MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We'll wrap things up today with "Bookend," our monthly look at D.C.'s literary scene. This time around we'll meet a debut novelist who's been winning some serious critical acclaim, A.X. Ahmad.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Ahmad's new thriller is called "The Caretaker." It tells the story of a former Indian Army Special Forces captain trying to carve out a new life on Martha's Vineyard where it turns out his elite military training suddenly comes in very handy.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Jonathan Wilson met up with Ahmad at one of his favorite writing spots, the Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery. There they talked about what it's like to be an author of thrillers and to be a teacher of writing at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Md.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
So tell me first of all why you chose this place. It seems like you like to kind of get out in the city and work different places.
MR. A.X. AHMAD
I discovered quickly in my career that sitting alone and making up stuff can be a pretty lonely business. And I actually find that, I find it easier to be creative and to let my wander when there's a certain level of distraction and the Portrait Gallery is really, really wonderful.
MR. A.X. AHMAD
I mean, this courtyard's incredible. You get sunlight all year around and, you know, when I want to take a break I can walk around and see some incredible works of art, you know. So I take a break and I see an Edward Hopper and that kind of like inspires me to stay in the game.
Anybody who reads the back flap of your book will see your bio. You were raised in India, got your higher education down here in the States. It says you spent time as an international architect. So take me through how you get from international architect to writer and writing teacher.
I was an architect for 15 years. I practiced in the Boston area, over in Singapore and some work in India as well. But I was always writing during that time. I'd wake up like at 5:00 o'clock in the morning and writer for a couple of hours.
And I was lucky enough to be part of a cohort of writers who were meeting in an evening class at a place called Grub Street in Boston. My wife was basically like, this is something you really want to do then you should give it a shot. So we decided we'd give it a two year window and I would write full time.
And, in fact, now that I'm writing, I'm writing full time I think that being an architect for so many years has really served me well simply because architecture a long term creative process and it's not a lineal process. You just don't like do one thing and move on to the next step.
You don't have like a little sketch on the back of an envelope and then you have a building, you know, a few years later. It's very (word?), you have to go back and redo and redesign and you start with a concept and you deepen it and you make it real and then you put in the plumbing and the bathrooms and stuff like that.
So that gave me a kind of a certain toughness and a certain resilience that I'm not sure that I would've had in my 20's. So that's my transition from architect to writer in a nutshell.
Your first novel, a lot of people would call it a thriller. Were you always writing in that mode? Do you have that sensibility about you or was this, was it an accident, happening this to be a thriller kind of a book with some action and some intrigue?
I moved here when I was 17 and so I've been here for almost 30 years in the States and really the question is what can I write about. What is my subject matter? And if I were to write about India at this point I'd be writing about an India of the 1970s something very nostalgic.
I mean, I go back to India and I can hardly recognize and yet I didn't feel that any American subject matter was mine. And when I started writing my current novel, "The Caretaker," I was really looking for a world that I could claim of my own and really writing in genre, writing a thriller/mystery has really opened up a lot of material for me because I'm not limited by the immigrant stories of assimilation or nostalgic stuff about India.
And, in fact, "The Caretaker" trilogy, the first book was set in an immigrant community in Martha's Vineyard. The second one is set among the cab driver, the Indian and Pakistani cab driver community in New York and I'm just starting one about a seek farming community that historically existed in California. So it's really opened up all kinds of material for me.
In terms of teaching, talk about what that does for you because not every writer likes to teach. What does it do for you? I also wonder what it's like in a classroom where you have let's say 10 different writers with very different styles, goals, genres. Is that difficult for you?
I really enjoy teaching simply because I enjoy approaching writing as a craft and so it doesn't really matter and, in fact, it's exciting when you have different people in your class writing different things. I have people in my classes, one woman was writing a book set in medieval China. Another woman was writing a western romance.
And underlying all these different genre's was the fact that writing is a craft. So it's been exciting for me because the teaching allows me to kind of formulate my thoughts about what works and what doesn't. and because I'm teaching, I even hesitate to use, you know, to say that I'm teaching these folks.
It's like we're in this together but they will all soon catch up. These are all folks who are adults who have had, you know, really interesting and demanding careers and they've traveled and they're thoughtful and intelligent and they bring so much to the table.
And so I actually leave my teaching, you know, both exhausted because we have a two and a half hour class and I have to read, you know, up to 200 pages of manuscript for that class but also invigorated and I've learned a lot from my students as well.
That was writer A.X. Ahmad speaking with "Metro Connection's" Jonathan Wilson. You can hear more of their conversation and learn more about the Writer's Center on our website, metroconnection.org.
And that's "Metro Connection" for this week. We heard from WAMU's Emily Berman, Jonathan Wilson, Michael Martinez and Lauren Landau along with reporters Lauren Ober and Eva Harder. WAMU's managing editor of news is Meymo Lyons. "Metro Connection's" managing producer is Tara Boyle. Lauren Landau is our editorial assistant. Thanks, as always, to the WAMU engineering and digital media teams for their help with production and the "Metro Connection" website.
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We hope you can join us next week when we'll bring you a show all about "Fame." We'll check out journalist Jim Lehrer's new one-man play about the legendary Alexander Graham Bell. We'll meet the history buff stitching a replica of the iconic American flag that once flew over Baltimore's Fort McHenry and we'll visit a Maryland town whose claim to fame comes from being the capital of the United States for one day.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1
People were so excited to see the President of the United States, so they bunched up and they put their faces close to the window. You know, the presidents, oh, you want to get a glimpse of him passing by.
I'm Rebecca Sheir and thanks for listening to "Metro Connection," a production of WAMU 88.5 news.
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