Art In Fiction

Baby Elephant Walk: An Interview with Vaseem Khan, Author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency Novels

July 04, 2020 Carol Cram & Vaseem Khan Season 1 Episode 4
Art In Fiction
Baby Elephant Walk: An Interview with Vaseem Khan, Author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency Novels
Chapters
1:05
Welcome to Vaseem Khan
1:41
Inspiration for the Baby Ganesh Agency Series
3:07
Serious issues addressed in the novels
5:54
Discussion about elephants
8:33
Background and its relationship to writing crime novels
10:37
The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star
13:24
The transgender community in Mumbai
16:17
Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
26:12
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27:12
Reading from Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
29:08
Midnight at Malabar House
31:49
Plotting a crime novel
35:00
Marketing advice for new authors
37:54
Red Hot Chilli Writers Podcast
Art In Fiction
Baby Elephant Walk: An Interview with Vaseem Khan, Author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency Novels
Jul 04, 2020 Season 1 Episode 4
Carol Cram & Vaseem Khan

Welcome to Episode 4 of the Art In Fiction Podcast!

Meet Vaseem Khan, the author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series of crime novels set in Mumbai, India.

Vaseem reads from Murder at the Grand Raj Palace and talks about writing, publishing, and marketing.

Khan's next novel is the first in a new series. Called Midnight at Malabar House, the novel is set in 1950 in Bombay and introduces Inspector Persis Wadia, India's first female police detective.

Highlights:

  • Inspiration for Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series 
  • The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star and Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
  • Social issues featured in the novels
  • Reading from Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
  • Writing and marketing advice
  • Khan's new novel Midnight at Malabar House
  • The Red Hot Chilli Writers Podcast

Press Play right now and be sure to check out Vaseem Khan's novels on Art In Fiction.

Baby Ganesh Agency Series:
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown
The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star
Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
Bad Day at the Vulture Club

Latest Novel
Midnight at Malabar House

Red Hot Chilli Writers Podcast

Vaseem Khan's website: www.vaseemkhan.com

Link to 20% Off for ProWritingAid

Music Credits
The intro music on the Art In Fiction Podcast is from Symbolist Waltz from the album Alive in Seattle and the ad music is from The Fever from the album Full Moon. Both pieces are composed by Gregg Simpson and performed by Lunar Adventures. Follow the links to download the full tracks.

This website contains affiliate links. If you use these links to make a purchase, I may earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Thank you. 

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Welcome to Episode 4 of the Art In Fiction Podcast!

Meet Vaseem Khan, the author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series of crime novels set in Mumbai, India.

Vaseem reads from Murder at the Grand Raj Palace and talks about writing, publishing, and marketing.

Khan's next novel is the first in a new series. Called Midnight at Malabar House, the novel is set in 1950 in Bombay and introduces Inspector Persis Wadia, India's first female police detective.

Highlights:

  • Inspiration for Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series 
  • The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star and Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
  • Social issues featured in the novels
  • Reading from Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
  • Writing and marketing advice
  • Khan's new novel Midnight at Malabar House
  • The Red Hot Chilli Writers Podcast

Press Play right now and be sure to check out Vaseem Khan's novels on Art In Fiction.

Baby Ganesh Agency Series:
The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra
The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown
The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star
Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
Bad Day at the Vulture Club

Latest Novel
Midnight at Malabar House

Red Hot Chilli Writers Podcast

Vaseem Khan's website: www.vaseemkhan.com

Link to 20% Off for ProWritingAid

Music Credits
The intro music on the Art In Fiction Podcast is from Symbolist Waltz from the album Alive in Seattle and the ad music is from The Fever from the album Full Moon. Both pieces are composed by Gregg Simpson and performed by Lunar Adventures. Follow the links to download the full tracks.

This website contains affiliate links. If you use these links to make a purchase, I may earn a commission. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Thank you. 

Carol Cram:

Hello and welcome. I'm Carol Cram, your host for the Art In Fiction Podcast. This episode is called Baby Elephant Walk and features my interview with Vaseem Khan, the author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series of mystery novels set in Mumbai, India. 

Vaseem was born in London and earned a Bachelor's degree in Accounting and Finance from the London School of Economics before spending a decade in India, helping one of the country's premier hotel groups establish a chain of five-star environmentally friendly ecotels around the country. 

Since returning to the UK in 2006, Vaseem has been working at University College, London for the Department of Security and Crime Science and writing his novels. His novels are described as "absolutely charming and thoroughly absorbing." I can definitely attest to that.  

Welcome to the Art In Fiction Podcast, Vaseem.

Vaseem Khan:

Thank you for having me.

Carol Cram:

I'm just so excited to chat with you today about your Baby Ganesh Agency crime novels. Two of the five novels are featured on Art In Fiction - The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star in the Film category and Murder at the Grand Raj Palace in the Visual Arts category. When I stumbled across your novels while I was populating Art In Fiction, I thought, Oh my goodness, these are so much fun and so amazing. 

So can you tell us about the series as a whole? Who's Baby Ganesh? And why does he have an agency?

Vaseem Khan:

The series originates from the 10 years that I spent living in India, I was born in the UK. My parents were from the sub-continent and I grew up in London, but at the age of 23, I went to work in India, specifically in Mumbai, where I spent most of my time. 

And after a decade there, I came back to live in the UK and I thought to myself, I would like to put all of those wonderful memories of India into a novel. And I came up with the idea of a police inspector called Inspector Chopra, who in his late forties is forced into early retirement from the Mumbai police service. And in the first book in the series, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, he has to deal with the murder of a local boy, a slum boy.

And as he's doing that, he has a second dilemma, which is that he inherits a one-year-old baby elephant. And given that he lives on the 15th floor of a tower block, as most middle-class people in Mumbai do, that sets us up for an intriguing partnership between Chopra, who is a very serious middle-aged policeman who believes in justice in an environment where often you, if you have money or influence, you can get away with terrible crimes. And the police service themselves have a terrible reputation, but Chopra stands as the opposite of that. But at the same time, he has to somehow find space in his life to look after this baby elephant. So that's the origin of the story.

Carol Cram:

Your series has been described as lighthearted crime novels, but they're much more than that. You also explore a lot of issues in India such as the poverty and corruption, and even transgender rights. What do you want readers to take away about India and Mumbai from your novels?

Vaseem Khan:

This is absolutely true, what you've said there, and the reason I don't like it when people call my books cozy crime or very lighthearted crime is because, although they do have humor and they do have this slightly supernatural element of a baby elephant that wanders around with this policeman, the elephant is more of a symbol, a metaphor for India. 

I don't expect anyone to take the elephant seriously. It doesn't fly. It doesn't talk. It doesn't solve the mysteries. But for me, the India that I saw is not the India that is often depicted in Western fiction or on film, where we see a very colorful version of India, where even the beggars in the slums win the lottery and become rich and famous. 

People are always up and dancing in the streets every 10 minutes in choreographed dance numbers. But that doesn't happen. What we have is a modern India that is both changing dramatically because of globalization and westernization, especially the urban centers, and the wealth that's come in. But at the same time, India has vast legacy problems of incredible poverty and inequality and caste prejudice, and religious intolerance that raises its head every few years. 

So I wanted to showcase the granularity of that India and give the readers a chance to be put onto the streets of a place like Mumbai, to give them an idea of what it sounds like, what it smells like, what it feels like to actually be there rather than have a slightly mythologized version of India presented to them.

Carol Cram:

What I enjoyed most about your novels, apart from the characters, was your depiction of Mumbai. I unfortunately have not been to India yet. It is on the list, although these days travel is not something we can do. I'm aware that if I do go, I probably won't see the real India, so I really appreciate being taken into the streets of Mumbai and learning about all the different problems and the good and the bad.

I certainly wouldn't call your novels cozy mysteries. They're much, much more than that. 

I want to circle back to the elephant, because that is probably the initial thing that attracts people to the novels. Ooh, there's an elephant in it, even though they discover, of course, that there's much more to the novels than that. But how did you learn about elephants? How did you develop Baby Ganesh? He is a remarkable elephant, albeit obviously not totally true to life, but you do have a lot of elephant lore in the novels.

Vaseem Khan:

Well, I mean, you're an author, you know how sometimes you're struck by something and it will stay with you for years before it finally ends up inside the novel. So the first day that I arrived in India, back in 1997, I walked out from what was then called Bombay International Airport, hopped in a cab, and 10 minutes later, we stopped at a set of traffic lights. 

As I'm looking out into this incredible chaos of an Indian road, rickshaws and trucks and cows and goats and bikes, and, you know, absolute chaos, lumbering through the middle of that, there came an enormous, great Indian elephant. And that's not the kind of sight that you can ever see anywhere in the UK.

Carol Cram:

That's for sure!

Vaseem Khan:

So it stuck with me, and I was lucky enough to have an old circus elephant that had been sacked from the circus and it was living close to where I was living in Mumbai and it was going around with a beggar fellow begging and I used to visit it.

And I suppose that created this affinity for me for these amazing, wonderful animals that are incredibly intelligent. Once I began to research, I realized that actually, elephants could make great detectives if we wanted them to actually be detectives, because they're extremely intelligent. They pass what is known as a self-awareness test and only a handful of animals can do that. Which means that in a mirror, an elephant can recognize that it's an image of itself. 

They also have those incredible memories which have been well researched. And also they have a very wide range of human-like emotions, which I didn't realize before. So they've been documented as feeling grief and happiness and joy. So for me, a baby elephant is an ideal companion for Chopra because it allows Chopra to be the straight man and the baby elephant to act as a kind of a comic partner that I can use to add just a subtle note of humor in between the darker aspects of the books.

Carol Cram:

Yes, because Chopra is quite serious. He's a real straight arrow. He's also sort of this calming presence in this chaos going on all around him. And then you have this lovely emotional thing with the elephant, particularly in the Grand Raj Palace novel. You did a lot with Ganesh in that one.

Do you go back to Mumbai very often to continue your research?

Vaseem Khan:

Not as much as I would like; however, my wife is from there so she goes back and she does bits of research for me if I can't get there myself. I still have about 50 friends on WhatsApp and occasionally I'll send them out scouting to see the state of a particular building if I need to feature it in my next novel. I can't do that with my new series because it's set in 1950 in India so it's a historical crime series.

I don't have a time machine. I'm afraid.

Carol Cram:

No, well, I write historical fiction, so I know what that's like. As we were talking about earlier, you work at the University College, London in the Department of Security and Crime. How does that work help you develop your novels or does it?

Vaseem Khan:

Well, I've been there for 15 years now. And as you say, we're looking at research around crime and security, so lots of forensic stuff, lots of stuff around terrorism, lots of stuff around cyber crime, some of it's not relevant to what I'm doing because Chopra is an old-fashioned Agatha Christie-style policeman—shoe leather, and chasing down suspects and interviewing and using his intuition to come up with deductions that help him to progress the investigations rather than CSI high tech investigations. And I think for me, that makes more of an interesting character and an interesting story.

Carol Cram:

Yes.

Vaseem Khan:

But it is very useful to have friends who I can call upon. So for instance, last year, I was writing a short story featuring Chopra. And I went to a colleague who was a forensic anthropologist, and I asked her, what's the best way to burn a human body alive and what would happen. So these are the things that I can upon my colleagues for.

Carol Cram:

That's sort of the ideal for a crime novelist to be able to have those relationships. Because I think as novelists, we really depend on experts, don't we? You must feel very lucky that you've got people like that you can call up.

Vaseem Khan:

I'll tell you something, Carol. I think that readers are intelligent enough to know when sometimes authors have to bend the truth or bend the facts slightly for the sake of making the story move along or to make it more interesting and intriguing. And I think as long as you can deliver largely consistency and accuracy, they will forgive the odd part where you've slightly egged the pudding. So for instance, when you send DNA to get tested, it usually takes days, if not weeks. But on CSI, the TV series, it literally takes seconds. So that never ever happens in reality, but people know this.

Carol Cram:

I think people are forgiving. So I want to talk a little bit about the first novel that I read in your series, The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star. I just loved the behind-the-scenes of Bollywood, all the sort of insider information that you managed to convey about this incredible film industry that I personally don't know that much about it. 

I've seen the odd Bollywood film go by, but it's not something I know about, although I do love watching the dance sequences. So how did you did your research for that one?

Vaseem Khan:

That's a very personal book in the sense that I adore the movies, whether they're Hollywood or Bollywood. We used to watch them both when we were growing up in England. And so when I got to Mumbai, which is like going to Los Angeles if you love Hollywood movies. It's the biggest movie industry in India because there's more than one industry in India. Different languages have different movie industries, but this is by far the biggest and the most globally exported. 

It all came very close to home to me one day when I was going to my office in Mumbai and there was a police presence just near the office. And it turns out that a very famous Bollywood film producer had been shot in the street. He survived, luckily, and he's the father of one of India's biggest stars - Hrithik Roshan is the star, his son.

Vaseem Khan:

And the chap had been shot by gangsters from Mumbai's notorious underworld. And the reason he'd been shot is because in the late 1970s, the Indian government took away the status of the film industry in India so that they couldn't get legitimate financing. And that left the door open for underworld gangsters to provide financing that they could launder their money.

Carol Cram:

Oh dear.

Vaseem Khan:

But of course, once you let gangsters into the house, they want to call the shots. So anyone who wasn't doing exactly what they were told could be the victims of shootings and kidnappings. That all changed in the late nineties when the Indian government finally regularized the industry. And since then, we've seen a massive change in the kind of movies that Bollywood is producing, you know, all sorts of modern genre-focused movies. In the old days, Bollywood movies were what we would call masala movies, which means spice, which means they're a mix of drama, comedy, action, romance all in the same movie.

You'd often have somebody dying an agonizing death in someone else's arms and then two seconds later, everybody would be up and dancing in the streets together. There's still a lot of dancing in Indian movies and music. That's part of their background, but there's also now these very genre-focused movies that tell stories the way we would tell them in Western movies. 

So yes, this book is my homage to the industry. It's about the kidnapping of a young movie star. And then Chopra is called in to find him. It's really a love letter to the Bollywood movie industry.

Carol Cram:

Yes, I gathered that, and I think that's why it is so enjoyable, but there are also some darker issues in that novel. I particularly was intrigued by the plight of the transgender population in Mumbai. I presume that's based on reality.

Vaseem Khan:

Very much so. India unfortunately has massive inequality. So amongst the Hindus, there is a caste system where you have people who are born into a particular type of household being given societal privileges, even though technically in a democracy, they don't have them. But socially they have these privileges and you have the Brahmin, the priestly class at the top. So if you're born into a Brahmin family, it doesn't mean you're a priest, but you have that social status that says you're of the highest caste. 

And then you go down the caste until you get to the untouchables who are really right down the bottom. In the old days, they were not even allowed to live in the same village. They would only be allowed to come in and clean people's rubbish and excrement, but they couldn't touch anyone. They couldn't drink from the same well.

Unfortunately for the transgender community, it's even worse. They're even below the untouchables.

Carol Cram:

Oh my goodness.

Vaseem Khan:

Yes, in the way that they're treated. Often for centuries, for decades, at least, they would be thrown out of the home as soon as it became clear that they were different. And what we're really talking about here is the massive homophobia in India. So a lot of young boys who were beginning to think that they're gay would be forced out of the home. Being gay was illegal in India until very recently. So these kinds of issues have led to them being marginalized to such a degree that they now end up trying to live together, trying to make ends meet often through petty criminality because they just literally can't get any kind of other work.

Carol Cram:

Is there any improvement in their situation in recent years?

Vaseem Khan:

I'd like to say yes, but the truth is, not really. You have the odd, very odd case now where, they're fighting for their rights and they're getting more of a public platform. And the younger generation is saying that you can't keep treating them this badly. And so you have some breakthrough cases of them getting proper jobs, mainstream society jobs, but for the vast majority, it's still absolutely terrible.

Carol Cram:

I just read an article, coincidentally yesterday, about the transgender community in India - it did seem that there was some progress, but yes, that's a tough one. And it was good that that was included in the novel because that's something I didn't know about. And it, again, it adds depth to what on the surface is a crime novel, but really is, as I said, much, much more.

I’ve got to put a plug in for some of your minor characters, particularly Shoot 'Em Up Sheriwall. She's such a bad ass. I just loved her. So your minor characters really add to the flavor of the novel. She was one of my favorite ones.

Vaseem Khan:

Thank you.

Carol Cram:

Your characters are real people and and I just love reading how Chopra interacts with them. 

I also wanted to talk about Murder at the Grand Raj Palace. My husband's an artist, so I particularly loved how you totally take the mickey out of the art world and the pretensions of the art world. Can you talk a bit about your background with the art world? 

Vaseem Khan:

I hope I didn't offend anybody.

Carol Cram:

Oh gosh, no. I laughed out loud. 

Vaseem Khan:

I am absolutely no expert in the actual physical art world. I mean, writing, yes, but not 'art' art. I have a whole bunch of reprints around my house of van Gogh, who is my favorite artist. And he's about the only one who I know anything about. Other than that, I'm a novice.

So for me, Murder at the Grand Raj Palace, which is about Hollis Burbank, a very wealthy American who comes to India to buy India's most expensive painting at auction. And then he's murdered in his hotel suite and Chopra is called in for a discreet investigation. For me, this was as much a learning experience about the history of Indian art and how valuable it's recently become that was eye opening because I frankly, when I was living in India, there was almost no talk of artists. 

There was one, maybe two artists who anyone had ever heard of but other than that, there was no real buzz around investing in art or famous Indian paintings that we should all go and look at. So for me, this was a really enjoyable experience.

Carol Cram:

Yes. I just love that because the whole Indian art scene is massive now. I just love how you satirize a bit about the pretentiousness that can come along with it.

Vaseem Khan:

I think this comes because I'm quite a down to earth kind of person. Sometimes when I go to an art museum and I see a giant canvas with a single dot in the middle or a few squiggly lines, and then someone tells me that this is an incredible ground-breaking piece of work and it's selling for millions, I'm left scratching my head. I'm bewildered.

I know that there's a logic to it. And I know that part of that logic is that everybody sees what they see in a piece of art on a canvas. And if enough people say that they see something brilliant, even in a Jackson Pollock, which just looks like a kid with a whole bunch of felt-tip pens scrolling on a kind of canvas to me, personally. But if he's the first to do it and everyone who matters says it's amazing, then the value of the art just goes through the roof. And then we are all forced to saying what a, what a masterpiece it is.

Carol Cram:

Actually, I'm a bit of a Pollock fan, but, I totally, I totally get what you're saying, particularly with more contemporary art where you have to really read about it to understand it, which kind of drives me crazy.

Vaseem Khan:

Let me take my foot out of my mouth then since I've just insulted one of your favorite artists!

Carol Cram:

Oh no, no, not at all, not at all! As I said, I live with a painter, but still I totally agree that there's a lot of pretentiousness.

Vaseem Khan:

What I do appreciate in art because I have had absolutely zero skill is the effort and the skill that goes into actually taking paint and putting it onto a canvas and being able to control it in such a way that you come up with an image. It does mean something to somebody. I mean, I can't even do that, to be honest.

Carol Cram:

Yes, It, it is amazing. 

A lot of this novel is also about the demise of a royal family in India. It's again something I didn't know anything about the Rajs and all that kind of history.

Vaseem Khan:

The noble families in India have a difficult history because, of course, for thousands of years they ruled India with freedom. And basically they ground the faces of the poor into the dirt and the poor allowed them to do so because they were venerated to the point of almost being miniature gods. And then the British came in and took power, but they allowed the Nawabs and the Maharajahs to stay in charge because it was the easiest way of controlling the local population. 

And then Gandhi the other freedom fighters came along and upset the order. And they said, basically, no, we want a democracy. We want freedom. And that means no more Maharajas and Nawabs running us either. So in 1947, when independence happened, most of these noble families were stripped of their land holdings. And it was given back to the government to distribute to the public or to use in whatever way saw fit.

And the noble houses were given a tiny stipend, a tiny fraction of the wealth that they were used to enjoying. And since then, many of them have obviously gone bankrupt and died out and a few have turned their hand to doing modern things like turning their estates into tourist centers or opening businesses or farms they turned to modern methods. So for me, that's quite a poignant story of how even the richest and most powerful people in India have now been brought to heel, in one sense, but also it's part of that drama or that great tapestry of Indian history. Part of it is now becoming unwoven so that in probably 50 years, there will be hardly any of those old type of Maharajahs and Nawabs left.

Carol Cram:

And that's what was interesting is the shades of gray that you show, because we actually are quite sympathetic to the old families that are dying out and their horror of the nouveau riche. You do feel sorry for them a little bit, although you understand that they have to go. It's not black and white. You show both sides, which you do all the way through the novels that I find very skillful. You do that extremely well.

Vaseem Khan:

Thank you.

Carol Cram:

And I just want to quickly talk about Poppy because Poppy, of course, is Chopra's wife and in Murder at the Grand Raj Palace , she plays quite a major role and you also have a lot of backstory about her relationship with Chopra because they're nearing their 25th anniversary. So can you talk a little bit about Poppy? She's a wonderful character, by the way.

Vaseem Khan:

So this is where, you know, you wanted me to give advice to other authors who are coming up. This is a learning in progress. My original first version of the first book in the series, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra, had a very, very tiny role for Poppy. It went to my editor at Hachette and she immediately came back and said, look, you can't have Poppy in here for no time at all because you've made her so central to Chopra's life. You know, you said that they'd been together for 24 years, so we must find out more about her. She must have more of a role to play. 

And that was a real learning experience for me because I had become so focused on my main character to the detriment of some of the other side characters, which you mentioned earlier make up now a universe that Chopra inhabits and therefore he must have better interaction with these people. So with Poppy, I had to go back to the drawing board and redraw her as a whole person, a person with her own interests. She's a social campaigner. They haven't had kids and that's been an issue, but they've overcome that issue and it's made them stronger together. She has her own personality. So for me, that is something that I would really pass on to some of your aspiring authors that when you're writing a novel, do not neglect the secondary cast.

Carol Cram:

Yes, because that really made this novel, that she actually is solving her own mystery side by side with Inspector Chopra. And also it was very human. It was very well done. I'm glad that Poppy had a bigger role. 

And also is there actually a Grand Raj Palace Hotel? I couldn't find one.

Vaseem Khan:

Yeah. So the Grand Raj Palace is based on India's most iconic hotel, The Taj Palace Hotel. I wasn't allowed to use the name Taj Palace Hotel. The Taj Palace was built in 1899 by India's richest man, Tata. And the Tata family is still one of the richest business groups in India. And he built it because one day he was trying to enter what was then India's most famous hotel, the Watson's Hotel in Bombay. It was a European hotel and he was stopped at the door and he was told that dogs and Indians are not allowed inside. And so you can imagine that he was so furious. This is India's richest, man.

He was so furious that, so the story goes, he vowed there and then to build a hotel more opulent than anything the British had ever seen. And that's what he did. And for the last more than a century now the Taj Palace is where anyone who goes to Bombay stays. So you've had movie stars from the twenties, jazz stars in the fifties, you've had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Obamas, the Clintons, anyone who's anyone, who can afford it, goes and stays there. So that's what that hotel is based on.

Carol Cram:

Yes. I thought it must have been based on a real hotel, even if it wasn't real itself because you really bring to life the sort of ecosystem of a grand hotel. And it plays such a big role in the novel.

Vaseem Khan:

I should say that it did help that I spent the decade in India being a management consultant to five-star hotels. So I knew the industry quite well.

Carol Cram:

Yes. I saw that in your background. You never know what parts of your background are going to end up in your novels, do you?

Vaseem Khan:

And also because I'm a huge fan of Agatha Christie and she loved hotels, staying in them, setting mysteries in them. So this was my homage to Agatha Christie with perhaps, you know, just a few more elephants than she would have included.

Carol Cram:

Well, maybe she could have, if she wasn't in England.

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Carol Cram:

You're going to do a short reading for us from Murder at the Grand Raj Palace?

Vaseem Khan:

I am. So the scene is that Chopra has come into the hotel, the Grand Raj Palace, he's been called in discretely to look at this dead, very wealthy American in the most expensive suite in the hotel. And this American, I should say, had purchased India's most expensive painting the night before at an auction held at the hotel. 

Reading from Murder at The Grand Raj Palace 

They had entered the master bedroom. Taylor stopped before the bed, a shudder passing through her as she gazed at the bedspread where Burbank's body had been found. 

"Behold," she said, "Zoze Rebello's masterwork, The Scourge of Goa." 

Chopra stared at the enormous canvas. It was painted in a distinct visual style reminiscent of the miniatures favored by the Mughal emperors depicting hundreds of tiny, but highly detailed human figures.

The background of the canvas was deep yellow with reds and umbers running through it, giving the impression that the protagonists were wading through a lake of fire. 

As he focused on different sections, he realized that the figures all appeared to be engaged in violent or aggressive behavior. 

"Disturbing, isn't it?" said Taylor. "It gets everyone that way the first time. This is Rebello's depiction of hell or more accurately, hell on earth. Art experts think that this is an indictment of the tumultuous past of Goa, his home state. The fact that it was ruthlessly plundered by various factions throughout history, both Indian and foreign, Hindus, Muslims, and most notably the Portuguese who turned Goa into a governing seat for their empire in the East. They converted the locals to Christianity at the point of a sword, naturally, and transformed Goa into a major seaport for the spice trade." 

Chopra mused on how history had a way of smoothing over even the worst of humanity's excesses.

Carol Cram:

That's great. Thank you. What a painting that was - it sounded amazing.

Vaseem Khan:

I can't remember now whether I based it on anything or I just completely made it up.

Carol Cram:

Well, it works really well. Is the Ganesh Agency series done now? 

Vaseem Khan:

There are five novels in the series and two novellas, but it's not officially done because Hodder quite likes it. It's been quite successful around the world. And so because of that, they're not willing to completely relinquish it. However, as an author, you know that if you do something for quite a few years, you do begin to feel that itch of wanting to be creative again in a new way. And so I had come up with this idea of a series of historical crime novels set in India in the 1950s and introducing India's first female police detective, Persis Wadia. 

The period is very interesting to me because it's just a couple of years after independence, the horrors of partition and Gandhi's assassination. And yet what people don't realize is that not all the foreigners left in 1947. There were tens of thousands of foreigners still living in Bombay in the 1950s.

And this was Bombay's Jazz Age. So you had a very cosmopolitan city at the time. 

This first book in the new series is called Midnight at Malabar House and it comes out in August. Persis, who is the only woman on this police force and is obviously suffering from the kind of prejudice that women suffer when they're in an all-male environment is sidelined to a smaller police station. Somehow the murder of a very prominent white, British diplomat in Bombay lands in her lap. And so she's now in the spotlight. She has to solve this very political murder whilst battling all of this male prejudice at the same time.

Carol Cram:

It sounds fascinating.

Vaseem Khan:

I enjoyed writing it. And I think so far, the reviews that are coming back have been really, really good. I think it's a more serious perhaps look at India than the Chopra series. 

But there's still a tiny note of humor. Her father, for instance, runs a bookshop and they live above the bookshop. And he's a very curmudgeonly old man who lost his wife when Persis was very young and he's in a wheelchair. He lost the use of his legs in an independence rally that went wrong. But he's got a very cynical take on the world in general. So we get a bit of humor out of him, but overall, it's my way of trying to bring to light a period in Indian history that's not very well looked at because lots of books look at the Raj, lots of books look at modern India now in the last 30-odd years. But very, very few look at that decade just after partition, when India was struggling to find out what kind of country it really wanted to be.

Carol Cram:

That is going to be very fascinating because you don't actually see that many novels these days set in the fifties. 

I also want to talk a bit about writing in general now because you write crime novels that are very intricately plotted. Can you tell us a little bit about the process? Do you start at the end and work backwards? I've always wondered how crime novelists do this.

Vaseem Khan:

I spent 23 years trying to get published with seven different novels. I wrote my first novel when I was 17, I was reading a series called the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett - it's fantasy sci fi. And I thought it was easy. And so I wrote a fantasy sci fi novel and I sent it into a couple of agents. And of course it was rejected because it was rubbish. The next seven novels included literary novels, contemporary romances, sci fi, everything you can think of. And it was only with these crime novels that I finally became published, but I still have aspirations to have literary stuff published at some point. 

Now, the best advice I can give about plotting is that for me, having a detailed plot before you actually begin the process of writing the actual words means that you're less liable to get stuck.

So I am a detailed plotter, and I do start with the crime, the murder, usually, whatever it is, then I make a list of possible suspects for it. Then I make a list of possible red herrings that I can put in. Then I talk about themes. Then I'll make a little plan about what themes do I want to explore about people or about India in this particular novel. 

And that's how I will work backwards from there and create a very detailed plan that will take me maybe three, maybe four months of research and refining it. And it'll all be on a spreadsheet. I know some people use post-its on the wall. I just use lines in a spreadsheet because I can move them around.

Carol Cram:

Yes, well if you have a finance background, you'd be good with Excel. I used to write textbooks about Excel so I love Excel.

Vaseem Khan:

You'll know that you can move those lines around easily if you want to change the timeline. And I think more and more people, more and more writers, are coming around to our way of thinking. Post-its get messy. They go all over the place. I mean, I can take my laptop, go to the park and work on my plot. I can't do that with a hundred Post-its on the wall. So that's my advice: plot in great detail.

Carol Cram:

I'm hearing this advice from other authors too, about a lot of detailed planning, which is not something I've done a huge amount of, but I've, I've just started to write a thriller and I can see why you need to plan carefully so I'm coming around to that way of thinking more and more. 

Thank goodness for Excel because you can color code it as well, which I really like.

Vaseem Khan:

Yeah, I do too!

Carol Cram:

An Excel nerd. Yay!

Vaseem Khan:

A lot of my editing is done as I go along. So my routine is to get up quite early in the morning to write a thousand words, 1500 at the most, and then stop and then have a look at what I wrote yesterday and edit that and then to use that formula for about three months or so, and get 90-odd thousand, hundred thousand words down. And then to re-edit that and then to send that first draft in. So from start to finish, the process probably about eight months. 

Usually I have very little feedback because of the detailed planning and the synopsis that we agreed in great detail beforehand. So they already know what to expect.

Carol Cram:

They've already had the synopsis, but I also think that is good advice for authors. Get it as good as you possibly can before you send it in either to your editor if you're already published, or if you're looking to be published.

I’d like to end by talking a little bit about marketing. These days as authors, whether we're published traditionally or hybrids or indie or whatever we are, we have to do a lot of our own marketing. So what kind of things do you do with marketing for your novels.

Vaseem Khan:

I'm in a relatively fortunate position in that when I was younger, I did a marketing qualification, the Chartered Institute of Marketing here in the UK, so I'm a chartered marketer. A lot of my work role as a management consultant has involved brand building and marketing activities. So I have a good grasp of what's needed anyway. And obviously I'm with a very large publisher, so they do a lot of really good stuff. But even then, you're right when you say that, no matter how famous you are, unless you're literally selling millions upon millions of books, you do need to do some of your own marketing. And that could be something as simple as maintaining a very good website, having a social media presence so that people who like your books can get in touch with you and you can reinforce that relationship with them by responding to their messages.

And therefore they're more inclined to buy your next book. It can be as important as writing a very good speech or talk for your books and then practicing it, videotaping yourself, which I did at the beginning. I mean, I've always been a reasonably confident speaker, but this was a new kind of area where I would be required to speak, making your speeches interesting rather than just reading for 30 minutes, which always puts people to sleep.

A short reading is fine but not a very long one. Also include facts around the book rather than specifically from the book, which people always find interesting. And then you're in a very good place when your publisher says, Hey, I want you to go out and speak at this event, that event, then you make a very good impression and that not only is it good for the audience in terms of them buying your book, but they go and spread the word and then you keep getting invited to more events because you happen to be a good speaker. 

So these are the kinds of basics that I think every author needs to work on. And I know that not every author is perhaps geared up to be a great speaker, but everybody can improve through the tips that I've just given, videotaping yourself, practicing, writing something interesting as a talk rather than the boring "this is what my book is about. Now I'm going to read for half an hour."

Carol Cram:

Absolutely. Yes. I have whole PowerPoint presentations that I give about the history surrounding the novels and people love that...

Vaseem Khan:

They do...

Carol Cram:

And of course very short readings that are well-rehearsed. There's nothing worse than a long boring droning reading.

Vaseem Khan:

Tell me about it.

Carol Cram:

We've probably sat through a few!.

Finally, you have your own podcast called the Red Hot Chilli Writers.

Vaseem Khan:

We are now currently going through a seminal time in race relations around the world and a consideration of race inequalities or industries touched off by the George Floyd incident. And the publishing industry is no different. It's incredibly dominated by one demographic. When I first entered the industry five or six years ago, there were almost no people of color who were published in the crime writing genre in the UK, almost none.

Carol Cram:

Wow.

Vaseem Khan:

I could count them on one hand out of thousands of authors writing crime fiction in the UK. So after a few years, I became friends with a few others who emerged and had their crime novels published and together, we decided to set up the Red Hot Chilli Writers as a podcast that mainly showcases crime fiction. Occasionally we get the odd other kind of writer on, but the aim is for us to keep it lighthearted, keep it witty.

We talk about intriguing topics that are related to crime movies and books and then to use that as a sort of bridge across the publishing industry to get to the point. This is where we want to get to as a society, as a publishing industry, where the name of the person or the name of the protagonist or their cultural background doesn't impact on whether publishers decide to take on that writer or to take on and publish that book, which it does at the moment to a great degree. 

And part of that is because publishers have this belief that white audiences who buy the majority of their books, obviously in Western countries, won't buy books that have to a “funny-sounding name” on the cover, or a funny-sounding protagonist. And I think that needs to change. When we get to the point where the only thing that matters is whether this is a very well-written intriguing story that will definitely find an audience, regardless of whether the protagonist is white, black, or Asian.

Carol Cram:

Exactly.

Vaseem Khan:

If we can get to that point, I think then we would have achieved true or closer to true equality in the publishing industry. So that's what our podcast is. It's a small drop in the ocean, it's trying to do it in a way that uses humor rather than standing up and castigating people because there's plenty of those kinds of podcasts already that just scream about diversity. We don't do that. We try and do it in a gentle, humorous way

Carol Cram:

I've been enjoying it. And that is such a great goal. And we do really need to get there. It's kind of appalling that we're not there yet, but hopefully we are making some progress in the world and in publishing. 

This has been a great conversation. I was so looking forward to chatting with you, Vaseem, because I'm a huge fan. I want to read your other three novels but I just haven't had time right now because I've got all my Art In Fiction stuff that I have to do, but you've really tapped into something that I've never read before. It's been such a treat. 

I was so delighted when I stumbled across your novels. I found your Bollywood one through TripFiction. I don't know if you know that website, it's in England.

Vaseem Khan

Yes I do. Yeah. They showcase a number of the books.

Carol Cram:

When I started Art In Fiction , I reached out to them because they were doing what I wanted to do, except I wanted to do it with the novels inspired by the arts. 

Thank you for joining me, Vaseem. This has been just a fantastic conversation.

Vaseem Khan:

Thank you. Thank you so much, Carol, for featuring me on your lovely podcast and your fantastic blog.

Carol Cram:

Thank you for listening to the Art In Fiction Podcast. Please check the show notes for links and be sure to visit Art In Fiction at www.artinfiction.com to find your next great read. While you're there, consider subscribing to Art In Fiction so you can receive the weekly update that gives you a sneak peek at the Novel of the Week, upcoming podcast episodes, featured reviews, blog posts and authors, and much more.

And please follow Art In Fiction on Twitter and Facebook and consider giving the Art In Fiction Podcast a positive review wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks so much for listening.

Music:

[inaudible].

 








Welcome to Vaseem Khan
Inspiration for the Baby Ganesh Agency Series
Serious issues addressed in the novels
Discussion about elephants
Background and its relationship to writing crime novels
The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star
The transgender community in Mumbai
Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
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Reading from Murder at the Grand Raj Palace
Midnight at Malabar House
Plotting a crime novel
Marketing advice for new authors
Red Hot Chilli Writers Podcast