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14 July 2021

Vaseem Khan: ‘If you’re serious about your writing you need to find time every day to read, write or edit’

by Lyndsey Ng Author Interviews, Writing Tips

We are thrilled that our brand-new six-week online course – Writing Crime Fiction  is open for enrolment. The course features exclusive teaching videos, notes and tasks from Vaseem Khan, the author of two award-winning crime series set in India: the popular Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series and the historical crime Malabar House series.

We caught up with Vaseem to talk about his recent win of the prestigious CWA Historical Dagger, the book he thinks every budding crime writer should read, and what students should expect from our new course…

Your first crime series – the Baby Ganesh Agency series – features retired Mumbai police Inspector Ashwin Chopra and a baby elephant named Ganesha. How did you come up with such an unusual sidekick?

You could say the idea for the elephant was born on my first day in India. I went there aged 23 to work. I remember walking out from Bombay airport, and the first thing I saw set the scene for me a group of lepers milling about the taxi rank. At the first traffic junction, I looked out into a mind-boggling river of passing traffic and there, lumbering along the road, was an enormous grey Indian elephant. This surreal sight stuck with me and eventually became a part of The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. The book became a bestseller, translated around the world. With crime fiction so crowded, it’s important to find something that is just a bit different. The elephant isn’t magical; it doesn’t talk or solve the mysteries. It’s more of a symbol for India. Chopra is a rigid, honest man who is dismayed by the inequality he sees in his country. The elephant helps me to humanise him and alleviate the darkness of the plots and Chopra’s own grim nature.

You’ve mentioned that you spent over twenty years writing books before The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra was picked up by an agent. What kept you motivated during this period?

Yes, I wrote seven novels and collected over 200 rejection slips during a 23 year period! I had wanted to be a ‘proper’ novelist since I was a teenager and I didn’t believe that I would be one until I held a ‘real’ book written by me in my own hands. By age 40 I had set aside dreams of fame and fortune. I simply wanted to accomplish my childhood goal. And that was enough to keep me going.

Congratulations on winning the CWA Historical Dagger for Midnight at Malabar House! What made you decide to turn to writing historical crime fiction?

Thank you. The Dagger means a lot to me, not because it’s the most widely recognised crime fiction writing award in the world, but because it specifically recognised Midnight at Malabar House, a book that is important to me. I lived in Mumbai/Bombay for a decade. My first series explored modern India and the changes that have overcome the country in recent years with globalisation. But modern India is also shaped by the 300 years of British rule and the period directly afterwards, from 1947 onwards. Midnight at Malabar House is set in 1950, just a few years after Independence, Gandhi’s assassination, and the horrors of Partition. It’s a period not often explored in fiction. I wanted to view it through the lens of India’s first female police detective – in this way I hoped to give voice to women of that era who operated in a very paternalistic, often misogynistic society. In the book a British diplomat is murdered and my lead character, Persis, investigates. This dynamic allows me to explore Anglo-Indian history as the crime plot unfolds. Again, if you want to find out why Midnight at Malabar House won the Dagger, feel free to pick up a copy.

The crime fiction market is such a wide and varied one. How do you keep your novels fresh to help them stand out from the crowd?

By delivering novels that offer both something familiar and just different enough to entice existing crime readers and garner new ones. This is something common to the crime fiction industry. Let me use my latest novel as an example. The Dying Day, the follow-up to Midnight at Malabar House, has been described by M. W. Craven, former CWA Gold Dagger-winner as: ‘The Da Vinci Code meets post-Independence India.’ Ann Cleeves, of Vera fame, says: ‘This is a crime novel for everyone; for those who love traditional mysteries there are clues, codes and ciphers, but it also has a harder edge and a post-war darkness.’

In the book a 600-year old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy goes missing from Bombay’s Asiatic Society. As Persis investigates, she uncovers a trail of cryptic clues, including riddles written in verse… and then she finds the first body. Dan Brown’s series has sold 300 million copies for a reason. In crime fiction, we can all learn from the work of others. Not copy – but take a leaf out of. If you want to see this in action, please do invest in a copy of The Dying Day… Another thing I’ve learned – authors need to be forthright about selling their work!

How do you maintain your writing routine with your day job working for the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College?

By being very organised! Anyone who has ever tried to write a novel while working and/or navigating daily life, knows how hard it can be. But if you’re serious about your writing you need to find time every day to read, write or edit. I usually do this early in the morning when my brain is still working! I strongly believe in planning. Both planning out your novel but also planning your writing life, so that you have a clear idea of how long you will devote to research, how long to writing the book, building in breaks, setting aside time for editing the first draft, etc. You may not always stick to the plan, but overall you will find it really helps to keep you on the right track. As far as UCL is concerned, I love working there, and, as a crime writer, it’s wonderful to be surrounded by brilliant researchers working on the latest developments in say, forensic science. 

Which crime fiction book do you wish you had written?

The Silence of the Lambs. This book should be used as an instructional manual by every budding crime writer. Everything works. A terrific plot. Brilliant characterisation. Pace. Tension. Intrigue. This book has everything. Best of all, Thomas Harris has a terrific mastery of prose. Each sentence is beautifully tooled. Nothing is overwritten. Even the character names are perfect.

What was it like to write and film the Writing Crime Fiction course with the CBC team?

As one of the premier fiction course providers in the country, it was an honour to be asked by CBC to create this course. I found it incredibly fulfilling to be able to distil 30 years of writing experience into this material. So many of the lessons I’m trying to pass on have come from personal experience. I’ve gone through every stage of the author life-cycle that any of the students will be experiencing – from amateur writer, to depressed recipient of multiple rejection letters, to the elation of being published, to the dreaded second book syndrome, to winning a major crime writing award. My hope with this material is to articulate solutions to our students’ writing problems and to ensure them that they don’t have to go on this journey alone. Let me be your guide!

Can you share your top tips for aspiring crime writers?

Imagine a busy agent or commissioning editor at the end of a long week. They’ve read dozens of submissions that week, panning for that nugget of gold among the dross. Something that will inspire them and, more importantly, convince them it will appeal to a large enough readership to justify publishing it. What are they considering when making that judgment…? Having asked this of my own agent and editor I know precisely the things going through their minds. For instance: Themes matter. Quality of prose matters. Characters matter more than plot. I’ll explain all these in detail on the course and how to build them into our students’ work.

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