We are Spartacus: the publishing industry and race

As one of only a handful of non-white authors on the British crime fiction map, I thought it might be worthwhile spending a moment reflecting on the worldwide rebalancing touched off by the George Floyd killing in America. Fear not. There’s no need to put on your tin hats and dive for the trenches. My purpose isn’t to haul anyone over the coals. But there’s little doubt that some of what I say might make for uncomfortable reading. More importantly, I will ask you to reflect, at a personal level, on what we mean by systemic inequality, particularly as it applies to the publishing industry.

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First, some background. My parents are from the subcontinent. They came to the UK in the early seventies, lured by the immigrant dream. The streets of London may not have been paved with gold, but they were paved with opportunity. My father, who was not literate, spent his life in honest labour, in an industrial bakery, while my mother raised children, demonstrating the much-lauded immigrant work ethic by slaving away at her sewing machine every hour she wasn’t feeding us or stopping us from poking each other’s eyes out with eraser-tipped pencils. She instilled in us the need, above all else, to study, to educate ourselves, to progress.

So far, so good.

But what if I were to tell you that my parents were, in a broad sense, xenophobes, too? Not overtly. They didn’t oppress anyone; or traffic slaves across the oceans; or pillage defenceless communities for profit. But their attitude towards black people – cultivated by the insular world they had grown up in – was, at best, indifferent, or, at worst, mistrustful.

Here’s a simple, unpalatable truth. Racism, in its most basic form, is a feature of most societies. It shouldn’t be. But it is. A simple example illustrates my point.

The outpouring of angst and handwringing currently gripping the world has seen celebrities across the globe express their views on racism (rightly so), only for some to discover that a seat on this particular bandwagon can be an uncomfortable one. In India, numerous Bollywood stars were called out for the disparity between their #blacklivesmatter tweets and the fact that they had fronted campaigns for skin-lightening creams. Across the subcontinent, lighter skin has traditionally been valued (usually alluded to in matrimonial ads by the rainbow-bending adjective “wheatish”), so much so that white foreigners, especially Brits, are treated with overt deference, while black people are routinely afforded a lesser welcome. An odd perversity, given that it was the whites that pillaged the subcontinent for three centuries while, with those of Afro-Caribbean descent, one might assume Indians would evince a colonial-era solidarity.

Let me be clear: this idea of a sort of universal xenophobic instinct does not in any way excuse or mitigate the horrors of the slave trade, or the enormous, long-term damage done to black people because of that terrible practice. Nor does it justify the entrenched, systemic prejudice that continues to colour western societies, prejudice that culminates in overt racism of the kind that permits white American policemen to routinely kill black men with little fear of reprisal, and prejudice of the less obvious kind that serves to keep black people ‘in their place’. My point was merely to demonstrate that, in the wider, global race equality agenda now under discussion, we all have a part to play.

Part of the issue is that many well-meaning efforts to redress the balance are hampered by a profound lack of insight into how unconscious bias can affect the lives of people of colour, in a million different, small, but, ultimately, debilitating ways. The problem is further hampered by an education system that often fails to properly tackle the ‘race issue’.

Yet, the problem must be addressed. Because the world has become a smaller place. The goldfish bowl has shrunk and we are now all swimming in the same seas. It behoves us to make the effort, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is also the most effective means of progressing humanity towards a more equitable, more meritocratic, global society. If the Covid-19 pandemic has proven anything, it is how interdependent we are.

Coming, now, to the publishing industry. Cards on the table. Since my first book was published six years ago, I have received tremendous support from my agent, publisher, critics, bloggers, readers, event organisers, and crime writers. My experience is not typical. A simple look at the statistics tells us what we already know. Any way you slice it and dice it – diversity of publishing staff, published writers of colour, books featuring characters of colour – the industry is dominated by white thought and enterprise. Some of this can be ascribed to the fact that, in terms of population, BAME communities, by definition, are a minority. You wouldn’t expect there to be a 50:50 split along these dimensions. That isn’t the issue. The problem is the entrenched attitudes that make it so damned difficult for writers of colour to break into the industry and then to enjoy the same rewards and freedom of expression that is accorded to their white counterparts.

The world’s most successful crime writer, James Patterson, became famous with a series about a streetwise black detective, Alex Cross. James Patterson is not black. Nothing wrong with that scenario, in my opinion. Authors should not be constrained by artificial constructions of propriety. But, if the industry is being honest with itself, it will acknowledge that a writer of colour attempting to do something similar – trying, as it were, to write outside of their cultural straightjacket – is rarely accorded the same privilege. Questions of ‘authenticity’, ‘voice’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ suddenly come racing to the fore, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters questioning our right to go to the ball. Asian writers, for instance, are often expected to pen literary tomes about colonialism or exposes of the immigrant experience. Again, nothing wrong with that, and, indeed, brilliant writing is regularly published exploring those themes. But there are so many other stories that we would like to tell. White writers can be published writing about matters far outside their experience – wizards, serial killers, aliens. But for non-white writers, the same consideration is much harder to find. A lot of this is not the result of overt racism, but rather the mindset that accepts as perceived wisdom the idea that profitability comes almost entirely from white authors writing white stories, or writers of colour writing stories suited to their perceived ethnic background. This thought is so prevalent in the industry that it may as well be an eleventh commandment.

A terrific article by Laura B. McGrath, associate director of the Stanford University Literary Lab, in a Jan 2019 issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books, entitled “Comping White” identifies the true nature of the problem. Paraphrasing her research, it goes like this: publishers buy new books by comparing them to books that have been successful. Is this the new Harry Potter? Is this the next Gone Girl? Given that the majority of books are white, the process becomes a closed loop, a vicious cycle. The industry buys and promotes white books because they sell. White books sell because they’re the only books the industry buys and promotes. Do you see the problem?

Making the gatekeepers more diverse, McGrath argues, will have only a marginal impact. It’s the system that’s at fault. The same applies to practically any walk of life that you might care to name – hence the reason so few people of colour in boardrooms, or lecturing at top universities, or opening Michelin-starred restaurants. White people have done all those things successfully before, so why take a chance on the unproven?

Until we change this structural, often unconscious, bias, all the current furore around race will do little to improve the prospects of the average BAME person.

Can readers help? Of course! By voting with their feet. By buying books written by authors of colour, readers signal to publishers that they won’t be put off by a ‘funny-sounding’ name on the cover, or a protagonist who doesn’t share their own cultural background. The only bar should be quality.

In an ideal world, a good story, well told, should stand on its own merits.

What else can we do? In my opinion, people shape people. If we want better, more thoughtful attitudes in the industry, we must all stand up and be counted. Solidarity is the name of the game. A solidarity of thought that acknowledges that a genuine change of perspective is needed. From agent to reader, all along the chain. What we need, in other words, is for all of us to stand up and say: ‘We are Spartacus.’

Vaseem Khan, author, Midnight at Malabar House and Baby Ganesh series

London, June 2020

The oldest bookshop in the world – or why Indie bookshops need your help. Now.

 

According to the Guinness Book of Records the world’s oldest bookstore is in Portugal. The Livraria Bertrand opened its doors in 1732 in Lisbon, and has never been shut. In the UK, our oldest bookstore is Hatchard’s (now a branch of Waterstones), inhabiting, by and large, the same prestigious Piccadilly location since 1797, and the holder of no less than three Royal Warrants. Such longevity is a rarity, and cannot be claimed of many such endeavours, particularly those operating as independents.

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Bookselling in the world of the independent is no easy task. Margins are wafer thin, hours are often long, sales are rarely predictable. Why do the owners of such shops put themselves through it? The answer, as I have discovered over the years chatting to these intrepid entrepreneurs, is simple: it makes them happy. To be surrounded by books, to have the opportunity to talk books with customers, to get to know those customers and develop a personal relationship with them… these are the intangible benefits of running a bookshop that cannot be quantified in purely monetary terms. For many, a chance twist of fate gave them the opportunity to follow a dream. For others, it was a linear progression from book nerd to bookstore summer job to book emporium colossus.

During my twenties, I lived for a decade in Mumbai, India. Here I discovered one of the country’s oldest bookshops. The Strand bookshop, established the year after Indian independence, witnessed the nation move through 70 years of change. Mr Shanbag, the shop’s eccentric owner, became a cult figure and the store was frequented by celebrities – including India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru – not that Shanbag treated him any differently! Sadly, after Shanbag’s death, the shop declined and was forced to close. I admit that I felt quite emotional when I heard the news.

In tribute to him, and the many other bookshop owners struggling against difficult headwinds, I decided to feature a small independent bookshop in my latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, set in 1950 in Bombay. The Wadia Book Emporium is based on the real Strand bookshop. Here is how I describe the shop in my book, pretty much the way I feel when I enter most bookstores: “It was the smell that always took her. The unmistakable musk of books, old and new. Arrayed on sagging shelves, piled on trestle tables, built up into drifts eight feet high, to form a haphazard maze that only hardened bibliophiles dared to tread.”

Indie bookshops make up an incredibly valuable part of the bookselling ecosystem. Such bookshops drive sales in niche titles, hand-selling to customers they have spent years building relationships with. Without indies, many new writers would struggle to find a voice. Economic theory tells us that the book industry, as a whole, benefits from the variety and reach provided by this network of small-scale sellers, expanding the total market of readers.

Today, because of the lockdown, many bookshops are facing the most dire challenge to their livelihood. Government aid schemes can only go so far. Ultimately, for any bookshop to survive, it must sell books. That means the ball is now in our court. As readers, we must make the choice to buy from bookstores.

What better time to do that than Independent Bookshop Week?

 

How to survive a zombie apocalypse

Taking my daily walk around my local area, I cannot help but notice how the world outside suddenly resembles the London of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later: deserted streets, immobile vehicles, and almost no ambient noise. It’s not quite a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but it certainly puts me in mind of one.

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I love dystopian movies. Especially ones with a healthy dose of zombie action. Fifty years ago, the modern zombie movie was born when George Romero released a low-budget movie called Night of the Living Dead. Combining hordes of the undead lurching across the suburbs of Pittsburgh with a healthy dose of social commentary, the movie terrified and intrigued in equal measure.

During the current lockdown streaming of zombie fare has gone through the roof. We can’t get enough of recent movies such as Zombieland and World War Z which all but convince us that a viral plague will turn us all into drooling cannibals.

And so, I present here my seven golden rules for surviving such an eventuality…

#1 – Don’t stand next to the Token Non-White Guy

We all know the scenario. It’s been done in countless movies before so why should zombie films be any different? As soon as any character of black/south-Asian/Indian/Latino descent is given more than a few lines, you know that dude is history. Might as well hang a sign around his neck: dead man walking. Even Will Smith who played the lead in I am Legend ended up having to blow himself up to keep the zombies from chomping on his skull. So, if you bump into Token Non-White Guy – stay well clear.

#2 – Kill your best friend

First rule of post-apocalypse survival – don’t trust anyone. Least of all your friends and family. They ALWAYS turn. The best thing to do, the only thing to do, is to flamethrower them right away. If you don’t have a flamethrower to hand, a mallet to the brain will do. Don’t be sentimental. I guarantee you will save everyone a lot of angst in the long run.

#3 – Don’t turn your back on the family pet

Zombie animals are the sneaky villains of post-apocalypse scenarios. Just when you think you’ve dealt with the lurching hordes of former humans, you discover little Benji has turned into a slavering Cerberus intent on tearing you limb from limb. This is one case when there is no such thing as man’s best friend.

#4 – Don’t go near shopping malls

For some reason zombies are inordinately attracted to shopping malls. Judging from the generally tattered state of their clothing, perhaps this is understandable – there must be plenty of post-apocalypse bargains to be had in the zombie clothing department. One of the best examples of the mall zombie is Dawn of the Dead.

#5 – Don’t bother with the toilet paper

Particularly relevant, given recent shenanigans. It’s a simple proposition… In every zombie movie we see panicked civilians stripping supermarkets for tinned goods, raiding gun stores for weaponry, rampaging through pharmacies for medical supplies. But have you ever seen anyone stocking up on toilet paper? No? Me neither.

#6 – Beware of anyone who suddenly needs to wear more clothing

You know the one. That dude who’s been swanning around in a Bruce Willis wifebeater vest, happily modelling torn jeans and a dodgy stubble, and all of a sudden he decides to wear a Sartre turtleneck and ski gloves. In the middle of a heatwave. You’re not fooling anyone, Bruce. He’s been bitten/scratched/infected. He will turn.

#7 – Don’t go anywhere with Special Forces

In theory, it makes sense to hang out with a squad of experienced killers when faced with a horde of zombies. After all, these people have been trained to shoot, they have the kit, they’re strong, fast, well-drilled, and have no compunctions about blowing away a cute little five-year-old who even twitches funny. Better safe than sorry is their motto… Except, as movies such as Resident Evil have shown us, this gang of pumped-up macho men – and women – are usually jaw fodder for the zombie hordes. Arrogance, a complete refusal to believe in the situation, and sheer weight of opposing numbers tend to make their contribution relatively short-lived. Stay well clear.

There you have it. My tips for post-apocalypse zombie survival… Now, until we all turn into drooling brain cannibals, we can prepare by watching lots of good quality zombie entertainment. My recommendation: Train to Busan. A rather brilliant South Korean zombie film that takes place in the claustrophobic setting of a speeding train.

You can hear myself and Abir Mukherjee discussing post-apocalyptic fiction on the latest episode of our podcast here: www.redhotchilliwriters.com

In the meantime, I wish you all the best. Stay safe!

Vaseem, London

Do writers need a ‘special place’ to write?

One of the alleged benefits of writing is that you can do it anywhere. Literally anywhere. But the reality is that professional authors (or those who aspire to be) quickly learn that some places are better than others for knuckling down and completing the next chapter in your magnum opus.

No one venue works for everyone.

I have author friends who like to work in noisy coffee shops surrounded by grungy-hoodied students and hipster-bearded failed musicians. They find the hustle and bustle stimulating and are somehow able to tune everything out. Others require absolute silence – the slightest sound gets under their skin like a dripping tap at night and they quickly find themselves descending into the sort of authorial madness last seen in Stephen King’s The Shining.

I’m somewhere in between. I prefer to work in silence but often find the presence of others stimulating. I have a comfy office at home but occasionally feel compelled to abandon it and walk down to the local library with my laptop to spend a few hours in the company of fellow book lovers (as well as feral teenagers, the occasional drug user, hobo, and crazy-eyed evangelist).

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I work in central London and you can often see me on the Tube reading through edit notes, usually with my face stuck in someone’s armpit – it’s one way to (mentally) escape the bullpen-like crush, I suppose. In the summer, I like to take my laptop to the cricket pitch and work on the sidelines when I’m not actually playing. There’s something wonderful about sitting on the grass and thinking through plot ideas with bees buzzing among the wildflowers and the crack of willow on leather resounding across the outfield.

Every writer needs to get into the ‘zone’ – that sweet spot when the entire processing power of your mind is engaged in the story. The right environment is critical to enabling that. What constitutes the right environment varies dramatically from writer to writer, though sometimes it is a matter of necessity rather than choice.

John le Carré wrote his debut, Call for the Dead, on train rides to work from Buckinghamshire to London. Agatha Christie and Maya Angelou both enjoyed writing in hotel rooms – there’s just something about being locked away in a room with clean sheets and an en-suite bathroom with room service just a phone call away. Christie was also famous for writing whilst soaking in a large Victorian bathtub; Benjamin Franklin went one further and wrote in the nude, a habit I would personally discourage. James Joyce wrote in bed, lying on his stomach – otherwise known to the rest of us as ‘sleeping’. JK Rowling famously wrote the first Harry Potter book in The Elephant House, a café in Edinburgh. The café is now a pilgrimage site for fans from around the world.

Virginia Woolf had it right when she said that every writer needs a “room of one’s own” to be productive. But there are times when inspiration can be better found in a less secluded spot. Frankly, it’s whatever works!

If you’d like to know what I’m up to next, I send out an email newsletter every three months which contains updates on book releases, competitions and lots of other interesting stuff. If interested, registering takes a few seconds here: https://vaseemkhan.com/book-club/   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Competition! – Midnight at Malabar House – DEADLINE: Midnight, 31st Dec 2019

After five novels and two novellas in the Baby Ganesh Agency series, my next book will be a historical crime novel set in 1950 in India. It’s called Midnight at Malabar House and introduces Inspector Persis Wadia of the Bombay Police, India’s first female police detective.

My reasons for writing this book are simple.

The Baby Ganesh books are set in modern India, featuring Inspector Ashwin Chopra and the baby elephant sent into his care. I lived in India for a decade and these books are my chronicle of a country that has undergone an incredible transformation over the past two decades.

But modern India is also a reflection of her past.

India’s historical legacy permeates everything you see on the streets of a place like Mumbai (once Bombay), from the ubiquitous slums to antiquated cultural attitudes. A large part of that legacy is also tied up with the 300 years of the Raj, and the cataclysmic end to that period in late 1947.

Midnight at Malabar House opens on New Year’s Eve 1949, just two years after Independence, the horrors of Partition, and the assassination of Gandhi. India is still trying to work out what sort of democracy it is going to be. Social, political and religious turmoil is rife in the country. Economic reform is pitting the old nawabs, maharajas and feudal classes against the newly enfranchised masses. Yet Bombay remains in its own bubble, incredibly cosmopolitan, a city of jazz and self-indulgence, with tens of thousands of foreigners still living and working in the city.

As India celebrates the arrival of this momentous new decade, Inspector Persis Wadia stands vigil in the basement of Malabar House, home to the city’s most unwanted unit of police officers. Six months after joining the force she remains India’s first female police detective, mistrusted, sidelined and now consigned to the midnight shift. And so, when the phone rings to report the murder of prominent English diplomat Sir James Herriot, the country’s most sensational case falls into her lap. As 1950 dawns and India prepares to become the world’s largest republic, Persis, accompanied by Scotland Yard criminalist Archie Blackfinch, finds herself investigating a case that becomes more political by the second. Navigating a country and society in turmoil, Persis, smart, stubborn and untested in the crucible of male hostility that surrounds her, must find a way to solve the murder – whatever the cost.

This new series is my way of drawing together the threads of India’s past and using them to shed light on India’s present. It is also a celebration of female pioneers on the subcontinent. Indian society has a reputation for being intensely patriarchal. Even now many women struggle to enjoy the same rights that women in other countries take for granted. Persis, however, is a woman who refuses to be told what her place in the new India should be. She believes in herself and in her right to pursue the career that speaks to her own notions of justice and equality. She is a singular woman, fierce, committed, intelligent, a trailblazer in a sea of antipathy.

I would love for you to join her on this journey.

 

Competition

This is your chance to be immortalised in my new novel and become a part of Persis’ remarkable story. One lucky reader will have their name given to a minor character in the novel. All you have to do is answer the following question: “Who do you think is the greatest female pioneer of all and why? – Answer in max. 50 words.”

You can answer via this form. Deadline to enter is midnight, 31st December 2019. I shall announce a winner in the New Year on my social media (so follow me on Twitter https://twitter.com/VaseemKhanUK or Facebook if you don’t already) and in my next newsletter (which you can join here: https://vaseemkhan.com/book-club/ ).

You can find out more about the novel here and pre-order if you wish.

Although we haven’t finalised a cover for the book yet, here is a little flavour of India in the 1950s… This advert demonstrates how Indian society saw the role of women. Clearly, Persis has her work cut out as the nation’s first policewoman. I want to invite you on that journey with her. She could do with a few more of us in her corner!

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Bloody Scotland: Murder most Fun.

Bloody Scotland. The very name conjures up Macbethian visions of dark deeds and foul murder. Nothing could be further from the truth. There’s plenty of murder here but it is confined to the pages of the hundreds of crime novels discussed, dissected and debated over the course of three wonderful days in Stirling.  This was my first visit to speak at the festival and I was struck by the collegiate and fun atmosphere, something the organisers have worked hard at instilling, ever since the first edition of the festival in 2012. 

Arriving late on the Friday – following a delayed flight which meant that I missed the torchlit parade down from historic old Stirling castle (where the McIllvanney Prize was announced) – I walked straight into a great first session – seeing David Baldacci speak. The American author was humorous, humble and incredibly honest. Particularly fun was his anecdote about Absolute Power, the novel that made him famous all those years ago. When Clint Eastwood bought the movie rights, he apparently took one look at the book, and decided that the protagonist that he was due to play would no longer be killed off – in fact, he would become the hero and the previous lead – a young lawyer – would simply vanish from the story. Now that’s star power! 

Following this I attended the live podcast session hosted by Steve Cavanaugh and Luca Veste, of Two Crime Writers and a Microphone fame, which also featured TV’s Richard Osmond, and some truly toe-curling extracts from the bad sex (in writing) awards.

Early on the Saturday my good friend and fellow crime writer Abir Mukherjee took me up to see the Stirling Castle, with beautiful views over the town and nearby Bannockburn. Whilst there he attempted to teach me how to say the famous Robert Burns poem “To a mouse”– Burns has a great history here; he actually once stayed at the Golden Lion hotel where the festival takes place. My attempts at reading the poem in Scots dialect were only marginally successful, but I gave it my best shot. Take a look here, if you don’t believe me:

Later that afternoon, I took part in the annual football match between English crime writers and Scottish ones, playing for the English team, captained by Mark Billingham, with the Scottish team led by Craig Robertson. The match was played in a small field, with grass so long it was like wading through the prairies of South America. With a hot sun on our backs it was tough going for two 25 minute halves, but both sets of players were cheered on by an enthusiastic audience. It was a tight fixture with England eventually triumphing 3-0, but the spirit between the teams was friendly and afterwards both teams retired to the nearby Brewdog where the likes of Ian Rankin turned up to ruminate on the fixture.

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I next attended a thought-provoking session on the “India Connection” led by Abir, discussing new voices in crime fiction from Indian backgrounds, including Ajay Chowdhury and Trisha Sacklecha. This opened to a wider debate on diversity in the genre.

My own panel took place in the sumptuous ballroom at the Golden Lion, and dissected what ‘cosy crime’ really means. We agreed that much crime fiction so labelled – including mine – is grittier in tone than the word ‘cosy’ would suggest, and that there is a fine difference between comic writing and using humour to illuminate a particular narrative or theme which may be serious in tone. The panel was chaired by Laura Wilson, and included Catriona McPherson and Lynne Truss.

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Nearby, Ian Rankin was being interviewed by Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, another coup for the festival.

The evening finished with another dose of fun – watching crime writers singing at the Coo bar, and Scottish dances at a ‘ceilidh’. And finally a visit to a late night kebab shop that Abir swore blind was nutritious, tasty and cheap. He was right on one count – it was cheap.

All in all, a wonderful event and one I wholeheartedly recommend to all those interested in crime fiction, be ye reader, writer, blogger, or industry pro. Well done to Festival Director Bob McDevitt and the entire organising committee. 

NOTE: Abir and I will be discussing the festival in more depth and also chatting about Robert Burns’ legacy in the next episode of our own podcast, the RED HOT CHILLI WRITERS. Check it out here and subscribe if interested: http://redhotchilliwriters.com

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Visiting Jane Austen

Jane Austen needs no introduction. One of Britain’s greatest literary exports, her cannon of work has become immortalised in countless onscreen adaptations earning the author a popularity that has far outlasted her short life. For Austen novices: she is known primarily for her six major novels, which critique the British gentry at the end of the 18th century. Her plots, using irony and humour, often focus on the dependence of women on marriage in the pursuit of favourable social standing and economic security. Sadly, her novels were published anonymously and brought her only moderate success and fame during her lifetime. Austen’s books include Sense and Sensibility (1811),  Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816). She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began another, eventually titled Sanditon, but died before its completion – it has just appeared on British television. 

In August, my brothers and sisters and I (all fans of Austen) decided to stay on a series of ‘wilderness’ cabins run by Jane Austen’s estate, in Chawton, Hampshire. The cabins lie in a field, with a sheep meadow on one side and a field of deer on the other. They are a delightful retreat, especially for a city-dweller like me. There was no wifi – which is pretty terrifying these days – and I was awoken each morning by my screaming nephews and nieces, enjoying the delights of the countryside.

Five minutes away is the Jane Austen’s House Museum, the house where Jane Austen lived and wrote for the last eight years of her life. She moved here in 1809 with her mother, sister Cassandra and friend Martha Lloyd after a period spent living in lodgings. The house was owned by Jane’s brother Edward, who had been adopted by the wealthy Knight family and had since inherited the Chawton Estate. The house – a 17th century building – was offered to the women rent-free for life.

The trip to Jane Austen’s house was wonderful. A sunny day and visitors from all over the world made the house and garden come alive. Here I am dressing up as Mr Darcy in Jane’s old parlour. Writing with a quill is harder than it looks!

And this is Jane’s desk, where she wrote Pride and Prejudice. A true piece of literary history.

On the walls of her home are tributes from the great and the good, including this letter from Winston Churchill, a fan.

And this is a sample of Jane’s own handwriting. I have to say, as a writer, I was strangely moved. 


Jane Austen died on 18 July 1817 after a period of ill health. She never married and had no children yet lived a full life nonetheless. Her impact on world literature cannot be understated.

It was a wonderful trip and one I thoroughly recommend.

Tea with the Queen… almost: an author at a Royal Garden Party

I recently had the pleasure of attending a Royal Garden Party on the grounds of Buckingham Palace. You have to be nominated to attend, and my nomination was kindly provided by the Society of Authors, after I judged the Betty Trask Prize, a national competition for debut authors aged 35 or under. Having never ventured anywhere near the rarefied air of the palace before I was intrigued as to what goes on at one of these occasions. Here I present a short guide for anyone fortunate enough to be invited along for tea with the Queen…

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Firstly, a gilded invite pops through your letterbox, with very strict instructions about timeliness, security and, most importantly, what to wear – suits for men (tip: lounge suit just means suit), hats for women, or weird little feathery things which I have since discovered are called fascinators… Fascinating!

On the day, I turned up in good time for the three o’clock start… and discovered a queue half a mile long outside the palace’s front gates. Surely, the most well-heeled queue on the planet! On the dot of three, the gates swung aside and, like prisoners at chowtime, we slowly shuffled inside, our IDs being thoroughly scrutinised by armed police, together with a terse warning not to take photographs on the front court.

We herded en masse through the palace, past framed portraits of Queen Victoria and Albert, and out into the rear gardens, a vast, perfectly manicured space, dotted with pavilions, tents, and two brass bands heartily going at it as a means of welcoming the roughly three to four thousand people in attendance.

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There followed a lot of milling about and making friends, then queuing up for a very posh plate of sandwiches and cakey things, with tea or cordial. Crowds swirled around, chatting in clumps, or just taking in the occasion.

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At four pm, everything stopped, and a rousing rendition of the national anthem announced the arrival of members of the royal family – on this occasion the Queen could not attend and it was left to Prince Charles and Camilla to grace the occasion. The crowds gathered round to get a glimpse of our hosts and possibly take a pic or two.

 

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Charles pottered about chatting to a few of his guests, before repairing to the royal tent for his own tea and crumpets. At around five-thirty the royal members made their way back inside the palace, escorted by liveried beefeaters. After that, it was a free-for-all for the exits.

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Overall, the occasion was an interesting window on royal life and, more importantly, on people’s perceptions of our royal institutions. I chatted to a medley of individuals from around the country, and a few from further abroad, including this finely dressed gentleman from north Africa, and the one thing I gleaned from all was how pleased they were not only to be present, but at the fact that we have a monarchy that, by and large, still inspires fondness.

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Royal Garden Parties have been a tradition for well over half a century. On the evidence of this one, I suspect they will be around for a good deal longer.

 

 

 

 

 

Granite Noir – a festival of firsts

Last weekend I flew up to Aberdeen to participate in Granite Noir. Held annually in the ‘granite city’ of Aberdeen, this relatively new festival has quickly become a fixture on the crime writing calendar, and for good reason.

I arrived at Heathrow airport early on the Friday morning to find fellow crime writers Mark Billingham (of Tom Thorne police procedurals fame) and Renee Knight (author of hit psychological thriller Disclaimer) on the same flight, a flight that ended up delayed for two hours. Apparently our plane didn’t have the necessary low visibility tech to take off in early morning fog. What we were flying on, I wondered, a cart with wings?

In the event the flight went off without a hitch and an hour and a half later we were in sunny Scotland. And, yes, it really was sunny. One of the warmest days in Aberdeen on record, apparently. I’d like to think we brought the sun with us, but quite possibly the credit goes to global warming.

Our chatty cab driver pointed out the highlights of Aberdeenshire’s capital: the new exhibition centre, the beautiful granite-faced buildings, the gorgeous central library, the Brewdog pub. He dropped us to our hotel, a luxuriously-appointed Residence Inn Marriot, and a few hours later I wandered along Union Street to the Music Hall to see my great friend Abir Mukherjee (who writes the brilliant Sam Wyndham novels set in 1920s Calcutta) in conversation with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. The event was a great way to end the first day of the festival and a masterstroke of PR by the festival’s organisers. (The First Minister is a great lover of crime fiction and was an eloquent and very humorous chair, in case you were wondering.) To celebrate, I offered to buy Abir dinner at any of the many terrific restaurants that Aberdeen now boasts. Anywhere, I says. The world is your oyster.

Abir chose KFC. The man is pure class.

On the Saturday I rocked up to the author’s room at The Lemon Tree, the picturesque venue for many of the events, and chatted to the chair of my first panel, TV and radio presenter James Naughtie. James and I had actually met before, a couple of years earlier out in the desert at the Emirates Literary Festival in Dubai, where we’d somehow ended up on camels together. Don’t ask.

My first event was a panel with Scottish author Doug Skelton and the Queen of Icelandic Crime, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, whose work I have enjoyed for a while now. We chatted about characters, how they change over time, and how they sometimes take control of the narrative. For me it’s never been much of an issue, as Chopra is just a reflection of my own experiences and feelings about the social fabric of modern India, where my books are set and where I lived for a decade during my twenties.

After signing books and chatting to knowledgeable local readers (and many from further afield) I was rushed off to my second event of the day, a session entitled “How Murder is Detected” with Dr Kathryn Harkup. We spent an enjoyable hour in Aberdeen’s vast Central Library (it reminds me of the maze from Dungeons and Dragons) chatting to another full house about the scientific aspects of murder. Kathryn is an expert on poisons, especially those used in Agatha Christie novels, and happily explained which poisons one should seek out if intent on murdering a loved one without fear of being detected…

For my part I spoke about some of the research by my colleagues at the Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science at University College London. For instance, we are currently looking at the truly terrifying ways in which Artificial Intelligence is being harnessed by organised criminal gangs to commit high tech crime. I also spoke about crime scene basics, such as the use of forensic entomology, that is, the study of how insects colonise dead bodies. Did you know, for instance, that the first insect to arrive on your corpse will be a blowfly? By examining the type of insects on a corpse and at what stage of development they are, we can determine time since death and even location of death.

As well as speaking, I attended a number of talks, bought books, and saw some terrific authors in action, learning about new ones (such as Jørn Lier Horst and his Nordic Inspector William Wisting series) and listening to old favourites such as Kevin Anderson, the American SF author who carried on Frank Herbert’s DUNE series with Herbert’s son Brian Herbert. (I’m a huge fan of SF and DUNE remains the very best SF novel I have ever read.) In a first for crime festivals in this country Anderson was beamed into the festival onto a giant screen via an online connection. The magic of modern technology! Another coup for the organisers of Granite Noir.

All in all, a wonderful event, and I returned on Sunday morning with a store of fond memories of both the granite city and an occasion that more than did justice to the crime fiction genre.

(NOTE: Granite Noir is produced by Aberdeen Performing Arts in partnership with Aberdeen City Libraries, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives and The Belmont Filmhouse.)

New year’s resolutions for writers (or how not to be a dick at networking events)

New Year’s resolutions. We love to love hating them. And yet each year, once the Christmas dust has settled, we begin to ponder on just how many of them we can make and subsequently break. Because the essence of a good new year’s resolution appears to be its inherent lack of achievability. Authors are no different. So, what exactly might a set of halfway relevant resolutions look like for the average author? Here’s my take…

Procrastinate in a more efficient manner.

Procrastination and being an author go hand in hand. Every author I know goes through phases when literally anything is preferable to opening up the laptop and staring at that giant unblinking eye. Anything. Reading the backs of toilet products whilst sitting on the pot. Watching endless reruns of Big Brother. Poking your eyes out with a spoon. There is another school of thought, however, that suggests that these bouts of vegetative nothingness are essential to the creative process. Leaving the field fallow and all that. The trick is to find a way to scrape yourself out of that protracted brain slump and get back on the horse. In 2019, resolve to ‘make procrastination great again.’

Stop being such a dick at networking events.

We all know that writer. You know the one. Turns up for an author social armed to the teeth with beautifully embossed visiting cards – book jacket on one side, meta-funny mankini author pic on the other – and proceeds to ‘work the room’. Barging into the middle of conversations, interrupting, talking over, and generally making themselves as welcome as a bout of gonorrhoea. All to tell you what they’ve written, what they are doing, and how they’d love to connect with you. A quick clammy handshake, a blast of beery breath in the face, and they’re off to accost the next hapless victim. There is nothing wrong with socialising and telling people about what you do as an author. But you are not auditioning for ‘How To Win Friends And Influence People, The Movie’. It’s light touch. In 2019, resolve to be natural. To be yourself. (Unless yourself is the dick described above.)

Be more understanding of your agent, editor and publicist’s constraints.

Authors are needy people. The world always revolves around them. How many times have I heard the refrain that my agent/editor/publicist doesn’t love me, doesn’t cuddle me enough, is spending all their time with that big knob with the la-di-dah multiple bestsellers. It’s time to get real. Agents, editors and publicists are human (most of them). They have only so many hours in the day and they have to operate a process of triage to get the best out of their time. Some authors need more handholding, some less. Some a cup of tea and a shoulder to cry on. Some need a club to the head. In 2019, resolve to think more kindly of this holy trinity.

Spend less time on social media.

With everyone telling you that an author MUST be out there whoring themselves day and night on the twit-face-blog-o-sphere, it soon becomes an addiction. Like any crazed meth fiend you become jittery if you don’t get your fix. And once you are sucked into the matrix it’s oh so hard to pull yourself out. Click leads to click, tweet to tweet, and before you know it hours have been misspent looking at pictures of cats hilariously spooning with hedgehogs or joining in twitter rants about hip hop star battles where someone called someone else something that you don’t actually even understand. The Internet is incredible, and has changed our world. In 2019, resolve to use it a little more wisely.

Pat yourself on the back.

An author’s output matters. To someone. Somewhere. Even if only six people read your last book, you have fundamentally altered their lives. For those few brief hours they were absorbed in something you created. You rocked their world. (Hopefully.) Own it. You are a writer. Published or unpublished doesn’t matter. So toot your horn. Get out there and tell people you are an author. Buy a sandwich board if you feel like it and stick it on there in great neon letters. In 2019, resolve to be proud of your writing accomplishments, be they ever so humble.