Author Interview: There is a Formula When it Comes to Crime Writing, Says Ashwin Sanghi

Master storyteller and crime writer Ashwin Sanghi was at Kunzum GK for the signing of his new book Razor Sharp. We spoke to him about his books, his ace detective Prakash Kadam, his collaboration with American author James Patterson, and his writing process among other things. Some excerpts:

Bhavneet: Why is Prakash Kadam another decorated but bitter wreck of a man, and yet an ace investigator? 
Ashwin: What I have noticed about people who are very successful in one part of their lives is that they tend to have train wrecks of other parts of their lives. Because they are so good at one thing, something else usually takes a hit. It could be in terms of their personal lives, it could be in terms of their relationships and so on and so forth. I would say it’s not that he is so successful, but yet has so many problems, it’s because he has so many problems that he is successful.

Bhavneet: Is his being an ace detective sort of an escape from the rest of his life? 
Ashwin: Possibly. But I think, at least the little that I can see, with Kadam, or what we see, is a person who has been battered and bruised in life and it is probably the battering that he has received which makes him the sort of maverick that he is. I don’t know whether this was the sort of man who could ever have survived for too long in the police force with their rules and their procedures and their bureaucracy. That’s probably the reason why he’s able to handle these matters the way he does, because he’s sitting outside of the force. 

Bhavneet: Is there someone in real life on whom you based Kadam’s character? 
Ashwin: I spoke to a lot of policemen. And this was not only when I was writing this book, it was also when I was writing my two previous crime thrillers with James Patterson. I did a lot of ground work at that time, leg work in terms of understanding things like, for example, police procedures or understanding forensics or how the crime lab functions or how the morgue functions and so on.
I am fundamentally one of those who is used to doing a lot of research before I write. But obviously for my crime thrillers, the research tends to be of a different sort. Having said that, if you look at most of the lives of police officers, they are exceptionally difficult. I have come across some great investigative cops who unfortunately had terrible personal lives. So in that sense there is that spill over effect in the character of Kadam. 

Bhavneet: You’ve written two books with James Patterson. How difficult was it collaborating with Patterson? 
Ashwin: Actually, it’s not that difficult once you get the hang of it. I must tell you this: I am eternally grateful that I did those two collaborations because I don’t think I could have proceeded to write Razor Sharp had it not been for that education. It was like ‘Crime Writing 101’ in some ways because unlike other fiction, thriller fiction and crime fiction is much more of a craft than an art. So, let’s say a person who is a carpenter who makes chairs, probably his first chair, will not be as good as the 100th, and the 100th won’t be as good as the thousandth because he has honed that craft as he goes along. There is a formula when it comes down to crime writing. People don’t talk about the formula, but the formula is there, and you need to know what the expectations of the readers of that genre are in order to make it really work. So, in that sense, I think that experience of working with James was great. Working with him was also very easy because the way we worked was that one person writes the plot, the other person writes the first draft, and the first person writes the second draft. And we reversed that with the second book. So with one I wrote the plot and he wrote the first draft and I wrote the second draft. 

Bhavneet: That’s interesting. Who did most of the groundwork in that in those two books? 
Ashwin: The first book was mostly my work. At that point of time, James was not that comfortable with the context of India. So, he said that ‘I think the major part of it needs to come from you’. But by the time we got down to writing Private Delhi, the game had changed and he was very comfortable since a lot of changes happened between the first draft and second draft in Private Delhi. That was not the case with Private India

Bhavneet: You’ve written the Bharat Series, two crime stories with James Patterson and now you’ve written Razor Sharp. Is there a topic which you want to write about but which you haven’t touched upon yet? Or maybe you’re hesitant to touch? 
Ashwin: I hesitate in writing love stories. I am always someone who has written from the head rather than the heart and I am worried about that. A genre which I have not yet written, but which I want to explore at some point of time is horror and the paranormal. That interests me a lot. But I don’t know when I’ll get down to it, because I’ve got too much going on. On one hand I’ve got the Bharat series, seven books have come out, the eighth one will come next. Razor Sharp, the Kutta Kadam series has started, and we’re trying to target at least a book a year, if not every two years. So, somewhere between a year and two years’ gap one book in that series. Then I have an additional series going on with Westland, which is my 13-Step series which is the non-fiction series. Frankly I have my hands full, but then that’s what I thought when I did those books with Patterson also. So somehow or the other time gets created magically. 

Bhavneet: Would you walk us through your writing process? 
Ashwin: The writing process changes according to the genre that I am writing in. But let’s go with the Bharat series because that is what I am really known for. So, the Bharat series typically is a two-year process. It starts with an idea, typically the ideation. And when I say ideation, I’m talking about maybe a month or two of zeroing in on the idea amongst many ideas. Actually, all of those ideas are already there in my idea bank, it’s only a question of sifting through those and figuring out what I want to tackle. So that is one.
Once I’m done with that then it will go into the next stage where I’ll try and figure out a research plan in terms of who do I need to meet? Where do I need to travel? What do I need to read? Who do I need to interview in order to be able to build my research. That process can be anywhere around six to nine months of research, before I’ve even written a word. That’s one year gone. After that I will spend three months on the plot where every chapter will be clearly demarcated, and what happens in that chapter within a 100-150 words is down pat, including the beginning and the end. And what is the twist in between.  
Once I am done with the plot outline, that’s when I start writing. The writing is the easiest stage because by then everything is done. The research is done, the plot outline is done, the character sketches are done and now I am simply fleshing it out. At that point of time, I’m pretty much like a child with a colouring book in which the outlines are already drawn and I only need to see if it is going to be green or yellow or blue within those spaces. That takes me to around 20-odd months from the beginning. And the last three or four months for multiple rewrites as well as for edits and reviewing of the edits. So, mota moti 24 months. 

Bhavneet: Two years and how much time on an average do you spend writing during the day? 
Ashwin: I start writing at 5 am in the morning. I’m done by 9. People normally have a 9-5 day. I have a 5-9 day. 

Bhavneet: And what do you do the rest of the day? 
Ashwin: I have family responsibilities. In my earlier avatar I used to be a businessman till the time I started writing. So, obviously I have a legacy in that sense to protect and I have always believed that there are two parts of a writer’s work. One is books and the other is the business of books. So the business of books as in how you are doing as an author. There could be at that point of time a negotiation happening regarding an adaptation of a book. There could be contractual obligations. There could be choosing a cover design. There could be looking at how a particular title is doing across retail. Reviewing a marketing plan, a social media strategy. So, there are so many things that you need to do in order to make books work. So morning is books, which is the writing of books, the middle of the day is really the business of books, and my evenings are usually spent researching. Typically between 7 pm and 10 pm at night is when I am reading. 

Bhavneet: What kind of books are you reading? Apart from the research that you’re doing?
Ashwin: Mostly, I am reading the research that I do when I’m working on a book in terms of research or writing or editing, then you will rarely find me reading something that I want to read. But, between books is when I will be reading what I want to read. 

Bhavneet: Which is what? Can you give us the names of five books? 
Ashwin: My tastes are very eclectic. I don’t have favourite authors, but I do have favourite books. One of my all-time favorites, for example, was the Autobiography of A Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. Now, that is a book which I tried reading the first time when I was maybe around 14 or 15, but put it down because I couldn’t really make head or tail of it then. I eventually went back to it a few years later and ended up reading it more than 8-10 times. And with every reading, I feel that I’ve gained a little more insight into what he is trying to say.
In terms of stylistic elements, I would say probably Salman Rushdie at his best with Midnight’s Children, that’s one of the few books that inspired tremendous jealousy within me knowing fully well that I’ll never be able to write like that. So, you read it and you hope that one day you can write like that, but you know, at a very practical level that you can’t.
As a storyteller, purely as a storyteller, I would say probably Roald Dahl and Jeffrey Archer are at the very top of the list of storytellers. I mean, they say “easy reading is damn hard writing”. But, they make it so easy. It’s effortless storytelling. So, I would say that is there. The first time I read Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, that was a book which, for the first time, made me realise that you could make history interesting. That you could narrate history like a story. It’s so strange that we don’t associate it with stories, because the word history itself contains the word story. But we make it boring with a bunch of dates or events or something. But you can actually bring that narrative and make it absolutely fascinating. So that was a book that sort of inspired me to be able to think like that.  

Bhavneet: Is that where the inspiration for your Bharat series came from?  
Ashwin: Honestly speaking, for me the Bharat series is about overlaps. So, there could be an overlap between something that I have come across in philosophy and something that is available in a historical narrative or it could be an overlap between something that I have seen in the world of anthropology and something that I’m seeing in science. It could be something in the world of myths, but something that links back to contemporarypolitics. So, wherever there are overlaps, that is what excites me.

Bhavneet: And in terms of crime writers? 
Ashwin: Steig Larson and James Patterson, obviously. I mean, not all of James, but maybe the Alex Cross series in particular is outstanding. Amongst thriller writers, not necessarily crime but thriller writers, Frederick Forsyth would be on top of my list. Maybe to a lesser extent, Robert Ludlum, I would put him one notch below that.
And then there’s stuff like Rajagopalachari’s Mahabharat Retold. And it was one of the first simplistic explanations of both the Mahabharat and the Ramayan. They are classics. In today’s times, I would say probably some of the reading that I go to, of existing authors in our present times, probably Bibek Debroy is one of those that I keep going back to because he is sometimes the basis for a lot of the stuff that I write. I love the material that Vikram Sampath turns out. I think he’s doing a very fine job in terms of being able to present the other side of what is the commonly accepted historical narrative. And I think we need more of that because history should be multi-dimensional. You have an event like the Great Rebellion of 1857, which is taught as the Sepoy Mutiny in the UK. I want to be able to have both of those narratives in front of me because that’s the charm of history. I know History has been politicized always. So, you had 70 years of a certain narrative. 
And now, after 70 years, you want to push an alternative narrative. I wish that we wouldn’t try and remove one narrative or the other. I wish we would just have lots of narratives. 

Bhavneet: So, let the reader make their own choice.
Ashwin: Yeah, let them make the choices. So I think that’s pretty much a rundown of the sort of stuff that I like to read. 

Pick up Ashwin Sanghi’s Razor Sharp from any Kunzum store or WhatsApp +91.8800200280 to order. Buy the book(s) and the coffee’s on us.

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