On December 3, mystery authors Jasmine Aimaq (The Prince of Opium) and Nev March (Murder in Old Bombay) discussed their debut novels, set in 1970s Afghanistan and 19th century India, with Meredith Cole. In a thriller and in traditional detective form, both novelists use fascinating details from a particular time and place to explore the background and consequences of tragic death.
Watch the video of the event here and read the transcript below:
“[A] stellar debut . . . Aimaq, a former arms control analyst for a non-profit, draws heavily on her childhood experiences in Afghanistan to provide glimpses into the complicated political and cultural dynamics of a country that has seen nearly half a century of constant war. Though she has altered some historical details to fit the narrative, her observations provide astonishing context to contemporary global issues such as Islamic extremism and the international heroin trade.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Offering a piercing look at the Afghan view of foreign aid and patriarchal foreigners, Aimaq, who is half-Afghan and spent part of her life in the country, is a writer to watch. Every carefully described detail here will stay with readers as they examine what they thought they knew about America’s exporting of democracy and its war on drugs.” —Booklist, starred review
“March fills the story with finely developed characters, particularly Agnihotri, who proves a zealous investigator. She also presents an authentic view of India under British rule while exploring the challenges faced by a character of mixed race. The heartfelt ending leaves plenty of room for a sequel. Readers won’t be surprised this won the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award.” ―Publishers Weekly
“This award-winning lyrical narrative is a delightful multilayered treat.” ―India Current
JANE KULOW: Hello, and welcome to Shelf Life from the Virginia Festival of the Book, featuring livestreamed author events on Thursdays. I’m Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us.
A couple of notes before I hand the program over to our speakers: Please share your questions on Facebook or Zoom. This event has optional closed captioning, which you can turn on and customize at any time during the event by using the Closed Captions tab at the bottom of your window. If you haven’t already read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from a local bookseller or check out a copy from your library, visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore the full schedule of upcoming events.
Now I’m pleased to introduce today’s speakers:
Jasmine Aimaq, author of The Opium Prince, has taught history and international relations and also had a career in nonprofit. She was the director of press and corporate relations at the Pacific Council on International Policy and is now director of communications for Quest University. The Opium Prince explores the far-reaching consequences of a young Kochi girl’s tragic death in Afghanistan on the eve of a violent revolution. This groundbreaking literary thriller reveals the invisible lines between criminal enterprises and political regimes and one man’s search for meaning.
Nev March, author of Murder in Old Bombay, is the winner of the Minotaur Books Mystery Writers of American First Crime Novel Award. Leaving a career in business analysis in 2015, she turned to her passion: writing fiction. A Parsi Zoroastrian, Ned lives with her husband and two sons in New Jersey. You can learn more at NevMarch.com. In nineteenth-century Bombay, Captain Jim Agnihotri channels his idol, Sherlock Holmes, to investigate the crime of the century. Based on a true story and set against the vibrant backdrop of colonial India, Murder in Old Bombay brings its tumultuous, historical age to life.
And moderating today we welcome Meredith Cole, who was the winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic competition, and her first book, Posed for Murder, was nominated for an Agatha Award. Meredith teaches writing, and her short stories and essays have appeared in various anthologies and magazines. You can learn more at MeredithCole.com.
Welcome, all, and please tell us more.
MEREDITH COLE: Thank you so much, Jane. I’m so glad to meet both of you virtually. One of the things that’s so amazing about the Festival of the Book is it brings so many wonderful writers to Charlottesville, and we get to meet them in person. So this is sort of the second-best thing. Also, we get to possibly wear pajamas in our house and skip the travel part but still get to talk to you about your books. So I’m really so excited to meet both of you. Nev, I want to just start with you. I want you to tell us a little bit about your debut novel. And just to be clear, I think I was a judge on the first year of that award, and I know that each of the judges gets over seventy-five manuscripts. And it really means a lot for it to jump out at them and then, in the end, to win. So congratulations.
NEV MARCH: Thank you. It’s been just a joy. The Mystery Writers of America Award has pretty much launched my career, so I’m very, very grateful. And to know the judges did that much, it’s really wonderful.
MEREDITH COLE: It was a wonderful book. And tell us a little bit more about it. I know Jane gave a little bit of sort of a pitch for it, but tell us a little bit more.
NEV MARCH: Yeah, sure. So it’s set in 1892, where Captain James Agnihotri is recuperating. He’s an officer in the British Indian Army, and he’s in colonial India when he’s recovering from injuries. And he reads this despairing letter from a widower, Adi Framji. And he empathizes with something in that letter, and he’s intrigued. So he’s seeking redemption for his own missteps and decides to help Adi solve the mystery behind the puzzling deaths of Adi’s wife and sister. And these two young girls—sixteen and twenty—they plunged to their deaths from a university clock tower in broad daylight.
So this actually happened. There was such a tragedy, and it tore the community apart in 1891. So in my story, traveling the vistas of colonial India, Captain Jim’s investigations lead him through dangerous adventures to reach the ultimate prize: a sense of belonging.
MEREDITH COLE: Wonderful. Thank you. And Jasmine, could you do the same? I’d love to hear a little bit more. Tell everyone a little bit more about your book.
JASMINE AIMAQ: Absolutely, thank you. Thanks for the opportunity. Well, the book is set in 1970s Afghanistan, and it looks at a man who is half Afghan, half American, and who is now working for a State Department agency to help stop the opium poppy growing that in the 1970s had become such a big thing, not least because there was this burgeoning heroin addiction around the world, partly because of returning American GIs from the Vietnam War. So you had different countries sort of stepping up to fill the demand.
And the story begins with a tragic car accident, in which a little girl is hit and killed. And that event puts Daniel Sajadi, our lead character (my protagonist), in a direct meeting with someone called Taj Maleki, who helps him out of that situation—but who then launches a far worse nightmare. And the book really is about the dynamic between these two men and the way that the destabilization of Afghanistan, which took place in the 1970s and from which it has not recovered—the way that destabilization forces Daniel to make decisions—puts him in situations he never could have imagined. And while I won’t say more for spoilers, what I’d like to capture is that part of what I wanted to do with this character and show what was going on for people in 1970s Afghanistan and the types of choices people were faced with.
That’s a big theme in the book—is that we’re not always faced with a range of options. We are sometimes faced with a lack of options. And we don’t understand what part we’re playing in history sometimes until it’s too late. And that was the central theme for me. And I never envisioned the book as a crime or thriller. It didn’t actually occur to me that that’s what it was turning into until my publisher said, “You have a thriller on your hands.” I said, “Okay, great. Let’s go with that.”
MEREDITH COLE: Right. And so, it is fascinating. We’re talking about a very traditional from Nev and a thriller from you. And when I used to teach mystery writing, people would say, “Well, what’s the difference?” And for me, I feel like with a mystery, something horrible has happened, and this person is trying to figure out who did it and put things right in the world. And with a thriller, you’re afraid that something will happen.
And I feel that really—in your book, Jasmine, I feel like you’re just dreading—it’s like right before an accident, “No, don’t do it.” You know, don’t go down there.
And then in Nev’s case, there was a family, and it was a happy family, and Captain Jim is trying to put them back together and give people peace. And so they’re perfect examples of those two things. But I think people love to read both because I think they both satisfy so much. We love to read.
What I was really interested in—and I’m always going to be so careful not to talk about middles or ends of books we’re sort of launching, but I want everyone to discover them for themselves. But one thing I was really interested in about the two of your books was that you both chose outsiders as your protagonists. And in both cases chose someone—Daniel is half American, half Afghan. And Captain Jim is half Indian, half Anglo. And this really embodies sort of everything that they do. And I wanted to just hear from you. Why did you feel that this was the right choice for your character? Whoever wants to start.
JASMINE AIMAQ: That’s fine. I can start since I was just talking about it. Nev, is that okay with you? Thank you.
I recently gave an interview on Book Tribe to Neil Nyren, where he explored that theme with me a lot—with my own background. And the more I talked about it, the more I realized how important it is—that outsider perspective. And my whole life has been defined by that. My father was from Afghanistan. My mother is from Sweden. But I was born in Germany, and I grew up speaking French because that’s the language my parents had in common. They happened to both speak French. And I was on the outside completely, to such an extent that I didn’t realize I was on the outside. This was my identity, and all I knew is that I didn’t really understand what was going on around me. I just didn’t as a child. And only with an adult’s perspective was I able to sort of put a lens on myself and say, “Oh, I really don’t belong anywhere”—which is not a bad thing.
But very much that informs Daniel because he is—part of what happens when you are like me and my background is that it’s not like you’re completely on the outside. It’s that you never fully—you have a foot in, but you also have a foot out. I spent many years in America. In many ways, I feel American. I get that culture. But I also can see it with “outside” lenses all the time. And that’s what I wanted to convey through Daniel. That character wouldn’t have worked if he’d been entirely American at all, and it wouldn’t have worked if he’d been entirely Afghan. Also, his guilt about his privilege informs very much the decisions he makes and informs how blind he is to certain things. And that in his efforts to do good, he ends up doing bad things. And I understand that whole way of being in the world—of not knowing if my next decision is going to be right, because I don’t think I fully understand the context in which I’m operating.
And over time, I’ve come to see that as an advantage. And I like to think that my character Daniel—without giving away too much—eventually has a similar experience.
MEREDITH COLE: That’s great. That’s wonderful. Nev, why did you choose Captain Jim’s background?
NEV MARCH: Yeah. So initially, I chose to make him an Anglo-Indian. So he has an English father and an Indian mother. The idea there was he would be able to travel in both worlds—you know, polite society. He’s brought up by British officers. So he’s got good manners. He knows the terminology, the accent. But he’s Indian also, so he speaks Indian languages, and he can travel around the rougher parts—you know, seamy dockyards or villages and mountain passes and travels and so on. So he has this ability to go through both the rural and the urban settings. And so that started out as the reason for him to be Anglo-Indian.
But the fact is that Indians did not approve of the mixing of races any more than the English did. There was not comfort with people intermarrying outside their own communities. And certainly the English did not want young men marrying or having children with Indian women. So he’s an outcast. And that actually informed a lot of the plot adventures because this part of his background becomes more important. He suffers discrimination because of his name. Agnihotri is not just an Indian name: it’s a Hindu name and a Brahman name. And the fact that he’s taken his mother’s name means his father obviously didn’t own him—disowned him or didn’t give him his name. Didn’t stick around, essentially.
So Anglo-Indians did in fact have a troubled time finding their place and their identity within India. But more than that, it’s this experience of discrimination. So I have the reader following along Captain Jim’s adventure, sort of looking over his shoulder as he’s trying to find the truth. And he has to search all over India for these clues. But you also then get to empathize with what it feels like when he gets discriminated against and feel the sting of it when he experiences it.
So the plot goes through many different travels and ups and downs. But essentially his job is to solve the mystery and come home. But for somebody who is an orphan and outcast, where’s home? So that generated a subplot, which is a love story, and that love story comes from this quandary. The story is his search for truth, but it’s also his search for belonging.
MEREDITH COLE: And just to follow up with you, Nev, I found it very interesting that you had chosen a retired soldier, who first sort of imagines being a journalist and then becomes a detective and develops this love for Sherlock Holmes while he’s recovering. Why did you feel like a retired officer was a good character to become a detective?
NEV MARCH: Yeah, so I wanted somebody who had the chops. Initially, I wanted someone who could take the blows, essentially, that he was going to get. And making him an Army officer would give him the training, the ability to get through—actually I made him a boxer, right? So a tough guy. But he ended up having so many layers because, why does he leave the Army? Well, he’s been injured. So there’s a certain backstory that comes with that and baggage that comes with that.
So as I told myself the story, and each plot twist occurred, I’d go back and say: why does he care to do this more risky thing? What’s driving him? And he revealed more layers as that occurred. So while I essentially started with the idea of having somebody who had the capability and the skill set to just navigate a complex society and the grounding and the training, actually it ended up becoming a very important part of this whole motivation of trying to redeem himself for something that he thinks has gone wrong.
MEREDITH COLE: Wow, that’s great. And Jasmine, my question for you is, I know that Afghanistan has had many, many turbulent times. Why did you feel that the 1970s was the right time to tell this story?
JASMINE AIMAQ: That’s a great question. I think it’s because that is the decade that is the turning point for Afghanistan. It’s the last decade in which there was peace. It’s sometimes referred to as the golden age of Afghanistan. And in some ways, it’s romanticized in the Afghan community for that reason, and also for practical reasons. It’s been at war incessantly since 1978-1979, if you think of the Soviet invasion as the catalyst for war. So that’s over forty years of war.
And I can’t go there particularly. I can’t do research on what it’s like now that would have any personal connection. I mean, people can and do go to Afghanistan, but it would be particularly dangerous for me because of my last name. People might know who my family is, and they would view me as an apostate, and it would just be really risky. And as a woman as well.
So for practical reasons, I don’t feel I could set it during another time unless I want to write about war. And I felt like there was so much done on that. And part of my frustration in just doing research on Afghanistan was that you can really not find anything much that’s written that’s not about the war. And sometimes it feels like Americans—I don’t mean this in a critical way—but it’s more that Americans think that Afghanistan just started to exist on 9/11. And every time I try to find a movie or something, it’s looking at American soldiers or what the experience was like for this American sniper. It’s from the US perspective, which I understand. That’s where the production money is. That’s where films are. But it’s still frustrating.
And I wanted to show a story that wasn’t primarily about war. That’s like, you know what, people were doing stuff in Afghanistan and having normal daily lives. So I tried to capture some of the charm and tedium of daily life before the whole place imploded basically.
MEREDITH COLE: Wonderful. I always have this question for people because I’m always very curious. Did you start with your general plot? Did you start with your specific character? Or did you first start with setting, when you were sitting down to write your book?
JASMINE AIMAQ: That’s interesting. I started with setting for sure. Because when you’re writing about a non-Western country, that’s so central to your narrative. I knew it had to be set there. And I did not start with a character. But in terms of the plot, I knew from the beginning that it would be triggered by this car accident. There was a similar accident in my memory when we were in Afghanistan. I was in a car that had an accident, that is very much like the one I describe, and it’s always haunted me. And, I wanted to somehow give voice to the victim of that accident.
And with the rise of terrorism in Afghanistan and opium, I kept thinking, somehow I want to weave those things in. So that’s what it was. But what it really was was the setting and the accident and giving a voice to the victim.
MEREDITH COLE: Great. What about you, Nev?
NEV MARCH: Yeah, so I knew about this incident—this tragedy—even when I was a teenager growing up. This is an unsolved mystery—the actual event. If you Google the Rajabai Tower mystery, you’ll get stories and news articles about this actual event, which was never really sorted out. There was a trial. Three people were accused of murder, but there was no evidence, and they were acquitted.
And so I knew about this, and I started with the original details of the event. At that point in time, they didn’t even call it a crime because it was ruled suicide—a double suicide. So I started with that as my outline. But as I wrote, I have to admit that the characters informed the plot. I had the beginning and a sense of the ending—a general idea of the ending. But I didn’t really have a middle. And as I started to create it, I did have an outline. The characters just decided not to follow my outline. So you end up with having to just let them run amok a little bit and try to rein it in in revisions. But as I put it together, in the end, the detours all made sense. In fact, the book cannot be completed without some of those detours. And I finally figured out why a couple of adventures in the middle were necessary to the plot, which I didn’t know while I was writing them.
So yeah, while I started with the plot, the characters very much informed the plot.
JASMINE AIMAQ: I have a quick follow up to that myself. I just want to say how true that is. That is absolutely the way characters work. You have this idea where they’re going to go. They do not go there. And the best thing is to just give up and let them do it.
MEREDITH COLE: And actually, we just had a question from someone who said, “It sounds as if your protagonists take on a life of their own as you write and then reveal themselves to you in ways that were not part of your plans.” And I would say that’s very accurate. I mean, I think outlines are sort of the best-laid plans that you have for what it would be in your ideal mind. But part of the writing process is when to let go and when to say, “You know what, don’t go on that detour because that’s a different book.” So I think that’s definitely so much a part of the process.
Did you think—and this is sort of interesting because this is a hard question to answer—but do you think it was easier or harder to sell a book right now that is set in another country?
NEV MARCH: So I can start with that. It’s definitely harder. While there is increased interest in India, for sure, and some other foreign countries, I think when I was querying agents that that was definitely a hurdle. The fact that in the first sentence I say this is written about a period in colonial India—not just that it’s historical, but it’s set in a different geography and a different time. And I had queried ninety agents before I got a couple of responses saying, “Yeah, we’d like to see the manuscript.” So when a few people say something, you think, oh, I’ll keep going. When about sixty people tell you the same thing, you start to believe them.
So I just had a plan. I had this list of 120 agents that I had culled from the Writer’s Digest’s directory of literary agents. These were agents who were interested in mysteries and historicals. And some of them had even talked about novel settings. They wanted mysteries in novel settings. And yet, I got rejection after rejection. And some people, after three months and they haven’t replied, you kind of figure this is probably a rejection. But it took me ninety attempts to get my wonderful agent, Jill Grosjean of the Grosjean Literary Agency.
MEREDITH COLE: So that’s another, I guess, an issue. Because I thought for a while also historic mysteries were very—was a very hot market. But I guess you’re throwing in both historic and in another country, which, yeah.
What about you, Jasmine? Did you feel that you got more interest because it was set overseas, or—?
JASMINE AIMAQ: No, I think Nev is absolutely right. It is much harder. It also depends a bit what culture and what country you’re emphasizing. But there is a really surprisingly small market for stories that are told in what North Americans consider exotic locales. And one of the things that was so disheartening was I would get some rejections from a publisher who would say, “Oh, we already have a writer who writes about Afghanistan.”
And I thought, okay, so I’ve probably read I don’t know how many books about Baby Boomers in Vermont, as an example. There are tons of books like that, and no one says, “Oh, sorry, we can’t have another story about a Baby Boomer in Vermont.” That’s just an example, but there is sort of that—the middle- to upper-class, white-American living in some sort of semi-idyllic place that’s facing problems. That’s a very common setting. And even fictional towns will be made up in places like that, and no one complains. So I was very—I was prepared for it, but it was also disheartening because I would say this is—you know, I would look at a book they were referring to, and I would say: “My novel is nothing like that book.” There’s just nothing in common, other than it’s in Afghanistan. But that’s a country of tens of millions of people, which means there are tens of millions of stories.
So it was difficult. I found an agent pretty quickly. I was lucky in that regard. I had lots of requests to represent. But, yeah, then suddenly we were up against publishers saying this sort of thing. And someone told me if I’d written this book after 9/11, it would’ve gone straight to the bestseller list, but you know, Afghanistan is not as interesting anymore.
MEREDITH COLE: Oh dear.
JASMINE AIMAQ: Yeah, Nev, I sympathize.
MEREDITH COLE: That’s so interesting because I—when I got these books, I thought this is an opportunity to travel. We don’t get to travel these days. So traveling through books is a wonderful opportunity, and it’s a wonderful chance to see the world from a totally different perspective. And I think that we are definitely needing both of your books at this time. So thank you for writing them and for fighting through the whole process.
Then what do you think the best and worst parts about being a debut author right now are for you? What have you sort of run up against?
NEV MARCH: For me, it’s just been a thrill to hold the book, to see finally that it comes to fruition. And I have to admit that Macmillan did a wonderful job with the production and the cover. And just the entire experience has been marvelous. I’m learning constantly as a newbie about things that I—you know, this is part of the process. This is how it works. I just learned that the book is going to be translated into Russian and that Murder in Old Bombay will be published in Russia. I’m thrilled about that. And I grew up reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and struggling through Anna Karenina. Now I think, my god, it’s like yea big. But I guess Russians have the patience for this. I’m thrilled with that aspect of it. And the reception it’s got has just been a delight.
I guess the worst part is that it’s difficult to make a living from writing. That is the truth. We do it for the joy of it and the love of it and the enjoyment. I’ve heard that advances to big-name authors have gone up. But frankly, for new writers they’ve gone down. Publishers are taking a risk on fewer new writers. And when they do, it’s a smaller amount that you’re getting.
So the business part of it, I guess, I have been a little dismayed with. And I make no bones about that. I think it’s something that all new writers should be aware of. But the enjoyment of reading a review and getting notes from readers who really just get the book and it resonates for them—I can’t tell you. Nothing compares. That is so much—just such a gift. And I was not expecting that, and that’s been a marvelous gift. There’s no other word. This is just a joy to read. It gives me so much happiness.
MEREDITH COLE: What about you, Jasmine? Do you feel it’s a good time to be a debut author, or is it—?
JASMINE AIMAQ: I think it would’ve been easier fifteen years ago or so. I think part of what is happening—and Nev really touched on this—is all the publishers are conglomerating. They’re constantly making consortiums and joining. And that isn’t good for writers. It isn’t good for a lot of us—for debut writers. Because it used to be that you might submit to seventeen different publishers, and if lots of them liked it—even if three or four of them liked it—you could make bidding wars between them and drive your advances up. But what’s happening now is that, when they merge, the larger company will introduce a clause saying that you’re not allowed to bid against the other publisher. So let’s say you’ve got a conglomerate with six imprints. None of those six can bid against each other. So it weakens the position of the writer, and I’m definitely aware of that.
On the other hand, I think in some ways it’s a great time to be a debut author because I think there is more openness, in a way, in the writing world. I mean, yes it’s narrower as we were saying if you’re doing something in an exotic country. But at the same time, I think there is a strong social movement that is fueling wanting to learn more about other countries, wanting to truly understand multiculturalism. And I think that’s great. I think there’s more voice for women of color, for women in general. I think that is a really exciting thing to be part of. And of course, as Nev said, getting the validation—that’s just always wonderful.
The day the book was released, I found out that The Washington Post put it on their list of ten best new books. And I was amazed at what an impact that had on me. It just completely changed my outlook, and I felt so great. There is nothing like that feeling. I’ve had successes in other things, but there’s nothing like that. So it kind of makes it all worth it.
But if you ever do this—if you’re a writer, if you ever break down what your hourly rate was, it’s going to be—if you look like, okay, I spent 10,000 hours writing this. How much did I actually make per hour? It’s not pretty, that number.
MEREDITH COLE: Just don’t. Just don’t do it, yeah.
JASMINE AIMAQ: Just don’t do it. Just enjoy the writing because it is a gift. It’s a gift to get to connect people with a story like that.
MEREDITH COLE: I’ve talked to a couple writers who’ve had books coming out in the past six months or so. And some of them really look on the bright side in terms of saying, you know what, I was able to have my launch party and I was able to have my family who are overseas come to my launch party. And I thought that was a wonderful way of looking on the bright side. But I imagine, when you imagined in your mind years ago about the year that your book came out, you probably did imagine traveling with it.
JASMINE AIMAQ: Yes, I did. And my husband actually arranged a surprise Zoom book launch party that I didn’t know about until the day of. And you know what? In some ways, it was even better because I had friends there from everywhere in the world: my friend in Sweden, someone in Afghanistan, people all over Europe, Canada, the States were there—people I’d gone to high school with. It was so much fun, and it was—in some ways, these are the silver linings of having to be in a digital world. It was pretty great. Very cool.
MEREDITH COLE: What about you, Nev? Have you had to do a lot of touring virtually?
NEV MARCH: Yeah. I had expected to be able to visit a few big cities. I had a few friends that were going to set up book talks or book signings for me. And obviously COVID “put paid” to that. But, yes, we’ve very much replaced the in-person traveling and driving or flying around with Zoom talks. So I enjoyed talking with, not just my community, the associations—the Zoroastrian associations are very interested in the book because it’s about a Zoroastrian Parsi family. But it’s also the libraries nearby, and a couple of bookstores nationally, have done a really nice job showcasing and bringing a couple of writers together.
I had two talks actually—one with Murder by the Book and the other one with the Raven Bookstore—that were attended quite nicely. And we had a group of writers that have all won the Minotaur Mystery Writers of America Best First Crime Fiction Award. So Sue Cox came in and showed her book, The Man on the Washing Machine, which she has a sequel to: The Man in the Microwave Oven. I just love those titles. And then of course Joanna Schaffhausen brought in her riveting new book in her Ellery Hathaway series. And I love that series. So her third book is All the Best Lies, which is just such a tantalizing title. And the three of us, of course, had so much to talk about. Not just the award, but writing.
So those kinds of events, I think, have given a larger audience and brought in people that might know about one book but might not know about others. And so there’s a synergy there. It’s also just so uplifting when you meet other writers and hear their experiences. So we’re getting a pretty good audience in different pockets, I want to say. It’s always great when you get somebody on The New York Times list or Huffington Post writes up something about the book. Amazon actually selected Murder in Old Bombay to be on their November mysteries—Editor’s Pick for November Mysteries is the way they put it. Which is wonderful. So they’re recommending it.
Those are great venues to get publicity. But in this environment with COVID, you have to look for very different ways of reaching your audience.
MEREDITH COLE: Well, I want to make sure that I don’t run out of time and find out—because someone did ask again also—I always want to know what you are working on next.
NEV MARCH: So I can tell you very quickly I am working on a sequel. I’ve just finished the first draft. And when I finished Murder in Old Bombay, I thought, okay, I’ve told the story. So now those characters—probably their voices will just fade away. But instead, I kept hearing from them. So this story will trace a pair of immigrants in their journey in America. They go through the initial flush of delight through disenchantment in the New World.
It’s set in 1893 Chicago, where it so happens—again—this is based on real events. Twenty-seven million Americans attended the World’s Fair. It was called the Columbian Exposition. It really happened in Chicago at that point in time. It was over six months. It hosts the Parliament of World Religions. The first time America found out about Hinduism was when Swami Vivekananda came to the Parliament of World Religions.
But at the same time, you have the World Convention of Anarchists—really happened—same place, same time. And you also have a quarter million hungry, unemployed men wandering around the streets searching for work. You had the crash of 1893 going on—bank failures. So what could possibly go wrong?
MEREDITH COLE: Sounds like a good place for a murder.
NEV MARCH: Exactly. So that’s the premise, yeah. A pair of young immigrants discover a possible plot to blow up the World’s Fair, the stakes rise, and then, you know, everything is at risk.
MEREDITH COLE: That sounds wonderful. Jasmine, what are you working on?
JASMINE AIMAQ: I’m working on a second novel. It’s not related to the first one, so it’s about different people. And this one is set probably more equally between Los Angeles and Afghanistan, and that does have to do with the war. And the essential plot looks at a young woman—an Afghan immigrant young woman who has a rare illness in Los Angeles—and the man who’s going to be the anesthesiologist in her surgery. And the two of them are bound together by a drama and a secret that neither of them knows about. At least, I hope that’s what it’s going to be about. As we’ve already discussed, books go in their own direction. But I hope to have a draft to my agent in July—my fabulous agent, Jacques de Spoelberch. And he’s lit a fire under me, because he told me the other day, “Okay, I put it in my calendar for July 10th. Is that good?” So I hope I’ll have it done then.
MEREDITH COLE: Well, I’ve had a couple questions pop up from people who are curious about authors that have been very influential in your life. We only have a couple minutes, but it’s always wonderful to share authors that you feel have influenced your work or that you love.
JASMINE AIMAQ: Yeah, there’s so many. It’s always so hard to go through this list. Usually what I just end up citing is the writers I really admire. But I wouldn’t flatter myself to think, oh, this is similar. But in terms of just how to write—how to use language—I’m very inspired by Nicole Krauss, who wrote The History of Love and about four or five novels. She is absolutely a phenomenal wordsmith, and you can see she has poetry in her background. So I read her just to try to elevate my own language and lyricism.
In terms of the approach, I like Mohsin Hamid, who wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I probably feel the most connected to that writer because he also tries to give you a totally different perspective on something that we normally would just think is terrible. You know, terrorism. Obviously these things are terrible. He complexifies those things in a way that I really love. And then there are the great crime writers like Michael Connelly. I love Michael Connelly. I love Harry Bosch. I love stories set in LA. That’s not the way that I write myself, but those people could really spin a crime yarn. I look to them for pacing. Because pacing is always difficult, especially in the middle sections of a book. So I turn to the great crime writers for learning how to pace.
MEREDITH COLE: Wonderful. And you had mentioned a couple writers that you really enjoy, but did you have a couple others with our last minute or two?
NEV MARCH: I mean, the classics, right? But other than that—of course, the classics would be Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle. Right, how could you not? But more recently, The Widows of Malabar Hill and the other books by Sujata Massey. He actually has an entire series set in Japan—so a different exotic location—but also how to tell the story. Bernard Cornwell. I have read almost everything he’s written. And Patrick O’Brian. Two historical novelists that I just adore. For writing, Amor Towles. I hope someday to write that well. Rules of Civility is his first, and then Gentleman in Moscow. Just the charm of the language. When you’re reading a book, and you just don’t want it to end, that’s when you know you’ve got a really solid book in your hands.
Now in terms of Indian writers, Bapsi Sidhwa really impressed me tremendously. Four out of her five books are turned into movies. And she deals with very difficult subjects, but she’s an amazing writer. And Boman Desai, another Indian writer. The Memory of Elephants. And he actually wrote a book about Schumann and Brahms—the Schumanns, Clara Schumann as well—called Trio. T-r-i-o. They are large novels but beautifully—the tale is so beautifully told.
So I think it’s the story but also how it’s told that gets me. And I want people to really just enjoy the experience of it. So enjoy the journey. And right now, since we can’t travel by plane very comfortably, travel by book.
MEREDITH COLE: Yes, yes. Well, I just wanted to thank you all so much for spending some time with us and telling us about your books and also sharing. Some of these are new authors I haven’t heard of. And I love to travel by book. It’s a wonderful thing. And you’ve also given us time travel, which is another wonderful gift. So we can go to another place and time, which definitely—with all its troubles—is probably better than 2020, quite frankly.
But it’s time to wrap things up, so thank you to everyone who tuned in today and also sent in questions. Sorry I haven’t gotten to probably everything. Please, please consider buying The Opium Prince and Murder in Old Bombay from your local bookseller. You can also check out future Shelf Life events from the Virginia Festival of the Book. They take place every Thursday at noon. They’re just wonderful and very diverse events. Everything from YA to nonfiction. And you can learn more at VaBook.org. Thank you so much. It was wonderful to see you both.
JASMINE AIMAQ: Thank you, everyone.
MEREDITH COLE: Thank you.
NEV MARCH: Thank you.