Hi everyone! I was recently lucky enough to interview Tom Vater, who kindly sent me a digital copy of Kolkata Noir in exchange for an honest review. I’d like to say a massive thank you to him for both his time and his kindness.
How old were you when you wrote your first book? What was it about?
For me, coming to the point where I wanted to write for a living was one of the great epiphanies in my life. I lived in Kathmandu in the mid-90s, met two cyclists who’d biked in from Europe and were selling the stories they’d gathered on the road. They needed help editing, so I accompanied them to a local newspaper. Back then, I typed out their stories on an electric typewriter – no computers. I was in Asia on a research grant from the British Library to record and document disappearing indigenous music. I asked the editor whether he’d take a story of mine about Nepali music. A month later I had the weekend supplement almost to myself. I understood then that this was what I really wanted to do and started writing my first novel The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu immediately. I also started writing for other newspapers, first in India, then in Southeast Asia. I soon had a collection of stories together which I published in my first non-fiction Beyond the Pancake Trench. Those first efforts were published in the early 2000s. The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu has been out in many editions and is currently with Next Chapter who have just produced a fabulous audio book. There’s also a Spanish edition.
The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu is a kaleidoscopic travel thriller set on the 70s hippie trail between London and Kathmandu. In 1976, four friends – Dan, Fred, Tim and Thierry – are on a bus along the hippie trail from London to Kathmandu. But everything is not going according to plan.
After a drug deal goes wrong, the boys barely escape with their lives. Thousands of kilometers, numerous acid trips, accidents, nightclubs and a pair of beautiful Siamese twins later, they finally reach the counter-culture capital of the world, Kathmandu, and Fred disappears with the drug money. A quarter-century later, mysterious emails invite the other three to pick up their share of the money, and they decide to reunite in Kathmandu. Soon, a trail of kidnapping and murder leads them across the Roof of the World. With the help of Dan’s backpacking son, a tattooed lady and a Buddhist angel, the ageing hippies try to solve a 25-year old mystery that takes them amongst Himalayan peaks, and towards the inevitable showdown with their past.
Which was your favourite part to write in Kolkata Noir – the past, the present or the future?
All three novellas were fun to write. The one set in the 90s gave me the opportunity to reflect on my journeys to India back then. The one set in 2019, I basically scraped off the pavements of Kolkata. And the one set in 2039 came about when I looked at which cities are likely to be flooded thanks to global warming/climate change in the next few decades. Kolkata is high on the list. Each story had its own challenges. I guess the most fun was the last one as I could really go to town with my imagination and was less tethered to my experiences of the city.
Which character in Kolkata Noir is the most similar to you?
Well, there’s only one western man playing a major role and that’s Becker, a British traveler/photographer who in later life becomes a sort of travel trouble consultant. He is in love with India – I am too – and he falls in love with an Indian police inspectress, which I did not.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
If you’re not obsessive, it’s not likely to work out. Read a lot and widely, write every day. Without that, you’re absolutely wasting your time. If you don’t enjoy reading and spending years at a desk, alone, then it’s probably best to do something else creative. If you are obsessive, it’s also not likely to work out. Writing is a tough business. The joy, I guess, is in the struggle to complete a great book and then to see it published. Despite some drawbacks, it’s best to find a publishing house. Self-publishing involves so many other processes one has to undertake that the writing becomes a small component of the overall effort and not everyone likes to run a business in order to publish their book or is any good at marketing.
Who was your favourite character to write in Kolkata Noir?
I wanted to create a strong female character in this cycle of novellas and Madhurima Mitra, the female Kolkatan cop is the result. She is independent, selfless and sharp. She fights for the opportunities, so sorely lacking in real India, all Indian women should have.
What inspired the story behind Kolkata Noir?
I was selected as artist in residence for the annual Indo-European Art Residency Kolkata in 2019. I lived in a big old house with an Indian, British and French artist for 2 months and did nothing but trawl through the city, mostly at night, and write, write, write. I loved Kolkata anyway, so this was a dream gig and having the time, headspace, friends and money to explore the most off the beaten lives and areas of the West Bengal capital has been one of the highlights of my writing career.
You mentioned you had the chance to visit Kolkata. Could you tell us a bit about what that was like?
I think I first visited Kolkata in 1995, then still known as Calcutta, as a tourist and British Library sound recordist. I was simply bowled over by how beautiful it was. Thanks to turbulent politics and communist rule, crass capitalism had not yet flourished. The local population had appropriated the countless British colonial buildings which remained in various states of disrepair, like huge beacons from another time, yet to be replaced by concrete. In the late 90s, I interviewed Dominique LaPierre, the author of City of Joy, a true gentleman and great story teller. I also found that, more so than Delhi and Mumbai, Kolkata was always very relaxed, reasonably safe and very walkable. The Bengalis are super friendly and the food – from the legendary kathi rolls (a mix of chicken, onions and chili rolled into a paratha/flatbread) and mishit dahi (simply the tastiest yoghurt in the world) – is amazing.
Do you have any plans for future books? If so, can you tell us a bit about them?
I have just finished writing a novel called the Green Panthers, a futuristic eco thriller. Think Greta Thunberg meets James Bond. The Green Panthers are currently looking for a publisher.
What key message do you want readers to take away from Kolkata Noir?
Kolkata has always had a bad reputation for its grinding poverty. All of India is afflicted by incompetent, corrupt government, more than in many other parts of the world and the caste system along with the aggressive Hinduism that sustains it remains a major handicap for the country’s development. But unlike the commercial vulgarity of Mumbai or the insane pollution and hustle of Delhi, Kolkata remains a city of humans. Rich ones, poor ones, good ones, bad ones. I hope that readers get an idea that places far from their own experience, that appear rather lackluster if at all in western media, are actually true gems – fantastic centres of culture and taste. Kolkata, for now, is right at the top of my list of such places.
In a sentence, how would you describe Kolkata Noir?
Kolkata Noir is a riveting crime fiction cycle of three novellas set in the past, the present and the future that introduces readers to one of the world’s greatest cities.
Any final words?
Thanks for the opportunity to tell readers about my work, Ceri. Message to readers – buy my books!
I hoped you enjoyed reading this interview and it inspired you to pick up Kolkata Noir!