A.X. Ahmad grew up in India, was educated at Vassar College and MIT, and worked for many years as an international architect before taking up writing full time.
As Amin Ahmad, his short stories and essays on immigrant life have been published in The New York Times, The Missouri Review, The Harvard Review, The New England Review, Narrative Magazine and The Good Men Project. He’s been a finalist for Glimmertrain’s Short Story Award, and been listed in Best American Essays.
He has studied writing at N.Y.U., The New School, and Grubstreet. A.X. lives in Washington, D.C., and teaches at the Bethesda Writer’s Center. The Caretaker is the first in a trilogy featuring the adventures of illegal immigrant Ranjit Singh. The Last Taxi Ride, the second in the series, will be published in June 2014.
A SHORT INTERVIEW
So you’ve written a bunch of literary stuff. Why a thriller?
I grew up in India in the 70’s and 80’s, and it was a socialist country back then, and there wasn’t much in the bookstores. I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers: Graham Greene’s novels, Ross Macdonald’s hardboiled mysteries, Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series, and Ludlum’s original Bourne novels, which blew me away.
And I was also watching adventure movies, and it seems like there were a lot of them involved mountain climbing: The Eiger Sanction, Guns of Navarone, and Skyriders. Movies in India would play for years and years, so I’d go back and see them over and over.
When I got to the USA as an undergrad, at age 17, I hadn’t read any of the American canon, and immediately felt ashamed of my literary habits, so I ditched mysteries and thrillers and became a ‘serious’ reader.
In my 30’s I wrote a couple of literary novels, and my friends all liked them, but complained that nothing happened! A few years later I was in New York City and took a class in suspense writing with the mystery novelist Katia Lief. I turned in 20 pages, and she liked it and told me to keep on going. And Ranjit Singh appeared, with all his haunted past, and he hasn’t let me go: I’m now working on book #3.
So you could say that writing thrillers is a return to my old self!
You’re on your third career. What gives?
Well, I’m a good immigrant kid. I came to the USA and studied politics and economics at Vassar College. Towards the end I had an internship with Citibank in Dubai. I was so bored that I used to photocopy my face for fun. So I knew banking wasn’t for me, and I then got a degree in architecture from MIT. It’s a great place, and completely anarchic, and nobody tells you what to do, and I loved it. I went on to practice as an architect for over a decade, in Boston, Singapore and India. I loved seeing a building get built, and to drive past it later, and say “Hey, I did that.” But architecture involves huge teams and I’m by nature a solitary person. During all the years I was making buildings, I was still writing.
When I hit 40, I finally took a chance and started to write full time. And the discipline of architecture has served me well in my writing life- I literally design my novels and sketch out the plots.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
Writing is an unusual profession. I write in coffee shops all over DC, and after about 4 or 5 hours, my mind is mush. But the characters and their moods stay with you, and it’s important to get out of the spell of the novel and back to reality. (Whatever that is; in my case, remembering to unload the dishwasher.) My solution is to walk long distances- something about walking brings me back to earth, and into my body.
I’m also a collector. A lot of it is junk, which I justify under the label ‘collage material’. But over time I’ve had a Chinese teapot collection, an old overcoat collection, toy soldiers (only a certain kind), and lately, Tintin figurines. But I now live in a tiny apartment, so I have to keep my collections under check.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t wait for someone to anoint you and tell you that you’re a writer. If you feel strongly about it, call yourself a writer- and write a lot. I think it was Malcom Gladwell who said you need about 10,000 hours of practice to achieve proficiency. Put in your time.
Why the A.X. Ahmad moniker?
A.X. is smarter than I am. He can do things I can’t do. Like answer questions for a website.