Abir Mukherjee: my journey to publication
My journey from accountant to debut writer began back in the autumn of 2013, and to be honest, it was bit of a mid-life crisis. I was thirty-nine at the time, hurtling towards forty and I had the hope that maybe there might be more to life than accounting.
I’d always wanted to write a book but never had the confidence. That, and a well-honed tendency to procrastinate meant I’d never actually written more than a chapter of anything, and I doubt things would have changed had it not been for two pieces of good fortune. First, I was running late one morning and caught an interview with Lee Child on breakfast TV. He recounted how, having never really written before, he’d started writing at the age of forty. I’d never read any of his work till then, but I went out that day and bought a copy of his first book, Killing Floor, and devoured it within forty-eight hours. I was amazed at how simply written and well plotted it was. I’d recently had an idea for a story centered on a British detective who travels to India after the First World War, and reading Killing Floor gave me the motivation to put pen to paper.
Nevertheless, after about ten thousand words, I made the error of reading what I’d written and began to doubt whether any of it was any good. I’d have probably given up if it weren’t for the second piece of good fortune. I’d been doing some research online and came across details of the Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing Competition, looking for new and unpublished crime writers. The entry requirements were simple: the first five thousand words of a novel, together with a two-page synopsis of the rest of the book. There was only one stipulation – that the entry contain some international element. I tidied up the first chapter, wrote the synopsis and sent them away.
Having never submitted anything before, I didn’t expect to win, so it was a complete surprise when, a few months later, I was contacted by Alison Hennessey, the organiser of the competition, and told that my book was going to be published. The problem was at that point I didn’t have a book, just half a first draft of fifty thousand words that didn’t always fit together. Thankfully Alison and the whole team at Harvill Secker took me under their wing and helped me turn those fifty thousand words into a fully-fledged novel.
As for the book itself, I’m fascinated by the idea of a good man upholding a corrupt system and I’d always been interested in the topic of British rule in India. It’s a period in history which has contributed so much to modern India and Britain, and it was a time that saw the best and the worst of both peoples. But it’s a period that generally brushed under the carpet, and if it’s discussed at, is either painted as terribly black or romanticised. I wanted to examine that period from the perspective of a man who is an outsider to it all, who’s wrestling with his own demons and who sees it all with fresh eyes.
In terms of setting, there was only ever one choice – it had to be Calcutta. It’s where my parents came from, but more importantly, it was a city founded by the British and that makes it both familiar and exotic. In my opinion it’s the most fascinating city in India.