Vasudev Murthy lives in Bangalore, India and writes on music, humor, management and crime. He has been published by Poisoned Pen Press, Bloomsbury, HarperCollins and Sage. His work has been translated into Portuguese, Korean, Japanese and Kannada. He is otherwise a Management Consultant and violinist with a passion for animal welfare.
Q: Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Sherlock Holmes, the Missing Years: Timbuktu. To begin with, can you give us a brief summary of what the story is about and what compelled you to write it?
A: In the Sherlock Holmes Canon (the compendium of stories), there is a period between 1891 and 1894 that’s called the Missing Years. This is a period where Arthur Conan Doyle stopped writing after killing off Holmes at Reichenbach Falls. He resurfaced in 1894 in the story – The Empty House. There is considerable conjecture about where he might have been in the interim.
My first book about this was Sherlock Holmes, the Missing Years: Japan, where I claimed that he was in Japan. In this book, encouraged by my excellent editor, Barbara Peters, I placed him in a mystery in Timbuktu, or more correctly in Africa, with the center point being Timbuktu.
Q: What do you think makes a good thriller. Could you narrow it down to the three most important elements? Is it even possible to narrow it down?
A: This is only my view, of course. I think it’s the following:
1. An unpredictable plot
2. Finally etched characters one can visualize as someone in flesh and blood
3. A sense of closure – because we need to feel that good finally prevails over evil.
Q: How did you go about plotting your story? Or did you discover it as you worked on the book?
A: I have the key milestones more or less ready when I start writing. But since this kind of book involves a great deal of complicated historical research, I do face the challenge or temptation of trying to incorporate something I discover along the way. An occasional rewrite is needed. An example of that might be the very interesting story of the Cathars of France, the details of which I used in my Timbuktu story.
Q: Tell us something interesting about your protagonist and how you developed him or her. Did you do any character interviews or sketches prior to the actual writing?
A: In my case, I have a different challenge. The protagonist, Sherlock Holmes, has already been sketched well and is often known to the reader before the book has been opened. That means I need to constantly adhere to the expectation of the user. But yet, it would be quite boring to have exactly the same persona unchanged since 1891. A little variation is needed – both to Sherlock as well as to the expected story line.
Q: In the same light, how did you create your antagonist or villain? What steps did you take to make him or her realistic?
A: I think there are no true villains. Moriarty has, of course, an aura of utter villainy, but his is a character that must not be exposed too much. Other villains in this book remain hidden for extended periods, and then surface. The villainy comes from the expression of extreme views, a certain contemptuous cold-bloodedness. And yet, a villain might show sparks of being a normal human being – you can’t expect him to be nasty 24 x 7.
Q: How did you keep your narrative exciting throughout the novel? Could you offer some practical, specific tips?
A: A chapter must end with an unresolved situation, usually via a completely unexpected event. You can keep the suspense going by refusing to proceed in a linear manner. In other words, you can help in delayed gratification. I think conversation, usually clipped, adds spice and creates a sense of involvement.
Q: Setting is also quite important and in many cases it becomes like a character itself. What tools of the trade did you use in your writing to bring the setting to life?
A: A historical novel must refer correctly to events in history and make the characters appear to be involved in them. Then the physical setting is also needed – the desert, the sea, the heat – we need to talk about this because it affects our characters. In this novel, I have done exactly that.
Q: Did you know the theme(s) of your novel from the start or is this something you discovered after completing the first draft? Is this theme(s) recurrent in your other work?
A: I did have an approximate plot but things did change along the way as I uncovered new historical facts. And no, this is a unique theme and does not recur. At best, I might say that both novels have travel intrinsic to the plot.
Q: Where does craft end and art begin? Do you think editing can destroy the initial creative thrust of an author?
A: What we do is assemble some clumsy blobs of writing. It comes to life in the hands of an editor who you trust and whose motives are quite sincere. I hope that answers both questions. I am not in agreement with the notion that a writer has descended from the heavens as a supremely gifted angel.
Q: What three things, in your opinion, make a successful novelist?
A: Stamina – to write and revise. A thick skin – to ignore pointless criticism and an apparently indifferent market. Interpersonal communication – learning how to ask for opinions in the right way and allowing others to feel part of the writing process; they would then be your book’s ambassadors.
Q: A famous writer once wrote that being an author is like having to do homework for the rest of your life. What do you think about that?
A: I don’t understand the question and will respectfully pass.
Q: Are there any resources, books, workshops or sites about craft that you’ve found helpful during your writing career?
A: Not really. It changes constantly. In this specific case, it was always useful to refer to the original stories to remind myself of the tone and language of the era.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with my readers about the craft of writing?
A: I think writing in different genres is stimulating. Writing in only one genre is likely to make your writing predictable, though it may garner a loyal set of fans who become fanatical about imaginary characters.