The Girl From Nongrim Hills is one of the rare noir thrillers in Indian market. TWH interviews its author Ankush Saikia.
Tell us about yourself
I was born in Tezpur, Assam in 1975, and grew up in Madison, Wisconsin; Assam; and Shillong, Meghalaya. I worked in journalism and publishing in New Delhi for over a decade. In 2005, I was on the shortlist for the fourth Outlook/Picador-India non-fiction writing award. I am currently based in Shillong, Meghalaya and Tezpur, Assam. The Girl From Nongrim Hills is my third book (and second novel).
I have always read a lot, from the time I was a child, mainly I think because there were people from both sides of my family (including my parents) who read, and I think at some point in my late teens I decided I would try and write a book myself. I think the different places and people I saw while growing up made their mark on me.
Take us into “The Girl from Nongrim Hills”
It’s a noir thriller set in Shillong and has a guitarist in a local band as the protagonist. He must deal with a seductive and dangerous woman, a group of militants, the police, and a crooked minister even as he attempts to recover 50 lakh rupees to save his elder brother from a sticky situation. It’s a fast-paced novel that, within the confines of a thriller, attempts to portray the city of Shillong as it is today.
Your novel paints a brilliant portrait of an angst ridden city, Shillong, with passing references to arms deals and issues with migrants. Tell us more about Shillong and North-Eastern India and what makes them such wonderful settings for an absorbing thriller.
The North East has a different sort of society compared to mainland India, and it has always been a bit isolated. As far as locations go, the city of Shillong (like other urban areas in the North East) has an interesting mix of shabbiness and beauty. Then there is the presence of sundry militant groups in the North East, some of whose members land up from time to time in Shillong. All of this taken together, I realized, would provide an interesting setting for a noir thriller.
Your typical day of writing
I find the early morning, when there are no distractions around, the best time to get writing done. I do some writing later in the day too, along with some reading, and research if required.
What is your process of writing a book? Do you plot them meticulously or let them evolve? How do you do your research?
It’s a combination of both: you need to have a basic plot in mind, especially while writing a crime novel or a thriller, but you also have to be flexible enough while writing to allow for changes in the plot and additions or deletions. The inspiration comes from the society around me, from the life that I see around me. As far as research goes, I haven’t yet written a book that requires in-depth research, and the internet is a great source of information. However, for the thriller set in Assam that I’m planning to work on now, I will have to meet people and go to places to find out things. The best way to deal with so-called writer’s block it is to sit down at your desk at a given time every day and not get up till you’ve completed at least one page!
Your perspectives on the Indian publishing industry and what have you learnt about it.
It’s still evolving; the market for crime novels and thrillers and other genre fiction is starting to grow. Romance is very popular, and mythology to some extent.
Your views on two gamechangers in the publishing world – self-publishing and eBooks.
I think you still need a publisher on your side to back you up. Of course, the way things are nowadays, no one has much time to spare for you, especially if you’re a first-time writer, so you need to work a lot yourself on the promotion of the book. E-books are slowly getting popular here as well, though it’ll be a long time before they reach the sort of usage levels one sees in the US and UK.
What advice would you have for writers who are trying to get their first novel published?
Speaking from my own experience, people tend to get very attached to the first draft of their first book. Don’t get too attached to anything you’ve written; you should be able and willing to delete and rewrite any part of it, or even the whole, to make it a better book. Study the market, both in India and abroad. Try and get in touch with editors at publishing houses. And while you’re waiting for your first book to get accepted and then published, keep writing. That way you’ll have a second book ready by the time the first one comes out.
What are you currently working on?
I have just finished the first draft of a crime novel set in Delhi and featuring a private detective. After this I start work on a thriller set in Assam. Westland is bringing out my third novel Red River, Blue Hills later this year: it’s a thriller set in Delhi and North East India.