VASEEM KHAN – Historical Fiction Sent From India

Vaseem Khan is the author of two award-winning crime series set in India. His debut, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was a bestseller, translated into 16 languages, and a Sunday Times 40 best crime novels published 2015-2020 pick; the series won a Shamus Award in the US. In 2021, Midnight at Malabar House, the first in the Malabar House novels set in 1950s Bombay, won the Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger, and in 2022 it was shortlisted for the prestigious Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year award. MW Craven, CWA Gold Dagger winner.

ELEVATOR PITCH – THE DYING DAY by Vaseem Khan. Bombay, 1950. A 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy vanishes, leaving behind a series of complex riddles and bodies. ‘The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India.

Do you have any advice for new writers? I wrote and submitted my first novel aged 17! It was awful. I spent the next 23 years and seven novels trying to get published before landing a four-book deal for my Baby Ganesh Agency series. Perseverance is important. But more crucially, it’s important to recognise that quality will out – it takes time and effort to bring your writing to the standard that agents and publishers consider publishable. On my website www.vaseemkhan.com you’ll find a blog piece entitled “Is this is a Dagger I see before me – lessons from 30 years of writing”. It might be useful.

What was your debut novel? And what happened next? My debut, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, was written after I went to work in India for ten years. It became a Times bestseller after I launched it on the BBC Breakfast sofa to an audience of several million! I then found myself having to write a novel a year. That has meant strict discipline. Luckily, I’m a deadline masochist!

 

Tell us about your writing process: Wake up. Drown in a few moments of existential angst. Remember that there are still books and cricket in the world, so it can’t be all meaningless. Write for about three hours until my brain stops working. Potter around for the rest of the day, avoiding any DIY assignments my wife would like me to tackle.

What is the most challenging part of your writing process? I’m a detailed plotter – that takes months to get right. My current historical series is compared to Agatha Christie in style – so much so that this year I’m speaking at the International Agatha Christie Festival. The books include complex clues and, sometimes, codes and cyphers, as well as a wealth of historical detail about the period when India became independent after 200 years of British rule. Balancing all these elements is a challenge!

What do you feel are your biggest writing achievements? Getting published after two decades of trying! Followed by winning a Crime Writers Association Historical Dagger, the world’s premier prize for historical crime fiction – for Midnight at Malabar House. In the book, we meet my protagonist, Persis Wadia, newly qualified as India’s first female police Inspector at a time when India is still an intensely patriarchal society. No one knows what to do with her, so they stick her in Bombay’s smallest police station – Malabar House – where all the rejects and undesirables are sent. And then a sensational murder – of an English diplomat – falls into her lap… and she’s off! In fiction, we love pioneers. There’s something mythic about a protagonist challenging the status quo. Persis, as a woman in a male dominated environment, is forced to prove, time and again, that she belongs. As a man, it wasn’t easy to write such a character!

Why do you write about India? I was born and grew up in England but lived in India for a decade in my twenties. It was an intense culture shock. In The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, there is a chapter that takes place in a slum in Mumbai. I visited that slum while living in India, and it was eye-opening to observe poverty on a scale we simply can’t imagine in the West. At the same time, it was life-affirming to see the locals just getting on with things – especially the ever-grinning kids!

How do you come up with character names? A great character name is euphonious, meaning it is pleasing to the ear because it fits the character completely and makes them more real. I trawl through hundreds of online name lists to get just the right name.

We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave or run wild? The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, introduced a middle-aged Mumbai policeman who must solve the murder of a poor local boy – whilst dealing with the odd dilemma of inheriting a baby elephant. What do you do when you live on the fifteenth floor of a tower block, and someone sends you an elephant? Read the book to find out! That elephant has become incredibly popular with readers around the world, so much so that I continue to get email about him. To be clear: he doesn’t talk or fly or solve the mysteries. The elephant is merely a symbol for India and allows me to showcase a different side of Chopra’s personality – he’s a very rigid and honest man. He has to gradually come to terms with the idea that he is responsible for this animal’s welfare.

What’s the most challenging thing about writing characters from the opposite sex? I wrote a female lead for the Malabar House series because I wanted to say something about the patriarchal, sometimes misogynistic society that was India in the 1950s. Persis is ambitious, so much so that she is sometimes quite ruthless in her desire to prove herself. And why shouldn’t she be? We allow male mavericks in crime fiction, so why not a female?

Do you have subplots? If so, how do you weave them into the novel’s arc? Always! For instance, inThe Dying Day, the second book in the Malabar House series, we see twin plots. A 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy vanishes from Bombay’s Asiatic Society, and the case lands on Inspector Persis Wadia’s desk. Uncovering a series of complex riddles written in verse, Persis – together with English forensic scientist Archie Blackfinch – is soon on the trail. But then they discover the first body.In a subplot, Persis must also investigate the murder of a beautiful white woman whose body is found on train tracks. Could the two cases be related? The trick is to plan in advance exactly how your subplots fit together. If they don’t hang together at all, I think it can sometimes lead to readers feeling cheated! .. Oh, and to date, only one person – an Australian reader – has claimed to have solved all the riddles in The Dying Day. The challenge is made!

Do you base any of your characters on real people? A lot! Early on in Midnight at Malabar House, Persis finds herself working with Archie Blackfinch, an English forensic scientist based in Bombay. They get off to a rocky start, but we know this is going to be one of those will-they-wont-they situations. And this presents a challenge for Persis. Because, of course, this is India just after Independence. The idea of an Indian woman in a relationship with a white Englishman… They’re both socially awkward people – but whereas Archie is one of those Englishmen who’d rather hack their own arm off than speak out of turn, Persis’s determination to succeed sometimes means that she’s a bit ruthless, such as when she almost shoots Archie’s ear off. I guess you could say there’s a lot of me in Archie. (Though my wife hasn’t shot my ear off. Yet.)

Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I’m getting ready to promote THE LOST MAN OF BOMBAY, the third book in my Malabar House series, out in August in the UK and Kindle in US on August 18, 2022, hardcover on November 22, 2022, in the US. Frankly, I’d buy it just for the amazing cobra on the cover! It’s set in 1950 in Bombay, India. In this one, a white man is found frozen to death in a cave in the Himalayan foothills. His face is crushed, making his identity a complete mystery. When the case lands on Persis’ desk, she discovers a notebook on the body holding a series of cryptic clues. As Persis and Archie Blackfinch chase down the clues, more murders occur in Bombay of Europeans. Could there be a serial killer loose in the city? Pre-orders really help, so don’t be shy!

How do our readers contact you?

Website: http://vaseemkhan.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/VaseemKhanOfficial/
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/VaseemKhanUK
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/vaseemkhanwriter/

FACEBOOK GROUPS:
The Book Group https://www.facebook.com/groups/readrecommendreview
UK Crime Book Club https://www.facebook.com/groups/ukcrimebookclub
Lost in a Good Book https://www.facebook.com/groups/1715381925391873
Mystery Readers Café https://www.facebook.com/groups/2024429557790696
Bookaholic Café https://www.facebook.com/groups/BookAholicCafe
Book Connectors https://www.facebook.com/groups/1466353170351020
Crime Fiction Addict https://www.facebook.com/groups/507750129408471
The Crime Book Club https://www.facebook.com/groups/CrimeBookClub
The Fiction Café Book Club https://www.facebook.com/groups/FictionCafe

1 Comment

  1. Michael A. Black

    It sounds like you’re really on a roll, Vaseem. Congratulations on your success. Your story is inspirational. Good luck and watch your ears. 😉

    0

    Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

PROFESSOR HARINI NAGENDRA Visits from India & Shares Her Debut Novel

Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, Bangalore, India, and has written several non-fiction books, including the award-winning Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities. The Bangalore Detectives Club, the first book in the Detective Kaveri mysteries, is her first novel. She lives in Bangalore with her family.

The Bangalore Detectives Club is the first in a charming, joyful, cozy crime series set in 1920s Bangalore, featuring sari-wearing detective Kaveri and her husband, Ramu. Solving crimes isn’t easy. Add a new marriage and a jealous mother-in-law into the mix, and you’ve got a problem. But Kaveri finds nothing is too difficult – not when you have a talent for math, a head for logic, and a doctor for a husband.

Do you write in more than one genre? Yes, I have written several popular non-fiction books on nature and the environment – part of my day job as an ecologist and university professor. I also write a regular monthly Sunday newspaper column. Writing non-fiction is a very different process – I write tight, to a specified word count, and need to make every word count. I need to switch off my non-fiction voice very firmly in order to write fiction, or else I can never get going!

What brought you to writing? From when I can remember, I’ve always written – at first, short stories for school newsletters, then a small ‘book’ for my father when he was living in a different city for a while. Writing is a huge stress-buster for me and one of the things I love doing the most.

Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I write anywhere and everywhere, but my favourite writing spot is on an old couch in my bedroom. I drink copious amounts of tea as I write – Indian masala tea, or chai, with milk and many spoons of sugar. When I’m especially stuck, I ask Alexa to play old Indian movie songs – period music, for inspiration.

Has an association membership helped you or your writing? Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America, have been of huge help. I’m beginning a career in fiction writing late in life – my first book will be published in the same month I turn fifty. I’m also based in India, thousands of miles from where my books are being published in the US and UK. Thanks to SinC and MWA, I have met so many incredibly supportive authors, attended virtual happy hours, and made some good friends – and lucked out on blog opportunities such as this one!

How long did it take you to write your first book? The Bangalore Detectives Club is my first fiction book. I wrote a number of short stories when I was younger. And I have written non-fiction books, but that’s always been easy, as they are largely based on my research as a career academic. I never thought I could write a full-length novel.

Sometime in 2007, the main protagonist, Kaveri, apparated into my mind and demanded that I write about her. In my innocence, I thought it would take me a few months at most – I was then pregnant with my daughter. I believed I could churn out the book in the few months that I planned to take slow with my new baby, rocking her with one hand while typing with the other. Boy, was I naïve. It took me fourteen years to complete the book and bring it to publication. The best part of the long journey is that my daughter, now a teen, is one of my best beta-readers (the other is my husband)! With a three-book series in hand, I can’t afford to take fourteen years for each new book. I need to write a new book every year and shift gear into a different mode. My day job is hectic – I teach, lead a research centre, and do quite a bit of research administration, so finding time to write is not easy. But thanks to my long experience with writing non-fiction, I’m used to squeezing time out to write in brief chunks – it all adds up.

How long to get it published? I was very fortunate. My agent, Priya Doraswamy of Lotus Lane Literary, is an old school friend from Bangalore. She really ‘got’ the book from the start and was a great help in pushing me to the finish line and helping me edit and revise the book into shape. That took about six months. Then things moved very quickly. Within a few weeks, Priya found a terrific publisher in Little Brown UK’s Constable and Robinson imprint, which specializes in crime fiction. Later, Pegasus Books acquired the US rights.

How do you come up with character names? That’s relatively easy. I look for common Indian names of the era I’m writing, which are specific to the community I’m writing about – I try and make sure they’re relatively easy for a foreign audience to pronounce, but that’s about it. I did make a blooper when I realized (just before the book was going into copy-editing) that one of my main characters, who had a very common name – think Mike or Anne in the US – shared her name with at least two close family members, and one friend, any of whom might take offence. I quickly changed her name to a less common one. Now I try to make sure that I select names of people that I do not know personally.

We hear of strong-willed characters. Do yours behave, or do they run the show? My characters certainly run the show. Two new characters – Inspector Ismail and a woman in trouble, Mala – were not part of my original plot. Still, they turned up one day, inserted themselves onto the page, and insisted on taking the story in a different direction. They’re terrific, and I have enjoyed getting to know them – I guess I just need to get comfortable with giving up control.

What kind of research do you do? My series is set in 1920s Bangalore, during the British colonial era, and I need to get the setting right. I’m fortunate to have a large amount of archival material on Bangalore history, which I’ve collected over the years as part of my work on Bangalore’s ecological history, but I do need to re-read to gather details on the architecture, weather, traffic conditions, and other important aspects that determine the setting. I read old newspapers to get the little details, such as a notice of a flower exhibition or a workers’ strike. And to understand the social milieu, I talk to my mom, who is in her 80s. Her grandmothers came of age in the same era that my protagonists did. The stories my mom tells, passed on from her grandmothers, give me an intimate glimpse into women’s domestic lives in 1920s Bangalore and help me to understand their daily joys and obstacles in a way that historical documents simply cannot match.

How do our readers contact you?

12 Comments

  1. Lori Roberts Herbst

    I can’t wait to read this book! Congratulations, and best wishes for many more to come!

    Reply
    • Harini Nagendra

      Thank you Lori! Looking forward to reading your next book soon too.

      Reply
  2. Monica

    I am hoping to read the book soon I can get my hands on it. Keep writing and inspiring.

    Reply
    • Harini Nagendra

      Many thanks for reading, Monica!

      Reply
  3. Ravi Sekhar

    Great Stuff, Harini! The genre of detective writing has always been fascinating in India and the duel between the Sleuth (wonderful film that) and the Inspector makes wonderful reading, The number of television series bears testimony to the fact. “The game is afoot,Watson!”

    Reply
    • Harini Nagendra

      Ravi – indeed yes, from the age-old days of Feluda and other Indian detectives, this has been a fascinating genre. Female sleuths have been relatively sparse in India thus far (with some terrific exceptions like Sujata Massey’s Parveen Mistry series, and Vaseem Khan’s Persis Wadia) – and hopefully now my sleuth as well, Kaveri Murthy. I hope you enjoy the book!

      Reply
  4. Shyam Suri

    Can’t wait to get my hands on your book Harini

    Reply
    • Harini Nagendra

      Thanks so much! Looking forward to this too

      Reply
  5. Michael A. Black

    This sounds like a fascinating era to write about. I hope your book provides a cultural bridge between our two countries. Best of luck to you.

    Reply
    • Harini Nagendra

      Thank you Michael! I hope so indeed. –Harini

      Reply
  6. Marilyn Meredith

    That sounds like book I would love. I have several Indian friends and I’ll let them know about your book too. Best of luck with it and your future writing.

    Reply
    • Harini Nagendra

      Thank you Marilyn! That would be great – and much appreciated. I hope you enjoy the book. Cheers, Harini

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *