A minute earlier he had asked me about my writing, and in turn, I had asked him about his, and this was the reply that I had got. He looked intense and insane. Around us the conversation swirled and hundreds of men and women, all ages, shapes and sizes were chatting animatedly about their 'writing.'
We were waiting for the annual San Francisco writers' conference to start. This was not the writers conference of the kind where you get to see or hear Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth or V S Naipaul.
This was not the select gathering of the elite, of the book lovers, the culture-vultures, the literary types with the obligatory book reading and free cocktails. Nor was this a university setting with 'post-colonial', 'post- modern' and 'deconstruction' discourse thickening the air with density.
This was a conference for aspiring and perspiring writers like me, to learn the tools of the trade, to network, to buy and sell -- in other words to engage in the 'business' of writing. And we had all paid around $400 for the process.
Can one learn to write? Is it not a gift, a talent, a product of inspiration, an act of spontaneous creation? Let me remind you that I am talking of an American experience with its quintessential belief that everything can be learnt, every attribute improved upon, and that nothing is impossible.
With training, hard work and above all with a transaction involving dollars. This writer's conference operated on the principle that you had almost a right to write.
There is certainly one thing that America teaches you. Self-confidence and the core lesson in life that you are your own best salesperson. Modesty is a vice, no less, and there is a whole industry telling you to 'believe in yourself,' 'go for it, whatever you desire' and such other forms of motivation and indoctrination.
This assertion of the ego and the buoyant optimism to be able to do anything is a bit of a culture shock in the beginning. Let us take an example, something esoteric like philosophy.
In India even someone like Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan who spent a life time studying the Upanishads would never say that he is a philosopher. He will reluctantly admit with all humility, 'I am a student of philosophy.'
In the US, an eighteen-year-old undergraduate doing the most basic course in logic or ethics would not hesitate to claim: 'I am a philosopher!'
Having got accustomed to this facet of America, I was not entirely surprised, then, to find 600 'writers' at this conference, the majority without a book to their name and with no claim to any fame. Nor were they imagining themselves as the next T S Eliot or Ian McEvan or Amitav Ghosh. What they wanted was to write the next bestseller, to be the next Rowling, or Shobhaa De. In other words to sell books, to earn a buck.
How are such conferences structured? On sound management principles, above all, that everyone must profit one way or the other. First, there are some general lectures, highly useful for anyone at any level interested in the craft of writing. These vary from the motivational -- how to nurture your inner muse, sit still and fill the blank paper, slog and persevere; to the instructional -- how to query an editor or a publisher, how to submit a proposal or an outline or a manuscript; to legal and financial -- how to hang on to the copyrights, to sell a manuscript for a film, to negotiate a translation etc.
You discover that behind and beneath a book lying unbought and unread in a bookshop there is an entire universe of ambition, aspiration and frustration. So much striving; so little success; so much writing, so little printing.
To make the conference financially viable, it has to attract a wide variety of aspiring writers. Therefore, many of the parallel sessions are devoted to different genres and I did not even know that there were so many. The novel is the most popular form, of course, but even within it there are different streams: 'Chick lit' is the current favourite, wherein the pages of the novel are littered with glamorous young women -- starlets, models, trophy wives etc and a liberal sprinkling of brand names and exotic locales.
Detective fiction is a perennial favourite and children's stories came next, no doubt with many wanting to produce the next Harry Potter. But then there is historical fiction, spy thrillers, legal capers, immigrant stories -- a current craze with writers from China, Afghanistan and even Iraq trying to be among the first to fire the imagination of the US reader, the good old romance of the Mills and Boon variety and many others.
The alternative cluster in the conference was non-fiction: memoirs, biographies, management mega-busters like Tom Friedman's The World is Flat and other variants.
With so many choices, every self-proclaimed writer can chose what he wishes to attend and draw up his/ her own programme for the day. You see people leaving a room having attended a workshop on 'How to be the next Jane Austen?' to rush into a discussion on 'What books are young American women buying today?'
But this is not all. If you want to write detective or crime fiction, you get to listen to a police official explain the actual crime scene investigation and how to sound authentic; if you want to write a romantic tale, you get to attend a psychological discourse on how love waxes and wanes.
Apart from all this are sessions to teach you the craft of writing, the nuts and bolts, such as 'dialogue', 'creating a scene', 'using a flashback', 'first person or third person narrative.'
But what is the point of writing unless you can get it published, in fact 'sell your stuff?' This is the premise and you will be laughed out of court, if you were to take the altruistic position that 'you are writing for your own pleasure or Art for Art's sake.'
It is assumed that inside every blogger is an aspiring author. Hence as much attention is paid to the marketing aspects of writing as to the creative part of it. Also at the conference are many agents, editors, publishers, always with a word of encouragement.
One of the more fascinating parts of the proceedings for me was an exercise called the two-minute pitch. It works like this. The assembled writers with the product of their labour -- their loved manuscripts tucked under their arm are let loose into a room full of publishers.
Each one gets exactly two minutes to do a form of speed dating, to 'pitch' his book to an editor or a publisher, in other words to interest him in the idea, to make him buy the manuscript for publication. You are told that your first chapter, first page, first sentence should be such so as to captivate the reader in two minutes. That is the test. It is another matter that Dostoevsky or James Joyce would have flunked this test and would never have got published. Remember, we are talking of instant bestsellers, not classics.
The award for the perfect pitch went to one black American girl whose book started: 'My father is a drug addict, now in prison; my mother is a hooker and I am a medical student at Stanford University.' The point was that it will be such a compelling pitch that any one who reads that first sentence wants to know more.
Was the conference worth the money? Did I learn anything? I am too afraid to ask.
B S Prakash, until recently India's consul general in San Francisco, is now India's ambassador to Brazil.