Interview with Aroon Raman

I loved The Shadow Throne by Aroon Raman. And right after reading it, I had to interview the writer. So we spoke and spoke some more and here is an interview with him. I loved the book and here is my review of it.

1. What prompted you to write The Shadow Throne? How did the story idea germinate?

In the months post May 2011, post the bin-Laden assassination, I could see seismic shifts happening both within Pakistan and relations between Pakistan and the West. The country’s self-image was, of course, the first casualty; but equally important was that the carefully cultivated image of the ISI and the military as frontline guardians of the country’s security was also shattered. External relations with NATO, and especially with America, hit a nadir from which even today they have not recovered.

India too was in its own – self-generated – crisis: a crisis of governance and political will, that continues unabated. A government tarnished by a series of scandals, each bigger than the other; reports of bureaucratic dysfunction have abounded, and some stories – such as the bugging of the telephones of extremely senior government officials – have created an unprecedented sense of crisis. The military and intelligence arms of the government have been inevitably drawn into this mess: witness the recent fracas over the Army Chief’s run-in with military intelligence.

So we had a situation that to me seemed ripe with many possibilities; Pakistan with its back to the wall, India in its own crises of governance. The idea of TST germinated against this backdrop. The intent all along was to maintain an authentic feel to the plot: keep it chilling but believable.

2. Not many Indian writers have explored the thriller genre successfully. What made you? Weren’t you apprehensive to begin with?

A writer has to write about what excites him or her; in other words I must play to my metier. While I read non-fiction extensively, and literary fiction as well, I have been drawn to yarns of adventure and the thriller as a genre from an early age. Rather than being a hindrance, it has actually helped that the well-written Indian thriller is still relatively rare – at least in English. It seemed to me that it was therefore easier to make a mark with a fast-paced, well researched thriller than in literary fiction – where plenty of talent already abounds!

3. Like I said earlier, I felt that Meenakshi’s character had not been given her so-called, “due”. You think more could have been done to extend her part in the book? Does she progress to become essential in another Chandra thriller?

Though she does not appear as much in the book as Chandra and Hassan, I’d like to think that Meenakshi punches above her weight—so to speak. She is critical to the book; she is responsible for all the major breaks in the case: the early fix on the Kushans, the cracking of the code that leads Chandra and Hassan to Bamiyan and suggesting that the final rescue of Hassan is effected by Gul Mohammed. She is important enough that the bad guys move to eliminate her: an attempt she defeats with real courage. I also needed her in Delhi to provide the foil for the action in Afghanistan so that the plot switches back and forth between the two countries. This switching of locale is always something that adds to the plot and is very useful in a thriller.

That said, TST is well set up for a sequel, one where Meenakshi might well become central in a big way!

4. Your literary inspirations…

I cannot do better than quote Tolkien in his preface to The Lord of the Rings where he said, “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” The relative strengths of these emotions may vary depending on the type of book, but my deepest desire (as I believe that of any writer) will be to ‘grip’ the reader powerfully, take them out of themselves and hold them in the book’s embrace till it is done.
There are several writers who are my icons and inspiration. Conan Doyle has to have pole position ( he created not just Sherlock Holmes, but a large body of thriller and historical fiction), closely followed by Tolkien, Rider Haggard, Peter O’ Donnel (creator of the Modesty Blaise series). Modern writers: Frederick Forsyth, Ken Follet, Caleb Carr, Stephen Hunter…these are just a few in a list that is very long!

5. Aroon the writer…

Believes there is a story within us all. Even in the most mundane of lives, there is the dramatic, the unusual. As a writer, I’d like just to be awake to what life offers us each day – little vignettes that can be the stuff of big stories! Another thing: one writes for ‘the market’, but one also writes for oneself. The key to success is to bring about a happy accord between the two. That is exactly what I strive to do as a writer.

6. Aroon the person…

Is a jack of several trades, trying to balance it all. Roughly 50 per cent of my time goes to running my R&D business and the rest to a mix of writing, trekking, travel and working with NGOs. There is so much to do, and so little time to do it!

7. There are so many books flooding the Indian market. By this I mean the local home-bred writers. What do you think of this mass production? You think there is a demand for every kind of book that is being published?

The mortality rate of new books is extremely high in India. We have to remember that Indian writing in English has exploded recently – in the last decade or so and the market is still developing. New writers are flooding the scene and there is necessarily a slew of books in practically every genre. Is this too much? It’s hard to say. India is also a big, complex reading market. I recently visited several book distributors across the country and was amazed at the numbers and varieties of books that sell – including local language translations of Western authors. So while there may not be a demand for every book that is published, there is certainly a demand for a huge number and variety of them. I believe that as with any market, this too will settle over time. In final reckoning the reader is the king…or queen!

8. What will the next book be like? Another thriller?

My next book is an adventure story set in Mughal India at the time of Akbar. It is also fast-paced, filled with action, and with an authentic feel of the period. A small band of animals led by a young boy make a hazardous journey through Hindustan to warn the Mughal Emperor of an impending threat to his Empire—from the fabulous treasure of Malik Kafur, long thought lost. The book is completed and will be published sometime next year by Pan Macmillan.

9. How has the book fared? It has been successful for sure. What do you think of yourself as a writer basis that? Has that changed anything? Do you expect more from yourself now?

The Shadow Throne has hit No. 8 in the bestseller list (HT Nielsen BookScan)in the very first week (ending September 15th) of its release. In that week, not all stores still had the book displayed, and so to get to this level of sales so early has been great for me as a debut writer. I’m waiting to see how it will do in the weeks and months ahead.

The early feedback from several readers and sales figures themselves validate the one most important expectation I have as a writer: that I’ve hopefully been able to establish a strong ‘connect’ with the reader. My plot, pace, characters and writing style have resonated with my target audience. This is a huge boost to my confidence as a debut author, and that in a less-populated genre. The experience of being published has also matured me as a writer; the feedback from people, even my own editing team have all deepened my perspectives of what works.

Obviously, we are still in the early stages of the introduction of TST and time will tell how well it will succeed. Still, expectations of myself for my further work have become more ambitious consequent to the early successes we have seen thus far. Building on a broad-based reader feedback is as a good a spur any for improving as a writer.

10. Your biggest reader compliment…

Kris Gopalakrishnan, the Vice Chairman of Infosys wrote in to say he felt compelled to finish the book in almost one go. This in fact has been the reaction of practically every reader of The Shadow Throne so far and the biggest compliment that a thriller writer can expect!

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