Quote of the day:
"If life throws you a lemon
- make lemonade!"
- Guest Author
Sam playing the washboard tie.
Today I have the pleasure of introducing a very interesting man from West Bengal, India - Sam Tranum. Sam is a reporter, editor, teacher, and occasional page designer. Now living in Kolkata, West Bengal, he is working at a daily newspaper and writing a book on India's energy shortage for an academic publisher. Great to have you here, Sam. Tell us more ...
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.
I always wanted to be a writer but never thought I could do it. I got about halfway through college, though, and realized that, since I was a “social and global studies” major, I hadn't really learned anything useful except how to research and write. So I decided I'd better get a job doing that.
First I tried an internship at a literary magazine in the US, where I'm from. That didn't really suit me, so I decided to try an internship at a newspaper. Since I didn't have any experience at all – not even a single, lonely article published in my college newspaper – this turned out to be hard.
Eventually, I wore down the internship coordinator at the Burlington Free Press in Vermont, with near daily phone calls. I moved to Burlington for a part-time internship rewriting press releases into briefs for the paper. That soon turned into a full-time internship doing some real reporting. I loved it.
Since then, I've worked for two years for the Charleston Daily Mail in West Virgnia, covering city government and, later, state government. I also spent a couple of years at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. I spent two years covering the energy business in Washington DC. I taught journalism at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan. And now I'm an editorial consultant at The Statesman newspaper in Kolkata, India.
Along the way I started writing books. I wrote a memoir about my time living in Turkmenistan, the totalitarian petrostate that borders Iran and Afghanistan: “Daily Life in Turkmenbashy's Golden Age.” With my journalism students in Kyrgyzstan, I put together an anthology of oral histories of life in Soviet Kyrgyzstan: “Life at the Edge of the Empire.” After my job with Energy Intelligence, I wrote a novella about a murder, set against the backdrop of the uranium business: “U is for Murder.”
Now I'm working on a book for an academic publisher about India's energy shortage. I started in December 2011, and the manuscript is due a the end of November 2012. Writing it while working six nights a week at The Statesman has been tough.
Bamboo grove, West Bengal.
WERE YOU A GOOD READER AS A KID?
I remember reading a whole series of books about “Encyclopedia Brown,” a Sherlock Holmes-type kid who was always solving not-very-serious crimes. I read a lot. I still read a lot.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A JOURNALIST?
Being a journalist, although it has its frustrations, is a great job. The whole point is to find out all the interesting stuff in the world, and tell people about it. For someone who is perpetually curious, it's a perfect fit.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Selling my writing. I always want to write about what I'm interested in, but it seems like not many other people share my interests. People seem much more interested in beauty tips and celebrity gossip than in Central Asian politics, the displacement of Adivasis in India to make way for mining, the laser enrichment of uranium, or the sedentarization of nomads in Central Asia under the Soviets.
WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
Before college, I worked in coffee shops for years, which was great fun. Then I went to a work-study college, so I'd spend four months on campus studying and four months off-campus working, year-round, with no summer break.
While on campus, I volunteered on the local fire-rescue squad, as an emergency medical technician and firefighter. During my work terms, I interned as an investigator for the public defender's service in Seattle, an editorial assistant at Boston Review magazine, and a reporter at the Burlington Free Press in Vermont. I also worked as a rock climbing instructor in Massachusetts, and on ambulances in Brazil.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
It's still in the future, I hope.
WHERE ARE YOU WORKING AT THE MOMENT?
I'm writing a non-fiction book about India's energy shortage, for an academic publisher. It looks at the country's demand for coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, and electricity, its domestic supplies of these, where the supply-demand gaps are, and how the country fills these gaps with imports. It also looks at the impacts of the domestic energy shortages and the need to import higher-priced coal, oil, natural gas, uranium and power from abroad. It has been fascinating to write this, but I think my wife Lo is deathly bored with me talking about energy all the time, and I'm looking forward to writing something lighter and more creative next.
DO YOU ENJOY WRITING FOR A NEWSPAPER?
Yes, most days. I feel at home at newspapers. I tried to leave – I joined the US Peace Corps and went to teach in Turkmenistan for two years – but now I'm back at newspapers. In some ways, it's like a bad relationship that I just can't bring myself to break off. I mean, newspapers don't seem to have much of a future, the work is poorly paid, the hours are terrible, and everyone hates reporters. But it's just endlessley engaging and interesting.
WHAT TOPICS DO YOU COVER?
I have written about moss gatherers in West Virginia, octopus hunting in Zanzibar, Zapatistas marching on Parliament in Mexico City, the days after 9/11 in New York city, prospects for India-Pakistan energy trade, a uranium mine in Saskatchewan, the liability problems that coconut trees cause for city governments in Florida, and starting small businesses in Kyrgyzstan.
I guess most of what I've done as a newspaper reporter, though has been covering government in the United States. I've covered a city government (Charleston, West Virginia), a state legislature (West Virginia), a federal government agency (the US Department of Energy), and Congressional hearings (on energy). And, in recent years, I've been covering business a lot, too.
OTHER THAN WRITING FOR THE PRESS, DO YOU WRITE ANY PERSONAL WORK?
I'm a compulsive writer. I edit and write at the newspaper where I work full-time, I am also writing a book, I sometimes write articles for other publications on a freelance basis, and I write a blog.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
If there's anything that can stop you from writing, let it. I read that somewhere. The original version was probably phrased better, but I think the point is clear. It's a (usually) thankless job that you should only do if you can't stop yourself.
DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
No. Maybe it's because I learned to write at newspapers. When it's time to write, I write. If it's bad, I rewrite it, or throw it out. But I have yet to find myself staring at a blank page, unable to fill it with words. Now that I've said that, maybe it will happen tomorrow.
DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
These days I wake up about 10 a.m., write until 3 p.m., have lunch, get to the newspaper about 4:30 p.m., and stay there until 11:30 p.m. or so. It works pretty well. I get to write while I'm fresh, before I go to work. I think I'd have a hard time mustering the motivation and focus to write after work, if I worked days.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
I can write anywhere. Here in Kolkata, I usually write in my kitchen. It's a tiny room, with barely enough room for a chair between the counter and the sink. But I wedge my chair in there and sit at the counter with my laptop, within reach of the stove, so I can fix myself coffee, and the toaster. There's a big window (with no glass) and a couple of potted plants. And there's always a ruckus going on outside: crows sitting at the window, peering in at me and cawing, people getting in fistfights over parking spaces, honking cars – it's always something.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN WRITING?
Finishing. I love it when all the work I've done comes together, the chaos is finally tamed, and everything is laid out logically in neat sentences and paragraphs.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
John Steinbeck. He wrote simply and compellingly, and often about important issues.
WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
In newspaper writing, the best outcome is when my articles change the world for the better. It rarely happens, but when it does, it feels great. In book writing, I guess the best complement is “I couldn't put it down.”
Puri Beach, India
WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
People say all sorts of nasty things. You can't ignore them, but don't take them to seriously unless you get the same negative comment several times from different people. Then you might want to re-examine what you're doing and make some adjustments.
WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
Yes. I'm not terribly creative. My one work of fiction was a novella about a reporter in West Virginia investigating a murder at a nuclear conference. I was a reporter at a newspaper in West Virginia. Later, I was a reporter who covered nuclear conferences. For me, so far, writing fiction is like making a jigsaw puzzle. I take pieces from different places I've been and things I've seen and assemble them into something new.
DO YOU ENJOY WRITING IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY?
I write wherever I am. Can't really help myself.
OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
I love walking in the woods. I love building and fixing things. I love playing music, though I'm not very good at it. I love painting pictures. I love reading.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
Well, there are three hands here. On the one hand, I'd like to find a way to write books full-time. On another hand, I'd like to apply my research and writing skills more directly, perhaps as a human rights investigator. On a third hand, I'd like to build my own business, maybe a bookstore/cafe. I think hand number two has the upper hand at the moment.