21 May / Author Interview: A.X. Ahmad [in Bloom]
While he’ll answer almost any question from a distance, he’s been quite agile avoiding our carefully planned chai dates with excuses as mundanely believable as looming deadlines to the more fantastic undiagnosable contagion that shall not be shared. At the last moment of our last attempt, he even tried to lead me from museum to café back to museum, and then ultimately canceled. A trustworthy Smithsonian colleague, however, attests to his charming existence – a meeting I apparently helped happen. Hmmmm …
For now, Ahmad only seems to appear stealthily under cover of cell phone or a few lines via email … but do stay tuned as I continue sleuth out our most intriguing mystery writer.
Let’s start with the name thing … what you refer to “an open secret” in various interviews: when you’re writing literary, you’re Amin; when you’re feeling thrilling, you’re. A.X. The one thing I couldn’t find out is what that ‘X’ stands for … dare I ask?
Sorry, I’m not divulging what the “X” stands for – it’s a mystery!
Politics and economics at Vassar, architecture at MIT, then an international career building buildings in Boston, Singapore, and India … clearly you were busy. So what finally inspired you to write?
As an undergraduate, I was an economics major, and intended to be a banker, like my father, but one summer I interned at a huge bank in Dubai, and hated it. I then decided to be an architect, because it seemed artistic, but practical – an important consideration for an immigrant kid like me. I went to grad school at MIT, and spent many years practicing architecture, restoring old houses, and building low-income housing.
All this time, I was writing – getting up at dawn to write before work. I completed two novels and many short stories this way, but never published them – writing was simply an escape for me, not a profession. A chronic illness ended my career as an architect, but I could still write, so I decided to start a new novel. This time I had the confidence and self-knowledge to get to publication. So now I’m back to telling stories – life has come full circle.
Growing up in India, I read a lot of thrillers and mysteries – that’s all I was aware of. So I read Robert Ludlum, John le Carré, and Ross Macdonald. Then, when I came to America, I found out that I hadn’t read all the American literature that all the other kids had. So for many years I didn’t read thrillers, and concentrated on writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway.
When I started writing, the question really was: what I was going to write about? I could write about my life as a child in India, but those novels would be nostalgic novels about the past, because India had changed so much. Or I could write about my life as an immigrant here, but that had already been done so beautifully by writers like Bharati Mukherjee and Jhumpa Lahiri. I didn’t want to be constrained by the story of assimilation and alienation.
It was by chance that I ended up writing a thriller – I took a class in creating suspense, and found the genre to be liberating. Using the armature of a thriller allowed me to move beyond the material that an immigrant writer is confined to.
And when I went back to reading thrillers, I found the genre had changed so much since my childhood: before, the Cold War provided plenty of bad guys, and a certain “us versus them” plot. But in the post-Cold War world, the thriller had branched out, and become also an exploration of different places, and a commentary on culture. I’m thinking here of John Burdett’s Bangkok trilogy, which features a Buddhist cop, and which explores the layers of that chaotic metropolis. Also, Colin Cotterill’s series about an octogenarian coroner in Laos.
All this to say that writing a genre novel – a thriller/mystery – was, for me, very liberating. My protagonist was an ex-Indian Army Captain who had left India in disgrace, and was struggling to find his place in America when he became accidentally involved in a shadowy political plot. Genre allowed me to explore the immigrant experience, while opening up a whole different world of plot options.
And why place him on Martha’s Vineyard for his debut?
My wife’s family has a house in Martha’s Vineyard, and I used to spend summers there. Most of the summer workers are immigrants, and I became intrigued by this community and wondered what would happen if one of these immigrants stayed on the Island during the winter, when all the tourists were gone. Also, a family friend on the Island is a caretaker and looks after many super-luxury homes. These mansions lie empty for most of the year, and he told me about how he would wander through them, opening closets and learning about the owners from what they had left behind. I immediately thought it was a great setting for a novel.
And now good Captain Singh is getting his very own trilogy. How did you decide that? Did you have all three plotted out by the time of his Caretaker debut? Given how fickle the publishing world can be, did you ever worry he wouldn’t get his Last Taxi Ride?
I didn’t start out writing a trilogy, but a series featuring the same character is common in the genre world – readers get invested in the character and want to read more. When I started writing the first book, I went to a literary conference, and was pitching editors the story, and they all wanted to know if this was a series, and of course, I said yes, and made up two more books on the spot. It’s amazing how agile the mind is when put under pressure!
I ended up getting a two-book deal, so then the project was to finish the revisions on the first book, and launch into the second. It was an intense writing experience, and I found myself much more disciplined when writing the second book.
The story of my protagonist naturally lent itself to a trilogy: like me, he is an immigrant trying to find his place in America. In the first book, he is a caretaker in Martha’s Vineyard, in the second, a cabdriver in New York City, and in the third he is running a motel on the border with Mexico. With the trilogy, I’ve created a larger narrative arc for my protagonist: with any luck he finds a home in the new world. I’m hoping that readers will be along for the journey.
After all that architecting, how did you switch to writing full time? Do you miss the building? Perhaps on the not so great writing days, do you ever think you might go back to architecting?
I was drawn to architecture, as so many people are, by the idea of creating an environment from scratch. It is such a deeply creative, seductive – even romantic – process to design a building, and I enjoyed architecture school immensely. [But] the real-world practice of architecture is far from romantic – it exists in the physical world, it happens in real time, there are huge sums of money involved and mistakes can be literally fatal. I became a pretty good project manager, because I’m a pessimist by nature, and I can anticipate where problems may happen, but as I rose up through the ranks, I grew further and further from the creative core of design and drawing. Architecture is also immensely exhausting, and I could no longer practice and write seriously. So I had to make a choice, and I chose to try my hand at publishing a novel.
My writing is deeply formed by my experience as an architect in two ways. Firstly, my many years as an architect taught me to sustain a long creative process. Designing a building takes many tries – it is an iterative, grueling process. Architects try different design approaches, fail, and often go “back to the drawing board.” And secondly, I gained a real understanding of structure, which is useful when plotting an intricate suspense novel.
I do have not-so-great writing days, but that doesn’t worry me. I know that I have developed a writing process that works for me. Writing is a necessity for me, like breathing. It integrates me in a way that architecture never can. So no matter what, I’ll always be writing, whether anyone publishes it or not; I am grateful each writing day, for not being out on a construction site, wrangling over a faulty concrete pour.
You started with short stories and essays. How did you transition to writing your first novel?
I actually started with novels – and wrote two of them that are “in the drawer.” When I came back to writing after an illness, I did not have the stamina or the skill to attempt another novel, so I wrote stories and essays and had to learn how to write those. When I started writing [what would become] The Caretaker, it was like going home for me – it was not easy, but I liked the long-distance pacing of a novel, the sense of being immersed in a long project.
And all those shorter writings – gonna collect them into a book sometime?
I would love to, and in fact, I have many more short stories written now. But I know that publishers don’t really want to publish short story collections, and there are such few mainstream outlets for them, apart from literary magazines, which I adore and am immensely grateful to. So – any brave editors reading this, give me a shout, okay?
How much did life change for you after Caretaker hit shelves, and you found yourself on multiple pages of Google searches? Was being a published novelist everything you expected?
I have many writer friends, and so I had a very realistic view of what it meant to be a published author. You can finally answer the question that is so often asked – “So, you’re a writer. Published anything?” And being published means that you have credentials to teach writing. But apart from that, my life is exactly the same—I sit in a coffee shop and make up worlds. All I really want is my books to sell enough so I can write more books.
I have learned that I have complete control over my writing, but very little control over my career. That is the paradox of being a writer. Success in publishing has always been very fickle – sometimes it takes several books to find an audience—and added to that is the current uncertainty in the publishing world. I have become comfortable with the fact that there is no “arriving,” only the work I do every day. I’m not sure I would have been able to handle this uncertainty in my 20s, so in a sense, I’m grateful for a later career as a writer.
You’re about to take your Captain Singh on the road with The Last Taxi Ride, pubbing next month. What did you learn on book tour for #1 that will be useful for upcoming tour #2?
It’s always scary when you don’t know what to expect. Having now done readings, attended book festivals, and answered interviews means that the second time around I’m not going to be as stressed. And I’ve learned to take it all in my stride – the Brooklyn Book Festival was amazing, with a huge, diverse turnout, but I’ve also done a reading to a crowd of five people, one of whom was my wife!
I’ve also learned that publishers will wish you well, but in the current climate, are very constrained as to what they can do for an author. So it’s largely up to the author to get the word out there, which can be very daunting and against most writers’ retiring natures.
You moved our good Captain to NYC in Book #2 and put him on the streets as a cabdriver, although The Last Taxi Ride’s narrative moves back and forth between NYC and Mumbai in flashbacks, specifically to the smoke-and-mirrors world of Bollywood. Are you a Bollywood addict? [I must know—SRK or Aamir fan?]
Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, both Bollywood megastars, are amazing, but my Bollywood is an older world of the ’70s and the early ’80s. The ’70s especially were a time when India was stifling under a socialist regime, and that was expressed in the revenge-fuelled “angry young man” films of Amitabh Bachchan, and in mega-hit films like Sholay, which was about the capture of a notorious bandit. These were violent films about outsiders and corruption, and drenched in darkness and dialogues that became legendary and that are still quoted by Indians. Those images and those outsider anti-heroes entered my consciousness and shaped me, and my protagonist, Ranjit Singh, is a distant cousin of those lonely, angry men.
Bollywood as a film industry far eclipses Hollywood, but the West isn’t nearly as well versed with the East as South Asia seems to be with all things Brangelina and such. YET. Were you ever concerned that your American readers might not “get” the Bollywood angle in #2?
I write for myself, in the sense that I write the kind of book I like to read: well-plotted, with real characters, a book that creates a complete world, and when I finish it, I’m left wanting more. But when I say that, I don’t mean to say that I don’t care about the reader. I want the reader to have a completely immersive experience, to dream my book, to feel that it, in some sense, becomes real.
So when I wanted to write about a Bollywood actress, I just followed my gut, and did so. It interested me, and was a world I wanted to explore through fiction. In fact, the initial title for my second book was Bollywood Taxi, and I still mourn that I had to change it, at my publisher’s request.
Do Americans know about Bollywood? I recently read at a book festival where the demographic skewed older – a lot of white hair in the room. I asked if people knew what Bollywood was, and they all did – the one gentleman who didn’t, and courageously asked me to explain the term, was in his mid-80s. I think this tells me that Bollywood is now not just film, but style, identity; it has come to represent the new, brash, consumer-driven India.
Perhaps because of your immigrant background (not that all of the U.S. isn’t a nation of immigrants, no matter what certain populations might believe), clearly a multi-culti cast is important to your writing. Your secondary characters in Caretaker were African American, in #2 you have a recurring subtext of working beyond inter-South Asian animosities – Indians vs. Pakistanis vs. Bangladeshis, etc. Can you talk a bit more about why and how you create your diverse characters?
The people in my stories are people I am drawn to in real life: immigrants, outsiders, mavericks. For whatever reason, these are my people. Maybe because they have amazing stories to tell, maybe because they don’t see the world in a standard way. Talk to any cabdriver in New York, and he will tell you stories that you have never heard before.
Many South Asians in America now like to transcend their national boundaries—back home we were Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan, but here we are “desis,” countrymen. These national divisions are so silly, anyway, a result of very recent political moves. When my father was born, in 1938, there was none of this—there was just India. I like to explore this shared history in my writing – I personally have relatives in Pakistan and Bangladesh.
I think you’ve just finished edits for #3? Any tidbits you’d like to share?
Actually, I’m still working on the third book. It is called The Hundred Days and is set in a historically Sikh farming community in Southern California, on the border with Mexico. Most people don’t know that Sikhs have been there since the late 1800s. They were skilled farmers and created arable land out of what was once desert. And because there were few Sikh women, many of them married Mexicans, creating Sikh-Mexican lineages that survive to this day. As a community, they faced terrible discrimination and xenophobia, yet they survived and even prospered.
All this history is woven into my novel, and forms its historical backdrop. It’s my first book with a historical slant to it, and I’m enjoying researching it. Many of my characters are based on actual people, though of course I’m creating a different narrative.
Any clue what you’re going to be writing when you retire the good Captain? Or is our Mr. Singh destined for more than a trilogy?
I think Mr. Singh has earned a rest after the trilogy ends – he’s been beaten, assaulted, and had limbs broken. He deserves some peace and quiet, but who knows when trouble can break out again. I think I will write something different – I have started making notes for a new novel that draws on my architecture background, and that people are excited about. Readers seem to love buildings and an understanding of behind-the-scenes processes. Enough said; I’m superstitious about saying too much!
Author interview: “Q&A with A.X. Ahmad,” Bloom, May 21, 2014