages to create an audience for reality, is inspiring.
It could be a book, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It could be a stage play, a photograph, a news story, or a painting. It could even be a film – for example, there was recently an Indian movie called Toilet, a comedy-drama about a woman, who threatens to leave her husband if he doesn’t agree to build a toilet in their house. Upon getting married, the woman realizes that her husband’s home doesn’t have a toilet, and that she would have to defecate in the fields to relieve herself. The film, which grossed 20 million USD at the box office worldwide, creatively created awareness about one of the most pressing issues of contemporary India – open defecation and sanitation.
How has writing influenced your life?
At the most basic and most important level, writing has taught me how to pay attention. It has made be a better audience of the world. When you write, you read better, and you watch better. You do these things academically – trying to decipher the mind of that content’s creator, hoping to learn from it. You listen more intently to people; you observe their body languages – hoping to understand their psychology, find your characters in them. And you go about life more awake, and more alive. Ironically, all these things that writing does to you, in turn, make you a better writer!
What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
That I’m way too attached to facts!
Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?
From whatever I’ve learnt so far, I know that writing is neither about the art nor the craft. It’s all about finding one’s voice. If you’re there in the mind, you’ll go there in the body, and your readers will follow.