Ahmed Faiyaz is the bestselling author of Love, Life & all that Jazz…., Another Chance, Scammed and the editor of the Urban Shots anthologies. He was born and raised in Bangalore, and now lives and works in Dubai, raising his two boys and their tabby cat named, Bob. Apart from writing, he dabbles with film making and travels to little known destinations in journey to better understand life and the world we live in.
TBE: Tell us about your book, can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb? How did you get the idea for this book and Why did you choose to write on this subject?
Ahmed Faiyaz: What I can share is that the book is loosely inspired from and draws from real life experiences from my time and journey in the publishing business. Between 7-10 years ago, I was very active as a writer who authored several bestsellers and contributed and pulled together short story anthologies that were very successful, while also publishing these as well as other books. Through this journey, I met with and interacted with a number of writers, publishers and people from the trade – in the business of promoting, selling and distributing books; and a germ of an idea emerged in my head, because it’s a tough and complicated business, with highs and lows; also many interesting characters which makes for an interesting plot. And despite stepping away for a few years, the inspiration and drive to tell new stories remains and thus I decided to re-emerge with Bestseller, which I believe will standout among the releases in contemporary fiction.
TBE: What is the key theme and/or message in the book?
Ahmed Faiyaz: Well, there are two themes clearly. On one side, it’s a witty, hilarious and no-holds-barred take-down of the publishing business. It’s meant to be funny and the characters represented aren’t to be taken very seriously.
On the flip side, it also shows how the business is, with the vanity, desperation and backroom maneuvers by writers and publishers to thrive and survive in an increasingly competitive, dog-eat-dog world, where publicity trumps real talent.
TBE: Are your characters based off real people or did they all come entirely from your imagination?
Ahmed Faiyaz: Loosely inspired by real people and wildly imagined by this jaded and cynical writer who wants his readers to have a few laughs and see some people for who they truly are, beneath the façade of PR managed personas.
TBE: What was your writing process for this book and How did you research on the subject?
Ahmed Faiyaz: I didn’t need to do any research. I lived through some of these experiences, which are exaggerated in the situations in the book, and I let my imagination run wild on some of the other situations and experiences the characters go through. Again, a lot of my experiences as a writer and publisher has helped in etching the characters in this story.
Being in the business and having seen the rise and fall of authors and bookstores in the business, it also brings you in contact with several people from the business ranging from literary agents and editors to booksellers, wannabe writers and publicists who are all brought to life in Bestseller.
TBE: What was your hardest scene to write in this book?
Ahmed Faiyaz: This was and I think will always be the easiest book to write for me, mainly because I was writing a lot before I wrote this, and was living through the experiences of being a publisher and a bestselling author. I think how to end it was a bit challenging. Do things go bust for Akshay despite everything that happens or does he survive and we close on a hopeful note? I decided the latter, being an eternal optimist myself.
TBE: How do you come up with names for your characters?
Ahmed Faiyaz: I wrote character sketches for each of them, and then came up with appropriate names. For some it needed thinking, but with most the names came up on the fly and I stuck with it.
TBE: During your journey from the idea of this book to the publication, what was the most difficult thing you faced? Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Ahmed Faiyaz: Not really, I wouldn’t say it was difficult or challenging in any significant way because of my experience and background as a writer with successful business in the past. But yes, the market has changed, and the retail trade is much less supportive towards new books and new writers. It’s much harder to reach the reading audience and succeed with a book than it was 5-9 years ago.
TBE: What do you hope your readers take away from this book?
Ahmed Faiyaz: Laugh, be entertained and smile when you think of the characters and situations they are in. It’s the real world, and despite the amplification of how messed up things are with publishing, there’s something to take away as an insight or learning of how things work in the business.
TBE: According to you what is the most challenging thing for budding writer? What marketing strategies do you find most helpful?
Ahmed Faiyaz: If you asked me 6-8 years back, I would have said finding a good book with good commercial value and potential to work with the reading audience was harder than marketing a good book. I feel today this has flipped on its head.
A few reasons for this, the reading audience has evolved in taste and maturity and with so many more books that have been written and published across genres, it has led to the emergence of a new crop of writers, who even if are few in number, write really well. The writing talent in India today is several notches above what we had a decade ago, especially in non – fiction and contemporary fiction.
On the other hand, brick and mortar stores which dominated sales and accounted for 80-90% of book sales have seen a significant change and many of those who were around have shrunk in size and volume or are no longer around.
So today, a writer and publisher has to find ways to market their book in a far more competitive environment where a couple of online portals account for most of books sold in certain genres and categories, and have to create a pull for the books.
It was easier when you had a wider base of independent and chain bookstores, and the publisher could get copies in to stores and the reading audience would find these books by browsing at the bookstore or seeing recommendations on various lists or a book review somewhere.
In an algorithm driven world it is much more challenging, but one has to adapt and find new ways to reach out to and get more visibility.
TBE: Do you read much and if so, who are your favorite authors?
Ahmed Faiyaz: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Great Gatsby by Scott Fitzgerald, The Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, The Middleman by Sankar, The Goat, the Sofa & Mr. Swami by R. Chandrasekar, various short stories by Saadat Hassan Manto and Roald Dahl, and Norweigian Wood by Haruki Murakami are and will remain at the top of my list.
In the past one year, some of the most interesting books I’ve read are – Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, Quiet by Susan Cain, Calling Sehmat by Harinder Sikka, The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa and Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles.
Paul Auster, Roald Dahl, Haruki Murakami and F. Scott Fitzgerald are authors whose writing style, development of characters, depth of emotions that emerge through their narrative across books they’ve written, to be a source of inspiration and envy. I wish I could write like them, and I look up them more than any other writers from the past or our contemporary times.
Also, coming back to Indian writers, I really like Ruskin Bond’s ability to find humour and tell interesting tales of ordinary people, and Saadat Hassan Manto, who conjures up a beautiful world and creates that sense of place and time in his stories where the readers can easily visualize the world they are reading about. Few can do it as well as these writers have in the past.
TBE: Have you ever learned anything thing from a negative review and incorporated it in your writing?
Ahmed Faiyaz: No, I don’t really. A negative review is a personal reaction from the reviewer’s standpoint which comes from their world view, personality and preferences shaped by the environment they are drawn from and their likes, dislikes and preferences.
I much more focused on stories growing in my head, connecting with readers, and focusing on my craft and honing storytelling abilities. And I spend more time reading and thinking about melting glaciers, endangered species on our planet and on wildlife preservation, equality and human rights, than I can ever do about negative reviews.
TBE: What is the most unethical practice in the publishing industry?
Ahmed Faiyaz: I have real concerns over the malaise that has spread though the publishing business where well-written, engaging books written by talented writers have to compete with the same run of the mill formulaic stories or half backed uninteresting books backed by big money and writers who are equipped to manipulate and twist arms to get what they want – from speaking slots at literature festivals and even awards. The mainstream media turns a blind eye to false advertising by these unscrupulous lots.
I’m not against advertising per se, but against someone paying off a newspaper or fudging the bestselling audit system through massive buybacks to masquerade as bestselling writers, just to save face and get more lucrative publishing deals in the bargain. And this has become the biggest risk for the business, if people are gaming the system and there is no credibility and growing frustration among those with both integrity and talent who won’t do this, and don’t have the resources even if they could.
With this growing breed of Con Artists, you can put anything in a book, and get it up there without actually having any reader engagement or buzz. I think there’s a lot of complacency and there are willing participants in this business (mostly a select few in retail trade and agencies dealing with authors) who collaborate with such writers for their own commercial gains.
Hope that readers become aware and reject such practices, seeing these people and their work for who they truly are. This is part of the reason why I wrote Bestseller, to entertain readers but also to show who things really work and the manipulative practices that exist in the business of bestselling books.
TBE: In your opinion, what is the most important thing about a book?
Ahmed Faiyaz: The plot, narrative and the character development are key, and they all need equal focus and development to make a story engaging and compelling for readers.
TBE: Picture this: You feel uninspired and you’ve sat at the computer for an hour without conquering any words. How do you get your creativity flowing?
Ahmed Faiyaz: I wouldn’t write if I’m not inspired to write. For inspiration, one needs a calm and relaxed mind, and for me travel, listening to music and playing a sport really helps.
TBE: Is any of your characters inspired by a living author or editor?
Ahmed Faiyaz: Akshay, our main protagonist, has his task cut out – he needs to publish five bestsellers in one year, otherwise the business goes bust and he’s out of a job. Among the writers he has to deal with and draw a bestseller out of include an aging Bollywood heartthrob, a wily old politician with scores to settle, a terminally ill once famous writer, social activists, a self–important book critic, a seductive fashionista and fitness enthusiast, a snooty socialite, who thinks highly of her poorly written books, a mercurial IT entrepreneur who’ll do anything it takes to climb the bestseller lists, and scores of other wannabes with an ambition to get their work published and make it big as bestselling writers.
Let’s just say that all the characters from Akshay, Zorah, Anya and Tarun to the wannabe and great writers, Bollywood stars, politicians and others in the book trade who are intrinsic to the plot are wildly and loosely inspired by people dead or alive. Those you see on the cover reflect some of these key characters, and once you read the story, you’ll very quickly figure out the ones who are depicted on the cover. I feel that all four of them cover the spectrum of bestselling writers one sees in India today. I leave it to the readers to make the connections and interpret who is like whom.
What makes Akshay very interesting and relateable in my opinion is that his journey begins with his back against the wall, and its do or die for him from the very beginning. He is no superhero, but instead he’s a flawed individual with some redeemable qualities that one would relate to easily. He epitomizes the lives we live in reality, as nothing is the same from one day to the next, and I’ve seen this from my life experience.
There are many dimensions that shape our life, and Akshay is a multi-faceted personality who is good at making lemonade when life throws lemons at you. He is resilient, cynical, witty and has an eye for a good story. In that respect perhaps, he’s a lot like me.
TBE: How do you balance your day job with writing? Do you have a fixed writing schedule?
Ahmed Faiyaz: I used to balance it in the past where I used to write at night or on weekends, but I don’t do so anymore. I write only in months when I have a relatively light schedule at work and my kids are away, where I can take large stretches of time outside of work to write in spurts and bursts and get the first draft finished. This is why I’ve written very little in 6 years, in 2013-15 I didn’t write at all but for the past three years I’ve been able to finish a novel each year, and usually a first draft takes me about a month or so, because I need that crazy energy and write without stopping to live those characters in my head and tell the stories as they emerge, and trying to do this very slowly doesn’t work, it becomes too disconnected and disorienting for me.
But I guess any writer can take and work with what works best for them. I need to disconnect and immerse myself completely in my stories and for that I need weekends where I can churn out 14,000- 20,000 words writing relentlessly, where my only contact with the outside world is a phone call or two to my kids and ordering food.
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