An Elephant in the Desert

In March 2017 I will travel to Dubai to participate in my first international literary festival. It’s the first time I have been to Dubai, and I am looking forward to it tremendously. However, the agenda is packed, and I am expected to participate on panels, solo talks, reader events, news interviews, blogs, and even a talk at a local school. All of which is exciting and worthwhile, both in terms of promoting my books but also simply as someone who loves connecting with new cultures, new people, especially those who love the written word. This festival – the Emirates Airline Literature Festival – is one of the best funded, and most well-organised such events in the world. I am delighted to be invited, and hope to deliver some terrific talks. Click here to read a blog piece I wrote for the festival – An Elephant in the Desert



Genesis: where do book ideas come from?

The most frequently asked question of any published author is: where did you get the idea for your novel? The answer, alas, is not as easy to pin down. Very rarely do authors claim that a single eureka moment delivered unto them the idea that became the kernel of their “bestseller”. Sure, it happens, but rarely. In his wonderful Discworld series Sir Terry Pratchett once wrounknownte that wild ideas were constantly sleeting through the cosmos looking for the right mind to fall into. The right idea in the right mind would come to life: who knows where that might lead? I have always loved this image, a metaphor which has sustained me through periods of writerly drought, times of staring blankly at my screen (or the wall) waiting for lightning to strike.

And then there’s Thomas Edison’s famous saying: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. This is closer to the truth.

Most successful novelists will tell you that the ideas that powered their work have gestated over a period of time, have ultimately arrived not in one rapturous message from the heavens but in a steady drip drip of illChopra book pileuminating moments. For instance, the ideas behind my bestselling novel The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra – a murder mystery set in India and featuring the eponymous Chopra in pursuit of a killer, accompanied by his unusual sidekick, baby elephant Ganesha – came over the ten years that I spent living and working in India during my twenties. I could not have written this novel without those ten years of incredible experiences, which settled into my consciousness so that when it came to creating the book memories simply unwound from my fingertips onto the printed page. And yet, in truth, I also benefited from those ‘illuminating moments’ I so readily dismissed above: seeing an elephant lumbering along the middle of road on my first day in India, awaking one morning with the first line of the novel – “On the day that he was due to retire Inspector Ashwin Chopra discovered that he had inherited an elephant” – fully formed inside my head. So I suppose the answer is this: all great novels begin life as an idea, and those ideas can arrive from a variety of sources: painstaking research, attentiveness to the world around us, and even the wild, untamed landscape of our dreams.

My bookish secrets …

My bookish confessions

Having been tagged by Crime Thriller Girl @crimthrillgirl – after I basically bullied her into tagging me – here are my bookish secrets:


Books I’ve had for a VERY long time. The very definition of well looked after …


Have you ever damaged a book?

I am a clean book sociopath. I would gladly murder people who turn the corners of books (sorry, Crime Thriller Girl). When I was young I would put my favourite books into plastic covers to protect them. I still have 20 year old copies of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Arthur C Clarke’s A Space Odyssey in pristine condition.

Have you ever damaged a borrowed book?

Just once. I fell down whilst reading a book a friend had lent me, tore the corner of the front cover right off. Couldn’t sleep for a week trying to think of how to break it to her. Bought her a new copy, naturally. And then she told me she really didn’t give a damn!

How long does it take you to read a book?

3-4 days. But currently reading last year’s breakout literary sensation A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara. All 700+ dense pages. No way am I finishing that beast in 3 days.

Books you haven’t finished?

I’m also a book masochist. Once I’ve started I will ALWAYS finish, even if I have to skim read to do it. And then I’ll stew for a week, building up an elemental rage at how hours have been taken out of my life by this drivel. Yep. I told you. Sociopath.

Hyped/Popular books you didn’t like?

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs. Supposedly a great novel of the century. Utter puerile rubbish. And I’ve said so before. Publicly.

Is there a book you wouldn’t tell anyone you were reading?

The next Game of Thrones novel, if George R.R. Martin sent me the only advance copy in the world. Because I wouldn’t want a million crazed Thrones fans breaking down my door, carrying my bruised and battered body to a pyre, then dancing Lord of the Flies fashion around my burning corpse.

Are you a fast/slow reader?


Do you like to buddy read?

What the hell is a buddy read? Sounds seriously creepy, and a bit pervy. So, no. (And I’d probably like to stamp it out, whatever it is.)

Do you read better in your head/out loud?

In my head. Reading aloud should only be done by Sir Patrick Stewart or Sir Ian McKellen. Or maybe Sean Connery if you want every possible written accent converted to Scottish.

If you were only allowed to own one book, what would it be and why?

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. The ultimate crime novel. If you want to know how to write the perfect crime book, this is it. Memorable characters, a can’t put this down plot, and written to a literary standard. And, of course, Hannibal Lector.

Now it’s my turn to tag some people so I pick: Abir Mukherjee, A.A. Dhand and David Mark.

And while they’re putting together their confessions, be sure to check out what others in the chain such as @crimethrillgirl have already confessed to …

BTW … Since you’re here, why don’t you check out my new THE READING ELEPHANT BOOK CLUB for exclusive content, competitions, reading recommendations and much more. 

Finally reading the cultural phenomenon that is A Game of Thrones

A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sensational, complex, multi-layered saga – and that’s just book 1 in this incredible series. I have been one of those people who have avoided Game of Thrones (the TV series), so I had no idea what this book was about before I read it. I’m not a big reader of fantasy – I read Lord of the Rings (loved it) years ago and the first book in the Wheel of Time series (it was okay). A Game of Thrones is an incredible feat of world-building (on a par with Lord of Rings and SF classic Dune), but more importantly in ‘people building’. These characters are utterly real and utterly compelling. They behave in unexpected ways, and Martin continually springs surprises. The canvas is vast, the concepts mind-expanding, and the human drama completely engrossing. The best book I have read in many many years.

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Overcoming writer’s block – the Holy Grail of Writerdom

Writer’s block. That horrible moment when your mind, usually careening along at a hundred miles an hour, hits a brick wall. In an instant you go from feeling like the new Hemingway or Rowling, to feeling like a flattened hedgehog. You are stuck. Writing your own name becomes an excruciating, sweating, nerve-shredding, Himalayan endeavour. You loathe the idea of approaching your laptop. You talk to yourself, you gee yourself up. Scenes from the Rocky movies burst into your consciousness. You punch the air – jab jab hook, then sit down determinedly at your desk. And …


The mind is a blank vacuum, as vacant as the vastness between stars.


writers block

If this were professional sports you’d go talk to the team therapist, who’d look moistly into your eyes, and ask you if your mummy held you too much as a kid (or something like that, I suppose. Why do grown sportsmen need therapists anyway?)

As an author (I write a light-hearted crime series set in India,  featuring a baby elephant, the first of which is The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra), I have been here many times. So what should you do?

  1. Hurl laptop against wall, and swear a sacred oath never to write another word?
  2. Sit there until you overcome, never leaving your room, or washing, or changing your clothes, descending slowly into red-eyed, cackling-laugh madness?
  3. Remember that you were once a human being with a real life, and many interests?

c) is the answer (though a) and b) are often employed by first-timers to the Block.)

Forget the writing. Go do something else. Play cricket (badly, as I do, and without the safety net of on-tap therapy). Buy a present for someone you love (or remotely like even). Read those books you’ve been putting off. Watch a crap movie. Stuff your face with ice-cream sundaes. Live a normal life for a while . . . and then come back to it.

Lo and behold. The train judders, the stationmaster blows his whistle . . . and you’re off.

All the clichés are true. The mind becomes jaded, overfull, like a bunged-up toilet, and sometimes it really is just a case of giving it a well-deserved rest, a metaphorical chance for the crud to seep away. Routine is important, but taking a break from the routine is also an important part of the routine. If you see what I mean.

Even the Great Ones suffered from Writer’s Block. No doubt Shakespeare snapped many a quill in his time, and went out for an ale and a game of quoits when the drought hit him.

If it was good enough for Shakey, it’s good enough for the rest of us.

Just saying.

What am I currently reading …

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkBilly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel is a war satire seeking to use comedy to say something profound about America’s involvement in the Iraq war. It is billed as the Catch-22 of that war, but it is certainly not that. Catch-22 was groundbreaking, one of the best novels of the century, a book whose images and raucous language stay with you. This is a good book, and well written, but not in the same league. The story follows a unit of American soldiers – including Billy Lynn – who are being feted at an American football game in Texas. The author creates an amusing cast of caricatures, and takes the time to explore the unit’s experiences in Iraq, and the attitudes of American civilians to the conflict. Billy is a sympathetic enough central character, and there is plenty of satirical humour. I found it an engaging read, with some neat prose. A solid debut.

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An author’s take on World Book Day

So, last week the ‘world’ celebrated World Book Day, on the face of it, a wonderful idea. It is the prevailing wisdom that children are falling out of love with the written word. A report by Common Sense Media, entitled “Children, Teens, and Reading,” suggests that, in the US, “since 1984, the percent of 13-year-olds who are weekly readers went down from 70% to 53%, and the percent of 17-year-olds who are weekly readers went from 64% to 40%.” The mechanism by which WBD aims to reverse this trend is to create an emotional connection between children and the characters in books. WBD encourages children to bring to life their favourite literary characters – hence the frightening number of Harry Potters stalking the streets on the big day. This is the 19th year there’s been a WBD. Organisers send resources and activities to participating schools. Millions of book vouchers reach children who can take them to a local bookseller and pick one of 10 designated books, or get £1 off any book at a participating bookshop. All of this sounds worthy, but the question remains – does any of it actually achieve the stated objective?


Because the ‘downside’ of World Book Day is that this has unwittingly become yet another source of competition between children, with the inevitable consequences for parents. Ian Midgley of the Hull Daily Mail comments “During World Parent Disruption Day poor bedraggled parents are charged with finding increasingly bizarre costumes at vast expense so their kids can wear them at school for a few hours before discarding them in the dressing up box never to be seen again.” Midgley goes on to say: “It’s a scam. A swizz. A Brave New World attempt to make us shell out endless more cash for endless more products we don’t need that has absolutely nothing to do with books or reading or literary endeavour.” Alice Winter of the Telegraph trawls through Twitter to showcase the struggles of costume prep for WBD in this illuminating feature: World Book Day costumes: a parent’s 7 stages of crisis 

As an author (I write a light-hearted crime series set in India and featuring a baby elephant, the first of which is The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra) I sit uncomfortably on the fence. For me the vision of WBD is sound. Children learn through fantasy and role-play – this has been amply demonstrated through research. In their paper “Symbolic Play and Emergent Literacy” Sandra J. Stone and William Stone state: “Both literacy and symbolic play require the ability to use words, gestures or mental images to represent actual objects, events or actions. The very nature of symbolic play … has an intimate relationship with reading and writing … in that children use similar representational mental processes in both.” Yet unintended consequences are also part and parcel of such schemes, as Midgley suggests.

I work in a university. Evidence-based thinking is part of our DNA, and so, personally, I’d like to see a systematic review of WBD – what evidence is there that it really enables reading, or embeds a love of literature? If so, what is the effect size? Does this effect persist as the child ages? I know, I know, I’m a killjoy. But, then again, some argue that the millions spent on WBD costumes each year might be better spent on books. Now, that’s a novel idea.