Ashwin Sanghi ranks among India’s highest selling English fiction authors. He has written several bestsellers (The Rozabal Line, Chanakya’s Chant, The Krishna Key) and a New York Times bestselling crime thriller with James Patterson. Included by Forbes India in their Celebrity 100 and winner of the Crossword Popular Choice, Ashwin has recently also penned a non-fiction title ’13 Steps to Bloody Good Luck’. He has also been called the Dan Brown of India. With his latest The Sialkot Saga already out in the market, Mythical India got a chance to interact with him over his interests, writing style, his books and much more.
Mythical India: Since the age of 16, you have been involved with your family business and now also you are very regular in your contribution towards it. So, how did the idea of turning into a writer come about?
Ashwin Sanghi: My passion for reading was ignited when my maternal grandfather would bombard me with books that were far ahead of my time. He would insist that after reading every book I must write a letter detailing what I liked and what I didn’t. That was the genesis. But the spark happened much later. I was in Srinagar and ended up visiting the tomb of a Muslim pir. The shrine is called Rauzabal or “Tomb of the Prophet”. Local land records acknowledge the existence of the tomb from AD 112 onwards. The sarcophagus at Rauzabal has been placed along the north-south axis according to Muslim custom but the true burial chamber beneath reveals that the grave of Yuz Asaf lies along the East-West axis as per Jewish custom. A carved imprint near the sarcophagus of Rauzabal shows a pair of normal human feet that bear crucifixion marks on them. I was fascinated with the notion that the man buried in the tomb could possibly be Jesus Christ. This led to my first book, The Rozabal Line.
Mythical India: You have graduated from the premier “Yale school of management“. How was your experience and does it reflect in anyway in your writing?
Ashwin Sanghi: I don’t think degrees can ever help your creativity. In fact they tend to do the exact opposite—stifle your creativity by telling you what you can or cannot do. However, they can certainly help you in other areas. My years at Yale taught me a great deal about time management and the value of organizational skills in any project. My experience was invaluable in pacing myself while writing novels or plotting storylines. My business education has also provided me with a curiosity to look beyond the writing into the marketing, selling and distribution of my novels.
Mythical India: What genre of books you prefer to read and any favourites among them?
Ashwin Sanghi: It’s difficult to say because I grew up reading both classics as well as potboilers. My spiritual sense is influenced by Paramahansa Yogananda, my love for fast pace and racy plots is influenced by Jeffrey Archer and Frederick Forsythe, my fascination with historical retelling is inspired by Dominique Lapierre, my passion for research is fuelled by Arthur Hailey and my Indianness of voice is influenced by Salman Rushdie. The truth is that I was brought up on a diet of commercial fiction and thrillers for most of my growing years: Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon, Robert Ludlum, Frederick Forsyth, Irving Wallace, Jack Higgins, Tom Clancy, Ayn Rand, Ken Follett, Arthur Hailey… the list is long. In the past decade, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stieg Larsson, Ian Rankin and countless others were added to my list of favourites. Increasingly I find that I am reading much more non-fiction than fiction. Some of my favourite non-fiction authors are Gary Zukav, Richard Dawkins and Brian Weiss.
Mythical India: Do you agree that the plot such as The Rozabal Line was a complex and risky topic to begin your career in writing, especially in Indian setting? Is this the reason you wrote it with a pseudonym? (Shawn Haigins).
Ashwin Sanghi: As you know, I’m not a writer by profession. I was born and brought up in a business environment. I started working when I was 16 and completed my MBA when I was 22. By the time that I completed writing my debut novel, The Rozabal Line, in 2006, I had already been in business for over 20 years. The decision to use a pen name was nothing more than a desire to compartmentalize my life so that my entrepreneurial dimension would remain distinct and separate from my literary one. However, I had not thought about an appropriate pseudonym to use until I actually completed the novel. As you know, there’s an abundance of anagrams in my novel and the idea struck me: why not use an anagram of my real name as a pseudonym? Hence my first novel was written under the name Shawn Haigins, a perfect anagram of my real name Ashwin Sanghi. When Tata-Westland decided to publish the novel in India they insisted that it had to be published under my real name given the fact that the novel in question involved a sensitive subject. As it turns out, that wasn’t such a bad idea. I continue to use the pseudonym Shawn Haigins on my Facebook page but my books are marketed under my real name only.
Mythical India: Your first book was rejected by many publishers and then you decided to publish it on your own. Do you believe self-publishing is the new trend & is the right way forward for a budding author?
Ashwin Sanghi: Self-publishing is an extremely crowded space in which it is almost impossible to be noticed. While most new authors will tend to look at success stories such as Amanda Hocking or E. L. James, the reality of the situation is that the average self-published title sells around 100-150 copies, mostly to the author’s friends and family. Virtually none of the mainstream newspapers or magazines wish to read or review a self-published title, so getting visibility is almost impossible. Distribution of your title tends to be limited to online stores because the brick-and-mortar stores rarely stock self-published titles (though Crossword has just started a program that does). It is important to understand that self-publishing takes the pain out of getting yourself “out there”, but once you are, it’s rather difficult to make a living from it. Self-publishing is an easy route to getting your work out into the public domain but it places a greater responsibility on the author as regards content, quality, editing, cover design, pricing and promotion. Treat self-publishing as a serious endeavour to get all the elements right. If you keep your expectations low and your personal commitment high, you might just be one of the few lucky ones to strike gold.
Mythical India: In most of your books like Sialkot Saga, The Krishna Key and Chanakya’s Chant you have drawn parallels between our history and the present times. How did you decide you would write about Mythological instances? Where do you draw your ideas for these topics?
Ashwin Sanghi: Mythology is far more “truthful” than history. History is merely a given individual’s version of events and, as the adage goes, history is written by the victors. Mythology has no pretensions about accuracy. It was CS Lewis who said that “A myth is a lie that reveals a truth”. I simply seek that core truth. That’s precisely the reason why mythology is such a terrific adhesive. As regards finding parallels and connections, the fact is that quantum physics is telling us that the entire universe is just a bunch of connections, a string of relationships. I find that idea fascinating. It’s what prompts me to seek connections and parallels in things that others often ignore. I believe that every good writer must first become a good reader. Most of my ideas emerge from the reading and research that I do. Several Indian readers lump me into the “mythological fiction” category. Mythology does not really interest me though. What possibly holds promise is the overlap between mythology and history. Ask me to retell the story of Hanuman or Ganesha and I’ll give up within the first few pages. Ask me to write a story on whether the crossing to Lanka actually happened in history and I’ll jump in with relish. My writing is an attempt to address the tantalizing zone that is the overlap of history and mythology. What makes that possible is the fact that we Indians never really distinguished between Itihasas and Puranas. Our history often reads like mythology and our mythology could often be referencing history. I like to weave a tale around the areas that interest me and provide a detailed list of reference sources so that my reader can go back and check out those sources for himself. I like to think of my books as a starting point of a deeper exploration.
Mythical India: You have been regularly rated as the best-selling author and also compared to Dan Brown. How has been the experience till now?
Ashwin Sanghi: I cannot be Dan Brown. He is in a different league altogether. Nor can I be Jeffrey Archer, Sidney Sheldon or Ken Follet. I am simply trying to narrate stories that could possibly hold your attention. I keep reminding myself to keep my feet firmly planted on the ground whenever those comparisons arise because it is easy to get flattered by them.
Mythical India: What is next book that you are writing?
Ashwin Sanghi: A crime thriller. If all goes well, it should be published by the end of 2016.
Mythical India: Finally, any news on the movie on Chanakya’s Chant whose rights were acquired by UTV in 2011?
Ashwin Sanghi: Chanakya’s Chant had been optioned to UTV for a few years but the project never got off the ground. There is a possibility that it may become a mini-series at some point of time. The Krishna Key is currently being scripted and, if all goes well, we should have a movie in a couple of years. The Sialkot Saga is a story that spans the period 1947 to 2010 and describes the lives of the protagonists in a fair bit of detail over these 63 years. I am not sure whether a movie will be able to effectively compress the story into 140 minutes. It seems a natural candidate for a TV series rather than movie.
Mythical India: Many aspiring writers follow you and would read this interview. Any word of advice for the upcoming authors in India and do you think writing full time is a career option in India, yet?
Ashwin Sanghi: Here are a few key pieces of advice:
- Do it your way. Think of yourself as storyteller rather than writer.
- If you are not noticed, don’t be dejected. It’s not you but the market. The average browser in a bookshop spends 8 seconds on the front cover and 15 seconds on the back cover. Most readers do not get past page 18 of the average book.
- Don’t be afraid to emulate. All stories fall into one of seven plots—read a book called The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker.
- Be prepared for rejection and criticism—it goes with the territory.
- The first paragraph of your story must get you your reader. The last paragraph of every chapter must compel your reader to turn the page. The last paragraph of the book must ensure that she looks out for your next book.
- There are no published statistics for India regarding earnings from writing. In the US, however, the median wage for all types of writers and authors is around US$ 55,870. This includes writers for television and advertising—disciplines which often pay much more than book writing. The bottom 10 percent of all authors earned around US$ 28,180, while the top 10 percent earned around US$ 115,740. So, if you are looking at JK Rowling—worth US$ 900 million after the Harry Potter series—and hoping for some of that, it’s time to get a reality check. In India, it is virtually impossible to make a living out of writing unless you happen to be in the list of those authors who sell in the lakhs. Not all books sell, and not all sell the same volume. If you get published you may receive an advance but advances vary wildly. After that, authors receive royalties for every copy sold. This is often between 8 percent and 12 percent. In India book prices are very low and the vast majority of books sell fewer than 5,000 copies. Do the math. It’s rather depressing. My advice: don’t quit your day job until your royalties can sustain your life.