An Interview with Author, Vaseem Khan
By Sarah Morgan
Vaseem Khan is a crime writer whose two series – the Baby Ganesh Agency and Malabar House – have international followings. But this year he’s embarked on his biggest challenge yet – as Chair of the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which takes place in Harrogate this July.
A writer’s life is simple. You get up in a morning and the muse is with you, allowing you to create amazing characters and situations that leap off the page. Then you send off your manuscript to a publisher who snaps it up, no questions asked.
And that’s it, right?
Well, maybe in your dreams. While that’s probably how many outside the publishing industry think it works, the reality is somewhat different.
Take Vaseem Khan, for instance. His path to success has been a rather more arduous one.
“I was born in the UK, grew up in London,” he explains. “I come from a British-Asian background. Nobody read in my family; my dad was very hardworking, worked in an industrial bakery, but couldn’t really understand wasting money on fiction, so it was my local library that gave me access to books, and that’s where I first came across the kind of books I wanted to read.
“I wrote my first novel at the age of 17. I’d read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, which was wonderful, and I thought, ‘this is easy, I can do this’ – the hubris of youth! So I wrote a comic fantasy, sent it in, and was roundly rejected, of course.
“I spent the next 23 years, wherever I was in the world working, writing different kinds of novels, sending them in and being rejected by pretty much every agent in this country. I was finally published aged 40.”
Although Vaseem can’t describe himself as an overnight sensation, the decade or so since the rejections stopped have probably gone by in the blink of an eye, simply because his novels have proved so popular with readers around the world – his Baby Ganesh Agency series has been published in 17 languages.
Such success means he’s now a man in demand, not just by readers, but by festivals – when we spoke, he was on the eve of jetting off to America for an event in Maryland.
However, it’s a different one that remains closest to his heart – the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which once again will be taking place in Harrogate this July. It’s hosted at The Old Swan Hotel, where Queen of Crime Agatha Christie famously spent time during her disappearance in 1926.
Vaseem feels a particular connection with the event because he loves Christie’s work, a passion that stems from watching David Suchet play Poirot on TV. Before that he’d had little or no exposure to what’s now dubbed Golden Age crime fiction; her books then went on to inspire Malabar House, his second series of novels.
“That initial grounding in Christie stayed with me, so when I eventually had this idea for a series of books set in 1950s India, I knew that the style I wanted to write in was Golden Age, not just because of the period, but because I love the way that Christie approaches crime fiction.
“It’s very much about the intellectual challenge to the reader, setting puzzles and cryptic clues, focusing on characters who genuinely leap off the page; they’re more than the sum of their parts.
“That’s what I try to do with the Malabar House series, so they have lots of cryptic codes, and clues, and ciphers, and hopefully the characters are also the kind that people want to come back and revisit.”
So far, they certainly have: “They’re winning awards and doing very well. I’ve got a fourth one coming out this year, which means I’ve got to knuckle down and get behind it. It’s called Death of a Lesser God.”
“When I look at the line-up I’m incredibly proud”
But before that hits shelves across the land, Vaseem has a very important task to perform – he’s not only appearing in Harrogate this year, he’s the chair of the whole shebang. Is that something he takes great pride in?
“Of course yes, absolutely! It’s a great honour, a great responsibility,” he grins, before going on to address just how friendly and inclusive the crime fiction scene is, despite its dark subject matter. “It’s been leading the way in opening doors for people like myself, voices that were not traditionally published, that were not given a platform.”
He adds: “The fact I’m the very first British-Asian person to chair the world’s most prestigious crime fiction festival, in its 20th year, speaks volumes to how collegiate crime fiction is and how much the industry has changed.
“It was my challenge to make sure I did the very best that I could to get the whole team together and put on what I think is going to be one of the very best festivals we’ve ever had. When I look at the line-up I’m incredibly proud of the people who’ve agreed to come along and be a part of it.”
And so he should be. Alongside festival stalwarts Val McDermid (one of the event’s founders) and Mark Billingham, such luminaries as Andrew and Lee Child, Ruth Ware, Lucy Worsley, Jeffrey Deaver, Ann Cleeves, Elly Griffiths, Mick Herron and Will Dean will be in attendance, alongside many more of the genre’s leading lights.
Part of Vaseem’s role has been to find topics for them to discuss, subjects that he himself finds fascinating.
“Ten years ago I started writing cosy crime and now, cosy crime has exploded. Everybody’s doing it, and so I thought we’ve got to have a panel on that. Psychological noir, still huge, legal thriller, I love those. So the chair is very hands-on when it comes to shaping the kind of things that will happen.”
“I think I’m an honorary Yorkshireman”
After it’s all over, Vaseem may be able to find the time to get on with some actual writing.
“I’m never short of ideas. Terry Pratchett had a wonderful quote – ideas are always sleeting through the universe, just looking for the right head to pop into. Sometimes I think they’re all headed for my cranium!”
But before Harrogate happens, Vaseem will be heading north for another event, this time with our friends at Hull Noir; he’s agreed to be interviewed about his most recent entry in the Malabar House series, The Lost Man of Bombay, at the city’s Central Library on May 24th, proving his love for our venerable county.
“I think I’m an honorary Yorkshireman,” he smiles. “I’m obsessed with cricket and football, and I play both. I love a good cup of tea; the blends that became Yorkshire tea, many of them came from India. And I do love a Yorkshire pud, although – and this may make a few people raise their eyebrows – my sister occasionally makes a Yorkshire pud, but she spices it up a bit. Will that get me blacklisted? Maybe I’ll never be able to step foot in the county again!”
Don’t worry Vaseem, if you carry on with all your hard work, whether that’s in writing great books or organising wonderful festivals, you can come here anytime!
For more details about the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, visit: harrogateinternationalfestivals.com