Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Crime, Calcutta and the End of the Raj - interview with author Abir Mukherjee

Abir Mukherjee is the author of historical crime fiction novels A Rising Man and A Necessary Evil, both set in Calcutta in the aftermath of WWI. A third novel, Smoke and Ashes, is due out next year, and he has just received a contract for another two. 

Here he talks to Catriona Troth about his inspirations, his research and his plans for the series.

As someone who began as an applied mathematician, I am always fascinated by others who have made a less-than-conventional journey into writing. Can you tell us a bit about how you got started?

Thanks so much for having me on your blog!

I suppose it was a bit of a mid-life crisis. I’m an accountant by profession and had spent the past twenty years in finance. I was thirty-nine, hurtling towards forty and I thought, maybe there might be more to life than accounting.

Then I saw an interview with Lee Child on BBC Breakfast where he talked about how, at the age of forty, he started writing, and I thought, why not? I’d always wanted to write a book but had never had the confidence, and anyway, it seemed safer than other methods of dealing with my stage of life, like buying a motorbike and piercing my ear.

I started writing A Rising Man in September 2013 and a few weeks later I came across details of the Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition, looking for new and unpublished crime writers. The judges were looking for the first five thousand words of a novel, together with a two page synopsis of the whole thing. The only other stipulation was that, in keeping with Harvill Secker’s focus on the best of international crime fiction, there be some ‘international element’ to the submission. By this point I’d already written about ten thousand words, and as the plot was set in Calcutta, it seemed as though what I was writing was tailor made for the competition, so I tidied up the first few chapters, wrote the synopsis and sent off my entry. I really didn’t expect to win.

Why Calcutta and why this particular period of Indian history?

I find the period of British rule in India a particularly fascinating place and time, unique in many respects and one that’s been overlooked, especially in terms of crime fiction. I think that period in history has contributed so much to modern India and Britain, and it was a time that saw the best and the worst of both peoples.

I made a conscious decision to set the series in Calcutta, not just because it was the place my parents came from, but it’s a fascinating city, unique in many respects and in the period that the series is set, it was the premier city in Asia, as glamorous and exotic a location as anywhere in the world. But it was a city undergoing immense change and it was the centre of the freedom movement, a hotbed of agitation against British rule. The history of Calcutta is the history of the British in India. Their presence still cries out from its streets, its buildings and in its outlook.

It would have been harder for me to write authentically while setting it in another Indian city. While I know Bombay and Delhi quite well, I don’t speak the language. Also, I don’t think either city had the same hothouse atmosphere that Calcutta had during the period.

Your books are brim-full of period and location detail. How do you go about researching the background to your books? And conversely, how do you avoid the trap of getting so lost in the research that you forget about the writing?

My research tends to happen in several phases. In the first stage, I’ll do a lot of general reading about the time I’m hoping to write about – in the next book, Smoke and Ashes, which comes out next June, I knew I wanted to set the book in 1921, so I started my general research on that year in India. It turns out that 1921 was the year that Gandhi launched his first all-out non-cooperation campaign and that seemed really interesting to me, so I decided to set the book against that backdrop. I then narrowed my research to the effects of that campaign, both on the Raj and on Indians, so that I could get the background to the book to be as authentic as possible.

At the same time, I’m working on the plot, and deciding how to enmesh it into the period and the setting. I’ll then start writing the first draft, and that is where the next stage of research comes in. At this point it tends to be very specific, micro-issues, that are fundamental to the authenticity of the action. For example there is scene at a fairground in the new book and I needed to make sure I knew what sort of stalls and entertainments there would have been at a fair in India at that time.

You’re right though, sometimes there is the temptation to get bogged down in the research and then put as much of it as I can in the story. But then I remember that no one is likely to be interested in intricacies of things like the Calcutta sewer system.

You have two brilliant main characters – Captain Sam Wyndham, British war veteran, newly arrived in Calcutta, and Surendrenath (Surrender-Not) Banerjee, his Harrow-educated, Bengali detective sergeant. But it is Sam whom you chose as your point of view character and the voice of the narrative. Why him and not Surrender-Not?

There were a couple of reasons for that. Firstly, I needed my narrator to have access to all levels of society – from the Viceroy all the way down to the poorest sections of Calcutta society, and at that time, an Indian policeman, even one educated at Harrow and Cambridge, just wouldn’t have been able to access the British parts of that society.

At the same time, and more fundamentally, I just didn’t feel I could write authentically from an Indian’s perspective, even though my parents and heritage are Indian. I’d like to write something from Surrender-not's perspective – maybe one day when I’m more confident in my writing.

You say in your Author’s Note that A Necessary Evil was inspired by the Begums of Bhopal. Can you tell us a bit more about them, and how they triggered the kernel of your second novel?
Between 1819 and 1926 four Muslim women rulers reigned over Bhopal, the second largest Muslim state of India, despite staunch opposition from powerful neighbors and male claimants. The British East India Company also opposed female rule in Bhopal until the Begums quoted Queen Victoria as their model and inspiration.

As I researched the period, I found that these women, and others like them in other kingdoms, seem to have been very influential and somewhat forgotten by history. Often, while the maharajahs became debauched, it was the their maharanis and princesses who became the true keepers of the traditions of the kingdoms. I found this fascinating and wanted to make it a part of my story.

The line that made me laugh out loud came when Sam tells Surrender-not that Indian women are just as capable of murdering their spouses as English women. “Not Bengali women, sir,” Surrender-not replies, “They just browbeat their husbands into submission. I doubt the need for murder would arise.” Reminded me of a couple of friends of ours! I have a feeling there might be a story behind this, if you’re willing to share.

Of course!

Rather than one story, though, it’s more an amalgam of many examples I’ve seen over the years, both from my parents' generation and my own. It might be because Bengal has historically been a pretty liberal part of India, where women have played a more equal role in society than their peers in other parts of the country, be it in terms of education or workplace opportunities. Whatever the reason, Bengali women can be fearsome!

In terms of stories, probably the best illustration is the tale of the weekly poker game which my father and some of his friends used to hold most Saturdays. One of his Bengali friends who lived close by, was given strict instructions by his wife that he was not to attend as he tended to lose money most of the time. So he gave her his word that he wouldn’t. Instead he told her to go up to bed for a nap while he tidied the house. Being a clever chap, however, he simply switched on the hoover, and leaving it running, he left the house and came over to ours for the card game. Half an hour later, there was a terrible banging on the front door and an irate auntie looking for her husband, who by this time was fleeing out the back way.

I believe you have some pretty long-reaching plans for this series. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Ideally I’d like to look at the whole period of British India between the end of the First World War and Indian Independence in 1947, which is almost thirty years. I want to see how the relationships between the British and the Indians evolve during this period, and I think that will be mirrored in the changing relationship between Sam and Surrender-not.

And I think Ian Rankin has told you that you really ought to write something contemporary as well. Any temptation to follow his advice? And if so, what might you write about?

I would love to write something set in the present day, looking at issues around radicalisation of Muslim youth or some of the other problems facing British society. The problem really is one of time. I’m still working full time and my publishers, Penguin Random House have just given me a new contract for another two Sam Wyndham novels. I’d like to think that once I’ve written them, I’ll be able to take a break to write something more contemporary.

Thank you, Abir. Looking forward to reading Smoke and Ashes as soon as it comes out!

You can read Catriona Troth's reviews of A Rising Man  and A Necessary Evil on BookMuseUK.

Abir Mukherjee grew up in the West of Scotland. The son of Indian immigrants, A Rising Man, his debut novel, was inspired by a desire to learn more about a crucial period in Anglo-Indian history that seems to have been almost forgotten. The first in a series starring Captain Sam Wyndham and ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee. It won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, was a Waterstones Thriller of the Month and is currently shortlisted for both the CWA Gold and CWA Historical Daggers, and also for the HWA Debut Crown 2017. His second novel, ‘A Necessary Evil’ is out now.

You can follow him on Twitter at @radiomukhers

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

The Asian Writer Festival

On 21st October, the Asian Writer celebrates its 10th birthday with an all-day festival at the Royal Asiatic Society in London.

The Festival balances showcasing new writing with sessions demystifying the publishing process and workshops on novel writing, poetry and short stories.

Critically acclaimed author of The Good Children, Roopa Farooki, will be kicking off the day’s proceedings with a keynote speech, drawing on her experience of writing six novels since 2007.

In a panel entitled ‘From draft to publication,’ debut authors, Mahsuda Snaith (The Things We Thought We Knew) and Radhika Swarup (Where the River Parts) will join Penguin Write Now Live mentee Emma Smith-Barton to read from their first novels and explore the experiences of first time writers.

In ‘Meet the Gatekeepers’ literary agents Lorella Belli (Lorella Belli Literary Agency) and Juliet Pickering (Blake Friedmann) will be joined by Wasafiri deputy editor, Rukhsana Yasmin to discuss the role of agents and editors.

Best-selling crime writers Vaseem Khan and AA Dhand will be in conversation with thriller writer, Sanjida Kay to explore explore what makes good crime fiction and how writers can sustain readers interest over a series.

The launch of Dividing Lines, the Asian Writer Short Story Prize anthology, launch will bring new voices to the stage, some of whom are published for the first time.

Finally, a closing panel will look at love and marriage and whether writers exploring such themes consider it an ultimate road to happiness.

Here Catriona Troth interviews organiser Farhana Shaikh and some of the authors who are taking part.

Farhana Shaikh: founder of the Asian Writer and organiser of the festival

Congratulations on your 10th Anniversary! Looking back, what were your goals when you started The Asian Writer? And what are your aims for the next ten years?

Thank you. I wanted to create a platform to showcase new writing as well as raise the profile of published writers. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure back then where an online magazine could lead and I certainly didn’t think I’d be setting up a small press publishing company.

Our aims for the next ten years are to work more closely with writers on developing their work and continue to platform and publish these writers, on our site and through our anthologies. One of the features of the network which excites me most is that a significant proportion of our traffic now comes from South Asia, so I’m looking at ways we can develop partnerships in India and Pakistan to better engage this audience.

How did the idea for The Asian Writer Festival come about?

I think I always knew I wanted to do something to mark our tenth anniversary, which fell in August this year but I wasn’t sure whether that should be a publication of some sort or an event. I’ve been running the Leicester Writes Festival since 2014, and it’s always a lovely space to meet writers and better understand their needs. A festival dedicated to showcasing new and established British Asian voices seemed like a great way to bring people together and celebrate their work and ours.

The programme is an interesting mix of showcasing new writing on the one hand, and providing illumination on the publishing process for inspiring writers on the other. Tell us something about the thinking behind that.

Programming the festival was always going to be a challenge. I tried to find a balance between what would appeal to our readership (who are mainly writers) but also tempt a wider audience to discover exciting new voices.


From: Up-lit to grip-lit: the new faces of crime fiction
Vaseem Khan – author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series


Baby Ganesh is a delight – but where did the inspiration for his eccentric partnership with Inspector Chopra spring from?

You could say this partnership was born on my first day in India, back in 1997 when I went out there to work as a management consultant. I was in a taxi and we stopped at a traffic junction. As I looked out into the passing passing traffic of honking rickshaws, honking trucks, bikes, people, cows, goats, and dogs I saw, lumbering through the chaos, an enormous grey Indian elephant. This surreal sight stuck with me and eventually became a part of the crime novel I wrote when I returned to England ten years later.

You’re a British author writing novels set in modern day Mumbai. Why there, and how would you describe your relationship with the city?

I lived in Mumbai for a decade, and for me it remains the most dazzling city on the subcontinent. The place is a non-stop assault on the senses. I’ve tried to encapsulate this in my books, to give readers an idea of what Mumbai looks like, feels like, sounds like, smells like, and even tastes like. My aim was always to take readers on this journey to the heart of modern India, a place that is undergoing immense change, with globalisation bringing money and sweeping cultural transformation. Yet at the same time it is a place beset by ancient problems such as poverty and caste prejudice. This dynamic between old and new gives me a unique canvas. As someone who loves crime fiction set in exotic locations I wanted to use this to give readers something different.

The Baby Ganesh series comes from the lighter end of the crime fiction spectrum – but you don’t shy away from showing us the poverty and deprivation that lives alongside Mumbai’s prosperity. Did that balance between tone and subject matter come naturally, or did you struggle initially to find the right voice?

I always set out to create a sort of 'gritty cosy crime'. Inspector Chopra is a serious man, and the crimes he tackles are serious crimes, murder, kidnapping, robbery. His elephant sidekick offers light relief, as you suggest, but I always intended for the books to showcase both the light and dark of modern India. This reflects my own experiences there. When I first went to Mumbai, every aspect of the city was exotic and different. However, once I’d spent some time there I began to see that there were aspects of this amazing place that required me to put aside my rose-tinted spectacles and take a closer look. My first trip to the Daravi slum for instance left me open-mouthed. Poverty is endemic, but what is more endemic is the acceptance of poverty, of poor sanitation, of very limited medical facilities, of terrible transport infrastructure, all the things we take for granted in the West. There is a massive gap between rich and poor, and although social change is taking place there are still ancient prejudices ingrained in people’s thinking. Chopra and I both worry about such things - in effect, his voice is my voice!


From: First time writers: From draft to publication
Radhika Swarup, author of Where the River Parts


Hi Radhika. Nice to talk to you again, one year on from the Triskele Lit Fest. It must have been an interesting year for you, with all the attention given to the 70th anniversary of Partition. Has it led to any new discoveries about what happened back then?

Lovely to hear from you, Catriona. This year has been poignant, not just for the milestone it represents, but also for the memories it unearths. While things are getting more political - and more polarised - on both sides of the border I have written about, it is interesting that the same hand-wringing was followed by increased political machismo twenty years ago. Where the River Parts draws to a close 50 years after Partition, when both India and Pakistan embark on their nuclear programmes. This, the 70th anniversary of both Independence and Partition, is also serving as a forum for families to talk and share their individual histories. While Independence is, and should be the main story, the generation that lived through the Partition is now reaching the end of its life. It is essential these stories are handed down while there is still time.

Your protagonist, Asha, is very young at the start of the novel – feisty for the times, but by modern standards, very much constrained by rules and conventions. How did you find the right voice for her?

We are all subject to the constraints and prejudices of of the times we live in, and Asha was no exception. Her head is kept covered at the start of the novel, and she is expected to marry her parents' - and crucially, her father's - choice, but if you examine the path she leads, she has great agency. She survives a very tough journey into a new country and settles into a hostile household. She chooses not to be defined by her disappointments. She is a true survivor, able to make her way in whichever environment she finds herself in, and though she has her quirks, her impetuousness chief among them, it was a privilege to be able to inhabit her world.

Tell us about your writing routine.

My writing routine is largely defined by two variables. My children and my relationship with my Work in Progress. If I'm in the middle of writing a draft, I find it easiest to wake at 4am to write while the house is quiet. The children rise around 6, and as winter draws in, closer to 7, and we're all in a rush to finish off breakfast, homework, music practice, gather the football cards my eldest loves to trade, and deposit them both safely - and gratefully - to school. Then I write again from 9am to pick up time, and after they're in bed.

Are you now writing a second book, and how does that differ from tackling a first novel?

I'm working now on my second novel, and the main difference to writing my first is that I now know and am comfortable with my habits. I know to adhere to the schedule I've described above, but everything else - the uncertainty while you plot, the frenzy when you actually get down to the writing, and the visceral disdain for your work when you first read it back - remains the same. I think that's what keeps you going as a writer, and that's what keeps you striving to improve.


From: Love and marriage in fiction: a road to happiness?
Radhika Kapur

You’ve written advertising copy and worked as a ghost writer as well as writing your own short stories. How does the writing process differ in these three media?

Well, in my work in advertising I write in a brand's voice. After a few years of doing that, I was bursting to write in my own. That's when I turned to short stories. Also, advertising is about influencing human behaviour, short stories are about human behaviour.

Of course, each medium requires a different skill set and also overlaps with and enriches the other. That's what I love about it. My work as a copywriter has taught me the power of strong, bold ideas and of editing - I usually have just one headline or thirty seconds to make my point. The more you chisel it, the sharper it gets. That's what you need to do in short stories too.

Short fiction lets me explore fleeting nuances of everyday life. It's a photograph of an emotion, a time, a moment. 

I read your short story, ‘The Nine-Headed Ravan,’ in the anthology Love Across a Broken Map last year. It’s a beautiful and ironic study of the nature of love. Where did the concept for that story come from?

From bits and pieces of my own life and my own relationships. As a young woman, I would try pinning down love, defining it and boxing it - but love is the annoyingly shaped object that won't fit into any gift box. The nine-headed Ravan actually exists - it was painted by my mother! As the story grew, the role of the painting as a metaphor also grew

I thought it would be interesting to explore a character who is anal about the truth and words. As a writer, I can be like that. I take words very seriously. Which is why my husband is always in trouble!

To echo the question being asked in the panel, what do writers gain and lose in writing about love?

The more honestly we talk about relationships and love, the more we all gain. There are so many manufactured, sugary-icing versions that sit inside our brains.

The only thing I lose is that I expose a very deep, private side of myself, while writing. But, that's ok. How is there to be any meaningful conversation otherwise?


From: Dividing Lines Book Launch
Farrah Yusuf

I was very moved by your story ‘By Hand’ in Love Across a Broken Map. It encapsulated the loneliness of modern urban life. Where did the inspiration for that story come from?

Thank you, that is lovely to hear. I wanted to explore how we all connect - be that through a place, in person or remotely and the assumptions we often make from the little information we have. I decided to use the form of letters rather than email or texts because I rarely get handwritten notes anymore and when I do I always think they say so much more than just the words on the page. I decided to set the story in a flat in a city because I find it interesting that we can all be so close physically but mentally remote.

You’re a playwright as well as a short story writer. How does the writing process differ between the stage and the page? 

If I am writing a play I am always thinking about what the action is and what is happening in each sentence, as to even move a character from one side of a stage to another there needs to be a reason. In short stories on the other hand I can indulge in descriptions and move a character in both place and time with a single sentence. I enjoy both as they let me experiment with words in differing ways.

What can you tell us about the new anthology, Dividing Lines

 What strikes me most about it is the spectrum of ideas it explores on the same theme of borders, boundaries and belonging. Each story takes a unique take on the theme and the subtleties within it without straying too far from that central concept. Mine takes a broad interpretation as my story is about a missing father and the way his disappearance impacts on the other characters.

An all-day festival ticket costs £30. Workshops need to be booked separately.

For more information about the festival, for images or quotes or to interview any of the authors featuring at the festival please contact Farhana Shaikh at or on 074321 29371

Festival box office:

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Ration your research

By Susanna Beard, author of psychological thriller, Dare to Remember published by Legend Press

Research can be fun! Yes, you read that right. It may be daunting at first, when you need to get going from a standing start and you really don’t know where to look, but researching for a novel can add real depth and interest to your story – and it’s deeply satisfying, too.

Some people absolutely love the process of researching their story idea. They might start online, as I did, and soon find themselves deeply immersed. It’s easy to get side-tracked. Some writers, anxious about getting down to the writing, spend a huge amount of time researching, delaying the moment of putting fingers to keyboard. Their research might be stunning, but it’s no good if they struggle to get to the writing.

I prefer to do it the other way round – I start writing, and when I reach a point when I need to research, I do it then. But even then I don’t let it take over from the writing. I might go back and add to the research later, but as long as I’ve confirmed that the key elements of my story are believable, I plough on.

Let’s assume you have, broadly, your idea for a novel. The story comes from your imagination and your personal experience and has a beginning, a middle and an end. (Well, possibly not an end – yet - if you’re anything like me. Or even a middle!). The research adds to and enhances the story, and you’re gathering knowledge in addition to your own to give it authenticity.

Without authenticity your story will fall at the first hurdle. That first hurdle comes when your reader stops believing in your character, event, place, business, historical period or theme. Your reader will be turned off the story and may never finish. So you need to research the facts around your story to give it depth – to make it believable.

Even if your story is a fantasy, it needs authenticity, through character development, a sense of place and time, and consistency. Your research might involve how people react, or how a material, like wood for example, might behave. It won’t matter if your monsters from outer space behave like humans but it will matter if your humans – all of them - behave like monsters from outer space. Our imaginations can soar, but our stories need to be grounded by (some) research.

If your character suffers from depression, you need to know about it. You need to know how she would look and speak, what her thought processes might be. My protagonist in my debut novel, Dare to Remember, Lisa, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, and she has therapy throughout the book. I researched this by reading about depression – case studies were particularly useful – by talking to therapists, especially those with experience in PTSD, and by listening to their language. It’s all in the book.

But at the same time, it’s not all in the book. One of the big dangers of researching for your novel will be that you’ve put all that time and energy into finding out the facts around your story that you don’t want to waste it. You feel compelled to put it into the narrative. Don’t. The danger is that it will change the pace of the story, bring the reader up short and look like you’re trying too hard to prove you know all about your subject. As a reader I can see when a writer wants to demonstrate their knowledge – about language in a historical era, about the geography of a place, about a real event from the past – and I tend to skip over it.

We need – as writers and as readers – to inhabit our stories. That means, as writers, we need to absorb our research, bringing it in to the story with a light touch and only when it’s appropriate. It needs to be an integral part of the backdrop of the story.

A simple example: my therapist, for example, in Dare to Remember, has a certificate on his wall, showing that he was qualified. I knew he would, from my research. I also knew what he would have needed to do to gain his qualification. But I didn’t need to tell my readers all that – it would have been too much information. All they needed to know, obliquely, was that he was ‘proper.’ He became more real because of that small detail.

So research is important, yes. It gives you credibility and confidence, and your story authenticity. But it needs to be handled with care, woven into the story where it can demonstrate its value in subtle ways. Your readers won’t even notice it, but they will believe your story.