Thursday, February 06, 2014

A Conversation with Thriller Writer Khaled Talib

Omnimystery News: Author Interview with Khaled Talib
with Khaled Talib

We are delighted to welcome thriller writer Khaled Talib to Omnimystery News today.

Khaled's new suspense thriller is Smokescreen (Lightning Originals; December ebook format), and we recently had the chance to talk with him about it.

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Omnimystery News: What approach do you take when starting a new book?

Khaled Talib
Photo provided courtesy of
Khaled Talib

Khaled Talib: I like the idea of developing new characters to give every story a fresh content. In some cases, the backdrop may not suit the recurring character. However, I won't discard the idea of instilling a recurring character in future stories. The thought has crossed my mind. If only I was an octopus with a human brain, I could multi-task and produce new books and others with a recurring character. Alas, I live on Planet Earth without any super powers. I can only write one story at a time.

OMN: We categorized your new book, Smokescreen, as a suspense thriller. Would you agree with this?

KT: My novel has been dubbed a thriller. The only advantage of labeling, as I see it, is that it makes it easy for readers to select their preference. This form of labeling will continue for a long time but sub-categories have emerged. Once upon a time, a Vampire novel was strictly labeled "horror" but nowadays you find Vampire tales under the "romance" genre too. Interestingly, my novel has been labeled differently by book reviewers. Although it is a thriller in the generic sense, some have identified it as a spy novel, political thriller or espionage thriller. A well known author who gave me a blurb regarded my novel as "a cocktail of Deighton, Ludlum, Hitchcock." These three different authors have their own style of storytelling. In my novel's case, there is the blurring of the lines, a combination of suspense, thriller and mystery, and even crime. In some cases, labeling a book may not reveal everything about its actual content. A writer could be left frustrated about being stereotyped. Of course, I won't classify my books under romance or literature. The consolation that we have is the existence of book reviewers who can explain to readers what a particular writer's book is actually about. I am not comparing myself to Shakespeare, but to take as an example, it is interesting to note that during his time, his stories were sneered as soap opera. Yet today this guy is hailed as a literary icon. As far as I am concerned, he was also a thriller and suspense author, among other things. In the end, I guess, we have to ask ourselves how important is it to label books when Shakespeare himself did say, "What's in a name? That which we call a rose …" A story is a story.

OMN: Give us a summary of Smokescreen in a tweet.

KT: "... a novel that continually challenges the reader with the question 'What happens next'." Amazon Reviewer on SMOKESCREEN.

OMN: How much of your own personal or professional experience have you included in the book?

KT: In writing the novel, I created a character to play the role of a scapegoat. You know, sometimes you read the newspapers and you see someone being accused of a crime. But you wonder if there is any truth in it? Take for example the Guildford Four that led to the wrongful imprisonment of four innocent young people in the UK. How can we be sure that nothing like that happens every day elsewhere? If you would recall how the British police shot dead an unarmed Brazilian man who was suspected of being a suicide bomber. After they wrestled him to the ground, they shot him several times. He was innocent. Is it that easy to judge people? I can imagine what it feels like to be a scapegoat although my experience cannot be compared to what many others have gone through around the world. When I was eight, I was accused by the school headmaster of injuring a boy that caused him to bleed in the mouth. The funny thing, I didn't even know the boy and I had no clue what happened to him. Despite my plea of innocence, nobody believed me.

I was also inspired by Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird where we see how some town folks enjoy gossiping, assassinating characters, insinuating and encouraging hearsays and conjectures. Take this small town mentality and magnify it to a larger world scale — what do you get? The world is full of Boo Radleys and Tom Robinsons.

And then there's the question of terrorism and Islamophobia. The media seems to be harping on it so much that the prejudice is to equate Islam with terrorism. I recall watching a British television program about whether or not Islam needs a public relations campaign. As a Public Relations practitioner, it was interesting to see differing opinions with some saying nay and others saying yes. This topic is also discussed in the novel.

In the course of my career as a journalist, I have met many interesting people. My career also took me to Cairo, Egypt. One day, sitting at an old sheesha cafe, I met an old man whom I thought was an English tourist. We spoke a bit. He was in fact a Libyan diplomat. The man confessed that he was constantly mistaken for a European. I studied the other faces around me, and noticed an African man in a white garb and turban. He was fidgeting with his prayer beads and smoking a water pipe at the same time. I thought these people would make such lovely characters in my book. Being in Cairo, I had an advantage in writing a novel about Singapore's connection with Israel. The little island, paranoid about being surrounded by larger Muslim nations such as Malaysia and Indonesia, had requested help from Egypt to train its army during its early days of independence. When President Nasser refused, not wanting to offend neighboring Malaysia, Singapore looked towards Israel. However, it was speculated that Singapore knew Egypt would turn down the request.

Once, during a press conference in Cairo, I was accused of being an Israeli spy by an Arab journalist because I had asked the spokesperson a question in English instead of Arabic. When that matter had been resolved, I realized that the Middle East, like America and Europe, is driven by conspiracy theories. I thought it would be interesting to create a story and inject some of these theories. The novel also draws inspiration from history, from the infamous Lavon Affair, a failed Israeli covert operation in Egypt, the Jewish state's role in shaping Singapore's army to the bombing of the island's oil refinery by a Palestinian group, and the United States' position on the question of Palestine.

OMN: What is the best advice you've received as an author?

KT: "You don't have to be like Syriana," said my New York editor Diane O'Connell when she tried to explain that I should get rid of the plot intricacies. I had received tons of rejections from publishers and literary agents. Although some were kind to give me their reasons, I really didn't understand what they were saying — the explanation sounded either too technical or academic. But I was stubborn. A part of me ignored the criticisms.

However, the statement my editor made was, for me, a Eureka moment. I realized all of a sudden what held the book back. So I spent another year fixing the manuscript. When I resubmitted the manuscript to the publisher, who gave me a second chance, I received the most beautiful email message with one simple word on the subject line: "Yes."

Although creative writing is subjective, if the overwhelming message that you are receiving from everyone is the same, even if it is translated differently, I think it's time for you to listen.

OMN: Complete this sentence for us: "I am a thriller writer and thus I am also …".

KT: I am a thriller writer and thus I am also a chef. Writing a thriller is truly like being in a kitchen. Choosing your ingredients is character development, the sound of a knife chopping ingredients on a board resembles suspense, and throwing everything into a pot or a pan is intermingling drama and plot. The end result is a sumptuous manuscript.

OMN: Let's follow that interesting analogy with a description of your writing process.

KT: I don't follow any rules when it comes to writing. In my case, the process is free and easy. I store things in my head, and if I fear losing anything, I would jot them down on scraps of paper or tissue as well as write stuff on my hand. But I am learning to transfer everything on Word document. Sometimes I would store things on my cell phone, especially when I am on the go. I am pretty disorganized but everything eventually falls into place … eventually.

I don't know what's going to happen next. My characters have a tendency of leading the way. I may know the big picture, but I really don't have a clue what's going to happen on the next page. This is the fun part because it makes me feel like I am at an amusement park. Surprise me!

Some readers have confessed to me they are in love with my protagonist, and in the same breathe, they have expressed a deep hatred for the nemesis — in fact, with a vengeance. In casting supporting characters for Smokescreen, I made sure they didn't outshine my protagonist while at the same time balancing the novel with an ensemble of unforgettable characters.

OMN: And where do you usually write?

KT: I prefer to work on a desktop. For some reason I find it difficult to work on laptop or a notebook. I need a large keyboard. I enjoy banging my fingers on the keyboard, especially if the scene is intense. So that works.

OMN: How do you go about researching your plot points.

KT: As a former journalist, I am familiar with methods of fact-checking. However, there would be situations when information does not come smoothly, so I would take a longer time to extract answers. The process also involves a hotchpotch of activities from internet research to consulting experts and familiarization visits … to actually go down to a particular place and study it from various angles. I prefer to interview someone over coffee instead of having a discussion in their office in order to avoid a tense and formal environment.

The most challenging part about writing Smokescreen was describing the different cultures and nationalities. I adopted the art of method writing, similar to method acting, in trying to understand the characters. I was an African American one minute, and an old Jewish man the next.

During my stay in Egypt, I used to visit Dahab, a beach resort in the mountainous Sinai region. Here, I met lots of Israelis. This is a strange place because you can feel an invisible border between the Israeli tourists and Arabs. They hardly talk to each other. I remember an incident when an Egyptian friend of mine, a scuba diver, asked an Israeli for a lighter. At that moment, a Bedouin Arab yelled at my friend for bothering the Israeli guy. I did further research about the Bedouins and learned that many of them also serve in the Israeli Defense Force. I thought it was strange, considering they were Muslims.

OMN: If you could travel anywhere in the world to research your next book, all expenses paid, where would it be?

KT: It would be nice if someone could pay for my trip to Switzerland, Italy or Paris because my next novel is based in Europe. The world is a writer's playground but as I am writing a novel with a particular focus, I think Europe would make a perfect setting for the plot. Take London for instance and its dark skies. So cloak and dagger!

OMN: How true are you to the setting of your book?

KT: Reviewers have described my novel as being "accurate" and "vivid" in descriptions. However, I did take liberties in some aspects of the writing. I was inspired by a 17th century Dutch fortress in the Moluccas Islands in Indonesia. In the novel, I changed the name of the island for reasons which I cannot say in order to avoid spoiling the story. I also placed the United States ambassador in a mansion that used to belong to my grandfather here in Singapore. The mansion no longer exists but the area where the property was located still looks the same.

OMN: Did any of your hobbies or outside interests find their way into your book?

KT: I enjoy smoking sheesha, although I lie to myself that it's not really smoking. You'll find this activity right smack in the prologue. I have used this device as a metaphor in the novel.

OMN: Tell us more about the striking book cover.

KT: I wasn't involved in the book cover design, but when the publisher finally presented it to me, I was floored. It's not your typical run of the mill cover. It is pretty sinister with some clues to hint this is a thriller, and enough to make you curious to want to read on. As for the book title, I felt it was an apt choice in relation to the story about a plan to use an individual as a patsy to deflect attention from the real conspirers.

OMN: If Smokescreen were to be adapted for television or film, who do you see playing the key role?

KT: An actor named George Young. He was born in the UK and now doing some acting in Singapore. He resembles my protagonist, Jethro Westrope.

OMN: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?

KT: I grew up reading books mostly written by English authors, given that Singapore was once upon a time a British colony. These books were skewed to the suspense and mystery genre, and included writers like Enid Blyton and Agatha Christie. Later, I discovered the Hardy Boys and Alfred Hitchcock's The Three Investigators as well as Nancy Drew. Not only was I addicted to these books, I even created my own detective club when I was nine years old. In many ways, these books have influenced my writing today although I write for a much more matured adult. I do not know why I didn't think about writing for a younger reading audience. Perhaps it's because I want to remind older folks that there is more to life than routine, and that there is still time for adventure.

OMN: And what do you read now for pleasure?

KT: I still read suspense, mystery and thrillers. But I also read literature and books written by authors from around the world and some in translation.

OMN: Do you have any favorite literary characters?

KT: I would love to have coffee with Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, if he was real, although I don't think I can ever imagine myself having the same moustache. Of course, there's Sherlock Holmes … it's really exciting to see how he deduces things. While these characters do have their fair share of physical action in stories, although not as rigorous as someone like James Bond, what impresses me most about them is the way they proceed to investigate mysteries based on clues that the average person don't even notice. Brilliant.

OMN: Is your taste in film similar to that of the books you read?

KT: I love watching thrillers, mysteries, suspense and horror. Some of my favorites include oldies like Murder by Death, Clue, Three Days of the Condor, The Guns of Navarone, The Name of the Rose, and of course the Bourne series. If you read my novel, you may find yourself chuckling at times and you will also discover spy gadgets that are used in the real espionage environment in addition to plot twist, a mystery murder and some scary moments.

OMN: Create a Top 5 list on any topic.

KT: : I enjoy travelling but while I can answer this question now, this would probably change if you were to ask me the same question a few years down the road. However, I would say that I didn't regret visiting these places and they include:

• Venice. This Italian city is surreal, romantic, mysterious, exciting, colorful, fun and lively. I can't seem to get enough of it, and even though it's infested with tourists, everything about it is besotting. I felt like I didn't get enough of this place. I suggest everyone visits it before it sinks.

• Istanbul. This Turkish city is divine with its antiquated bazaars, palaces, old churches, mosques. There are plenty of quaint cafes where you can sit for hours and enjoy apple tea, coffee, baklava and cakes. The Hagia Sophia mosque is a must see, and so is the Basilica Cistern, which is located underneath the streets and houses in the city. Here, you will see Medusa heads used as column bases; some positioned upside down. Don't worry, she can't curse you now.

• Saint Moritz. If you don't mind cold weather, this Swiss city is a great place for some sporting adventure. If you like skiing or trekking, Saint Moritz offers a picturesque landscape that will fill up your memories with loads of stories to tell. From here, visitors can explore mountains, forests and glaciers.

• Kangaroo Island. Located in South Australia, Kangaroo Island is a short flight from capital city, Adelaide, where you will find pristine beaches, stunning wildlife, and fresh produce. The ocean is teeming with fish, sea lions and little penguin colonies. Stand on the shore in the cooler months and watch migrating southern right whales and their calves. You can take it at your own pace by car or four wheel drive with a self-guided audio tour.

• Bali: This Indonesian island is exotic and you may feel yourself walking without gravity because everything moves slowly. This is great if you are looking for a stress free environment. You will never find a place greener than Bali. A great destination for both adventurers and those seeking relaxation. The waters off the coast of Bali's white beaches are an ideal spot for diving, while the dense jungles conceal with wildlife and hidden stone temples calling out for exploration.

OMN: What's next for you?

KT: There's this Arabic/Turkish dessert I need to master called Muhalabiyyah, which literally translates to mean "with milk." I am almost there, but I can't seem to get some things right. But like the proverbial train, I think I can, I think I can …

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Born and raised in Singapore, the 48-year-old Khaled Talib is a Public Relations Practitioner who began his writing career in journalism. He has written for magazines, newspapers and news syndications. His career also took him to Cairo, Egypt where he reported for Egypt Today before becoming editor of Cairo's Community Times.

For more information about the author, find him on Facebook or Twitter.

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Smokescreen by Khaled Talib

Smokescreen
Khaled Talib
A Suspense Thriller

At an ancient café in Cairo, two veteran spies plot a covert mission to resolve — once and for all — the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The pledge: Israel will make a major concession as part of the peace treaty.

In Singapore, Jethro Westrope, a magazine journalist, stumbles onto the scene of a murder: the beautiful Niki Kishwani directs him, in her last breath, to a digital recorder, evidence that puts Jethro's life in serious danger. And, much worse, he is framed for Niki's murder.

Jethro sets out to find Niki's killer and is drawn into a web of deception and intrigue involving officials from the Singaporean, Israeli, and American governments, each with a complex, competing, and potentially deadly agenda.

Against this pulse-pounding backdrop, Jethro races to find answers and save himself — yet nothing is as it seems. He finds himself at the centre of a political plot so diabolical and sweeping in its world implications that he is stunned to discover tomorrow's news headlines today. He is being set up not only as a murderer but as an assassin, and something much larger than his own fate is in his hands.

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