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BW Businessworld

'I Have Resisted The E-format'

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Tell us a bit about yourself...childhood, education, career, hobbies...
Childhood is really a collage of happy memories –- mainly at Rishi Valley School in rural Andhra Pradesh, an ancient rocky valley of staggering beauty. My father worked in a multi-national company and my family moved quite bit on his job transfers through most of the 1970s. So, we four siblings all grew up in boarding school. But holidays were a time of travel too. Our parents loved to drive around the country -– a sort of Bharat Darshan on wheels, and we would pile into an Ambassador and set off on these long, meandering journeys: from Bombay to Delhi or Delhi to Calcutta. So, I got to see a lot of the country even when I was in my teens. Rishi Valley made me a bit of a trekker and those family trips gave me a real feel for the land.
I guess I was about average in studies, but played a lot of sport. One particular skill that seemed to show up early was telling a story! I would have this one classmate following me around (he’s now a successful dentist by the way) listening to me spinning my yarns — with a new twist each day. They were all tales of high adventure and action and we were both so into it that our housemaster christened us me the Gabber and my friend the Gaper!
School was followed by college in Madras and then a Masters degree in Economics from JNU Delhi, and onto the Wharton School in the US for an MBA in 2006. Soon after, I followed my father into the manufacturing company he had set up (he had branched out on his own in 1978). Together we grew the company into one of the world’s largest manufacturers of electrical insulating paperboard. This was where my other interests took over. For one, I found I had a natural interest in R&D (though my education wasn’t in science). For another, my trekking and writing hobbies, long suppressed by business and work pressures, suddenly resurfaced with a vengeance. I also felt it was time to engage with social causes more actively.
And so in 2007 I sold my company to ABB to pursue my passions. Today, in the midst of running my R&D company, I trek twice a year, I spend as much time as I can to advise and support NGOs, and of course, I write. 24 hours are still not enough!   
Why The Shadow Throne? And why should a reader pick up this book?
My agent Jacaranda got in touch with me around mid-2011 saying that Pan Macmillan were looking for a thriller. Pan is the world’s largest publisher of thriller fiction and represent authors like Jeffery Archer, Ken Follet and Wilbur Smith. In India, the thriller as a genre is relatively unexplored and we turn to mostly western authors. As I got thinking, I felt the recent assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 would be an excellent backdrop to an sub-continental thriller. And so, The Shadow Throne (TST) was born.
The book is basically about three unlikely people who come together in a race against time to avert a sub-continental nuclear holocaust. If there is one reason the book should be read it is that nine out of ten people who have read it so far have said they simply had to finish it in one sitting. For a thriller, there is no better endorsement! 
The Shadow Throne
By Aroon Raman
Pan Macmillan
Pages: 338
Price: Rs 250
What does the book mean to you? 
I guess all authors infuse their own consciousness into their work. The book is both for themselves and for the world of readers out there. In a thriller, though, it is the reader who is paramount. I can do no better than paraphrase Tolkien who, in the context of writing The Lord Of The Rings, said, “The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them.” The relative strengths of these emotions may vary depending on the type of book, but my deepest desire (as I believe that of any writer) will be to ‘grip’ the reader powerfully, take them out of themselves and hold them in the book’s embrace till it is done. 
How difficult was it to put the book together? The research, access to military related information, etc. 
The research was the most fascinating part of writing my book. I met with retired spooks — men from our intelligence communities — who gave me a sense of what went on in their shadowy world; and believe me, some of their stories were stranger than fiction. And then there were ex-military people: from missile defence, strategic forces, etc.. I had the good fortune to know people who knew others and these meetings form an essential part of the book’s backdrop. That said, there’s also a huge amount of information on the internet. Not all of it reliable, but it’s amazing how far one can get.
When and where do you write?
The publisher’s mandate was to get this book out quickly, so as to capitalise on the moment. We had set 11 September 2012 as a deadline – to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary this year. I got started around September 2011 and knew that it had to be a disciplined, focussed effort. My schedule was essentially to be up early and write for two hours in the morning and then two hours late in the evening after dinner. I stuck in a few more hours on Sundays. Solitude and quiet – with a fair bit of discipline — are my essential tools of the trade. They allowed me to finish the manuscript in six months.
Where all did this book take you?
An author travels where his characters take him. Sometimes physically (in travel writing, for example) but quite often mentally. The Shadow Throne is set mainly in India, the Indo-Pak border and Afghanistan, Time and other constraints meant I could not travel to the latter, but I found it didn’t really matter. A lot of the physical action is really in Afghanistan, and as I pored over maps and talked to people who had been there and were intimately familiar with the country, I found it took very little to immerse myself in the places to which Hassan and Chandra (the heroes in the book) travel. Sometimes, as I saw the photographs and video clips of the country and let the images swirl through my mind, I felt I was there already: the great Hindu Kush mountains, the gorges and valleys of that stark country and the green of the poppy fields.
There’s certainly an emotional content to this exploration. The recurring theme I came across when researching the book was how many people said to me, “We’re all so similar, all of us from this sub-continent — why are we so divided?” So, there are vignettes in the book that reflect this as well. 
What’s your energy drink?
My energy drink is not a liquid – it’s doing what I love. Whether it’s applied research, travel, writing or trekking or working with non-profits, they all feed into me, give me my energy as no food or drink supplement can.
How did you find a publisher for the book? 
In India, unlike overseas, the phenomenon of the literary agent who works with an author on his or her manuscript and then guides them to a publishers is a rarity. I was lucky to have made contact quite early with Jacaranda, arguably India’s oldest literary agency and with an excellent understanding of the publishing world. Once they like your work enough to agree to represent you, a good agent will work with you to refine your manuscript, make sensible suggestions on it and generally render it ‘publisher-worthy’. It then typically undergoes some editorial changes at a publisher before it’s good for release, but if the agent and author have refined it well, this last stage can almost be eliminated.
What makes a book a really good read or a bestseller?
The aim of a thriller is to thrill, to hook the reader to the very end. To do this, four elements are essential to a novel of this type: plot, pace, ‘authentic’ feel and effective characterisation. Though I say it, I think my book has these elements. Each chapter ends in a way that makes the reader want to go just that bit further. Twists and turns help: unexpected developments and moments of great tension and danger. These can sometimes be presented in human terms. In the book, for example, there is a time when Chandra and Hassan are trapped by the enemy. The latter will deliberately let himself be tortured so as to give Chandra time to locate the nuclear missiles aimed at India. Should Chandra do it — especially when the chances look incredibly slim? For the first time, a journalist used to viewing the world as neither completely good nor bad, just grey, is faced with the fact of unalloyed evil; that he must condemn his friend to a horrible, lingering death.
There are other conventional elements to a novel, of course. Certainly a dash (or more) of romance helps no end! 
What's the hardest thing about being a writer?
The writer pours so much of himself or herself into the book that it is hard to separate the two. There are the writer’s demons: the famous writer’s block which, believe me, is very real. We all sometimes reach a point where the mind is just not able to imagine further. That’s the point to break off and do something completely different. I drop it all and just go for a run or play a game of tennis or get into my company lab or just spend time with the family. A second order fear is that we can see the story evolving in our minds alright, but we are just not able to put down what we feel on our papers or screens. And then, of course, we have even managed that, but we’re not very sure we have got it just right. And, at the end of all that, await the publisher and then the reader — the latter to deliver the final verdict!
So, one must have these inner reserves of strength, self-belief and a willingness and ability to persist against odds. It’s one of the hardest things about being a writer.
What are you reading now? E-book or paper format?
I read very varied stuff -– both fiction and non-fiction. I just finished William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal – a brilliant ground’s-eye view of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 that turns some of our long-standing notions of that event upside down. I am now onto an account of the Vietnam War by Christian Appy – voices really from all sides of that conflict. On the fiction side, I just finished The Devotion of Suspect, a crime thriller by the Japanese phenomenon Keigo Higashino.
I love the feel of a physical book a have resisted the e-format. But I am afraid I have to give in sometime….
So, what’s next?
My next book is an adventure story set in Mughal India at the time of Akbar. It has already been accepted by Pan and should come out next year. There’s a growing possibility of a sequel to The Shadow Throne – the next Chandra-Hassan-Meenakshi thriller too. I’m also looking to trek to Annapurna next year. Enough to keep me busy for quite a while!
(Compiled By Sanjitha Rao Chaini)
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