We are seated in a high-ceilinged 75-year old hangout of politicians, artists, writers and tourists who come here on Trip Advisor recommendations. It’s late afternoon and the fan whirrs noisily above us. A pot of strong ginger-spiced tea sits atop our table. My tea companion for the day insists we pour out the tea into our cups quickly, lest it get stronger than it already is. Said tea companion is a crime fiction writer, Swedish by descent, who uses a rather dubious pen name Zac O’ Yeah. In his defence, his ‘real’ name is unpronounceable.

We are trying to cram an hour’s worth of lessons in writing crime fiction and I am all ears.

Narrating a story, Zac says “There was this well-dressed man who walked up to me at Connaught Place in Delhi and asked me if I like Ravi Shankar. He began talking about classical music and seemed quite knowledgeable, had a mustache and seemed quite trustworthy. We had tea together and he told me about this special concert Ravi Shankar was having in town and asked me if I would like to come. The tickets he said cost Rs 300. I felt a bit odd but gave him the money anyway. He said that the tickets would be kept for me at the entrance and walked away. As soon as he did, I realised that Ravi Shankar was no longer alive. I did manage to retrieve the money, but it got me thinking.”

“Touts are such remarkable characters. They are actually selling you an act and so much effort goes into that. I started asking myself, what if a tout could be detective? He knows the city, observes and meets all kinds of people and would be a great medium to explore the city,” he adds.

And that is how Zac’s second novel – and his first crime novel – Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru came into being.

He could have been in the company of illustrious peers like Steig Larsson, Henning Mankell and others who have created the Swedish crime fiction noir but Zac’s more Indian than Swedish; having come here as a tourist and stayed on to become a local. His book, consequently is India-inspired; it fills in a colourful cityscape with sleazy underworld and other lowlife and a tout named Hari. Not an angst-ridden solitary soul in cold Scandinavia.

Before we begin, he generously fills up both our cups with more spiced tea. As a confession, he adds that his relationship with beverages is not entirely of a loyalist. He starts his morning with coffee to work with. Post lunch is time for tea that he shares with novelist wife, Anjum Hasan, who being a tea person has a collection of teas, especially some single origin green tea that Zac is partial to. Nights call for a glass of whiskey especially if the book is close to print.

Over tea, he talks and I take notes.

  1. It is good to know where the story is going to head. If you are an architect, you would not start building without a blueprint, would you? Similarly for a novel, there has to be a plan for the 25-odd chapters and a solution (in the case of crime fiction).
  2. If you watch a horror film, any horror film, you will realise that the first major twist comes at exactly 30 minutes. In traditional Hollywood storytelling, at least, they’re very punctual. On the dot, by the second. Novelists can learn from that. In a novel, at about 100 pages (or about 30,000 words), you should have the scene set, the characters introduced, and the monster set to make its first appearance. Also, in a typical detective novel, a person is dead on the first page and then there is somebody trying to hide the motive. And then come the surprises. Detective fiction is expected to be unexpected.
  3. There has to be a conflict and the main plot is built around the conflict. Typically, in a novel with 25 chapters, there need to be 25 interesting twists and turns. Also, the novel should have a great cast of characters. They should be lovable, believable or funny and must capture your imagination.
  4. There is a lot of improvisation. Sometimes I change characters. Once my publisher (after reading one of the drafts) asked me why I had decided to kill my most interesting character at Pg 120? And then I thought about it, and brought him back to life.
  5. The milieu too is very important, since a detective novel goes out into the city. In some ways, a detective novel is like travel writing, as the readers want it to sound researched and informed.

How long did your novels take, I ask. “Usually a three-year period. The first year is spent in planning, the second in writing and the third in editing it,” he says. “It is a process of a lot of tea and coffee over long periods.”

For inspiration, Zac likes to watch the local movies. “Some of them are quite fantastic,” he says, adding that he’s given the rights for his own book to be made into a movie right here in Bangalore. “After all, it is going back to where my inspiration came from.”

He looks around, “There was once a scene set right here, in this café, but of course it was a crime scene with a lot of blood and gore.” Try as I might, I cannot imagine a crime scene in ye olde institution but I have Zac’s book for it.

We order another pot of tea and go back to talking about, well, more tea.

Featured here is a photograph of Zac, modelling for photo artist Clare Arni for a series titled “Notorious Rowdies”.

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