Spy, Interrupted: The Waiting Wife was selected as a finalist in the 9th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards!
Book lovers are an opinionated bunch. They have strong likes and dislikes, and love to argue. But they are also curious, funny and warm, and unfailingly courteous. I thought it would be interesting to share some of the discussions I’ve had at author events, as well as some other questions I’ve been asked frequently.
Most popular question by far: Are you a spy/work for the CIA?
No, I am not, and I do not know anyone who is. In fact, if a real spy reads my book, I am sure that she/he will fall of the chair laughing. Just as I do when I read breathless articles in newspapers and magazines about machine learning and artificial intelligence. Recently, I met a former secret service agent who used to be on the security detail of a very high profile US cabinet secretary. He promised to read my book and let me know what he thought. I’ll keep you posted 🙂
There are many famous Indian women writers who write about the immigrant experience; how come you chose such an unusual genre?
I know that when publishers and publicists see my name or photo, they expect the whole immigrant “caught between two cultures” schtick. I am fed up with that.
I write about what I enjoy and what I would personally love to read. And I truly feel that there is a big gap in the “classy romance meets good thriller” genre. Besides, my cultural roots will come through no matter what I write about. People loved the alu parathas and New Delhi scenes in Spy, Interrupted: The Waiting Wife, not to mention Nina’s extended family dynamic.
Your book would make a great movie. Why don’t you turn it into a screen play?
I’d love to! But, I don’t know where to start. In the meantime, for your amusement, here are some casting choices that have been suggested.
Stephen James: Bradley Cooper, Tom Hardy (Too bad that my favorites, Colin Firth and Daniel Craig, can’t pull off a 30-something look anymore).
Nina Sharma: Deepika Padukone, Mila Kunis.
As promised, my friends at BHPL and I will either have bit roles, or will visit the studio set when it happens.
Are the places you write about real? For example, the beach where Stephen and Nina have a romantic picnic?
Yes, they are. A beach fitting that description can be found along the coast of Rhode Island.
On a personal note, I am happy to report that my father is back home from the hospital and is doing really well. Thanks to everyone for their best wishes. And special thanks to Anne deFuria of Berkeley Heights Public Library for being so thoughtful and considerate during that week of uncertainty.
A few years ago, a literary agent read my manuscript (Spy, Interrupted: The Waiting Wife) and said that she loved it…but that I should spice it up, and not be so subtle. Sex sells, she said. It was clearly good advice coming from years of experience. But, that is easier said than written. After all, who wants to be on the short list for Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award?
Among writers that I have read, Jonathan Franzen is guilty of the most gratuitous use of sex. It appears randomly and frequently, jumping off the pages at unsuspecting readers. Among the old school, D. H. Lawrence spent considerable time on that subject writing with poetic passion and intensity.
South Asian cultures are quite uptight in this respect. It takes a very talented writer like Hanif Kureishi to create a raucous world filled with bawdy humor. There are many others without his skill and wit who just come across as coarse and vulgar.
The romance genre is even more challenging. Chemistry is the beating heart of a great romance novel. How do you build that chemistry between the hero and the heroine without being sickeningly coy (as Indian stories and movies used to be) or utterly in poor taste by letting it all hang out (some music videos)? How do you write a classy romance without dumbing down the characters, plot and quality of writing? Without condescension, or worse, manipulative marketing tricks?
I personally believe that much of chemistry is cerebral. That’s why the romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice is so compelling. To quote from Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, “Smart is the new sexy!” In the hands of a master like Marquez, that bright human intelligence, combined with incandescent passion verging on madness, turns into magic.
“Tell him yes. Even if you are dying of fear, even if you are sorry later, because whatever you do, you will be sorry all the rest of your life if you say no.” — Love in the Time of Cholera
It is no secret that I am addicted to data. I love numbers almost as much as I love writing. These days even political campaigns and nonprofit foundations are all agog about using “data science”. In fact, Paul Rudnick wrote in 2012 that statisticians were the new sexy vampires. So, in the spirit of the Age of Data, I thought I’d spice up my writing career through some thoroughly unscientific experiments with data.
Typically, after the initial burst of energy that accompanies a book release, things get alarmingly quiet. If you are not Salman Rushdie or Jonathan Franzen, your book will wither and fade and ultimately go to rest in the graveyard of books. Unless you keep giving it little vitamin shots, which by the way, are not guaranteed to keep it breathing. The hope is that you keep it limping along until your next book comes along and it’s buzz will drag along the earlier book and so on until you make it to the New York Times’ best seller list. Easy!
The two-part question, therefore, is, what are these vitamin shots and how do we measure their effectiveness?
A vitamin shot is any action that could potentially increase the number of people who know about your book. Publicizing your book is the only thing you can control–you can’t make people buy your book, nor can you make them read it. Author events at libraries and book stores, articles in magazines and newspapers are real world actions; online giveaways, discounts, posting to social media networks, getting mentioned in popular blogs are online actions. And of course, getting picked up by a book club like Oprah’s is the ultimate vitamin shot that gives you and your book eternal life.
A vitamin shot is effective if it drives traffic to your website because the number of visits to your website is a proxy for the number of people that now “know” about your book. Facebook Insights, Google Analytics and almost all website hosting services provide ways of tracking traffic through your website. They grab “eyeballs” that wander over to your website and categorize and count them by time of day, day of week, age, gender, location, referring websites, and how long they perused your website and which pages on your site they spent most time on. In general, all data are anonymized and aggregated so that no personal information is revealed.
When I started examining the data provided by Facebook Insights and Google Analytics, there were two things that surprised me. First, a lot of traffic comes from websites ending in “dot ru”, scam sites based in Russia, presumably. Do they, as a matter of principle, trawl every website on the Internet (probably!), or was there something particularly alluring about my website? Second, my most popular post BY FAR, was A Thinking Woman’s Spy and I still can’t figure out why. Was it the pretty flower? Did the international spy community suddenly take an interest? Or was it the use of the words “thinking” and “woman”, that too in the same sentence? Very curious.
In my next post, I will describe some of my other experiments.
Last week, I had a very strange experience. I had been working on a scientific paper and had spent the whole day worrying about experiments and their accuracy. That night, I sat down for my usual nightly ritual of fiction writing.
I wrote: “Furthermore,” Stephen said to Nina”. At that point I had to stop. I checked what I had written, and to my horror found “Therefore”, “Thus” and “In addition” sprinkled throughout the dialog. I was afraid to go back and check the paper I had been writing. But I had to, and there it was…I had described a diagram as “graceful”. I had no choice but to stop writing fiction…yes, I mean the novel…until I had finished my paper.
Traditionally, scientific writing favored passive voice narration in order to remain impersonal and objective, although that is changing now. The emphasis was on being clinical, impartial and precise in the service of science. Every statement had to be supported with evidence, either in the form of a theoretical proof or exhaustive empirical corroboration.
In fiction, the more personal you get, the more powerful the story. It’s about breaking down walls and inhibitions and getting right inside a person’s head. And, you are allowed, actually required, to make things up. Which I find to be the most liberating part of writing fiction.
Yet, as I had mentioned in my interview, my scientific training has helped me think clearly about my characters and articulate their innermost thoughts. Most of all, the minimalism of mathematics has been a huge help while writing and editing my manuscript. I am still working on this skill and I hope that readers can see it in the evolution of my style from novel to novel.
Science and romance, odd but happy bedfellows.
Many readers have asked me–how did you research spy material for the novel? Unlike John le Carre or Graham Greene, I have no background in this field. But there is no shortage of information.
Before I explain, I’d like to debunk one popular piece of advice: write what you know. The problem is that 99% percent of human experience is common, and things would be pretty boring if I wrote about data mining and Big Data (my area of expertise) or the immigrant experience (my personal story) which has been flogged to death by every immigrant who ever picked up a pen (or keyboard). We would never have Tarzan if Edgar Rice Burroughs stuck to writing about what he knew–pencil sharpeners.
In terms of research, newspaper headlines are a gold mine. For instance, the terrorist attack in the novel is based on the real life attack on the Taj in Mumbai in November, 2008. The attack was scouted by an informant and double-agent named David Headley who is the inspiration for the character of Sid Ali. We will learn more about Sid and his motivations in the next two parts of the trilogy. And, the hero’s encounter with the nasty photographer in Goa is similar to the Raymond Davis incident in Lahore. Davis was a CIA contractor who got into an altercation with the locals and the US government had to pay a settlement to secure his release.
Other references include: Spycraft by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton; The Reluctant Spy, by Jack Kiriakou.
For me personally, the biggest and most important source of inspiration was reading the literary classics in this genre. And, Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Sorry, Gary Oldman.
I was nervous–would I have to read an excerpt? What if I was heckled? But Lotte Newlin, director of Kemmerer Library of Harding, assured me that the evening would be a lot of fun.
She was right. A wine and cheese gathering by the fireside turned into a warm and lively discussion about writing, publishing and the joys of reading. And before long the conversation turned to Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and the enigma machine. We even discussed a plot (proposed by Martin) for a thriller set in a library!
It was a fun evening and a wonderful experience connecting with fellow book lovers. I deeply appreciate the encouragement and kindness of Kemmerer Library community members who came out in the cold and rain to talk to me and extend their support and best wishes.
Thank you, Lotte, for organizing it.
Photo credit: Kristin
Thanks to Eugina Smith of Harding Township Living for featuring Spy, Interrupted: The Waiting Wife in the March 2015 issue!
The entire process was so much fun. It started with a chat with Eugina over terrific homemade cookies that she’d brought so graciously. Then came the photo shoot with Countryside Studios on a freezing February day. Just getting the equipment inside the house was difficult given the layers of compacted ice and snow (which are yet to melt, a month later!), but Adrienne and her team made it easy and stress-free.
Thanks HTL, for the support and encouragement. Read the article in its entirety by clicking on its image above.
“When I wasn’t reading this book I was dreaming in this book. At times I was Nina, other times I was one of Nina’s friends watching the story from a distance.” -Bassgiraffe
Read Bassgiraffe’s complete review of Spy, Interrupted: The Waiting Wife here.
Stephen couldn’t reconcile the girl in front of him with the picture his boss had painted. George must have been crazy. Did he seriously expect this girl to go to hostile, remote places in Pakistan? It would be madness to send her out to hobnob with spies, informants, and jihadis. She could barely walk in the sun.
“She can help us,” George had said. “She speaks Hindi, Gujarati, and Urdu. She works for BigSearch, Inc., and as a part of her job travels to remote villages—particularly in Gujarat and Rajasthan, near the Indo-Pak border. They’re popular points of entry for terrorists, second only to the Kashmir border. And nobody would suspect her! Her boss swears by her smarts. She is exactly what we need.”
She might be sharp, but she was not their type at all. Deceit and distrust were prerequisites of the life of an undercover CIA agent. She hadn’t shown either of those traits.
He pushed his plate away and settled back [on the beach blanket], his hands under his head for support. George had said to find out if she had met Tariq Rehman, the Pakistani writer. Rehman was traveling quite a bit lately. He had been spotted by electronic eyes at crowded venues all over the world—at airports, sporting events and music festivals—within hours of sightings of suspected terrorists at those very locations. And now Rehman and Sid seemed to have become best buddies. They talked several times a day. George wanted to know about what.
“I’m going to take a nap,” Stephen said.
Really? Nina was taken aback. What kind of date was this?
“It’s too hot right now. We have another hour before it cools down.” He glanced at his watch. “We can see the lighthouse and head out to the open sea for the sunset after that. There are newspapers and magazines in the gym bag if you’d like to read.”
He saw the look on her face and laughed. “Trust me. You won’t last until sunset without a nap. I highly recommend one.” With that he covered his face with a newspaper and fell asleep almost instantly.
Nina shook her head. What was the point of going all the way there to take a nap like a couple of toddlers? She fished for the New York Times in the gym bag. It was surprisingly heavy when she tried to push it away. What did he have in it, a nuclear reactor? She threw the pillow on it and leaned against it to read.
When Stephen woke up, the day was cooler, the sun less fierce and much lower in the sky. Nina had fallen asleep despite scoffing at his advice. He rolled over on his belly to take a closer look at her. She wore no makeup. Her skin was the color of molten honey with a faint blush from the heat and wine. Large eyelids lay closed under long, arching brows. It was a tranquil, contented face; her lips curved with the hint of a smile even in sleep.
He remained like that for a few minutes with his face barely inches away from hers. A faint perfume rose and ebbed with her breathing. He had a wicked impulse to kiss her. But his inherent decency prevailed, and he rolled away and sat up. His eyes were instantly drawn to her feet. Earlier he had watched surreptitiously while she’d removed her shoes and her feet emerged, soft and brown, with glorious metallic-peach nails—a welcome surprise given how severe the rest of her outfit was.
“Nina,” he said loudly. “Wake up.”
She woke with a start. Stephen was squatting on his heels next to her. She sat up and straightened herself. It was embarrassing beyond words, not to mention shocking, that she had fallen asleep within feet of him.
“There’s a restroom in the lighthouse if you’d like to freshen up.” He broke into a wide grin and discomposed her even more. She looked away quickly. He was different when he smiled—younger and not so hard edged, almost charming.
They climbed the rough-hewn rock steps to the lighthouse. It wasn’t very tall. Inside, a spiral staircase led to the top, where a makeshift viewing platform encircled the lighthouse.
The view was breathtaking. To the left the bay stretched out to the town they had left behind earlier that morning. In front of them and to the right, the open sea shimmered. The sun had acquired an orange glow as it made its slow descent in the west. Seabirds rode invisible air currents and glided past their heads.
Stephen looked at the boats that plied the ocean below and began to whistle an old rowing song his grandfather had taught him. Could it be that he was actually happy? When was the last time that had happened? More than twenty years ago, when his grandfather was still alive, and his parents, although alienated and distrustful, still lived under the same roof.
“Look.” He grabbed Nina’s arm. “Dolphins!” He took a pair of compact binoculars from his pocket, unfolded them, and gave them to her.
He turned her impatiently by the shoulders to point her in the right direction. The dolphins must have just had a good meal. They were lively and playful. They circled, jumped, and rolled, solo and in pairs.
Nina forgot her fear and leaned precariously over the rail with the binoculars. “Oh my God, they’re beautiful!”
They shared the binoculars and took turns watching the dolphins. They didn’t notice how low the sun had sunk in the meantime.
“We should leave,” Stephen said abruptly.
They raced down the stairs, packed their things, and boarded the boat. It chugged along slowly into the open water, where they could get a clear view of the sun’s disappearing into the fiery ocean.
Stephen killed the motor. The boat rocked gently with the waves. They were bathed in the glow of the sun and the sea. It was a spectacular show—the water swallowed the orange orb bit by bit until there was only a ghostly, crepuscular light left in the sky.
Stephen turned the boat around and headed back to town. Lights came on one by one along the shore, and dusk gave way to a star-filled sky. Neither he nor Nina uttered a word.
He returned the boat to the marina, and they walked home in continued silence, completely contented. When they got to Stephen’s dock, Nina stretched out her hand.
“Thank you. I had an absolutely fantastic time.”
He took her hand but, instead of shaking it, leaned forward on an impulse and kissed her—a soft, long kiss on the lips. She was startled. There had been no hint or warning.
“I should go,” she said quietly.
“Of course.” He released her and buried his hands deep in his pockets.
The moon shone down on her as she walked back to the Alis’ place with her head bowed. When she got to the door, she turned around to see if he was still there. He was.