NAW Interview with Khalid Muhammad

Khalid MuhammadBy day, Khalid Muhammad is a mild-mannered business executive keeping busy running a marketing and brand management company. By night, his alter ego emerges; one that has a penchant for sadistic retribution towards those who wrong others, and that spends its time devising intricate and detailed plans for a nefarious end.

Born in Pakistan’s troubled Swat Valley, educated and raised in the United States, Khalid returned to Pakistan almost 17 years ago and fell in love with his country. His debut novel, Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office, is a journey behind the headlines about Pakistan, the world’s most dangerous place, to deliver an intense story that will challenge the reader to question everything they have been told about the country.

Never an Easy Day at the Office is the first of the Agency Rules series about an operative in the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence group, specializing in clandestine operations. Contact him here.

NAW- Please share your brief bio. Tell us about your writing life.

Well, my name is Khalid Muhammad. I was born in Pakistan and raised in the United States. I moved back here in ’97 to take advantage of some business opportunities.
In terms of writing life, Agency Rules was my debut novel. I write for newspapers and other publications, but this was my first novel. I think the attraction for me to write, novels and otherwise, is being able to tell a story that no one else can or will.
NAW-Tell us about your book, agency rules. How did you get the idea for it?

Agency Rules is actually a really interesting story. I have been involved with a number of things since my return to Pakistan and an espionage thriller was a great way to talk about it all.The book is set in ’90s Pakistan, right after the end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, so we had a large number of Mujahideen returning to Pakistan. We also had a huge number of extremist madrassahs that were churning out more fighters, with no fight to be waged.The story takes the reader through the turmoils of life in Pakistan from political all the way to the terrorists. The idea came about because I got tired of reading news stories about Pakistan that only told 10% of the story. We have a long history of problems in the country that can be traced back to different sources, but no Western news organization wants to talk about that. Agency Rules is my way of setting the record straight.

NAW-I think Pakistan has gone through a lot of turmoil and even though a political democracy, the military has dominated the policies of Pakistan. Since you are not from the establishment, how did you research for the book? How did you get to know the insides of ISI, for example?
Excellent question! I spent 6 years working on this book series. I interviewed people from all walks of life and retired army officers. I was given access to a great deal of de-classified documents from both our intelligence services and other countries as well, so I was able to form a pretty good picture of how it worked. I also read anything that I could get my hands on related to the intelligence services of every country. There is a mindset that is taught that a person can’t understand until they have been embedded into it. So I buried myself in it.
I do have to disagree on the military dominating policies though. We have such terrible politicians in Pakistan that if it were left to them, they would sell the country to the highest bidder. The military kind of has to keep them on a leash.
NAW- Your book is unique in the sense that it portrays the army in a positive light, if am correct, I would even say you are pro military to some extent. That is so different from all other books about Pakistan. So is the western media portrayal of Pakistan as a failed and terrorist state not exactly correct?

Yeah, I am definitely pro-military. In fact, many people call me a hawk, if you are familiar with the term.
The book is very different from others because it is a real look at Pakistan. I didn’t try to fictionalize the story a great deal. I wanted people to see Pakistan for what it is. We are like every other country in the world, but we have been destroyed by people working for their own interests and other countries, rather than our own country.
The interesting thing is that Pakistan is only a failed state when it has a democratically elected government. We see massive corruption, failure of state institutions and nothing being done for the people. Whereas, the military governments bring capital investment, stable economies and high growth. It’s very odd when you really look at the information available.
In terms of being a terrorist state, no we are not. We have elements in our country that are friendly to the cause and they make sure nothing happens to the terrorists, but as a whole, the nation stands against terrorism. We have lost 80,000 innocent Pakistani lives since 2007 to terrorist acts. So I have a hard time swallowing that statement.
NAW-In agency rules, you have also tackled the theme of religious extremism, Pakistan has faced such issues in the form of the Shia Sunni rift. So do you think associating a state with religion is a bad idea? Wouldn’t it be better for Pakistan if it had chosen to be a secular state like India for example?
Well, we were a secular state until 1977. When General Zia overthrew Zulfiqar Bhutto, he “Islamicized” Pakistan. Prior to that, we were on a progressive state path. I mean, we had clubs and casinos in Pakistan for God’s sake.
Zia was the start of the entire extremist mission in Pakistan. He sided with Saudi Arabia in the Afghan war and Pakistan was flooded with money from the Middle East to establish madrassahs that were essentially school of war. When the Afghan war ended, the madrassahs continued to exist and churn out the hatred for anyone that didn’t agree with their ideology.
India isn’t really a secular state, I have to say. With the Modi government, we are seeing the Hindu nationalists getting more space and the country is swinging back to the religious side that we knew it was hiding from the world. There are forced conversions of Christians and Muslims since Modi took over. The RSS and Saffron Brigades have gained state power. I understand that India likes to portray itself as a secular state, but it’s not. They are a Hindu country and that is the religion of the state.
For example, when Shahrukh, Aamir and Salman can’t buy a home or flat in parts of Mumbai because they are Muslims, we understand the secular position of the country.
But, we are seeing a continuation of Zia’s mission with Nawaz Sharif, who was originally launched into politics by the former General.
NAW- Tell us about the character of Kamal Khan. How did you develop the character?
Kamal is a mixture of 3 concepts. One is the average Pakistani that wants a better Pakistan for themselves and their children. The other is a true soldier that fights for the country and will do what is required to defend it. The third concept is the spy, whose intentions are never really clear. You understand that he works for the state, but what is does isn’t always on the moral or ethical up and up. I mixed the three in such a way that Kamal became a grey hero. He is conflicted with what he does. He forms attachments and then has to abuse those attachments to achieve what he must for his mission. Then, you see a purely human side of him that makes you second guess everything else.
NAW-Since you also have a day job, how do you find time for writing? And do you seek help and feedback from friends and family or do you hire a professional editor?
I’m quite lucky with my day job since I own the company that I work at. So I have a bit more time to work with. What usually happens with me is that I spend the day jotting down ideas and thoughts so that when I sit down at night to write, I have some starting points to work from. I also try to visit all the places that I include in my book(s). It makes a huge difference to be able to understand the location before you write about it.
I have 3 editors that I work with. One takes care of the overall story. Another is a copy editor and the third is a developmental editor who helps me fill in the blanks if I can’t figure out how to make part of the plot work or a character mature properly in the story. We also use a number of beta readers to test the book before it gets published.
NAW-When did you discover that you wanted to become a writer and what made you go the indie way?
I actually have my 7th grade English teacher to thank for this addiction. I started writing short stories in middle school, in high school I focused on learning the literature from English to American. I spent a lot of time away from writing because of my early career pressures, but I kept writing short stories just to keep my mind clear. I think it was a way for me to escape whatever I was dealing with in my real life.
Indie was the only way for me. As a Pakistani writer, we really don’t have a lot of choices in terms of publishers. We can either go across the border to India and have our books turned anti-Pakistan or we can pine for a major publisher to pick up the book. I chose to go my own way because I knew the story was not something that a publisher would do justice to.. the old adage – it’s not commercial enough. It also motivated me to start my own publishing house just for Pakistani writers so that they have a place here at home that focuses on fiction.
Agency RulesNAW-How was the reception of agency rules in Pakistan? We often hear of horrid stories with activists facing backlash from conservatives… did you face anything of the sort?
The reception around the world has been fantastic. Internationally, Agency Rules has been a game changer in clarifying the Pakistan that people hear about in the news. I have gotten great reviews from foreign readers. A diplomat contacted me a few months back from Europe with a simple message – “you got it dead right.”
Here in Pakistan, it’s been a breakaway bestseller. We have a lot of people that are dying for pro-Pakistan books and Agency Rules fits that bill perfectly.
I’m not an activist so to speak. I am a writer. I speak confidently and openly about my country. I get death threats, but that was expected with the topic of my book and the fact that I beat on the Taliban everyday with my writing. It’s not about me though. It’s about my country and helping people to understand that you can stand up and speak, people are ready to listen. Just be confident and know what you are talking about.
NAW-Can you tell us a bit about your next project?
The next book in the Agency Rules series is due out later this month. The book is called Scorched Earth. It will take the reader from where we left off with Agency Rules and bring them through 9/11 and the War on Terror.
This book is really going to offend some people because I take the reader into the suicide bomber training camps. I have been fortunate enough to meet some of the bombers that were captured by the Pakistan Army and sent to re-programming centers. Their stories are heart-wrenching.
So in this book, you’ll see the introduction of a boy that will tear your heart out. Kamal of course continues on. And you get to understand more of the terrorist ideology and how they recruit and use people under the guise of religion.
NAW- Who are your favourite writers in the thriller genre? Would you like to name any as inspiration?
I have a few favorites. Fredrick Forsyth is one of my favorites as is John LeCarre. I love how they craft their characters and storylines. Jack Higgins is also one of my regular reads. Tom Clancy’s own books are just great for the pace and depth of story. Helen MacInnes is one that I really love. She understood the spy craft side, like LeCarre, so the attention to detail is something that everyone who writes in this genre should get.
NAW-Any advice for upcoming authors?
I tell authors three things.
1 – Read anything you can get your hands on. The more you read, the better you write.
2 – Never get down on your own writing. It’s a process to get better. It doesn’t happen overnight. It happens as you continue writing.
3 – Never listen to the critics. There are people that will say hateful things just to be hateful. There are people that will be constructive in what they say about your writing. Listen to them. But always, always, write what you feel.

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