Featured Author Interview: Tarquin Hall

 

We would like to thank Tarquin Hall and Simon and Schuster for allowing us to feature Hall as our July Featured Author. We appreciate the support. Don’t forget to check the reviews we’ve conducted this month and pick up this series here. Thanks again for a great month, LitStackers!

Hall is a British writer and journalist. He was born in London, 1969, to an English father and American mother. Hall has spent much of his adult life away from the United Kingdom, living in the United States, Pakistan, India, Kenya and Turkey, and travelling extensively in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. He is the author of six books and dozens of articles that have appeared in many British newspapers and magazines, including the Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Observer and New Statesman. He has also worked in TV news and is a former South Asia bureau chief of Associated Press TV. His chosen subject matter has proven extraordinarily diverse. He has written features on Wilfred Thesiger, Texan rattlesnake hunters, the Taliban and British-Asian Urdu poets. Hall’s exclusive reports include a profile on Emma McCune, an English woman who married Southern Sudanese guerilla commander Riek Machar; the draining of Iraq’s marshes by Saddam Hussein, and a one-on-one with former Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in a Syrian safehouse.

Hall’s books have received wide acclaim in the British press. His second, To the Elephant Graveyard was heralded by Christopher Matthew in the Daily Mail as “a classic”. His third, Salaam Brick Lane, about Brick Lane in the East End of London, was described by Kevin Rushby in The Guardian as “charming, brilliant, affectionate and impassioned.” Salaam Brick Lane recounts a year spent above a Bangladeshi sweatshop on Brick Lane.

In 2009, Hall published his first mystery novel The Case of the Missing Servant introducing the Punjabi literary character Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Investigator. The second in the series, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, was released in June 2010.[4] The third, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, is scheduled for release in July 2012. Hall is currently working on the fourth title, which is due for publication in 2013.

Hall lives in Delhi. He is married to the Indian-born BBC reporter and presenter Anu Anand.They have a young son and daughter.

LS: What prompted or inspired you to make the relatively pronounced shift from non-fiction to mysteries?

I’d been considering writing a non-fiction book explaining modern India – the politics, economics, social changes.  But then lots of commentators and experts and business people started doing the same.  There were suddenly a whole slew of books along those lines.  So I decided it was probably better to wait and do it once the effects of the whole liberalization of the economy could be seen more clearly.  Then I wrote a story for the Sunday Times in the UK about real Delhi detectives and it was one of those times as a journalist when I just couldn’t get enough of the story. I just couldn’t have hoped for better characters to interview.  These guys were dealing with the most extraordinary variety of cases and they were incredibly wily.  What struck me most, I suppose, was that the world in which they operate is incredibly complex.  So I wrote the story, which as I say was great fun and really interesting, and then I thought, ‘hang on a second, why don’t I do this as a novel – what a great way to explore modern India?’

LS: Have the stylistic approaches to your first three books, as well as your journalistic work, carried over to your process of constructing realistic societal settings for the Vish Puri novels, or do you find that writing the mysteries requires a completely different mindset?

Yes, it requires a different mindset up to a point.  I have to come up with plots, after all.  And although I’m often inspired by real-life- material – all sorts of things I read in the newspapers or stories and material that I gather from people like kind of magpie – part of my brain has to think like a mystery writer.  The reader’s going to want a twist or two and they’re not going to like it very much if they can see the ending coming a mile off.  That said, I also have my journalistic and travel writer caps on.  The books are set in modern, contemporary India and it’s important that I get my facts right.  Sometimes what I describe comes straight out of my notebooks.  So for example, in this new one, the third – Deadly Butter Chicken – Puri has to go to Pakistan and he has to go overland because he’s terrified of flying.  Well I had never been overland from India to Pakistan or vice versa.  I’d always flown.  So I had to travel up to the border and cross over.  It was an extraordinary experience – really very moving. I suddenly found myself confronted with all this security and tension and then these two sets of gates and a line painted on the ground.  It really came home to me what a mess we Brits made of the subcontinent.  But then I had to put myself in the mind of a 51 year-old Punjabi detective and try to see the journey through his eyes.  It was kind of surreal.

LS: Your decision to include some deeper insight regarding India’s cultural transitions, which create tension between the traditional and the modern, was an interesting and profitable one. Was that choice made primarily in order to balance the quick pace of the detective story, or because you feel that it’s simply necessary for any story set in India to highlight that tension?

No, that all just comes naturally because that’s how India is these days.  Living there you see it every minute of every day.  There’s this constant contrast between the conservative and the new, urban and rural, modern and traditional.  Like you said, it’s this constant backdrop to the series.  One minute you’ve got software developers taking on the world, making billions of dollars and creating entire cities of glass and steel with call centers and malls and modern apartment complexes.  Then you’ve got this giant underbelly where India hasn’t changed all that much.  I think you see it most clearly in the new book with the Angadia diamond couriers.  Believe it or not, 90 percent of the world’s diamonds are carried across India by these men and women who carry the stones up their trouser legs or hidden in their moisturizer cream – or wherever.  We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars of diamonds a year and they’re not regulated or even identifiable.  It’s an extraordinary, parallel system.  But that’s India – there’s always so much going on under the surface.

LS: What’s one thing about living in Delhi — if there is one — that an American just wouldn’t be able to comprehend, without actually going there to experience it?

Hard one.  I wouldn’t want to generalize.  But I suppose the hardest thing for Westerners to grasp is the difference in the belief systems between East and West.  They’re polar opposites.  Basically, since the so-called ‘enlightenment,’ we Westerners – and I include myself in this – have come to believe that the intellect rules everything.  We believe that we’re in control of our destinies.  So when, say, a natural disaster happens we’re completely baffled.  How could this happen?  It just doesn’t compute.  I don’t think it really matters if you’re born again or a complete atheist.  You don’t ever put your faith completely in a higher force.  There’s always this belief that we are in control of our own destiny, we’re in control.  Now the rest of the world – or certainly the East – sees that as totally deluded.  Everyone in India, bar the odd rationalist, believes to their core that something else controls the course of our lives.  And that’s very hard for Westerns to comprehend.  When confronted with that kind of thinking, they pull their hair out.

LS: Has the proliferation of Indian characters in Western pop culture awareness (ie: Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, and television’s Kunal Nayyar’s character Rajesh Koothrappali on Big Bang Theory, or Mindy Kaling’s Kelly Kapoor on The Office, to name a few) helped or hindered your experience in writing and publishing the Vish Puri detective novels?

It hasn’t really affected it at all, to be honest.  I just do my thing. But I loved Slumdog.  I saw it on the opening night in New York, not knowing what to expect, and everyone in the audience was up on their feet at the end, ecstatic.  It’s a great story.

LS: You write often of the sad state of affairs in the judicial and law enforcement systems in India (as well as in construction/real estate) where greed and corruption are rife, even overwhelming.  Have you gotten any pushback on writing such an unflinching assessment of these modern Indian processes?

I’ve never had anyone complain – I think that’s because Indians recognize it as 100 per cent true.  They get touchy when India’s portrayed as a country of slums and poverty.  But everyone here has to deal with corruption and the weakness of the rule of law every day.  It’s a constant topic of conversation.  Right now there’s a lot of protests against corruption in politics and the bureaucracy with campaigners trying to push through a bill in parliament that might help clean things up a bit.  So no, I don’t think it’s something people shy from discussing.

LS: When you begin work on a Vish Puri novel, do you have the twists and turns of the investigation worked out in advance, or do you perhaps only have the client request established and let the story develop during the writing process?

I kind of make it up as I go along.  The main thing for me is the theme and setting.  I sit down and think about that first.  So with the new one, I thought it would be interesting to have a Pakistani murdered in India and then it seemed like a good idea to have him be the father of a Pakistani cricketer playing in an Indian league.  Also, I wanted the back story to be set in 1947, during the partition of India.  Thousands of girls and women were abducted by either side – Hindus and Sikhs by Muslims and vice versa – and so I though the murder could be motivated by revenge.  Beyond that, it was anyone’s guess.  I basically work through the plots, kind of telling myself the story as I go along.  In the first book I got to chapter eight or thereabouts and decided that Puri should be in danger, so I had someone open fire on him as he was tending to his chili plants.  At the time I had absolutely no idea who was trying to kill him.

LS: How have your Indian friends and in-laws reacted to not just the subject of the Vish Puri novels, but also the word usage, the lifestyle embellishments, even the cadence of the conversational language used?  These all seem very authentic, but have they been given the Mother-In-Law stamp of approval?

I was pretty terrified when the first book came out.  I thought everyone in India would hate it.  But the response was fantastic and the reviews have basically all been really complimentary.  Like I said, I work really hard to keep it genuine.  If you were living in India today I think you’d find the books very topical.  But yes my mother-in-law has read them and seems to have enjoyed them.  And of course I get my wife, who was born in India, to read them.  Sometimes she tells me I’ve got something wrong.  But then that’s marriage!  I guess your wife and your mother-in-law are always going to be the hardest audience to please!

 

*Thank you to Sharon Browning and Sam Spokony for contributing to this interview.*

 

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