Ika Natassa: From Boardroom to Bookshop

MAY 14, 2015

Ika Natassa is a multitasker par excellence: she maintains a successful career in banking, has written several books, and has recently picked up a new hobby — photography.

Born and raised in North Sumatra, Ika studied financial accounting in Medan and also spent time abroad in the US as well as Australia. 

She joined Bank Mandiri in 2002 and has steadily furthered her career; in 2007, she released her first book “A Yuppy Wedding,” which was followed by “Divortiare” (2008), “Underground” (2010), “Antologi Rasa” (2011) and “Twivortiare” (2012).

Despite a busy schedule, Ika took the time to speak to the Jakarta Globe about her career choices, how she sees Indonesia’s literary scene, and what we can expect from her in the future.

​Q: You chose a career in banking, but are also a writer, as well as an aspiring photographer. How did you get from one to the other and how do you juggle all these different activities?

A: I started working in the bank just a few months after I graduated from uni in 2002, and have been working here for almost 13 years now. I love meeting new people and learning new things, and my job at the bank, where I handle corporate clients, gives me this opportunity, so it’s been fun.

I see writing and photography as hobbies, not a profession. I have loved writing since I was a little kid and started to write short stories when I was just 7 or 8-years-old. I wrote my first novel in junior high and finished it in high school. 

I like taking photos also just for fun. When I travel, I take pictures and that’s it. For me, it’s also a way to hone my story-telling skills. I’d like to be able to tell stories through pictures too someday, maybe publish a photo-essay book.

It’s really not that hard to find the time to do all of this because I just love doing it. I work from Monday to Friday, I write on weekends, sometimes also in the evening on weekdays when I’m not too tired. I love taking pictures of events and concerts, so I travel regularly and indulge in my photography hobby. 

It’s like when you have a day job but you also love sports or going to the movies and you just find time to do things that you love. That’s my relationship with writing and photography.

When did you first think about writing a book? And how did you realize that dream?

I love reading since the first time I could read and naturally after a while I wanted to produce a writing of my own too. It’s something like ‘I want to read books about these topics and nobody is writing it yet so might as well write it myself.’ 

I kept writing even after I became a banker, but didn’t think of being published back then. Then I met a friend who had recently published his debut novel through Gramedia; we had coffee and talked and he told me that publishing a book is not that much of a hassle. You just send your manuscript to the publisher and if they like it, they’ll publish it. 

‘Why don’t you give it a try?’ he said. So I did. 

I always wanted to write fiction about the lives of young bankers, how they deal with challenges at work and their personal lives, how they juggle everything. 

No Indonesian writer had touched that subject at the time, so I wrote about it. I sent my manuscript to Gramedia, and it was published in 2007. Seeing my debut novel sitting there at a bookshelf at a major bookstore was just magical. 

It’s a feeling that I can’t describe. And I know I can only re-experience that feeling if I keep on writing, so that’s what I do. Time flies, and I have published six books so far.

When can we expect the next one?

The thing that I love about my current publisher is that they understand my schedule, my day job, and they’re not applying any deadlines to me. I can write and finish my books whenever I like. 

With my job as banker and everything else, this kind of relationship is perfect. I’m currently writing a novel that I developed from a short story entitled ‘Critical Eleven’ which I already published last year. I don’t know yet when it’s going to be finished, but I’m planning to release it sometime this year if I can.

Most of your books were published by Gramedia, but you chose to self-publish ‘Underground.’ Why? 

I wrote Underground when I was in high school, out of my love for MTV back then. It’s about the hustle and bustle of young VJs [presenters] working for a music television company in New York, written entirely in English. 

I didn’t even think about publishing it, because I know the market for English novels by Indonesian writers is not that big here, and I didn’t want to translate it. 

Ollie, a good friend of mine, then told me about her plan to launch Nulisbuku, a self-publishing company, and we discussed how I could help with the launch. 

That’s when I decided to self-publish Underground through Nulisbuku. As it turns out, my loyal readers who already read the books I published through Gramedia wanted to read my earlier stuff too so they bought Underground from Nulisbuku.

How do you see the development of classic publishers versus self -publishing? Where do you see advantages and disadvantages, as an author and as someone who has experience with both?

I believe that we have so much untapped writing talent out there who now just exist through blogs and social media and don’t really have the courage to send their works to classic publishers for the fear of being rejected or other reasons. 

The existence of self-publishing can become the answer for them. Classic publishers, on the other hand, can ‘recruit’ new talents by looking at all of these self-published works. 

When you publish through classic publishers, everything is taken care of for you. You just write and go through the editing process, and the rest is being taken care of by your publisher: the packaging, distributing, marketing, selling. 

The sad part is that some writers don’t even care if their books are selling well. They do not realize that when a publisher decides to take you under their wings, they are actually investing in your talent, and as a writer you should really respect the people who believe in your talent.

Now when you self-publish, you don’t have the luxury to ‘not care.’ You have to take care of everything yourself: you write, you edit, you design the cover, you do the layout, you sell, you market, and you have to have an intense relationship with your work. I think in that way, self-publishing helps writers to care more about their work.

How do you rate the literature scene in Indonesia? What do you expect from Indonesia being Guest of Honour at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair?

The literature scene in Indonesia is growing, and it’s growing fast. I think Indonesia has one of the most productive literary scenes in the world. 

We have seasoned and productive writers like Ayu Utami, Dewi Lestari, Eka Kurniawan, and Laksmi Pamuntjak, but we also have hundreds of emerging talents. It is about time for all of them to get the exposure they deserve, and FBF is our opportunity to present these talents to the world.

I expect more excellent works [by Indonesian authors] — both literary and contemporary books — to get translated and introduced to readers from other countries. 

What were your favorite books growing up, and which writer has influenced and inspired you the most?

I’m a huge fan of Tintin. [Belgian cartoonist] Herge could take me places I’ve never been to through Tintin — it really inspired me to write. 

I admire Dewi Lestari and Leila S. Chudori, I love their works, and I think their story-telling skills are beyond amazing. I had the chance to learn a little bit about writing techniques from Dewi Lestari a while ago, and it really helped me completing my current manuscript.

Where do you see yourself ten years into the future?

I’d like to do all of it for as long as I can because I love being a banker, a writer and a photographer, but I never really think that far into the future. 

I founded a lean startup company, LitBox, a couple of years ago. It’s the first literary subscription service in Indonesia, and we have almost 2,000 subscribers so far. I’d like for it to take off in the future.