|A.X. Ahmad Photo By Jennifer Nash|
Amin Ahmad grew up in India, was educated at MIT, and worked for many years as an international architect before taking up writing full time.His short stories and essays on immigrant life have been published in The Missouri Review, The Harvard Review, The New England Review, Narrative Magazine and The Good Men Project. He’s been a finalist for Glimmertrain’s Short Story Award, and been listed in Best American Essays.
Despite being busy with his book tour he was kind enough to do a "Tête-à-Tête" with Suprose.
Why do you write?
I come from a family of storytellers. No one in my family has ever had an ordinary day: they burst through the door saying, “You won’t believe what happened to me…” So it’s natural for me to tell stories, and I’ve been writing since I was a child. But being a good immigrant son, I followed my parent’s dictates, and became a professional and spent many years working as an architect. But after the birth of my own son, in 2000, something changed. I realized that I couldn’t really be a role model for him if I wasn’t doing the thing I loved; so I took the leap and started writing again.
Writing has always been a way for me of processing reality. I write to integrate my experiences, and the two worlds I always live in- the ‘there’ of the India I left behind, the ‘here’ of life in America.
Please talk about your journey from an aspiring fiction writer to one who just published their debut novel…
It was a long process. The crucial step was thinking of myself as a writer, as opposed to just an architect who writes from 5 AM to 7:30 AM. Who anoints us as writers? Who gives us the permission to write, to devote years on writing a book that may or may not be published? We make that decision ourselves, and with it comes a seriousness, and a commitment.
In my case, while I was working, I published essays and short stories in literary magazines. They are incredibly competitive to get into, and just the act of finishing a story and sending it out was transformative. And then when it was accepted, there was an editing process, a back and forth discussion about the story, and revisions. To realize that someone—a complete stranger—took my work so seriously helped me to change my perception of myself.
So it was only when I had these publications that I had the courage to quit architecture and start writing full time. To this day, I have a shelf of magazines I have published (I’ve added my novel to the shelf) and on the days when I doubt myself, I open the closet door and look at my publications and think, “OK, so I am really a writer.”
Why did you change your name? Please explain the choice…
When I wrote for literary magazines, under my own name, agents often read my literary work and were interested in it, but when I told them I was working on a suspense novel, they seemed to quickly lose all interest! I came to realize that there was a huge split between the literary world and the genre world. So when I sent out my suspense novel, I chose to call myself ‘A.X. Ahmad’. I figured that way, readers wouldn’t get the two genres confused. And in the future, if I write something literary, I can use ‘Amin Ahmad’. It can be an open secret, but the name on the book can signal to readers what they’re getting. ( My model here is the literary writer John Banville who writes amazing mysteries under the pen name Benjamin Black.)
What motivates you, makes you want to write?
I simply love writing. When I’m writing, time stops. Five hours can feel like fifteen minutes. I am not here when I’m writing, I’m somewhere else, lost in the terrain of my book. The only other time I’ve experienced this pleasure is was when I was designing a building at architecture school at MIT, and was deep into the design: I could stay up all night. Writing is not hard for me. What is hard is the self doubt that creeps in when you’ve quit your job to write, when you’re broke, when agents and publishers are turning you down. What’s hard is all the other stuff you have to do to get published.
What are the tools you use to inspire yourself? As in writing excercises, music and such…
Routine is key for me. I take the bus each morning at the same time to the same coffee shop in downtown Washington DC. They know me, and when they see me coming, they make me my tea and breakfast. I sit at a table and write long hand in my notebook (no internet, no distractions), and something about being amongst people, amongst the ebb and flow of conversations, lets my mind wander, and enter the fictional world. The ‘white noise’ really helps get into the work. I can’t write in my apartment: it’s too quiet, and makes me too anxious, and I start to think about the dirty dishes in the sink and the laundry that needs to be done…
Did you go to school, study to become a writer? Please talk about your mentors, teachers and what the driving force was…
I started writing in Boston at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, and then was part of the first ‘Master Novel’ class at Grub Street. Without Grub Street, I would never have been a writer. Jenna Blum, a published author, took a whole lot of us under her wing and nurtured us and taught us not only about writing, but about the professional world of publishing. Then I studied suspense writing at The New School in New York, and Katia Lief there, a published mystery writer, encouraged my work. I also have incredible writer friends in writing groups, in NY and Washington, who read my work and kindly but firmly tell me what needs fixing. This community has been crucial to my survival as a writer.
What kind of a writer do you consider yourself to be?
I consider myself to be a storyteller, first and foremost. I love beautiful writing, and read a ton of literary fiction, but language for language’s sake does not interest me. The writer has to tell me a story, and carry me into their world. I’m also very interested in plot and structure: being trained as a designer, the architecture of a novel fascinates me: I like to take them apart, like taking apart a clock, and see how they work. One of my favorite novels is ‘Tinkers’ by Paul Harding: it’s a jewel box of a novel: gorgeous prose, and incredibly artfully constructed.
How does it feel, to be a successful published writer of whom expectations are different, versus a writer who just wrote just because?
Being a published writer and being successful aren’t synonymous, I’m afraid. This is a common misconception: once you publish a book, you’ve somehow walked through the gates into the promised land. I think with writing, there is no arriving at a place of security and safety. Because writing (and of course publishing) is an inherently risky, speculative process. I know writers who sell a ton of books, but who approach their next project with fear. What does happen is that you discover a writing process that works for you: so on bad writing days, you can still work, still have confidence in the process. You just learn how to handle yourself and your fears better.
Do you believe creativity is stifled when prose is categorized and clubbed into genres?
I think that good writing often works on many levels at once. Look at kid’s books that are deceptively simple, but that can mean something to the adult who is reading it to their child. Good writing is always larger than its category. But do I think genre conventions stifle good writing? No. Sometimes constraint can be a good thing; a lot of beautiful poetry was written within traditional forms. I’ve found writing in the thriller/mystery genre to be incredibly liberating: using the mechanism of plot allows me to explore so many different worlds. As an ‘immigrant’ writer, I can move beyond the usual tales of cultural assimilation and arranged marriages and explore a larger landscape. What is dull and boring for me is when genre constraints become reduced to formulaic writing.
Many writers tend to be solitary animals, not savvy sales or marketing folks. For them toughest part is the sell. How did you navigate through this?
I’m grateful for my training as an architect. I used to manage multi-million dollar construction projects, so I’m used to working within a large creative team, and managing people and getting them to do things. Architecture toughened me up: I had to work for clients, I had to sell my services, I had to go back and revise and change designs. So when faced with getting an agent or publicizing my book, I put on my project manager hat, and get to work. That’s not to say that I like it- I don’t. If I could hand it off to someone else, I would, and just spend my days writing. But writers don’t have that luxury any more: we have to do a lot to sell our books.
What do you read – for pleasure and for motivation?
When I’m working on a novel, I’m exhausted at the end of the day, and I don’t necessarily want to deal with words. Plus I find myself unconsciously analyzing the text, seeing how it works, editing it. So its hard for me to read new books, but I do like to read short stories by masters like Alice Munro and Sam Shephard and, most lately, Daniyal Mueenuddin, whose collection ‘In Other Rooms, Other Wonders’ is amazing : it’s set on his farm in North West Pakistan. And of course there is the “New Yorker” which is so well written that it needs no mental effort on my part: the writers are professionals, and draw me in to reading about the most unlikely subjects.
What is a favorite book you recently read and what did you like most about it?
13. ‘The American’ by the British writer, Martin Booth. The main character is a man who makes guns for assassins, and he settles down for a few months in an Italian hill town, where he befriends the local priest. Nothing much happens in the book, but the language is sensual and shot through with tension and sadness and the description of the little sleepy town is stunning.
If I were to look through your bedside reading pile what would I find?
My friend Lisa Brackmann’s latest thriller, set in China, ‘The Hour of the Rat’, Haruki Murakami’s ‘’IQ84, Henning Mankel’s ‘The Dogs of Riga’, Graywolf Press’s ‘The Art of Time in Fiction,’ Gish Jen’s ‘Tiger Writing’.
What is your next project? What are you working on?
I just finished writing the second book in the Ranjit Singh trilogy, ‘Bollywood Taxi’, and that exhausted me: two books in three and a half years is a lot. I’m taking a break before launching in to the final book of the trilogy, ‘Gandhi Motel’. So right now I’m working of some short stories that have been kicking around for 10 years or so. Time to take out these orphans, re-write them, send them out into the world and hope they find a good home. Gotta keep writing, stay sharp, keep sending out.