Monday, 3 January 2011

Interview of author Ashwin Sanghi

A very Happy and Prosperous New Year 2011 to the readers of Rainbow of Expressions. I'd like to start this new year under the sign of literature with an interview of Ashwin Sanghi, author of bestseller The Rozabal Line who has recently published another interesting novel - Chanakya’s Chant.

In your twitter profile you introduce yourself as "entrepreneur by day, novelist by night". How do you explain that?

I was born in Mumbai in a business family that has interests in manufacturing, real estate, retail and exports. Upon completing high school from Cathedral & John Connon School in 1985, I joined St. Xavier’s College where I pursued a BA in Economics. Parallel to my college years, I had already started working for the family business and by the time that I left for my MBA at Yale in 1991, I had over five years’ worth of work experience behind me. I returned in 1993 and immediately joined the group’s board and did not consider doing anything else besides managing the family’s business interests. It was only in 2004 that I began considering penning a novel by which time I had been involved in the business world for over 15 years. I had reached a point in my life where I felt that I needed an outlet for my creativity and that this necessarily needed to be outside the realm of business innovation. Today, six years later, I have two novels published and a third in the pipeline. Writing novels is no longer a hobby for me but a parallel career. But I’m well aware of the fact that I’m able to pursue my passion for writing because of the financial independence that my business gives me, hence the description “entrepreneur by day, novelist by night.”

Don't you find it difficult to combine the world of business with that of arts i.e. writing, given that both are so different? Was it a deliberate choice?

Not really. There are many traits from my business life that I have carried over into my writing life. For example, planning is an essential ingredient in writing thrillers or mysteries. As an entrepreneur I would prepare business plans whereas in my author’s avatar I prepare plot outlines. Increasingly, authors not only need to write but also need to be involved in the marketing of their own books and many of the selling skills that I picked up in my business career have been of use to me in my literary career. The process is not a one-way street though. The literary world and the publishing industry move at a rather leisurely pace and my exposure to this dimension of the industry have made me much more patient in my entrepreneurial life!

You are married and have a son; and writing, as you've rightly said somewhere, is a very lonely activity. How do you combine the two?

I have simply learnt to compartmentalize. Writing is an ideal outlet for someone who is introvert—someone like me. My family has learned to respect my privacy when I’m in my study working on a novel. Usually this happens either late in the night or early in the morning. For the rest of my time, I love being a husband and a father. In fact many of my best ideas come from discussing my stories with my wife. Even my seven year old son has definite opinions on cover designs.

How and when did you start writing? When did you first discover the writer in you?

I was always very fond of reading having been exposed from a very early age to the best of books by my mother and my maternal grandfather. If you read the first page of any of my novels you will see the line “I am fortunate to be the grandson of the late Shri Ram Prasad Gupta and grandnephew of his brother, the late Shri Ram Gopal Gupta. Their blessings move the fingers that hold my pen.” Both these men were avid readers and were also occasionally inspired to write Urdu and Persian poetry. Both of them encouraged me to read books that I would otherwise never have read. It was my grandfather who told me that simply being a successful businessman was of no use if one was unable to give time to a creative pursuit. His view was that business can feed your stomach, but what will feed your soul? When I went to Yale in 1991, I started writing a few articles for the university’s publications. Upon my return to India, I also started contributing a few business related articles to a select newspapers and magazines, but at this point of time I had no idea that I would ever write fiction.

It was my intense curiosity for the Jesus in India story that got me to write. My parents used to regularly take us for holidays to Kashmir during the seventies and during these visits, we would do all the touristy stuff—including visiting Rozabal. As a child, however, I did not fully understand the significance of the tomb. It was only in 1999 that the very notion that Jesus may have left behind a bloodline came to my attention when I read Holy Blood Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. A couple of years later, I read Holger Kersten's Jesus Lived in India and was fascinated with the idea that Jesus could have been inspired by Buddhism and that he may have drawn much of his spiritual learning from India. I began to wonder whether I could marry the two theories i.e. that he survived the crucifixion and traveled to India and that he left behind a bloodline. I spent the next two years reading each and every book that I could acquire on topics that I wanted to explore viz. the possibility of Jesus having spent his missing years as a youth studying in India, the theory that Jesus did not die on the cross and that he was whisked away to safety, and the notion that Jesus traveled to India to reunite with the lost tribes of Israel who had settled in Kashmir. In all, I read around forty books during this time besides scouring the Internet for any information that I could possibly find. Having amassed this wealth of information in my head, I began wondering why no one had brought this subject into the realm of popular fiction and soon realized that this was a book that I simply had to write.

You published your first novel The Rozabal Line under the pseudonym of Shawn Haigins. Why did you do so?

As stated earlier, I am not a writer by profession. I was born and brought up in a business environment. I started working when I was 16 and completed my MBA when I was 22. By the time that I completed writing The Rozabal Line in 2006 I had already been in business for over 20 years. The decision to use a pen name was nothing more than a desire to compartmentalize my life so that my entrepreneurial dimension would remain distinct and separate from my literary one. However, I had not thought about an appropriate pseudonym to use until I actually completed the novel. As you know, there’s an abundance of anagrams in my first novel and the idea struck me: why not use an anagram of my real name as a pseudonym? I had always been a fan of Jack Higgins, the master of thrillers who began his career with The Eagle Has Landed. I tried shaping my pseudonym in his likeness. What I did not realize at that time was that I had not written just any other book but a book that was trying to coalesce different religions by connecting the dots. A close friend sent my self-published book to a reputed journalist in Kashmir who loved the book but she commented that “writers and authors ought to use their real names and not take refuge behind some sort of a camouflage. For, then, where's the connectivity, where's the bonding?” By then Tata-Westland had already decided to publish The Rozabal Line as an Indian edition and their management team had concerns about the difficulties in promoting the book under a pen name. Hence, the Indian edition was directly published under my real name rather than my pseudonym. This meant that all my future novels, too, would be under my own name and not under my pen name.

We've heard that your second novel is a political thriller with a historical backdrop. Could you please tell us a bit more about it? How long did it take you to write this novel?

After The Rozabal Line had become a bestseller, I began thinking about my next book. An aunt threw the idea of Chanakya at me and I spent the next couple of weeks watching all 47 episodes of the TV series that had been produced by Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi in the early nineties. As I watched the series, I began to realize that many of the political games being played in 340 BC were not too different from the political machinations of the present day. I asked myself: What would a modern-day Chanakya look like? What strategies would he adopt? I spent the next few months reading several books on Chanakya including his own treatise, the Arthashastra. I was convinced that it was possible to spin a historical tale that traced the strategy of Chanakya in ancient India and linked it to the present day. And that is precisely what the novel—Chanakya’s Chant—is about. I took around a year to write it, which included the research.

Some people are of the view that cover is the most important strategic tool to sell a book. Do you agree? Did you pay special attention to the cover design?

I remember reading somewhere that the images and words you place on the cover of your book are those that will either walk your book right up to the cash register or march it back to the shelves. The book’s cover is the final billboard, a point-of-sale advertisement, and the last piece of promotional material that hits potential purchasers on their way to pay. Therefore, I do agree with the view that it is an important strategic tool to sell. But even more important than the cover is word-of-mouth recommendation, and this only happens if your writing appeals to the reader. Your cover can get you initial sales but future momentum is driven by reader recommendations and no one recommends a book on the strength of its cover aesthetics!

Who is your target audience?

I don’t have a target audience. My view is that in order to be sure of hitting the target, it’s better to shoot first and subsequently draw circles around whatever one happens to hit! The Rozabal Line was written as a thriller that would appeal to men whereas I seem to have more women appreciating the book than men. The approach that I have taken is that it’s better to write from the heart and let the market dynamics sort itself out.

On your blog you've put an impressive video, which reminds one (at least a generation of Indians) of the serial Chanakya. Was it a deliberate choice?

Not really. The book trailer was influenced by two key decisions. The first decision was that the background score necessarily had to be a recitation of the Shakti mantra that appears in various places within the novel—hence the name of the title, Chanakya’s Chant. The second decision was that the visuals needed to represent all the elements of nature i.e. fire, water, air, and earth.

There's no doubt that Chanakya's name still evokes a feeling of respect among Indians and many of us still remember that series. How would you compare it with the series?

There is very little in common given the fact that the series was purely historical whereas my novel straddles two eras, the ancient period (covered by the series) and the modern day.

Do you think your novel will benefit from the Chanakya factor?

There are hundreds of books written about Chanakya, the Arthashastra, and Chanakya Neeti. If the Chanakya factor could help a book become a bestseller, all the books written so far on the subject should have become bestsellers. No, I do not think that readers will buy the novel for the Chanakya factor. They will buy it in the hope of reading a juicy historical mystery that ties into a modern day political drama.

From The Rozabal Line to Chanakya’s Chant, how have you evolved as a writer? Do you see any change in your writing process, style and thoughts? How has your writing style evolved down the line?

Writing a second novel is the easiest difficult thing that one ever does. It’s easy because you don’t have to prove yourself as a writer, assuming that your first book has done well. It’s difficult, because your audience has built up expectations from you. Often these expectations relate to the genre and subject. As a writer, I wish to leave myself completely free to explore any and every subject that piques my curiosity without having to wonder whether it will appeal to my readers. Partly, this is the reason why I said that I do not have a target audience. A target audience implies that one is putting limitations on one’s ability to be flexible in choice of subjects and styles. Having said that, however, I do believe that a second novel is much like having a second child. It’s much easier than the first. For one thing, you already have a good idea of the sort of edits that were required on your first work. This means that you try and foresee the pitfalls. By the time that you write your second novel, you also have lots of reader feedback regarding your first. This means that you can take corrective steps.

In earlier interviews you've referred to writing as your "jug of wine" (a sort of Madhushala, if I may say so). Do you think there'll be a day when you'll actually become a drunkard and leave the business-world to drown yourself in your "jug of wine"?

I’m currently 41 years old. I don’t see myself retiring from business till I’m 55. So the next fourteen years will continue to see me drowning myself in my jug of wine by night and sobering up for business in the morning, notwithstanding the hangover!

Ashwin, thank you for spending your precious time with the readers of this blog. May your hangover last for an eternity and keep intoxicating others as well!