Friday, June 5, 2015

Parker Bilal: Khartoum fish and learning from Agatha Christie

This week, the team at Bloody Scotland has released the programme for its 2015 festival, to be held in the historic town of Stirling in September. It's a heck of a line-up, with an array of fantastic crime writers appearing on a wide variety of panels. Plus an England vs Scotland football (soccer) game too.

Last year I had the privilege of attending Bloody Scotland, a couple of days after I'd arrived in the UK from New Zealand (via stints in Australia and the United States). It was a marvellous festival, full of terrific people and events, and I came away even more reinvigorated about crime writing. While there I caught up with several authors I'd met before, such as Denise Mina, Stuart MacBride, and Mark Billingham, while also meeting many new-to-me authors. One of those latter authors, who I'd heard terrific things about, was Parker Bilal, who writes a wonderful series of thrillers set in Cairo, starring Sudanese private eye Makana (perfect for those completing the Global Reading Challenge).

Parker Bilal is the crime writing pen-name of Jamal Mahjoub, a British/Sudanese author praised for his widely translated literary works that "illuminate the human condition" (THE DRIFT LATITUDES) and "bring a humane and original voice" while addressing aspects of "Sudanese history and the links between Europe and Africa" (TRAVELLING WITH DJINNS). He has also written four books in the Makana series, the latest being THE BURNING GATES, released earlier this year.

But for now, he becomes the 116th author to stare down the barrel of 9mm.


1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
It varies constantly. I’ll become fascinated by a writer for a time and read everything before moving on. Right now I am divided between Lawrence Block’s Mathew Scudder and Hercule Poirot. Block has a very economic way with plot. Very pared down and elegant. He doesn’t spend a lot of time on the language but he still manages to keep it bright and fast. Poirot is a lesson in detail and character. It’s easy to dismiss Agatha Christie as old fashioned but you can learn a lot from her writing.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
One book I remember distinctly was an Arabic language book, probably because my father would read it to me at night. It had a boy and a camel. I don’t remember much more about it. After that it was probably C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, beginning with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I don’t remember how many times I read it.  Snow, Turkish Delight and a streetlamp in a pine forest.  Magical stuff.

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles? 
It took me about five years and at least three attempts at a crime novel before I actually finished the first Makana book. I came to crime writing late. I’d actually published a number of novels beforehand, none of them within the crime genre. I learned a lot in those five years. I like to think I’m still learning now.

4. Outside of writing, and touring and promotional commitments, what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise? 
I seem to spend a lot of time at indoor climbing walls, which is a bit like vertical yoga. And I like walking in the mountains, which I left off for many years until I suddenly realised how much I missed it. Other than that I do the usual things, reading, watching movies, cooking.

5. What is one thing that visitors to your hometown should do, that isn't in the tourist brochures, or perhaps they wouldn’t initially consider? 
If we take Khartoum as my home town then they should definitely try one of the local restaurants along the river that specialise in fried fish. They are very simple. They don’t offer much in the way of sophisticated accoutrements, and the facilities are fairly basic, but the fish is fresh and that’s what it’s all about. We could also take Barcelona, where I live now, but I’m afraid anything I might say is already in some tourist brochure or another.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you? 
It would have to be Denzel Washington, or Morgan Freeman. I can’t really see it happening, though. They must have better things to do with their time.

7. Of your writings, published and unpublished, which is your favourite, and why? 
It always has to be the book I’m writing right now. If you don’t love it and believe in it more than anything you have ever done, you will never finish it. Books rarely come out the way you imagine them. In the process of writing they become transformed and that’s part of the pleasure. So, it’s discovering that unplanned line, as you are going along, that really makes it interesting.

8. What was your initial reaction, and how did you celebrate, when you were first accepted for publication? Or when you first saw your debut story in book form on a online or physical bookseller’s shelf? 
You always believe, deep down, that you’re going to be published eventually, but I think it always comes as a surprise when it actually happens. I once went to Turkey and saw a window full of my books, accompanied by an enormous photo of me that was about ten years old. I thought someone must have made a mistake.

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival? 
I once gave a talk to the women on a maternity ward in a hospital in Guadaloupe. I don’t know whose bright idea it was but I found myself in a basement corridor facing a group of exhausted mothers who had just given birth. They listened patiently and seemed happy to just have a break from looking after their newborn babies.

Thank you Parker. We appreciate you talking to Crime Watch


You can read more about Parker Bilal's and his writing here: 


Have you read the Makana novels? Do you enjoy crime fiction set in exotic locales? Comments welcome. 

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