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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Interview with Tahir Shah (author of Eye Spy)

Good morning, all! Please join me in extending a warm welcome to Tahir Shah, traveller, filmmaker, and author of 15 books. Over the last year Tahir made the move from travel writing to fiction, with Scorpion Soup released on January 7th of last year, and Eye Spy on April 19th.

Please be sure to check out his bio following the interview, as he is a fascinating man with some incredible stories to tell!

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Q: Thanks for taking the time to stop by today, Tahir. For those who haven't yet had a chance to check out your latest releases, Scorpion Soup and Eye Spy, please tell us a little about yourself.

A: thanks for inviting me. So... Me... Well, I'm a travel writer and a novelist from an Anglo-Afghan family. I was born and raised in Britain and have spent the last ten years living in a fabulous tumble down mansion in Casablanca, set in the middle of a shantytown. I am married to Rachana, who's from India, and I have two children -- Ariane and Timur.

Q: With fifteen books, published in thirty languages, and in more than seventy editions, your journey through the world of publishing is almost as impressive as your journeys through Africa. When did you begin writing, and what are some of your most memorable milestones along that journey?

A: I come from a family of writers. My father was the Sufi scholar Idries Shah. Both grandfathers, one grandmother, an aunt, uncle, and both my sisters, are published authors. The important thing about it is that in our home writing has never been a scary and difficult thing. It's seen as something magical, something that creates incredible opportunities. But, more importantly, it's seen in our family as a way of creating something from nothing. I have been very lucky to have known a great many writers, both as I was growing up and now in adulthood. My father was close friends with Doris Lessing, who passed away towards the end of last year. I remember J. D. Salinger at our home, and Robert Graves was a frequent visitor, too. I've been very influenced by Lessing, and by my friend Paul Theroux -- both of whom have inspired me because they write what they want to write, when they like... and they are proud to break the rules.

Q: In terms of writing, what comes easiest for you, and where do you struggle the most? Is it the title? The first paragraph? The last chapter? The cover blurb?

A: The idea. That's the cornerstone of any project. And it's what has to be clear as crystal. If you don't have the idea right in your head, the book is going to fall flat on its face. So I find myself turning an idea around in my head, for months, sometimes even years. And I let it grow there... Thinking about it while I'm driving, or making tea, or on nights when I can't sleep. The great thing about an idea is that, given time, it will grow, and bear fruit... all on its own.

Q: Sometimes, characters can take on a life of their own, pulling the story in directions you hadn't originally anticipated, especially when indulging your imagination. With your recent turn to fiction, have there been any twists or turns that surprised you, or really challenged your original plans for the story?

A: That's such a good question. When I hadn't done many books I used to get all worked up about it. I would regard writing a book like climbing a mountain. I'd have sleepless nights. I would panic. But, with time, I have learned to enjoy the process of telling the story. It is therapeutic and is something that gives me huge pleasure. I used to write hundreds of pages of notes for a book, and keep to them rigidly. These days I write an outline. It is usually about fifteen pages or so... Quite detailed. And I will have it on my desk, but I will deviate from it. But, always, I keep in my head the question: 'How is this going to sound to the person reading it?' And, 'Is it entertaining or poignant, or boring?' I think the test is having written a text that still amuses you the writer, even after reading it a dozen times.

Q: If we can talk for a moment about Eye Spy, which seems a very different sort of story than what you’ve told before, how did that story come about, and at what point did Dr. Kaine’s obsession with eating human eyes come into the story?

A: EYE SPY started for me when I opened a newspaper and saw a picture of a box of glass eyes.  I couldn't stop thinking about it. I talked about it constantly, and thought of nothing else. My wife said I should write a novel about it, about the eyes... As a way of putting them out of my mind. The thing about me is that I'm quite obsessive. Most other people could have simply turned the page of the newspaper, but I couldn't. It was a kind of mania.  So I turned the idea of the box of eyes around my head, and I found myself wondering who would have a box of glass eyes. The more I thought of it, the more I realized it would be, or it could be, a brilliant eye surgeon. And the more I wondered how he would be, the more I thought he might have cannibalistic tendencies. I know it's strange. It was strange for me, but it just came out of me. I didn't want him to seem like a Hannibal Lecter character. I wanted him to have some compassion. Yes, he went off the rails quite conclusively at the end, but I like to think he was the kind of person you would want to meet, because he was so downright interesting.

Q. We do tend to be fascinated with our villains, don't we? If we can look back for a moment to your adventure tales (House of the Tiger King, In Search of King Solomon’s Mines, and Trail of Feathers), what can you tell us of the real-life adventures behind the stories?

A: I love to travel. And I adore getting out of my comfort zone. The thought of a long adventure is so utterly appealing to me. I found that by setting myself a big goal -- whether it be searching in Ethiopia for King Solomon's Mines or through Peru's cloud forest for Paititi, the greatest lost city of the Americas -- it gets me motivated for a journey of astonishing hardship. The thing that drives me more than anything is people... Encounters with people. And I love oddballs. I don't quite know why. One of my favorite things is to get a random group of people together and invite them home for dinner. My wife isn't such a fan of weirdos, crackpots and psychos. At one dinner recently I overheard her say to a friend, while looking at my latest assortment of oddballs, 'This is Tahir's winter collection.' And travel allowed me to root out whacky people, whether they be in the Amazon or on a bus in India, or in the Arctic.

Q: Do you have a soundtrack to your writing, a particular style of music or other background noise that keeps you in the mood, or do you require quiet solitude?

A: Yes! The music of Andea Bocelli gets me in the mood for writing. Particularly the song UN NUOVO GIORNO.  I can listen to it endlessly... And I do.

Q: With fifteen books on the shelves, you must have experienced a wide range of reader reactions. What is the strangest or most surprising reaction you’ve encountered to -date?

A: Hmmm... Interesting question. I get a lot of emails from people, and you have no idea how incredibly grateful I am to people who take the time to write to me. I almost always drop everyone and write straight back. I rarely get hate messages. I got one once and it made me terribly sad. I went into a huge gloomy funk. Then I realized that the person who wanted it merely wanted attention. So I wrote back, showering him in attention and praise, and he said he was sorry for such an outburst the first time round.

Q: That's interesting - I like that you were able to 'save' him as a reader. Have you found that your work has resonated better with readers in one country or another? Is there a country or a market where you’d really like to breakthrough?

A: What I have found is that different people read in different ways. Women, for instance, read in a much more accurate way than men. They notice detail that men always seem not to notice. I find that Americans are very interested in the outside world, and have been interested especially by my books on Morocco. And, I find that the French and the Latvians get a lot out of the simplest of books. As for a country I'd like to break through in... I think it would be China.The reason is not so much that the sales have the potential to be vast, as much as the fact that the mainland Chinese have just begun a steep cultural learning curve, having been sequestered for so long.

Q: To turn from pen to page for a moment, is there a particular author who has influenced or inspired your writing? Somebody who either made you want to write in the first place, or who just refreshes your literary batteries?

A: As I said above, Doris Lessing and Paul Theroux have been huge influences on me. Others were the Victorian explorers, like Richard Francis Burton and Samuel White Baker. I put into that category Sir Wilfred Thesiger, who was a personal friend and in many ways a mentor to me.

Q: Before we let you go, what can we look forward to from you next? Is there a project on the horizon that you're really excited about?

A: I'm so glad you asked. I have JUST finished writing a novel called PARIS SYNDROME. It's based on the true-life condition, that tends to afflict Japanese tourists to the French capital. They get all excited in anticipation but, after a long flight, little sleep, rich food, too much wine, and far too little time, about 40 Japanese tourists to Paris completely implode each year. The psychiatric condition, known as Paris Syndrome, manifests itself in hallucinations, vomiting, shock, nausea, and a range of other maladies. The only cure for Paris Syndrome is to leave Paris, and never to return. Now I am sitting down to write a big novel called a THE HOUSE OF WISDOM, largely about the extraordinary scientific legacy left by the Abbasid Arabs of the ninth century.

Ends all

Tahirshah.com

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Tahir Shah is the author of fifteen books, many of which chronicle a wide range of outlandish journeys through Africa, Asia and the Americas. For him, there’s nothing so important as deciphering the hidden underbelly of the lands through which he travels. Shunning well-trodden tourist paths, he avoids celebrated landmarks, preferring instead to position himself on a busy street corner or in a dusty café and observe life go by. Insisting that we can all be explorers, he says there’s wonderment to be found wherever we are – it’s just a matter of seeing the world with fresh eyes.

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Eye Spy by Tahir Shah 
Published April 19th 2013 by Secretum Mundi 

The greatest eye surgeon of his age, Dr. Amadeus Kaine is fêted by royalty, dictators, Hollywood, and the international jetset. An epicurean of sophistication and dark obsessions, he’s devoted his life to locating the perfect food.

While treating one of Central Asia’s most depraved despots, Kaine is given a little pie to eat – a delicacy reserved for guests of the president. It’s the most delicious thing that’s ever passed the surgeon’s lips, and one that has seemingly miraculous effects.

All of a sudden, Kaine finds that his bald patch is growing over with thick black hair, and that his body is healing itself from the inside out. But, best of all, he realizes that his mental faculties are stimulated in ways he never believed possible. He can write books in a few hours, learn languages in a matter of days, and effortlessly solve problems from world hunger to global warming.

The drawback is that the dictator’s little pies are prepared with human eyes, taken from convicts working in the opal mines. Horrified that he’s unwittingly become a cannibal, Amadeus Kaine can’t think of anything but getting his hands on some more of the illicit specialty.

Obsessed in particular by green eyes, he begins hunting for victims to satisfy his wayward craving. While perfecting his method, he learns to appreciate the subtleties in taste. As he does so, a terrible affliction strikes – Occulosis.

An eye disease that has jumped the species gap from industrialized poultry farming, the virus rips through society, robbing the masses of their sight. The only man who can save the world is the inimitable Dr. Kaine, who is himself on the run.

One of the strangest tales of obsession, mania and intrigue ever told, EYE SPY will quite literally change the way you see the world.

3 comments:

  1. Brilliant interview. Tahir sounds like a lovely person. Some of the mentioned titles sound very intriguing. Thanks for the post, Bob

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  2. Tahir Shah, as an author and storyteller, has an uncanny ability to point out the extra ordinary life of an event and/or an encounter, in an otherwise, very ordinary settings and circumstances...That is the thrill for me, as a reader.
    Thank you for posting the interview.

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