Working with Words: Meelee Soorkia

Meelee Soorkia is a writer and editor with a decade of experience in travel, education and trade publishing. Today she is senior development editor at Hardie Grant Books in Melbourne. Meelee chatted to us about dating Heathcliff, reading Flaubert and taking the stage at Jaipur Literature Festival.

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

A short story in Voiceworks a million moons ago.

What’s the best part of your job?

I am never bored. Boredom feels like a slow death to me, so I love that my job is always intellectually and creatively challenging. I get to work with obscenely talented and interesting people, who entrust me to help them shape their stories – a real privilege. Each book is a new adventure – some manuscripts require more ‘surgery’ than others, and I never know what crazy twists and turns I’m going to have to negotiate in order to get a book to press. And, obviously, I love reading and learning new things, so I think it’s pretty great that someone is willing to pay me to do that.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Deadlines! Why are there so many deadlines? I have an unhealthy disrespect for deadlines, which is not particularly helpful in an industry that is built upon a Jenga-stack of unmissable dates. Also, at any given time, I’m working on several titles, each at a different stage of development, which means I never quite feel like I’m giving any of them enough attention. That is the bane of an editor’s life: you want everything to be perfect, but nothing is ever perfect; there is always more wish you could have done. And when a book is published, you get thirty seconds to enjoy the satisfaction of completion before you have to move on to the next manuscript.

What’s been the most significant moment in your career so far?

I’ve just published an anthology of ‘mini-memoirs’ entitled Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories. It features 19 of India’s finest women writers exploring what it means to be an Indian woman today, at a time of cataclysmic change. It looks at power, politics and patriarchy through the lens of the personal – through these narratives, these women invite us to inhabit their most intimate, private worlds.

'Some manuscripts require more ‘surgery’ than others, and I never know what crazy twists and turns I’m going to have to negotiate in order to get a book to press.'

I went to Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) for the launch of the Indian edition, and ended up having to make a speech to about 3000 people. It was utterly terrifying. But, incredibly, ten of the anthology’s contributors were able to attend the launch, so I got to experience the full, electrifying glory of ‘woman power’ when the editor, Catriona Mitchell, and I stood on stage with the contributors and 3000 people cheered us. Apparently there had never been so many women on the main stage at JLF before.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I think ‘Write what you know’ is awful advice – it’s so limiting. Of course you need to draw on experience to give your writing texture and authenticity, but I think writers should be encouraged to explore all aspects of human existence and experience, not just the ones they’re familiar with. Perhaps more useful phrases are: write what challenges you, write what you’re curious about, write what excites you.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself ?

Someone asked me the other day if I still read for pleasure, which I found completely baffling. The point at which I stop reading for pleasure will be point at which I know it’s time to find a different profession.

If you weren’t working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’m a law-school dropout, so I guess if I’d actually bothered to attend lectures and hand in my assignments on time, I might have scraped through with terrible marks and ended up in a trailer-office in some backwater town, representing petty crims and drug barons, à la Saul Goodman.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

Some people are more naturally gifted at writing than others, but I think anyone can learn the techniques for good storytelling. The human mind is incredible, and can be taught to do pretty much anything, with sufficient discipline and practice. Conversely, you can be the most naturally gifted writer in the world, but without the rigour to practise consistently, no amount of talent is going to make you produce good work.

'Some people are more naturally gifted at writing than others, but I think anyone can learn the techniques for good storytelling.'

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Read obsessively. Write obsessively. Generally, just be obsessive. Your love of words, writing and ideas should be all-consuming; if it’s not, you should maybe find something else to do because you’ll probably be working a lot of hours for not much coin!

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Mostly physical bookshops, but occasionally I get lazy and order online.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? 

Is this some kind of sexy dinner? Because if it is, Heathcliff and I are going on a romantic dinner date for two. Dark, handsome, complex, unattainable … actually, I’m not sure this would end so well. Knowing me, I’d probably ask too many questions about what he was doing during those years that he disappeared, and he would probably respond by throwing his dinner against the wall.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Madame Bovary was both horrific and revelatory for me. I read it for the first time when I was deeply unhappy in a marriage to a perfectly lovely man – and felt profound shame about that. Madame Bovary made me recognise that how I was feeling had nothing to do with him or me; it had everything to do with the cultural constraints of the society I’d been born into. (I’m originally from Mauritius, a country with very conservative views on marriage and the roles of men and women.) After reading the book, I recall walking around for months with this voice in my head that kept shouting: ‘Do something, or you’ll end up like Emma Bovary!’ So, I did. (Thanks, Flaubert. I owe you one!)

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