Interview with Mridu Khullar Relph

When I first started writing, Mridu Khullar Relph's blog cropped up in my google searches when I decided to pitch to publications. An established freelancer with clients like The New York Times and Time Magazine, Mridu also maintains a website for writers,often going out of her way to support and help young writers. Having built  a freelance writing portfolio from scratch, Mridu knows what it takes to strike the balance between envisaging one's dream and actually living it. Here's an interview with her.
What got you started on writing?

Short story: I failed my first year in college, so I started freelancing to prove to myself that I wasn't completely useless.
Longer story: I've had some incredible teachers in my life who may not have pushed me into writing, but gave me so much encouragement and praise that when I hit upon hard times, their voices rang in my head. In first or second grade, when I was growing up in London, a teacher liked my short story so much, she made it into the annual school play. Back in India, my English teacher would often read my essays and stories out loud in class as examples of good writing.
I grew up a voracious reader and actually did write some "novels" in my spare time at age twelve or thirteen. Thanks to the early encouragement I got, by the time I was in college, I knew I was a good writer. I just didn't know at the time that making a career of it was an option.
How has your writing changed over the years?
I hope it's gotten better, but I'll have to let you be the judge of that!
Is there any specific incident that has changed the way you/ write report a story?
I'm not sure that there's any one big event, but a series of incidents, if you will. For instance, I interviewed a blind theatre troupe once and because the story demanded it, I really had to think beyond the visual aspect of things. Since then, I've really started noticing sounds and smells. We rely too much on our eyes, I think, or at least I did. Now I've learned to bring other senses into my reporting as well.
For a story on virginity restoration (young women in India getting their hymens sewn up so they could get into arranged marriages), I thought about what it would be like to call gynaecologists and ask for this operation. Would they be judgmental? Business-like? So I called half a dozen doctors to see how they would react to a patient with this request and got some interesting results. I learned from that story that you sometimes need to experience something personally to be able to understand it better.
I think every single story I've reported and written has moved me a little bit further in my understanding of the world. And I believe that experience adds up. Each is a building block that fits somewhere in your subconscious mind to be tapped into later.
If one has absolutely no clips and wants to be a journalist, what would be your advice to them?
Don't let that deter you! Every published writer was clip-less once. I'd suggest reading newspapers and magazines and finding a really strong story that you personally care about. As a new reporter, I think I focused a bit too much on what was selling than what moved me. And I'm one hundred percent sure that I really started hitting my stride when I started writing about the things I was personally interested in. So find a story that means something to you and then go about finding a home for it. When you care about the topic at hand, the passion shows through in your writing. And I think that's the best way for a new writer to go forward: with passion and persistence.
How important is social networking and marketing for a journalist? Which networking sites, according to you, is most useful to journalists?
I see the benefit of social networking for journalists, not in terms of marketing, but in terms of understanding what's going on in the world. It's interesting to me to wake up in the morning and hear what's important to people around the globe-- things that I don't read in the newspapers. It's also absolutely fascinating to me that not only can I interact with people at the scene of a major event, whether political, cultural, or sporting, but that I can have minute-by-minute updates.
I know others do and have benefitted from it, but I don't use social networking for marketing, but to further a conversation. I keep Facebook fairly personal and share pictures of my family and my social life, so I don't add anyone who isn't familiar to me. Twitter, on the other hand, I find great for communicating with random people and even befriending them. (
I'm also warming up to LinkedIn, which I've found useful for finding sources and sometimes, story ideas.
Mridu Reading Eat Pray Love
There are two schools of thought when it comes to writing-one that advocates being a generalist and the other, being a specialist. What is your take on this?
I feel it's really helpful to be a generalist in the first few years of your writing career, not only so that you can spread your net wide and be available to a variety of editors and clients, but also so that you have a chance to see what you excel at and what kind of writing appeals to you. Who knows what you're going to find-- you might become a greeting card writer who pens one-liners for a living, you might be interested in writing for children or teenagers, you might find that you actually enjoy business writing and want to focus your energy there. Or, like so many others, you might get your start in non-fiction but then realize your calling is in writing novels instead.
Once you've decided though, I think the market sort of forces you to specialize and that's a good thing. When editors I work with want a business writer, they have a few names that come up repeatedly. Similarly, there are those journos who excel at hard news, those who are really good with celebrity profiles, others who are more interested in investigative features. It helps editors to compartmentalize their writers because they know who to go to for what, and it helps writers to be top of mind in certain subject areas.
Don't you immediately think of Michael Pollan when talking about food systems? Doesn't Amy Tan come to mind when you're asked for recommendations on Chinese-American fiction? Specialization doesn't necessarily need to have a narrow scope, but it helps if people can define what you do. And of course, you can always keep changing that definition.
How should journalists approach photographers they want to work with?
Call or e-mail and say, "Hi! I saw your website and really enjoyed looking through your work. I'm a freelance journalist and often need a photographer to accompany me on assignments. I'd love to keep you in mind if something came up in the future and was wondering if you'd be open to that possibility. Let's meet up for a drink or a cup of coffee when you have the time."
Typically, since my editors are the ones who make the final decision on who's going to be the photographer on a piece, I just recommend the people I've enjoyed working with in the past or who look like they'd be fun (and competent!) on assignment. But typically, the decision comes down to an editor and writers have little to do with it.
What projects are you working on at the moment and what are your future plans?
I have to say, I'm at a really exciting point in my career right now. I have assignments from some of my favorite publications, including Time magazine and the New York Times, I'm writing on subjects that I think are very relevant, such as mental health, and I'm now a columnist at one publication and a contributing editor at another. The Commonwealth Games come to Delhi in October, so I'm also looking forward to seeing how the city changes before then and what's left of it after.
I'm so grateful for all these opportunities that I've been receiving, but as much as I've been enjoying the day-to-day reporting, I'm also ready for a new challenge. This year, I'm seriously looking to branch out into books. I've been speaking to publishers and for the first time, thoughtfully considering what this avenue could hold for me. I'm very excited about these new directions that I could possibly be heading into.

Thanks Mridu and all the best in your future endeavours!

Mridu Khullar Relph, 28, is an award-winning freelance journalist currently based in New Delhi, India. She has lived and worked in Asia, Africa, and North America, and writes for the New York Times, Time magazine, the International Herald Tribune, Global Post, Ms., Writer's Digest, the Writer, and the Christian Science Monitor among others. She is a contributing editor at Elle, India and is also a contributor to the books Chicken Soup for the Pre-Teen Soul II and Voices of Alcoholism. Visit her at www.mridukhullar.comWhen I first started writing, Mridu Khullar Relph's blog cropped up in my google searches when I decided to pitch to publications. An established freelancer with clients like The New York Times and Time Magazine, Mridu also maintains a website for writers,often going out of her way to support and help young writers. Having built  a freelance writing portfolio from scratch, Mridu knows what it takes to strike the balance between envisaging one's dream and actually living it. Here's an interview with her.
What got you started on writing?


Unknown said…
Great going! :)
Inspiring for all those struggling writers out there.
Thanks for interviewing me, Reeti! Was fun sharing my thoughts.
Chryselle said…
Nice interview, Reeti! Enjoyed reading it - am a fan of Mridu's :)
Reeti said…
You're most welcome Mridu! And Chryselle, thanks for commenting on my blog. I'm a huge fan as well! :)