The Five By Five Interview with Tariq Ashkanani
“Five By Five?” Um, well… I wanted a name for this (hopefully regular) feature, and as well as being a big crime fiction fan I am also a big Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, with a soft spot for “rogue slayer” Faith, who uses the phrase constantly – though she never explains what it means, it’s an expression used in telecoms/military coms to confirm a signal is being received clearly, so hopefully this means we’ll get a clearer picture of our interviewees!
I literally bumped into Tariq Ashkanani at Bute Noir last summer, in the melee between panels, and I’m ashamed to say it took me til a while after we’d exchanged a few words that I put him together with the chap who was listed for the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize. Sitting in the audience a few weeks later watching him on stage, collecting the prize and chatting with Janice Forsyth, that random brief conversation came back to me and I thought once more how glorious the crime fiction world is – that readers and writers rub shoulders so easily, and that writers are often very lovely people indeed even to readers they’ve never laid eyes on before! Tariq’s second book came out earlier this month, and now he’s here on the blog to be gently grilled…
Tariq Ashkanani is a solicitor based in Edinburgh, where he also runs WriteGear, a company that sells high-quality notebooks for writers, and co-hosts WriteGear’s podcast, Page One. He had no formal writing training or consultation prior to writing his first thriller, Welcome to Cooper – which went on to win the Bloody Scotland Debut Prize 2022. It was also shortlisted for the CWA New Blood Dagger and Capital Crime Fingerprint Award. Find him on Twitter at: @TariqAshkanani and Page One at: @ukPageOne Find WriteGear and a link to the podcast at: www.writegear.co.uk
First, the sensible questions…
Q1 Tell us a bit about your journey to publication and how you got to where you are now. Why crime fiction rather than another genre?
I’ve always loved crime fiction, especially stuff that is dark and scary – I remember reading Red Dragon by Thomas Harris at a young age and it really left its mark on me. Hannibal Lector is just such a fantastic character! I do also love other genres, science fiction in particular, but again, it’s the dark and scary stuff that I like best (like Alien!).
In terms of my own writing, I wrote short stories as a kid quite obsessively, usually related to whatever I was into at the time (I wrote a hell of a lot of Star Trek growing up). I even have what might be the world’s lamest Scouts badge for writing – while others were off camping and doing first aid, I was scribbling stories in a notebook. When I was older, I knew I wanted to try writing a novel-length piece, but struggled with the size of the project. I’d usually run out of interest in whatever I was writing when another idea came to me that seemed more exciting (a problem that is still somewhat present to this day – especially when in the difficult middle of a long draft!).
It wasn’t until I joined a writing group in 2012 that I found the confidence to really try it properly. We would get a different prompt each week and write a short story to share with everyone. It was a great group of people and having the weekly deadline really forced me to write (and, more importantly, finish) something. One week the topic was detective stories, and I wrote a short piece about two cops investigating a murdered girl with her eyes scooped out… The feedback I got was that it could be the start of a bigger story, and the spark for Welcome to Cooper was born.
Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now – easier, harder, just different?
Writing my first novel was pretty daunting. It seemed like so many words (it still does) and the thought of tying everything together and getting the pacing right seemed so difficult (it still does). All in, it took me around eight years from starting work on it to seeing it published. Most of that was spent trying to find my “voice”, which I struggled with massively for a long time. I wrote and re-wrote three or four drafts of the book, and while the general plot is still roughly the same as the finished product, it just didn’t read well. It was clunky and it wasn’t engaging, and I couldn’t work out how to make it work.
Then I watched the TV show True Detective. Right from the start, I knew this was the murky, depressive tone that I was looking for. The show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, had written a novel, Galveston, and I decided to read that. From the opening line I was gripped by his voice, and by the time I finished it I was inspired. So, I re-wrote my draft again but in the style of Pizzolatto’s work – which to be honest, felt largely like copying it. Once I was done, I knew it was closer than ever to that vibe I’d had in my head all along. I redrafted it another six or seven times, each pass introducing more and more of my own voice, and eventually the novel morphed into this new beast. Inspired by Pizzolatto and fused with my own voice to create something new. I think all new writers have to start off aping their peers to some degree. You don’t want to copy them completely, but it’s a great starting point in finding your own style.
My second novel, Follow Me To The Edge, was very different. I had less than a year to write it due to my publishing contract. Luckily, having somewhat found my own voice, it was a much easier, much faster experience. I still struggled with plotting it, and I still had that same feeling midway through that it wasn’t going to work, but I had learned to push past those feelings and get the draft down on the page. I think some things will always be difficult – creating characters, pacing the story, coming up with twists, all that stuff – but I feel much more confident in my own voice now. For me, it’s all about getting that first draft down on the page and sorting the details in the redrafting process.
Q3 How has winning the Bloody Scotland 2022 Debut Prize changed things for you?
It’s been a wonderful experience. In terms of exposure, it’s really gotten my name out there to other readers and publishers in a way that perhaps would never have been possible otherwise. The year before I won, I was lucky enough to be able to read from Welcome To Cooper shortly before its launch as part of the Crime in the Spotlight sessions. Bloody Scotland is such a fantastic festival, and being part of it has really helped me meet so many great people. The crime writing community is incredibly friendly and welcoming – despite how dark and nasty everyone’s books can be! Since winning, I’ve been invited to take part in other festivals, I’ve hosted some of my own panels and I’ve chatted with some of my favourite authors in person. Honestly, so much of my writing career can be traced back to Bloody Scotland and the support that they give to new and aspiring writers.
Q4 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
Good question! I love those moments when things click on a draft, when you suddenly realise how to tie up those separate plotlines, or when a character does something that you hadn’t been expecting and takes the story in a whole new direction. It makes the slog to get to those parts worth it! And being able to chat to other writers and readers about books or their writing process is just so interesting. I’m the co-host of the podcast Page One, where we chat with writers each week about their publication journey, and it’s made me realise that there’s no “right” way into the industry. Everyone is just so friendly and trying to do their best.
Q5 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
I’m currently working on book three at the moment. It’s a standalone, but very much keeps that dark noir vibe going. I’m really pleased with it, I think it’s my most ambitious book in terms of plotting and characters, and I’m so excited for people to read it! I think trying to challenge yourself with your writing is really important. I don’t think I’d want to put out the same book every time (I don’t think anyone would want to read it, either), and attempting something different can be really satisfying.
After that, I’ve got some vague ideas for what my next book would be, but I need to let them cook for a little longer. I know I want to fuse a couple of genres together, and I’m currently reading a lot of “weird fiction” to try and get in the right headspace – stuff by Jeff Vandermeer [his novel, Annihilation, was made into a film by writer-director Alex Garland] and China Mieville [whose novel The City & The City was a BBC TV series in 2018], for example. I recently read Looking Glass Sound by Catriona Ward, and I think she does such an amazing job of combining genres, whether that’s crime, horror, literary, meta, etc.
Now for the quick-fire round…
Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
Q2 What book have you reread the most?
Probably Red Dragon or Silence of the Lambs.
Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
Something unexpected – I love offing a character that everyone thought would survive. Preferably with plenty of blood.
Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
I find things are always happening “suddenly” in my books, and I have to repeatedly force myself to make the surprise seem organic or obvious rather than just telling people.
Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
There’s a special place in hell for people who fold down page corners…
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions, Tariq! I’m always interested to hear about how a writer gets started and their inspirations – and I am totally with you on those who fold page corners… I have not been organised enough to review Welcome To Cooper yet, but I am pretty sure Tariq’s work will make it onto the blog at some point, I do love a dark tale, and splicing crime with sci-fi for weird goings-on sounds fascinating.
Tariq’s latest novel is Follow Me To The Edge, published by Thomas & Mercer: Even for the sleazy backwater of Cooper, Nebraska, the multiple murder of an entire family, brutally bludgeoned to death in their beds, is big news. Detective Joe Finch, raw with guilt over his partner’s traumatic shooting during a routine traffic stop, hopes the case will at least focus his mind. But then he discovers that the crime scene is the house he grew up in, and the ghosts of his own tragic childhood come rushing back to confront him. As Finch dredges the corrupt and criminal mires of Cooper in a desperate search for the truth, the only certainty is that everyone there is lying. Caught between greedy politicians, a violent cartel boss, an ambitious reporter and a sinister cult lurking in the cornfields on the outskirts of town, Finch is soon out of his depth. In a town where the law exists only to be bent or broken, can Finch steel himself against entrenched evil and the haunting spectre of his past―and live to serve justice in Cooper?
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