Wednesday, July 30, 2014

An Interview With Author, Khalid Muhammad

Welcome, Khalid. So could you please introduce yourself to our readers by telling them a little bit about yourself?

Sure. First, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me about my writing and my debut spy thriller, Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office.

In terms of my background, I was born in Pakistan, raised and educated in the United States and returned to Pakistan in 1997 to pursue emerging business opportunities. I’ve spent my time in the country comparing the on-ground Pakistan with everything that I heard in the media. What a difference! There are times when I think they make up the stories that are written about the country.
As an entrepreneur, I have been able to build a successful marketing and brand management company in Karachi that services both domestic and international clients, which has helped with supporting my family while I build my writing career.  Since publishing Agency Rules in January 2014, I have written for a number of domestic publications and a few international ones, while I work on the next two books of the Agency Rules series.

Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office is my debut novel – the first in a series of 4 – 5. I chose to put focus the story on my home country, Pakistan, because it is the most discussed country in the world because of our terrorism problem. Interestingly, while it is the most discussed, it’s also the least understood because the media doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s what I like to call sound byte reporting. So, I take my readers back to the 1990s, right after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan and the Mujahideen that returned to Pakistan, radicalized and with no one to fight. They turned their sights on Pakistan and reforming the country through violence and intimidation. The story follows Kamal Khan, a precision sniper in the Pakistan Army and member of Pakistan’s most feared intelligence service, the ISI. Kamal is a fantastic protagonist because he is struggling with everything that he must do to accomplish his objectives. It will be hard for the reader to not identify with him or experience the world he is living in.

Why do you write?
That’s a great question! I know that when I started writing the book, the only message/motivation in my mind was to tell the real story of Pakistan without the spin and political bias. While writing the book, I found that I was taking the reader to some very uncomfortable places that would, in some cases, shock, anger and outrage them, but to understand how we got to where we are today, I had to take them there.

I think the main undertone message of Agency Rules is that Pakistanis are a proud people from a proud nation that have just been misjudged, misunderstood and misrepresented around the world. I wanted people to see my Pakistan, the country that I call home, with all of its problems, struggles and challenges. We are just like every other country in the world, just more mismanaged.
Of course, there are other messages within the book, but I will leave those to the reader to find. I always find it interesting how readers highlight things that even I have missed when writing. My job is to craft a story that will touch the reader in places that they don’t want to go. Thus far, from the reviews, I think that journey has been started.

What inspired you to write your first book?
I first got the idea for the book about 6 years ago. I tried many different flavors of how the story should come together in terms of flow and structure, but it never really worked for me until I switched gears and let more of myself into the writing. I am extremely pro-Army and pro-Pakistan – it will always be home to me.

Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office takes you behind the headlines into the events that created today’s Pakistan. It is a tough look at a nation in conflict from the eyes of a young man, Kamal Khan, who is looking for his own identity and place in society. Kamal is raised in privilege, but leaves it all behind as a man to serve his nation. Once in that environment, finds himself embroiled in a complex narrative that shifts with the fiery speeches of their anointed political and religious leaders.

There are a number of motivations behind my story. First, and probably the most important motivation, was to share the Pakistan that I know with the world. The narrative that has become commonplace about my country is that it is a failed state with many players in the power corridor, but that is not all that Pakistan is. My Pakistan is a country that struggles with inept governments more interested in themselves rather than the people who elected them. It is a country whose people are extremely talented and patriotic but unable to take advantage of any opportunities because the country is run like a fiefdom rather than a nation. It is a country in search of its identity, much like Kamal, that is trapped amidst power plays from internal and external forces.

The backdrop of terrorism does make telling the story easier, but to paint the mosaic of the complexities I had to move backwards to the 1990s so that the reader could understand what happened to create the image of the country as it is today. It’s also a little bit of what I wish had happened rather than what really has happened. In my story, as in real life in fact, the people of Pakistan are the underdog against so many powerful forces, it’s a miracle we still exist. That we do is testament to our resilience as a nation, no matter what you read in the international press.

I hope that, as a reader, you will experience that Pakistan that I fell in love with when I moved home from the United States after 25 years. You will feel your heart wrench with Kamal’s when he is stationed in Karachi, Peshawar and buried deep inside the terrorist camps. And, hopefully, you will cheer him on, because he is the Pakistani that you don’t see in the media – smart, driven and motivated to do good for his family, fellow citizens and country.

What genre do you typically write?
Thus far, I am writing military/espionage thrillers, but I may do a couple of books in the crime thriller genre as well.

Do you feel like you have a specific writing style?
Honestly, I don’t know. I personally don’t think that I do, but reviewers have compared my writing to John Le Carre, Fredrick Forsyth and Jack Higgins, which is high praise for me. They are some of my idols in the genre and I have read most of their writing.
I think there is one thing I focus on when I write. I want to bring the reader into my world. I want them to feel, experience and tie themselves to the words on the page. I don’t know if that qualifies as a writing style or not.

How long does it usually take you to write a book?
If we add up all the research, movies, videos, shows, it was about four years of preparation. The book itself took me about one year to write. Granted, part of that time was spent writing a novella that was going to be the first book of the Agency Rules series. I didn’t like the final product so I tossed it and spent the next seven months writing Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office.

What do you do to conquer writer’s block?
I have put it away and focused on television, music and reading. When I get stumped on where to go next, I just need to clear my head and come back to it once I have figured out how the scene should play out. Granted, I do spent a lot of my time with a digital recorder, notebook and pen, sketching out ideas and potential scenarios trying to see how they would fit into the overall storyline.

What can you tell us about your favorite character from your book?
Kamal Khan is the protagonist in my series. He, when I was crafting him, is the true Pakistani – patriotic, hardworking, honest, and looking to make his country better. He leaves the comfort of an upper-middle class landlord family to join the Army in the hope of finding his identity.
I didn’t base him on any particular person, but there are pieces of myself in him, pieces of people I have met and am honored to call friends, and the rest of him is imaginary.

Who is your favorite author and what is it about them that inspires you?
The greatest influencers on my life have been Charles Dickens and John Steinbeck. I can still pick up any of the books written by these two writers and find something new, something that impacts me differently.

My favorites are Fredrick Forsyth, Tom Clancy, Helen MacInnes, Alistair McLean and John le Carre. These are the bricks that laid the foundations of today’s modern spy thriller and they teach authors from their books and writing.

I do have to be honest and admit that I watched a lot, and I mean a lot, of spy movies and TV shows. It helps to understand how a story plays out on screen to know the level of realism and environment that has to be brought to a story on paper. When you don’t have the visual to count on, the author has to paint the picture in the reader’s mind. I hope that I have been able to achieve that with my debut novel.

What book are you reading now?
Right now, I am wrapped up in research for the second and third installment of Agency Rules. I have 4 or 5 books on my bedside table right now. The Secret Plane, Imperial Hubris, Terry McDermott’s Perfect Soldiers and Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. For pleasure, I am reading Tom Clancy’s final novel, Command Authority.

What are your current projects?
Right now, I am working on the next two books in the Agency Rules series, which I hope to publish in November 2014. It’s a daunting task to take the whole story that exists in my mind and break it down into blocks of words. I have already worked out a good portion of the next 3 books in the series, but turning that into the books that need to be edited, beta read, edited and published isn’t easy. There are so many fluid parts to this story that I have to keep my mind in check while I write otherwise I will get carried away and write 200,000 words… in one book.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Not a thing. I am extremely happy with the story and the characters. It’s a wonderful read!

Can you share a little of your work with us?
Excerpt from Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office

Standing in the hall of the abandoned warehouse, blood dripped from his body, leaving a trail on the grimy floor. A body was slumped in the chair in the middle of the hall with a singular light hanging above, illuminating a small radius around it. Another lay in the doorway propping the door open. The fight inside had been more than expected from the three days he spent surveying the warehouse. By his count, there should not have been more than five men both inside and out. Instead, he had found almost seven men around the facility.
They had prepared well for his arrival.
On his approach, he saw one man guarding the entrance. There were usually two… where’s the other one? Kamal shook off the thought and sized up his enemy, noting that he was a scrawny soldier that didn’t fill his uniform. He ducked into the shadows where he could use the darkness against the soldier, catching him by surprise. He rushed the guard, knocking him to the ground before he could set himself or draw his weapon. With a quick strike to the head, the first guard was neutralized. Before he could get up, he heard the door to the warehouse open. Jumping to his feet, Kamal saw the second guard emerge, finding Kamal hovering over his partner’s incapacitated body. The guard, surprisingly, dropped his AK-47 and rushed at Kamal, driving him into the concrete wall of the warehouse with a shoulder block. As he pulled back from Kamal, he landed two solid right crosses to his jaw stunning Kamal and giving himself time to set for the fight. Kamal pulled himself up from one knee, gasping for air and taking the time to assess his opponent. The guard didn’t wait for Kamal to position himself and struck again with a swift kick to his midriff, bring the taste of blood to Kamal’s mouth. Oh, that is just unacceptable.
Kamal spat the blood onto the ground and spun around, taking the guard’s legs out with a vicious kick to his knees. As the guard hit the ground, Kamal launched himself onto him, grabbing his neck in a chokehold. The guard threw elbows behind him, and kicked helplessly in the air as Kamal increased the pressure on his throat. Within minutes, his body stopped fighting and he was down.
Kamal stood, spitting a few times to clear the blood that had filled his mouth, finally using the sleeve of his shirt to wipe the remaining away. He smirked, admiring his work. Not as tough as he looked.
Standing over both bodies, his plan rapidly changed. Grabbing the second guard by the legs, he dragged him around the corner and pulled his uniform off. Silently and rapidly, Kamal undressed and pulled on the FC garb. Wow, this fits well. The guard had seemed so much larger than himself. He ripped his own shirt in half, using half to tie the guard’s hands together and the other half to seal his mouth, in case he came to and tried to warn the others. Kamal laughed silently, giving the guard another hard kick to the head. Just for good measure, you son of a bitch.
He entered the warehouse corridor, looking for the other guards. Spotting one about fifty feet down, he straightened his shoulders and called to him, “Did he come through here?”
The guard was surprised by the question. He hadn’t heard or seen anything. He strolled over to Kamal to find out what his colleague was talking about. “What?” Kamal waited till he was close enough, and casually raised his arm, as if to indicate towards the door. Gun in hand, he brought his arm down in a vicious swipe to the guard’s head, knocking him out cold. He fell hard into the wall from the blow and as he slid down, his gun clattered to the ground noisily. The commotion alerted another guard who came rushing around the corner, sidearm in hand. Seeing his compatriot laid out on the ground, with a fellow soldier standing over him, he slowed down.
“What happened to Ayaz?”
“I don’t know! I came in looking for the guy that knocked Sheraz out and found him like this,” Kamal said, quietly pulling his sidearm from the holster. “We should warn Faheem that we have a guest,” the soldier said, turning to warn his superior. Kamal waited for him to get a safe distance away and fired two rounds into his back, dropping him to the ground like a wounded deer. The guard tried to roll himself over to fire back at Kamal, but the round had damaged his spine badly, leaving him face down on the floor. Kamal went over and fired another round into his head, and almost like a second thought, changed his sidearm with the guard’s.
Kamal moved a few yards down the corridor when another soldier jumped from behind a crate hitting him with the butt of his AK-47, stunning him. What the fuck? Kamal thought, reaching up to find blood coming from just above his eye. “What’s your problem soldier? Don’t you recognize your own?” he said, glaring at the attacker. The guard hesitated for a moment but something must have alerted him, because he drew his weapon back again. Kamal used all his body weight to jam the weapon and soldier against the wall; he could feel his eye swelling up already, and he preferred not to expend any more energy than he had to.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Getting the realism. It’s very easy to create a story and fill in details from your imagination. With Agency Rules, I have taken the history of a country as a canvas and painted my own story on top of it. As I said previously, I worked very hard to get the voice right with what people are saying, thinking and feeling both inside and outside Pakistan. I don’t want people to come away from the book thinking that it was a nice story but it just wasn’t believable. Everything that you read on the pages of Agency Rules has actually happened in Pakistan in the 1990s, minus one thing, which I won’t reveal.

Do you have any advice for other writers?
So my advice to aspiring authors is simple - Never give up. There are so many reasons that you may stop writing, there are hundreds of people that will demotivate you when you are writing, but you have to take them with a grain of salt. You can’t achieve something when you are worried about what the naysayers think.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Well, other than the genre and being a book about Pakistan and terrorism, Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office is a fast-paced, action packed story that will keep you guessing all the way to the end. I hope that, as a reader, you will experience that Pakistan that I fell in love with when I moved home from the United States after 25 years. You will feel your heart wrench with Kamal’s when he is stationed in Karachi, Peshawar and buried deep inside the terrorist camps. And, hopefully, you will cheer him on, because he is the Pakistani that you don’t see in the media – smart, driven and motivated to do good for his family, fellow citizens and country.

Being that you want to keep a high-level of realism in your books, how do you research for them?
I read and read and read, then I watch movies. I think I spent 5 years researching for this series. I read books, read newspapers from around the world and read Internet websites so that I could get a clear understanding of what the discourse really was. Since I wanted to portray the real picture, along with a bit of fiction, I had to understand everything, positive or negative, before I started writing my first word.
I traveled a great deal to the areas that I have written about in my novel. I wanted to make sure that I got the feel, tempo and environment right so that the reader could visualize the locations in their imaginations. Writing is never an easy road when you want to do it right.


By day, I am a mild-mannered business executive keeping myself busy running a marketing and brand management company. I take someone else’s product and create concepts, ideas and brand stories—things that make consumers want to buy, invest and save their hard-earned money.

By night, my alter ego emerges; one that has a penchant for sadistic retribution towards those who wrong me, and that spends its time devising intricate and detailed plans for a nefarious end.

If I hope to continue to have friends and family, though, I have to keep my alter ego under control.
So, I choose to write novellas, novels and short stories to let the wickedness escape; the other option means a great deal of blood, numerous torture implements and…well, infinite ways to dump a body. The writing is better for everyone involved and less dangerous for the guilty… until I write them into another story.

Author Website –
Amazon – (universal link)

Once again, I want to thank you and your readers for taking the time out to read this interview. I hope that I have been able to give them enough of a tease to get them interested in reading Agency Rules and finding out more about the most discussed/misunderstood country in the media today.

Thank you again!