Vaseem Khan wrote his first novel at seventeen. As a bright young man on the cusp of adulthood he printed out his work, read through it and thought it was amazing. Publishers didn’t agree, and after receiving his first rejection letter, Khan decided to listen to his parents’ advice and went off to university to study accountancy.
Khan’s dream of becoming a published writer never left him though. He wrote six to seven novels while holding down a full time job and sent them out with little success. In the years that followed, Khan collected over two hundred rejection letters. ‘I waited twenty years to get published,’ he tells me.
It was during his ten years working in Mumbai as a management consultant that Khan found the inspiration behind his best-selling Baby Ganesha series which was sold to Hodder in a four book deal. After twenty odd years of rejection, Khan wrote his debut, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra to try and capture his wonderful memories of India. ‘I honestly didn’t think it would be published so I wrote what I was passionate about and I absolutely adore elephants.’
The series features retired Inspector Chopra and his formidable sidekick baby elephant, Ganesha. Reminiscent of the popular The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective agency of which Khan cites as a main influence on his work, the books have been met with universal approval propelling Khan as an exciting new voice in crime fiction.
‘It’s like the old story with buses,’ Khan says. ‘You wait for ages and a whole bunch turn up at once.’ He says he was as astonished as anyone when Inspector Chopra was first picked up, let alone when it went on to sell as a four book deal. ‘It’s a lesson for any budding writer.’ Khan says. ‘It’s incredibly rare that your first novel will be super successful.’
Khan is in his element when he talks about Mumbai, the setting of his novels.
‘I lived in Mumbai for ten years and one of the things you realise very early on is how Bollywood permeates the very fabric of life,’ he says. ‘Mumbai is known as the city of dreams and the main reason for that is because of Bollywood. People come from all over the sub-continent to try and become famous.’
‘When you live in a place for ten years you do get to know it intimately.’ It’s the most incredible place he’s ever visited for all of its noise, pollution and overcrowding. ‘It has people from all castes and religions from all over India. Because it’s a such an incredible melting pot of all these different facets, it gives the city this incredible colour and diversity.’
But Khan’s keen to showcase modern India for what it really is, embracing its darker elements, not just the typically romanticized version that audiences in the West have been accustomed too. ‘It’s not all Slumdog Millionaire and happy endings.’
The third novel in the Baby Ganesha series, The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star published earlier this year was inspired by a real event which took place in Mumbai during Khan’s tenure.
One day a famous film producer was gunned down in the street. It was the first time that Khan realised how closely the underworld was involved with the ‘flamboyant’ and prolific film industry. When he began to research these links he was intrigued and knew they’d make a fantastic addition to the series.
Khan’s route to publication might have endured a turbulent period, but the journey since has been the stuff of dreams. ‘I certainly wasn’t expecting to be launching the book on BBC Breakfast because it doesn’t happen for a debut author.’ He has gone on to attend festivals across the globe, host a book club with the WI, and spotted a poster of his book on the Tube.
In spite of this success, Khan is very much dedicated to the art of writing. He works full time managing a crime and security project at a university and still finds time to write every day. He employs a strict regime, waking up at six in the morning and writing before work. In the summer, he plays cricket and writes during the period when he’s waiting to go out on the field. ‘The best advice I can give to any young or budding writer: Find some dedicated time when your mental energy is quite high. For me, that’s early in the morning between six and eight o’clock. That’s the slot when my mental energy is highest and I can easily write 1000 words.’ ‘Do that every single day until you’ve finished. If you do that for two hours, every day or for five days you’ll have the first draft to a novel.’
Vaseem Khan first saw an elephant lumbering down the middle of the road in 1997 when he arrived in India to work as a management consultant. It was the most unusual thing he had ever encountered and served as the inspiration behind his series of crime novels. He returned to the UK in 2006 and now works at University College London for the Department of Security and Crime Science where he is astonished on a daily basis by the way modern science is being employed to tackle crime. Elephants are third on his list of passions, first and second being great literature and cricket, not always in that order.