Like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory: Studying at the Seagull School, and Meeting Fiona McRae, Publisher, Graywolf Press


When you see the Seagull School of Publishing, you will agree that it is an art gallery in its own right. During the coffee breaks in the first few weeks, we used to guess the thought-processes behind each work of art on the walls. I was amazed every day—I was in my own version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I looked forward to every class, and that’s certainly a first! When I was doing my Bachelors and then my Masters, I could pop out a different reason for every class I bunked. If you saw my attendance levels, you would realize that I am talking about a LOT of reasons. But nobody had to push me to attend my classes at the Seagull School—I was too excited with all the stuff I was learning every day.

At the School, we learnt about editing, proofreading, grammar, punctuation and house styles, to name a few. We were also told that the job of an editor is one that is the least glorified. Before I joined the Seagull School of Publishing, I knew that an editor helped in crafting the book— but that’s about it. After two weeks, I began to appreciate the tremendous amount of work that actually goes in. I was set right regarding a number of things that I had thus far simply assumed. Such as the idea that it takes a maximum of 6 months to bring out a book. I couldn’t be further from the truth.

We were administered reasonable doses of reality in each class.

The masterclasses were a totally different ball game—they were our glimpses into the life that lay waiting for us. By the time I thought I had a fair idea about publishing, I was knocked down a peg or two by the wonderful Fiona McCrae, Director and Publisher, Graywolf Press, who came to take 3 masterclasses with us. She talked about grants, commissions and sponsorships which, though they are not prevalent in India, did help us look at publishing from a different point of view. She explained the organizational structure at Graywolf and the way in which it operates, and then talked us through the process of content editing, step by step. To make us understand better, she showed us a manuscript that she had edited and the corresponding email she then wrote to the author, regarding the changes that she had made. Showing us the email was a great idea because it made things more real and took the entire discussion beyond the bounds of a hypothetical exercise.

Fiona’s husband John Coy accompanied her on the first day. He specializes in children’s books. Until then I had never given much thought to children’s books. Have you ever wondered how a children’s book is created? How do people come up with stories that appeal to children? How do they decide the right story, the right words for children of a specific age? John took us through the nitty-gritty and it was fascinating. He also made us Vroomaloom-Zoomaloom-Vroom-Zoom (my 3-year-old niece would have been delighted!) at the end, and it was such joy to be a child again!


Sirisha Vegulla

The Writer on the Shore. Masterclass with Norwegian author, Pedro Carmona-Alvarez

18 March, 2016. The Seagull School of Publishing hosted a wonderful interactive session with famous Norwegian poet-novelist-musician Pedro Carmona-Alvarez, who talked about poetry, prose, music, books and the hard task of writing. Pedro began by reminiscing about his formative years in his native country, Chile, from where, due to political reasons, his family had to relocate to Norway, where he now lives. Pedro talked about his experiences of adapting to a new culture, language and people, about overcoming the language barrier and about his passion for music—music transcends all languages.

Pedro shared with us wonderful line by his mother, something she said to him during their resettlement attempts in Norway: ‘Any new language you learn will only add to your wisdom.’ Learning a new language does not necessarily mean forgetting your native dialect but embracing something new, something different.

Pedro then took us into the writer’s world. He talked about how the writing is often more prudent than the writer, that the story tells the author what it needs, the story pulls the words seamlessly out of the writer’s mind. The writer is like a swimmer, waiting, poised, on the shore. The moment he spots a gleaming ship in the distance, he starts swimming towards it. Sometimes he might reach it and be greeted aboard with a joyous welcome; at other times, it turns out to be a mirage and he finds himself stranded in the middle of the deep blue sea. But as long as he is in the water, he must keep swimming, he must find another ship to swim to.

Once Pedro called his editor the night before his book was going to print, to tell him not to publish because he felt the book was not really ready to go out into the world! Now, that’s something the poor editor wasn’t expecting! But that just shows goes to show how very ardent, and particular, he is about the work he produces.

Pedro’s poems, novels and songs tell us a lot about his own journey—his writings delve deeply into isolation, nostalgia, the idea of home and abroad, childhood and love, reflecting his own experiences of separation and exile from his land and language. He mentioned that his poems, with their hymn-like airs, had taken much inspiration from those of Pablo Neruda.

Pedro has rather a striking way of sketching the characters in his stories. He creates a character, puts him or her in a situation, and then sits back and observes their thoughts, their reactions, walking round and round them in his mind, noting them from every angle but not imposing his will upon them at any time. In his remarkable novel The Weather Changed, Summer Came and So On, published by Seagull Books, he has adopted a unique narrative style, largely inflected with music, to explore the experiences of an uprooted life, swinging between different cultures and languages, the shadows cast by grief and the struggle humans undergo in order to arrive at an identity.

Talking about translation, Pedro said that it was important that whether it was someone’s work or an idea being nurtured in to poetry, prose or music, it should always retain the first-hand tone and voice of the source translated from.

Well, words can never be enough to convey how enriching and amazing an experience it was for us. He enlightened us not only with his personal accounts and work experience but also earnestly addressed our questions and shared some very helpful words of advice for the budding writers and editors among us.

We are all grateful to NORLA and the Seagull School for organizing this wonderful session for us.

Sukanya Sur

Meeting Mr Murphy: Masterclasses with Noel Murphy, Yale University Press

It has been rightly said that one should never judge a book by its cover and a perfect example of this is The Seagull school of Publishing. The building has an old-world charm but as I stepped inside for the first time, I discovered a different world altogether, a world where I witnessed the perfect amalgamation of literature and art.

I enrolled for the Editing course with a very limited knowledge of publishing but as the course progressed it proved to be an eye-opener about the amount of hard work that goes into transforming a manuscript into a book on the shelf. I am really impressed with the way the faculty has designed this course—it is truly professional and covers every aspect of publishing. Everyone at Seagull is so passionate about what they do, which is also evident from the fabulous titles produced by them every year.

Masterclasses are an integral part of the course and give the students an opportunity to interact with a number of esteemed writers, editors, publishers and other exceptional professionals from the industry. One such masterclass was with Noel Murphy, Sales and Marketing Director, Yale University Press. Mr Murphy talked to us about marketing, production, rights, publicity and sales. About editors needing to pitch books to the sales and marketing department. About the difference a book’s cover can make to its sales. I learnt of many new terms and their functions, such as digital publishing, field sales team, inventory and so on. Talking about promotional activities and efforts, Mr Murphy mentioned that the three important things were catalogues, social networking and websites. He also talked about the various factors which determine the price of a book, including the advance paid to the author, the cost of production, the discounts given to the retailer, the costs of copy-editing, proofreading and design.

Appreciating the inquisitiveness of our batch, Noel was very patient with all our queries. And more than happy to share numerous anecdotes about his experiences in the publishing industry over these many years. His thrill at being able to work with new books every day was evident, and a great inspiration to me. I realized that time just flies when one is in the company of such a knowledgeable, experienced and generous person.

I truly admire all the wonderful people who took our masterclasses and have learnt a great deal from their experiences.

Jyoti Kataria