An interview with Neha Potdar

For at least an year now, I have been wanting to post conversations with friends here on MAdo. Finally, that has materialized; presenting, a series of interviews with ordinary people who have extraordinary stories to share or have walked off the beaten path. (I preapologize for naming this series Felicis with Felix! :) )

My first guest, Neha Potdar, describes herself as a “bibliophile, eagle-eyed, unapologetic grammar Nazi and defender of the Oxford comma” on her professional webpage. I worked with Neha in Mumbai from 2013 to 2014 and managed her for a brief period. Outside of work, our friendship was built on shared interests in Harry Potter and YouTube personalities. Earlier this week, I caught up with Neha (over Skype) on these shared interests and more importantly, her move from in-house to freelance editing.

(This was my first interview not for hiring. I experimented quite a bit and learned quite a lot from this experience. One reason I requested Neha to be my first guest is her tolerance for my crazy :P Below, you will see rather abrupt transitions between topics and mildly excessive levels of in jokes. In addition, I could not carry some conversations as deep as I had intended to, because I underestimated the time required for the interview. I should get better with more interviews :) )

During and after Mumbai, Neha and I primarily stayed updated through numerous, long numerous emails on life, work, editing, Harry Potter and YouTube (a lot of it featuring Epic Sax Guy). I began by recalling one of our earliest emails.

Felix: “Here’s an embarrassing fact: When I was in school, I tried, and failed miserably, to get my friends to call me Potter because well, obviously, my last name sounds ridiculously like Potter. But, I have such dumb friends; no matter how many hints I dropped, they never caught on. :( ” Has your passion for all things Potter waned four years after the last major addition to the Potter universe?

N: Hah no way! As cheesy and silly as this sounds, Harry Potter played a big part in shaping the person I am. I will even go so far as to say that that book, those characters, that universe saved me. Also, we are friends largely because of Harry Potter, so there’s that :)

F: Yes, of course. I understand how you feel, but I am sure we Pottermaniacs (although my mania has waned a little since 2012) come across as crazy one directioners to those outside the Potter world.

N: Comparing Harry Potter to any other fandom rubs me the wrong way :P. I think it’s mostly because majority of the Pottermaniacs I have interacted with have been such thoughtful people. I’m not saying people from other fandoms aren’t, but I’ve seen most of them having such extreme reactions to any criticisms. Rant over.

F: You work in a field that has only recently become organized in India, English language solutions. You made the switch from working in a firm to freelancing. I am sure that wasn’t an easy switch.

N: Yeah, I’ve taken a different path, and I suppose it’s a little difficult. But I don’t think it’s any more difficult than climbing up a corporate ladder the conventional way. Once I knew what I wanted to do, I had to take the jump.

I then asked Neha about her first job as a creative writer at a game development firm, regarding which she once wrote,  “…they made me write dress-up and dating games :'( It was terrible. Every time I would present a kickass new game about zombies or dragons or magic, it would get shot down because ‘My dear, remember our audience. We cater to American teens and tweens…they like partying and makeup. Now, go read this month’s Teen Vogue and make a presentation for the storyline of Secrets of Shopaholic Jane’. “

N: Ah my first job. Bittersweet memories. I met such wonderful people, but the work was so stupid. I remember telling my manager once that I felt like I was contributing to the stupidification of American teens.

F: How did the transition occur from storyboard/script development to academic editing? From a very creative process to one that does not have much liberty for “creativity.”

N: There wasn’t much of a transition really. I think three to four months in[to] my creative writing job, I had started feeling very restless. I knew that this was not the right job for me. I knew I didn’t want to do content writing either, I had done that before. And I always loved correcting others’ grammar (cue laughter), so I thought why not see if I can make monies off that. Academic editing just happened to be something I stumbled upon. I honestly didn’t even think about not having much freedom in what I do with the content or not applying any creativity. I just wanted to learn.

Neha is one of the very few people I know who in this age of digital networking boycotts nearly all online social networking activities. I asked her why.

N: There’s no particular reason really. I stopped using Facebook because the constant ‘updates’ annoyed me a bit. Also, that site wasn’t serving any purpose for me. Like I wasn’t exactly ‘keeping in touch’ with anyone, which is the common reason people spout when they tell me to use Facebook. I don’t use Twitter because eh it’s just pointless, isn’t it? I don’t feel the need to broadcast my thoughts. Are there any other social network sites I have been ignoring?

F: Instagram, tumblr, and oh, this.

N: Oh dear. I do use Reddit though. See! I don’t completely abandon social networking. Although I don’t exactly network there, but still.

F: But you are part of this huge social group, nerdfighteria.

N: hahaha! Yes! But again, I don’t frequent it. Actually, more than that community, it was those videos which in a way strengthened my confidence in being a little different from others. I was with Vlogbrothers since almost the very beginning, before John Green became famous and when their videos were so raw and real.

F: And of course, Wheezy. Of all the amazing things and people you have introduced me to, WheezyWaiter is what I am thankful for the most. That man is just brilliant.

N: You’re very welcome. His beard just gets more and more awesome with every video!

F: Getting back to your career, why did you move out of academic editing?

N: Oh that’s simple. My love of books overpowered my curiosity about academic research.

F: So, after a year of academic editing, you moved to Kolkata. How would you describe your time there? Each city has this aura around it… For me, although I have never been there, Kolkata is a very intellectual-y city…

N: Correction: After a year of academic editing, I began freelancing with a self-publishing company. And after about six months of that, I moved to Kolkata to study :P Kolkata is lovely! It does have that intellectual aura about it, but it also has a very old world charm. Best three months in a long while!

I asked Neha how her family reacted to her decision to switch to full-time freelancing. In India, freelancing is only recently being accepted by most families as a viable career option for their kids.

N: I was a little nervous about making that change. But I had told my mum long before (about five months before quitting, I think) that I was not happy with this company and was thinking of quitting. She was, of course, supportive. And she was supportive later when I told her about freelancing too. I can never not be grateful to her because she has always given me the freedom to choose. Never forced me to do anything, and I’m not just talking about career.
After graduation, when I started content writing, she was happy. Because she knew this is what made me happy.  I am very lucky to have a supportive and understanding family.

F: That’s great to hear! Both of us like lists, our emails are full of them. What are three things that you can say to young professionals, like you, seeking to pursue freelancing full time in the editing and writing industry .

N: Only three? Yeesh so much pressure. Okay, here goes:

  1. Strengthen your skills. You need to be an unapologetic grammar nazi. Study, study, study.
  2. Don’t start off with freelancing. Sometimes I think I made a mistake there. Get some experience first, preferably with a trade publishing house.
  3. You need to know how to make connections. I am shit at that. Socialising. Hate it. But it’s necessary if you want to be a one-man enterprise.

As we headed to the end of our interview, I asked Neha about her current job at Queer Ink.

N: Queer Ink is an LGBT-friendly publishing house. The founder of QI is Shobhna Kumar, an awesome lady. She first launched QI as an online book store, but the lack of queer content urged her to start a publishing house. A much-needed endeavour. I have read their work and it’s sad how these brilliant books aren’t in the mainstream.
I work as a consultant with them. Started work on 2nd. I’ll basically be their in-house editor.

F: It must be wonderful to see yourself contributing, at least indirectly, to a civil rights issue controversial around the world. We as a country are far behind from even considering equal rights for nonheterosexual partnerships. Engaging in such relationships is currently a criminal activity in India. Is this an issue you felt strongly about or thought about before working with Queer Ink, or has it been more recent?

N: It does feel good that I’m contributing in some small way. This is a very sexually repressed and ridiculously regressive country. It’s just sad because these religion-and-tradition touting morons don’t know jackshit about Hinduism. If you read any Hindu texts, you’ll see a lot of references to queer characters and relationships.

I think I’ve always been aware of this issue. I remember when I was in school, some guys in my class used to tease a guy for being effeminate. I used to feel bad for him but I never did anything. I didn’t care enough. Now when I think about that, I feel so ashamed. So yeah, these instances were happening all around me, gender roles were being hammered in. But I think I started feeling very strongly about it when a friend came out to me last year. That’s how such things usually happen, right? Unless it happens to you or to someone close to you, you’re aware of issues in a very distant, happening-in-another-world way.

F: Exactly! I especially dislike people quoting religious text to justify their discrimination against any minority. If you are quoting text selectively to marginalize a community and conveniently ignoring large chunks of text disapproving of what you do regularly… I mean… ridiculousness…. Hypocrites… jhdfasnadsl… Moving on… I feel stupid for not bringing this up earlier, (but I just discovered this!) a book you worked with, The Arithmetic of Breasts and Other Stories, was shortlisted for the 2014 Digital Book of the Year Award. Congratulations :)

N: When you wrote ‘I just discovered this’, not exaggerating, I was filled with such a weirdly intense anxiety! :P Actually that’s a little misleading. That book was shortlisted for the award before I worked on it :) I met the author last year during a publishing seminar. She had already released this ebook, but she wanted a printed version of it. I worked on that. So technically, I have no contribution towards its success. Also, brilliant book! Read it!

F: Yes, I will!

Throughout the interview, I had shared a few quotes with Neha and asked her to identify who from within our shared fandoms said it.

N: haha okay! Let me just first say, I have terrible memory.

F: “Pure honesty will always lead to violence or nudity”

N: Wheezy?

F: Of course. Ten points to Gryffindor. “We are all differently broken, semi-functional, rusted out love machines”

N: John Green?

F: Oh, so close. Hank Green.

N: Ah! Hank Green throws these out-of-the-blue philosophy bombs.

F: “That’s the thing about nostalgia, you hate how it makes you feel. But you love where it takes you. For most of us, the past has a special allure. For most of us, it is a way of coping with the present. Of escaping it. But it also helps you maintain a sense of identity, I guess. I don’t know really. Because I don’t think I have ever yearned for my past (self-aggrandizing sob story deleted). I yearn for a future. What kind of future? I don’t know. I imagine all kinds of possibilities. Not one of them realistic or practical.”

N: Potter :P No, I will not give up on making that nickname stick!

F: Haha. That is really brilliant writing. Do you still write? Not for work, but for the personal satisfaction of creating something that will most likely outlive you, which is one of the reasons I write. My writing will outlive me, in obscurity, yes, but it will.

N: Thank you. I was a little surprised when I read this. For a second there I thought it is John Green’s quote about nostalgia. I do write, on and off. Actually, this one friend of mine decided to throw writing exercises my way because she thinks I should keep writing. So I do that sometimes. It’s fun in the way that it makes me realise why I am not a ‘writer’ :P
Oh this reminds me! I have your short story! Remember that? I had to beg you to send it to me.

F: Haha, yes, never trying that again, fiction. I am sticking to nonfiction. I can haz no creatives.

N: But you do! I love that story!

F: Thank you :) And, the last one: “In my free time, you will often find me adding vowels to chtspk and O’s behind K’s.”

N: Hahaha. That’s a trick question! You wrote that about me and then I used it as [my] about me!

F: I think that’s the only piece of my writing that has ever been practically useful to someone else.

N: Very very useful. Maybe you should start an About Me writing service. People have a hard time writing those!

F: Hahaha. Business idea. Yes. Thank you so much for your time Neha Potter. I want to finish this interview by combining two of our universes – Harry Potter and YouTube. Which YouTube personalities would you cast to play Harry, Ron, Hermione, and Snape :) (#TeamWheezyForRon)

N: Oh that’s a tough one! Yeah I agree with you actually, Ron for Wheezy. Hermione will be Carrie Hope Fletcher because hair, no other reason :/. Harry will be…hmm….Charlie McDonnell. Maybe? Snape. Vsauce. Can you imagine Snape in a Vsauce video! I’d watch that! Did I muck this up completely? :/

F: Haha, well, I can imagine some of the VSauce videos in Snape’s ‘Brew glory, Stopper death’ style of teaching.

N: ‘Turn to video 394’Much Ado About Nothing Logo

P.S. When I turned 24, Neha (and other wonderful friends) gifted me Harry Potter-themed presents. <3


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