Ankur Ashta is a father, an author, an entrepreneur and a strategic marketer. He writes on varied subjects on his knowledge platform, 2dPoint, and his columns on marketing have appeared in several marketing-related publications. His first book, Heart, Mind & Wallet: Decoding the Consumers’ Needs to Create Winning Stories, published in 2014, remains a much-loved book on consumer insights.
Ankur is fascinated by children’s picture books and hopes to write one soon to keep his promise to his daughter Ayanna.
TBE: What inspired you to write Never the Butterfly, and how did you come up with the concept for the book?
Ankur Ashta: As soon as I finished my first book, Heart, Mind and Wallet, I knew I would try fiction as my next book. Heart, Mind and Wallet was a non-fiction book about brands and consumer insights, and in that book, I attempted to write in simple language and with easy-to-understand constructs. I wanted my second book to be entirely different. It had to be complex to prove to myself that the first one was simple by design, not accident. I wanted to write fiction because, as a marketer, a book on brands and consumer insights was my territory. I wanted to challenge myself.
When I started writing Never the Butterfly, I sought a backdrop. I wanted to choose something other than a political or economic setting, as I felt several authors across generations had already exploited these areas enough. I was fascinated by the English language and its complexity. So, the common mistakes in the English language offered themselves as an exciting option.
TBE: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how it has influenced your writing?
Ankur Ashta: I grew up in a family where knowledge and conscience were held in very high regard. So, I took to reading quite naturally as it is a good source of both. And when you are a reader, you attract a lot of readers in your life, which means you get exposed to different kinds of books and genres. And thus grows your love for stories and storytelling.
Lucky for me, I also got into a profession where storytelling was a crucial part of what I would do in my day-to-day professional life – I became a marketer. Marketing is all about telling a brand story that resonates with the users. One thing led to another, and I started putting together my observations about human behaviour and consumer insights, which later took shape as my first book. The idea of knowledge-sharing influences my writing heavily. So, even if I wrote fiction, I knew it had to share some objective knowledge, and that is where the idea of common mistakes in English fitted perfectly as the backdrop.
TBE: How do you approach writing characters and their relationships in your work?
Ankur Ashta: I get drawn to complex, contradicting characters. So, when I started writing Never the Butterfly, I was clear none of the characters would be linear. They will have moments of sureties and doubts. Vulnerabilities and securities. And with their relationships, I have tried to exploit these complexities, trying, at the same time, to show how humans can entertain two contradictory facets in their being without it looking incongruous to any of us.
TBE: The English language plays a significant role in Never the Butterfly. Can you talk about why this theme is important to you and your writing?
Ankur Ashta: The English language has fascinated me for as long as I can remember. Quite a few books I have enjoyed have been about the language. Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss is one such book. It is about identifying and correcting the mistakes we make in punctuation. The downside of attempting a non-fiction book that goes about correcting people is that it invites very close and a bit unfair scrutiny of one’s work.
Fiction could be a safer way to achieve the same outcome. It could help people learn about common mistakes without having them pull out their magnifying glasses to find errors in the work that is trying to educate them. I also wanted to go easy on Mohan’s character by pitching him as an explorer of the language, not a know-all. There are several instances where he learns from others instead of always correcting them.
I get drawn to complex, contradicting characters. So, when I started writing Never the Butterfly, I was clear none of the characters would be linear. They will have moments of sureties and doubts. Vulnerabilities and securities. And with their relationships, I have tried to exploit these complexities, trying, at the same time, to show how humans can entertain two contradictory facets in their being without it looking incongruous to any of us.
TBE: Never the Butterfly explores themes of love, loss, and friendship. Can you speak about the importance of these themes in your work? How do you balance writing about heavy topics such as loss and nostalgia while still creating an engaging and enjoyable reading experience for your audience?
Ankur Ashta: These are crucial themes for all of us. They are the ingredients to the recipe of life. And since I wanted to explore life and human emotion in Never the Butterfly, the story needed to have these themes interact with each other.
I thought of Lala’s character as one way to balance the heavy narrative. He had to be childlike to bring levity to the otherwise poignant narrative. I feel Aaradhya’s beauty and the sensual tension between Mohan and Saanjh also add an engaging texture to the story that could otherwise feel too heavy to some readers.
TBE: What do you hope readers take away from your novel?
Ankur Ashta: I hope the readers can appreciate the uncertainty and complexity of human life through this book. It is a success if it makes them see the vulnerabilities of our characters in a positive light. If the book can help them correct some of the common mistakes in English, that would be a huge win too.
TBE: Can you discuss any challenges you faced while writing Never the Butterfly and how you overcame them?
Ankur Ashta: The biggest challenge was integrating the common mistakes and complexities of the English language into the storyline. I had to go out of the way to create situations where the characters encounter these mistakes, and the reader learns about them and the correct usage. This required a delicate balancing act. Too subtle, and the user may not catch the error; too detailed, and I risked poor engagement. While editing, I let go of several other mistakes in the original manuscript to ensure the narration was not compromised.
Another challenge was the research around Aaradhya’s character and what befalls her.
TBE: Are there any authors or books that inspired you while writing Never the Butterfly?
Ankur Ashta: Several. I have enjoyed reading Kiran Nagarkar. His book, Cuckold, is my favourite book of all time. The way he integrates mythology, history and fiction in this masterpiece is beyond words, and it was an inspiration when I chose the backdrop for Never the Butterfly.
Not many authors can bring about life insights as J.M Coetzee does. His book, Disgrace, is again a book that has moved me immensely.
And when it comes to close observation of life and human behaviour, no one can come close to Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina convinced me that if a commentary about life is powerful, you can comfortably digress from the central theme, and the reader would still not abandon you. His work is vital today, where writers are increasingly leaning towards creating page-turners instead of deep, meaningful books.
TBE: What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to explore similar themes in their own work?
Ankur Ashta: I have the same clichéd advice, ha-ha. Read a lot. Read books about the themes you want to capture. For themes I have captured in Never the Butterfly, you could gain immensely from the works of Leo Tolstoy, Ayn Rand, J.M. Coetzee, Kiran Nagarkar and C.S. Lewis.
John Updike does an excellent job of capturing humans’ complexity and incompleteness.
And you must read On Writing by Stephen King before you edit your work. It is a game-changer.
TBE: Are there any other projects you are currently working on or upcoming releases that you are excited about?
Ankur Ashta: I am working on a research-based book that will attempt to address questions we kind of know the answers to but not quite. And things we didn’t know we didn’t know. It will answer questions like “Why is Shakespeare considered great?”, “How did pink become the colour for girls?” or “What is so special about Single Malt Scotch?”