17 Jan 2014

Khalid Muhammad: Author Interview and Review

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When people talk about Khalid Muhammad, they talk about an entrepreneur who has helped others build their dreams and businesses. They talk about a teacher, who is dedicated to his students, both inside and outside the classroom, and they return the dedication tenfold. Now, they talk about the author, who has written a fast-paced, action-packed spy thriller about Pakistan, the politics, the Army and terrorism.

Born in Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley, educated and raised in the United States, Khalid returned to Pakistan almost 17 years ago and fell in love with his country. His debut novel, Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office, is a journey behind the headlines about Pakistan, the world’s most dangerous place, to deliver an intense story that will challenge the reader to question what they have been told.

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“Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office” by Khalid Muhammad is a truly great spy thriller. Set in a modern day Pakistan it tells the chain of events set in motion by a terror attack in Karachi. Politicians, the army and the state secret service agency all have their own ideas as how to respond or retaliate for the offence. But it is our hero Khamal who goes in to do the work.

Pakistan is a perfect setting for this gripping thriller full of action and suspense. The country’s complex history and fractured political landscape provide an excellent ambience for the players of this novel. Gangs, Sheikhs, terrorists, politicians… 
A comparison to works by LeCarre has been made by a fellow reader and while I would hate to imply that there are obvious similarities I will say that the two authors have certainly the same admirable competence in strong plotting, vivid characterisation and atmospheric style. 
Pakistan and its people are often mis-represented in the Western world and I loved how the author managed to bring in a whole spectrum of characters, showing again a complex picture instead of resorting to simple stereotypes or clique; all the while also highlighting outside interests in the country and the internal struggles. While the story moves at a fast pace with compelling writing the author also raises many points about the country’s current state of affairs. It shows a writer with a sharp and thoughtful mind who knows also about diplomacy and international politics – just like any good spy thriller writer should in my opinion.

A good thriller with substance. Very recommendable.

Khalid joins us today to discuss his debut novel, the process and motivations behind the writing.

Why did you first start writing? What inspired you to do so – a particular subject or the writing itself?

I don’t think I ever stopped writing. I fell in love with fiction when I was in middle school because it was a way that I could express my dark side imagination without getting in legal trouble. I have written a number of short stories over the years since but never seriously thought about publishing until about 5 years ago.

There was never an a-ha moment, so to speak that made me decide to be a writer. I went from writing short stories that let me get my imagination and frustrations, to writing a political leaning blog and then progressed into writing a novella and now my first novel. It seemed like a natural progression since my novel is an action-packed spy thriller with political undertones.

I really believe that the inspiration behind starting writing was to find a way to vent my imagination, at least I think that is where it started. Over time, I have grow as a writer – before writing my book, I used to run a political and current affairs blog that focused on issues related to Pakistan. Since then, I have written a number of unpublished short stories and a novella. Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office is a culmination of all the work, knowledge and information into one fast-paced, action-packed story. It’s a great read for anyone who reads spy/espionage thrillers.

Have you changed directions since your first story/essay/idea?

Yes and no. I started off writing crime because it was the easiest way to work out my anger. Creating a serial killer or master criminal was easy for me because of my own reading habits and interests at the time. Since then, I have matured into a more intelligent writer that understands the complexities of the world. I still have the frustrations, but now it is positioned within a multi-faceted story that will keep the reader on the edge of their seats with each page.

What inspired you to write Agency Rules? When did you first have the idea for this book?

I first got the idea for the book about 6 years ago. I tried many different flavors of how the story should come together in terms of flow and structure, but it never really worked for me until I switched gears and let more of myself into the writing. I am extremely pro-Army and pro-Pakistan – it will always be home to me.

Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office takes you behind the headlines into the events that created today’s Pakistan. It is a tough look at a nation in conflict from the eyes of a young man, Kamal Khan, who is looking for his own identity and place in society. Kamal is raised in privilege, but leaves it all behind as a man to serve his nation. Once in that environment, finds himself embroiled in a complex narrative that shifts with the fiery speeches of their anointed political and religious leaders.

There are a number of motivations behind my story. First, and probably the most important motivation, was to share the Pakistan that I know with the world. The narrative that has become commonplace about my country is that it is a failed state with many players in the power corridor, but that is not all that Pakistan is. My Pakistan is a country that struggles with inept governments more interested in themselves rather than the people who elected them. It is a country whose people are extremely talented and patriotic but unable to take advantage of any opportunities because the country is run like a fiefdom rather than a nation. It is a country in search of its identity, much like Kamal, that is trapped amidst power plays from internal and external forces.

Secondly, I grew up reading spy thrillers filled with the exploits of CIA, MI6 and KGB agents. While reading all of these stories, I always wondered why no one had ever written about Pakistan’s intelligence services, the ISI, and the challenges they face everyday. Geopolitically, Pakistan is host to numerous intelligence agencies working within its borders, a public secret here and the ISI holds it’s own against all of them. Its routinely demonized by foreign nations, and much of that is because it is so good at what it does.

The backdrop of terrorism does make telling the story easier, but to paint the mosaic of the complexities I had to move backwards to the 1990s so that the reader could understand what happened to create the image of the country as it is today. It’s also a little bit of what I wish had happened rather than what really has happened. In my story, as in real life in fact, the people of Pakistan are the underdog against so many powerful forces, it’s a miracle we still exist. That we do is testament to our resilience as a nation, no matter what you read in the international press.

I hope that, as a reader, you will experience that Pakistan that I fell in love with when I moved home from the United States after 25 years. You will feel your heart wrench with Kamal’s when he is stationed in Karachi, Peshawar and buried deep inside the terrorist camps. And, hopefully, you will cheer him on, because he is the Pakistani that you don’t see in the media – smart, driven and motivated to do good for his family, fellow citizens and country.

How did you do your research into Agency Rules?

There was a great deal of reading. From spy thrillers from MacInnes and le Carre to Clancy and Forsyth, I spent months reading their stories to understand how a great spy thriller was put together, what information was important and what could be left out and making the story believable.

On the other side, I had to get an understanding of Pakistan’s Army and the ever-powerful ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service. Since the ISI operates both covertly and under the military’s wing, getting information about their training, operatives and missions is very difficult. How I got that information will stay a person secret.

How long did it take you to write?

Agency Rules, the novel, took about 6 months to write after about 5 years of research. I did write a novella with the same name, but never published it. I wasn’t happy with the storyline, character development and overall pace, even though I got some good reviews from friends. The novella wasn’t going to be my first published work.

From there, I started crafting the characters, scenes and environments that would become Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office. So, 5 years research, 6 months writing and about 3 months of editing and revisions via 3 different editors, each looking at different parts from all points of view to make sure it synced, had pace and would interest the reader.

How comfortable do you feel writing in the genre?

I love it! Thrillers are something that I have always loved reading, so being able to write one was just an amazing experience. I don’t think that I will pigeonhole myself into the genre, just because I would like to write a crime novel and maybe a historical once, once I have completed the 4 part Agency Rules series. But, then… who knows… maybe Agency Rules will take off and I’ll do more than 4 books in the series.

What do you like most about your favorite characters?

Character. All of my favorite characters from movies, TV shows and books have always been an individual that oozed character, values, morality and integrity. When I imagined Kamal Khan, I couldn’t help but bring those pieces into his character.

Are you like any of the characters?

They say that the debut novels always have a big part of the author in them. I believe that Kamal is a lot like me. We both share the values, morality and integrity.

How do you write? What is your writing environment like?

Late at night, with headphones pumping hard rock/heavy metal into my brain. I don’t like to write in silence because my mind has too much running through it. When I focus on the music, it sets the pace for my writing and let’s me block out all the other thoughts so that the story flows, rather than the million other things I am thinking about.

How many rewrites did it take you?

2 complete rewrites and maybe 15 revisions based on editor feedback. It was not an easy story to get right.

How do you quality control your books?

I’ll tell you my process and you’ll be able to gather the quality control from that. I start with freeform writing just to get the ideas down on paper and see how the story works once it’s transferred from my imagination to the paper. The freeform writing is put away for a few days, while I think about the story and jot notes on scraps of paper. Then, I bring it all together with a storyboard and character sketches. This is where the actual writing starts.

From here, I start writing. I am very protective of the writing for the first 5 or six chapters and then it goes to friends and family members for a read-through to see if the story clicks with them. I stop writing at 50% and put together a beta read team that reads the first half of the novel to see what I am missing and if they see the story forming. It also goes to a developmental editor that used to be my creative writing teacher in high school. She has volumes of experience both as a teacher and as an editor, having edited manuscripts and screenplays, so I trust her opinion when she says it works.

When the novel is finished, I pass it to three editors – a developmental editor, a story line editor and a proof editor. Each comes back with excellent feedback on the things that need to be improved, examined and corrected. The novel is revised until I am happy with it, no matter how many rounds of editing it takes.

Who are your favorite authors / influences?

My favorites are Fredrick Forsyth, Tom Clancy, Helen MacInnes, Alistair McLean and John le Carre. These are the bricks that laid the foundations of today’s modern spy thriller and they teach authors from their books and writing.

I do have to be honest and admit that I watched a lot, and I mean a lot, of spy movies and TV shows. It helps to understand how a story plays out on screen to know the level of realism and environment that has to be brought to a story on paper. When you don’t have the visual to count on, the author has to paint the picture in the reader’s mind. I hope that I have been able to achieve that with my debut novel.

What are your next projects and where would we be able to hear about them?

Next? We’ll we have the global launch for Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office on the 16th of January. That’s when Amazon will get the e-book. Paperbacks will be available in bookstores and on Amazon in February from what I understand. I’ll probably spend a few months supporting and promoting the book.

At the same time, I have already started to craft the characters for the 2nd installment of Agency Rules. I know the story line but I need to create the characters and scenes that will play out on the pages of the next book. You can keep up with Agency Rules and Kamal Khan on the website at http://agencyrules.com.

I also write for a few marketing blogs that cater specifically to authors and book marketing. Being a marketer by profession, I have learned how to translate the commercial aspects of marketing, brand building and buzz generation into the publishing world and hopefully, gotten it right.

What is your life like outside of writing?

Well, I have owned a marketing company called the emagine group for the past 10 years, so part of my life is wrapped up in making that company grow and continue to generate profit. I take a lot of time out for family and friends, otherwise I would go crazy. Beyond that, it’s travel, reading, movies and sports. I am a huge football fan, both European and American. I used to play but now I have to settle with watching and screaming at the TV when my Arsenal don’t play well.

How can people get in contact with you?

Website – http://agencyrules.com

Facebook – http://facebook.com/AgencyRulesPK

Twitter – http://twitter.com/AgencyRulesPK

Goodreads – https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7243288.Khalid_Muhammad

“Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office”

can be purchased at your Amazon site:

http://bookShow.me/B00HUZOED2

written by
Christoph Fischer was born in Germany in 1970 as the son of a Sudeten-German father and a Bavarian mother. ‘The Luck of The Weissensteiners’ is his first published work. He has written several other novels which are in the later stages of editing and finalisation.
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