Thursday, March 4, 2021

George Clooney lookalikes and Mumbai eunuchs: an interview with Vaseem Khan

Kia ora and haere mai, welcome to the latest weekly instalment of our 9mm interview series for 2021. This author interview series has now been running for over a decade, and today marks the 221st overall edition. 

Thanks for reading over the years. I've had tonnes of fun chatting to some amazing writers and bringing their thoughts and stories to you. 

My plan is to to publish 40-50 new author interviews in the 9mm series this year. You can check out the full list of of past interviewees here. Some amazing writers.

If you've got a favourite crime writer who hasn't yet been featured, let me know in the comments or by sending me a message, and I'll look to make that happen for you. Even as things with this blog may evolve moving forward, I'll continue to interview crime writers and review crime novels.

Today I'm very pleased to welcome cricket-loving crime writer Vaseem Khan to Crime Watch. Vas is the author of two crime series set in India. The Baby Ganesh Agency series (five novels and two novellas) brings classic crime stylings to modern-day Mumbai. The 'cosy' series stars retired Mumbai police Inspector Ashwin Chopra and his sidekick, a baby elephant named Ganesha. While the series has struck a chord with critics and readers, hit the bestseller list, been translated into 15 languages, won a Shamus Award, and seen Vas appear on BBC television, as Vas notes in our interview below, it was a long road to his breakout debut, THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA. 

Most recently Vas published an historical mystery that introduced a new hero, Inspector Persis Wadia of the Bombay Police, India’s first female police detective. Set in 1950, "just after Indian Independence, the horrors of Partition and the assassination of Gandhi", MIDNIGHT AT MALABAR HOUSE got great reviews and is set to kickstart a new series. 

But for now, Vaseem Khan becomes the latest author to stare down the barrel of 9mm. 

1. Who is your favourite recurring crime fiction hero/detective?
Harry Bosch by Michael Connelly. Bosch is an LAPD detective with an unerring sense of mission. I call him the last gunslinger in Hollywood. Connelly creates great plots, but it’s the character of Harry Bosch that draws me back. Lean, mean, and answerable only to his own sense of justice. 

One of my author highlights was meeting Connelly at a book signing in London. He and I shared a publicity agent and she introduced me to him so we could have a chat. And by chat, I mean so I could mumble inane superfan ramblings about how incredible his books were, how amazing the buttons on his shirt were, etc etc. You know the drill. He was kind enough to sign a book for me, made out to the lead character of my own Baby Ganesh Agency series, Inspector Chopra of the Mumbai police. 

I told Connelly that Chopra is driven by the same relentless sense of justice that drives Bosch, in a country where if you have money, power or fame you can often escape the consequences of your actions. Mumbai, as the home of Bollywood, has that in common with LA.
I think Connelly liked the comparison.

2. What was the very first book you remember reading and really loving, and why?
WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams. I read this as a kid and was hooked on the story of Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, and the other rabbits, forced to leave their warren and travel across the English countryside to find a new home, encountering every conceivable danger on their epic journey. I especially loved the villain of the piece, General Woundwort, a huge, terrifying, murderous rabbit dictator who didn’t give a rat’s arse what anyone thought and wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything: “Dogs aren’t dangerous!” 

3. Before your debut crime novel, what else had you written (if anything) - unpublished manuscripts, short stories, articles?
Have you got a box of tissues handy? I wrote seven novels over 23 years, the first when I was 17, a comic fantasy in the Terry Pratchett mould (I’m a huge fan of the Discworld novels). All sent to agents, all rejected. I’ve got over 200 rejection letters. Literary novels, historical, sci fi, fantasy, even a dodgy contemporary romance (where contemporary means ‘erotic’ – only mine was fifty shades of shit). The one thing I learned: when you start off writing you think you’re Hemingway, but you’re actually closer to that guy who writes crap Christmas cracker jokes. The good news? The more you write, the better you get. Write a million words, complete half-a-dozen (unpublished) novels, and you’ll surely reach a standard good enough to publish. All you need now is a big idea and some luck. 

4. Outside of writing and writing-related activities (book events, publicity), what do you really like to do, leisure and activity-wise?
Cricket. The greatest sport ever invented. What other game can last five days and you still might not get a result! I play all summer, usually get injured halfway through, then sulk and sit on the sidelines writing and yelling snide remarks about my friends’ on-field performances. I watch a lot of film and like reading about film. I’m a bit of a movie buff. I love SF, but I also love old black and white films – I’m told this is unusual for a person of my heritage. ie. Brown people aren’t supposed to like Casablanca or Citizen Kane!

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?
Well, I grew up in east London, a tough neighbourhood, so visitors should buy a stab vest – they don’t tell you that in the tourist brochures when they’re going on about pie and mash in good old east London. But if you do come to Forest Gate, eat at one of the authentic curry houses on Green Street. The food is soooo good. 

I also lived in Bombay for a decade, so it’s a sort of second home for me. If you go there, don’t be frightened of the eunuchs at the traffic lights. They can seem intimidating at first but they’re just earning a crust in a society that hates them, fears them, humiliates them, and marginalises them. Also, don’t mess with cows. Never mess with cows. They’re holy to Hindus and you’ll cause a riot. Go to the Taj Palace Hotel even if you’re not staying there and have a mooch around. There’s some great history there, including a hundred years of signed celebrity pictures on the walls. 

Both my crime series are set in Bombay, one in modern Mumbai (as it’s now called) and one in 1950s Bombay. Bringing the city to life in my books has given me endless pleasure. Read the books and you’ll see that joy translated onto the page, in between the darker descriptions of the city.

6. If your life was a movie, which actor could you see playing you?
Only George Clooney. If they put some makeup on him to make him less attractive and sawed off his legs to make him shorter. But I feel he’s generally a good egg, and I think I am too. At least, I’ve tried to go through life with a sense of humour and perspective and a minimum of ego. So, if Mr Clooney is too damned busy to play me, then someone like that, I guess…. Oh. You have a suggestion?... Who?... No. Not Danny DeVito.  

7. Of your writings, which is your favourite or a bit special to you for some particular reason, and why?
My first series, the Baby Ganesh series (five books and two novellas, beginning with THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA) is sold around the world and gave me a great career. But when I wanted to branch out and do something new I really had to wrack my brain. My first few ideas were summarily thrown out by my publisher. I felt like a schoolboy who’d failed his exams. Or a puppy that had just shat the bed. But then Persis Wadia, the heroine of MIDNIGHT AT MALABAR HOUSE, came to me, almost fully formed. 

Persis is India’s first female police Inspector and finds herself tasked to solve the politically-charged murder of a senior British diplomat living in Bombay in 1950. Persis is ambitious, smart, tough, and not prone to social niceties. A woman in an intensely patriarchal society. Writing her wasn’t easy, but the reception the book has received from national critics and readers has left me feeling it was the right thing to do. It’s a story for our times, even though it’s set seventy years in the past.

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 bookseller’s shelf?
I was at work. My agent called me to tell me I had a four-book deal with Hodder for the Baby Ganesh Agency series. I let out a little shriek, the sort of sound you make when your bits get caught in your pant zipper. A couple of months later I was shoved onto the BBC Breakfast sofa with six million people watching to launch THE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA. Now that was an incredible feeling!

9. What is the strangest or most unusual experience you have had at a book signing, author event, or literary festival?
I went to a book festival in Newcastle from London on crutches. I’d broken my ankle playing cricket but had committed to speak and I NEVER pull out of an event even if I have to crawl over broken glass to get there (it’s disrespectful to both organisers and readers to advertise that you’re coming and then not show up).

Other unusual happenings: a very elderly man napping in a wheelchair at an event I was speaking at woke up and told me to be quiet as I was disturbing his sleep; Mick Herron, the brilliant spy thriller writer, bought me an ice cream at Harrogate after we were on a panel together; I’ve been mistaken multiple times for the only other brown writer at an event; I once broke down with fellow crime author Abir Mukherjee, and we had to juggle tennis balls on the side of the road to earn money for petrol. (OK. That last one is a lie, but we did break down, and a kindly passing motorist who knew about cars told us we were out of oil.) 

Thank you Vas, we appreciate you chatting to Crime Watch. 

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