I remember reading Chanakya’s Chant a few years back and knew then that the time for Indian readers to get high on thrillers written by Indian writers had come. In the years that followed, I read and reviewed The Krishna Key and Private India as well. Obviously then, it was fascinating to finally meet the man who i admired for his writing skills… and this happened at the KDP Pen-to-Publish award event for the winning writers in 2019. I got an opportunity to talk to Rashmi Bansal as well, and you can read about our discussion here.
This meeting with Ashwin wasn’t really a formal one where a formatted interview could be possible. We sat together and talked about all things relevant to writers and readers in India. As the Pen-to-Publish award ceremony had just taken place, the discussion simply had to begin with ebook vs print books and Ashwin looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes and said, ‘My opinion is that technology is showing us how to read many books at one time. So, for example, today when I’m reading a Kindle, the indisputable fact is that I’m reading a book on a device which allows me to carry thousands, and as I have this habit of switching between books, I read 20 pages of something and then I’ll move to another book and then come back to it. This is fascinating, isn’t it?’ He added that technology is assisting many streams to merge. For instance, if a person is reading a book on Ram that describes his 14 year period in exile, the reader may also want to access a route map that traces the path that Ram took over the years.
Sounds perfect, I said. I mean, this certainly helps both the long form and short form in writing. Ashwin agreed and admitted that attention spans were getting shorter and so not every reader wants to read 70 or 80 thousand words and is happy with a 30,000 word novella ‘which means that eventually we are moving towards the story being king and the format becoming almost irrelevant. So whether you experience that story through a novella, or through a comic book, or through a traditional hardback or paperback, or whether you read it in one of multiple languages, or whether you see it as a series on the on Netflix, whether you see it in the form of a short animated feature on YouTube, ultimately, what is king is that story, the format is becoming increasingly irrelevant,’ he said.
I simply had to ask him more about evolving formats. Is there a defined sequence to any evolution, like for instance, a digital format will not be there unless the print format has already been there? I then asked if there weren’t a lot of the books being published today are by authors who were first on KDP and then moved into publishing in terms of print. Ashwin replied that ‘all the old paradigms seem to be going out of the window. We are seeing, for example, movies are followed by books published on their story. Even TV serials follow this sequence, and if you’re a game of thrones fan you must know that, for example, season 8 of Game of Thrones, which is currently airing, is unique as it isn’t based on any book that has already been written. Whereas the past series were inspired by books, this entire season is coming out without the book having been written and the book will be subsequent to the season.’ According to Ashwin, the sanctity of words that are read by the eyes, that is, the conventional form, will always have a space of its own. People love reading books because it leaves their imagination free in certain unfettered ways to create worlds that are unique to them which is quite unlike a movie where a viewer is literally hand-held to see green when that is the colour to be visualized.
When one is talking to Ashwin, one really needs to delve deeper into thrillers and I asked him if thrillers too have sub-genres. I mean, there are thrillers with financial bungling at the core and then there are those that have history or mythology woven around the story… and Ashwin thought for a while before saying: ‘One of the best definitions of a thriller is that it is a book that asks a question in the beginning and answers it by the end… and the journey that you take to answer that question is what produces the thrill.’ He then added: ‘So whether it is a financial thriller, whether it’s a crime thriller, whether it’s a mythological thriller, whether it’s a horror thriller, it doesn’t matter, really. There will be many, many sub genres within the space of thriller writing, what will be common. However, what will be common to the world of thrillers is the fact that (unlike, let’s say, if you’re writing hypothetically literary fiction) it’s your heart which will lead you…’ I completely agreed to this point of view because as a reader of thrillers I did want to spend hours trying to figure out everything happening. This obviously means that writing a thriller is far more of a craft than an art. It’s like, sort of comparing a sculptor to someone who makes similar looking table-lamps all the time. I mean, I always thought that thriller was something where the author had done a fair amount of research and had visited nuances that tend to exhilarate because of the unexpected twists they come laden with.
Ashwin is a person with no pretensions and this was clear when he said at some point in our discussion on the writing of thrillers that he aims for a small degree of improvement in each of his books. ‘Today, for example, I’m a far more organized writer, or I understand the value of research tremendously. I will invest months on getting the perfect research before I’ll actually start typing. I know exactly what should be the perfect length of a chapter to keep you hooked. I know exactly how I should end the chapter in order to propel you to the next chapter.’ According to him, the importance of a good beginning, a good middle and a good end cannot be undermined. He added, ‘Those are things which happened over a period of time. So yes, I do believe to a very great extent that you need to hone every once of skill necessary.’
As one of the judges for the KDP Pen-to-Publish contest, Ashwin read the short-listed entries and he said that ‘out of them, there were two or three that really sort of stood out, either because the concept was very novel or because an existing idea had been presented in an entirely different way. I do believe that there is a lot of talent out there that is simply searching for a platform. And that’s why when people ask me about this pen-to-publish contest I tell them that they need to begin by writing short and long articles.’ The point is that writers need to be like singers who go on producing great singles! This made me smile as I have written more than 1500 posts on my blog in the past six years and if I did a rough word count they would be equal to around ten full-length novels of around 80,000 words each. Ashwin did agree to the fact that writers today were not as much interested in improving their skills and were looking for great monetary breaks even after their first attempt at publishing a book. He said firmly that ‘Oh, well, first of all, let me tell you, if you want to own money, the last thing you should be considering is a career in writing.’
‘Absolutely right’, I said.
‘Unless, of course you’re planning to write screenplays,’ he smiled, ‘Unless you know and are sure of the next royalty check and where it was going to be coming from. I think that at the starting point of your career you have to realize this and that’s the reason why I tell many youngsters not to lose their day job. Keep the day job going because it’s very difficult to write when you’re hungry.’ In other words, if you have a source of income that can feed you and sustain you, writing becomes far easier.
During the course of our interaction, I did realize that Ashwin may be writing thrillers but has his sense of humour intact. As we talked about the obsession of the current breed of writers with monetizing their works fast, he said, ‘So I would say that youngsters must remember that writers can write books faster than publishers can write checks. Therefore, the truth of the matter is that in this country you can count the number of writers who can sustain their life through writing… or maybe you can count them on two hands, which is scary.’
It was time to wrap up the discussion and Ashwin said, ‘So my personal view is that yes, writing can become very remunerative for you provided you just simply hang in there. There are too many people who give up along the way. They say no, no, it’s not working… it’s not working. But you know, time is the real master. Stay on and your time shall come.’
17 June 2019