|A.A. Chaudhuri and Awais Khan|
The 8 July saw the launch of The Scribe by AA Chaudhuri and In the Company of Strangers by Awais Khan at Foyles Bookshop. As part of the launch both authors kindly allowed me to have a chat with them about their writing and being published. It was a fantastic launch and it was great to see so many members of their families in attendance along with friends. As a follow up Alex and Awais agreed to interview each other. Here is the result!
AC: Hi Awais, I’m absolutely thrilled that we’ve been asked to interview one another for the Shotsblog/Magazine today.
AK: Likewise, Alex. Thanks so much to Shots for having us, such perfect timing in light of our joint book launch event last week at Foyles, Charing Cross Road. I’m going to kick off by asking you how it feels to finally be published?
AC: It sounds cliché, but it’s a dream come true, a feeling like no other. Being a highly subjective industry, with so many variables, getting a publishing deal is akin to winning the lottery! Despite having a fantastic agent, Annette Crossland, and working my socks off for nine years, I’ve faced a lot of rejection and shed numerous tears during that time, but I guess in a way, that’s what makes finally being published taste that much sweeter. And, of course, my love of writing kept me going and ensured I never gave up!
AC: Now, it’s my turn to ask you how it feels to be published?
AK: I echo your thoughts, Alex. It feels like I’m somewhere in the clouds. When we were getting photographed outside Foyles during the launch, I genuinely couldn’t believe it was happening, and that everything had come together so nicely. Being published is amazing, but getting to launch at Foyles was the icing on the cake. I’m still in a state of disbelief.
AK: Did you always aspire to be an author?
AC: Although I was a tennis player and a lawyer before I started writing, I’d always dreamt of becoming an author. I was an avid reader as a child. I played competitive tennis for 13 years, and so books were an escape from the rigorous physical and mental demands that imposed on me. Away from the tennis court, I’d get lost in the fast-moving legal world of John Grisham, one of my biggest influences in terms of my writing style, rooting for his feisty, moralistic lawyers against the mean, corrupt corporate giants they faced. I started writing ten years ago and published a couple of women’s fiction novels under a different name, but it was always my ambition to write crime thrillers. For me, there is nothing better than escaping real life with a good thriller. I love the intrigue, the suspense, the twists and turns which keep readers guessing and wanting for more, the challenge of identifying and yet not wanting to identify the culprit because that’s what keeps you reading. More than anything, I love the page-turning nature of this genre, a feature that leaves you breathless and crying out for more when you close the back cover. And it’s because I love all these facets that comprise a cracking thriller, I was itching to write my own.
AC: How difficult did you find the entire process of writing your book to getting published? When did you first know you wanted to be a writer?
AK: Getting published is not only difficult, but backbreaking. The rejections can consume your spirit, hence the saying that you need to have a thick skin if you ever aspire to be a writer. I have always been a very avid reader, but it was when I was in college in Canada that I began to realize that I might want to write too. Canada was my first prolonged exposure to life outside Pakistan, and I found it so refreshing to see writers and books given their due importance. For the first time, I realized that this was in fact an industry. However, it wasn’t until some years later that I took the Faber courses and began writing my novel in earnest. But then, writing and editing are like the tip of the iceberg. The real challenge is to get noticed by an agent and then by a publisher. So, I think it is quite safe to say that getting published is very very hard these days.
AK: Do you consider The Scribe your typical police procedural? How would you set it apart from other crime novels?
AC: No, it’s not your typical police procedural. This is a story which centres around a female lawyer who becomes embroiled in a police investigation because of her connection to some of the victims. What sets apart both The Scribe, and the sequel – The Abduction– due out at Christmas, is having a female London lawyer amateur sleuth as its central protagonist. Maddy Kramer is a bright, gutsy, go-getting lawyer who finds herself caught up in the investigations of the acerbic DCI Carver. She’s brave, she’s headstrong but, like Carver, she comes with baggage, and I hope that’s what makes her real and likeable, and them a good pairing.Although I realise no reader wants to be bogged down with tedious legal terminology and procedure, I’d like to think my novel strikes a balance between the fast-moving story bit and throwing in a bit of my legal knowledge here and there through Maddy to inform the reader about a subject they might not be too familiar with. For example, in the way Maddy helps Carver solve the killer’s riddles. Hopefully, the legal aspect is another feature which sets it apart and offers a fresh perspective on the classic crime story. That being said, the book is not just about murder in a legal setting. It’s about the uglier side of human nature - jealousy, neglect, infidelity, greed, vanity and betrayal – and the destructive impact it can have.
AC: What can you tell me about In the Company of Strangers? What made you want to write such a book?
AK: In the Company of Strangers revolves around the lives of the two main protagonists: Mona and Ali. It explores the secrets and lies of the Pakistani high society and how life goes on despite the threat of terrorism looming over everyone’s heads. Mona is a forty-something wife of a very successful businessman who spends her days gossiping and partying. In essence, she is just bored and looking for an adventure, anything to break the monotony of her life. Ali is an up and coming young man who is eager to make a mark in the world. The novel is about how the lives of these two people collide. I think that a lot of people in the West have this idea that Pakistan is a bunch of shantytowns with rampant poverty and lawlessness. I wanted to show that an alternate world full of glitter and glamour does exist in Pakistan. I think readers will be changing their perception of Pakistan after reading In the Company of Strangers.
AK: As a former lawyer, was The Scribeinspired by a case you worked on?
AC: You know, it would be a great talking point to say it was, but it wasn’t. I didn’t practise criminal law, I was a commercial litigator, meaning I mainly advised companies on civil disputes and nothing as gruesome as murder! Very boring I know! Having said that, the firm where Maddy works is based on the corporate firm where I trained in terms of its size and culture, and I hope I’m therefore able to give readers an insight into the ruthless environment City lawyers operate in. My biggest inspiration for the plot, however, came from my time at the London College of Law. I spent two years there after reading History at UCL, and in the first year did the law conversion course where I studied and took exams in seven legal subjects. Crime was one of them, and although I didn’t become a criminal lawyer (frankly, I didn’t have the stomach or the temperament for it!), crime was my favourite subject on the course, at the end of which I was able to quote reams of case law parrot-fashion. I don’t want to give too much away, but these seven legal subjects are pivotal to the plot in The Scribe, and so played a huge role in inspiring the novel.
AC: To what extent are the events in In the Company of Strangersbased on real life events?
AK: In the Company of Strangers is a work of fiction. Having said that, some of what we write tends to stem from what we have observed or experienced first hand. There is a popular saying that a writer is first an observer. While, In the Company of Strangers may not be based on any real life events or people, you’ll certainly find the characters very believable and I hope that readers will be able to relate to them.
AK: What research did you do for your novel?
AC: As a former historian and lawyer, the vital research that comes with writing a book is a discipline I’m both very comfortable with and enjoy. As well as researching police procedure on-line and in books, I visited the various murder locations (some of which I was already familiar with having lived in London for many years) armed with notepad and pen and literally ‘living’ the last movements of my victims in order to make the murder scenes as real and chilling as possible. Obviously, as an ex-lawyer, law is a subject I’m comfortable with, and it was just a case of brushing up on current aspects of legal case law and procedure.
AC: A lot of new writers are coming out of Pakistan these days. Does Pakistan have a thriving publishing industry too?
AK: The publishing industry in Pakistan is almost non-existent. Most of the writers you see coming out of Pakistan do so out of frustration because there simply is no means to get their voices heard in Pakistan. Apart from a couple of small presses, there is nothing in Pakistan. Writers have to reach out to agents in India who can pitch their work to the Big 5 who all have offices in India. If writers are very lucky, they might get noticed by UK or US agents which opens up better opportunities and gets them noticed by a wider audience.
AK: You write under a pseudonym. Can you tell me more about that decision?
AC: Chaudhuri is my maiden name and reflects my Indian heritage on my father’s side. I’m immensely proud of it. I owe so much to my father whose encouragement, love and enduring support has bolstered me over the years.
AC: Tell me a bit about your typical day as a writer.
AK: I’m a very disorganised writer. You’d be surprised to know that I don’t really have a typical writing day. There may be weeks in which I don’t write a single word, but then inspiration hits me suddenly and you’ll find me locked up in my room punching away at my keyboard for days on end. These ideas come and grab me by the throat so that I am unable to rest easy until I have poured it all out. So, it’s very touch and go with me.
AK: How do you write? Do you plunge right in or plan every detail?
AC: I always have a rough outline in my head, but I certainly don’t plan every detail. Often bigger and better ideas will occur to me as I write, for example a new twist or red herring and for me that’s part of the thrill of writing crime novels; that better and bigger idea coming to you which acts as complete curveball but takes the story up a notch. It’s a challenge, but an exciting one. I guess I’m the opposite to you in the way I write, OCD even! I tend to follow a routine I rarely stray from. I’ll get up, take my boys to school, do some form of exercise, then sit down at my desk and write for four or five hours straight when I’m in the throes of a novel, but at least an hour even if I’m not just to keep the muscle memory going. I’m definitely a day person and not someone who can write with the TV or radio on in the background. I like complete silence, which is why I fit several hours in before my boys come home from school and start shouting the place down! Obviously, I do work all kind of crazy hours if I’m working to a deadline and trying to get edits done.
AC: So, what’s next for Awais Khan?
AK: I am working on an honour killing novel which is set in rural Pakistan. This might be my only project for which I’ve had to do a lot of research as I didn’t know much about rural Pakistan. Unfortunately, honour killing is rampant in Pakistan, and I felt I owed it to those silenced voices to write something about them. I am also working on a dystopian young adult trilogy under a different name. It’s all very hush hush at the moment.
AK: What would be your elevator pitch for the novel?
AC: A feisty female lawyer becomes embroiled in the hunt for a serial killer who gruesomely butchers female law students according to a pattern corresponding with the legal syllabus.
AC: And yours?
AK: In the midst of a terror attack in Lahore, forty something Mona embarks on a love affair that would have devastating ramifications.
Making it as a lawyer has always been a cutthroat business. But now that a sadistic serial killer is on the loose the consequences could prove deadly… A killer is targeting former students of The Bloomsbury Academy of Law. The victims – all female – are gruesomely butchered according to a pattern corresponding with the legal syllabus. Even more disconcerting are riddles sent by the killer to investigating officer, Chief Inspector Jake Carver, offering clues as to who is next and where they will die. Up-and-coming lawyer Madeline Kramer, a former classmate of a number of the slain, soon finds her life turned upside down by the savagery. And when she decides to help Carver track down the killer, she places herself in mortal danger. Can Maddy unscramble the complex riddles, and save her own life and those of others destined to die?
In The Company of Strangers by Awais Khan (Book Guild Publishing Ltd) Out Now
Lahore - a city of secretive glamour, whispering elites, and sordid affairs. A city brought to its knees by terrorism. Forty one-year old Mona has almost everything: money, friends, social status... everything except for freedom in the repressed Pakistani society. Languishing in her golden cage, she craves a sense of belonging... of love. Desperate for emotional release, she turns to an indulgent friend who introduces her to an alternate world of glitter, glamour, covert affairs and drugs. There she meets Ali, a physically and emotionally wounded man, years younger than her. Heady with love, she begins a delicate game of deceit that spirals out of control and threatens to shatter the deceptive facade of conservatism erected by Lahori society, and potentially destroy everything that Mona has ever held dear.