Nish Amarnath is a New York-based journalist and an author of three books. Her latest book, Victims for Sale, a psychological thriller and crime suspense novel published by Harper Collins India in 2018, was nominated for the Mumbai Film Festival Word-to-Screen Award, likened to a David Fincher movie, and critically reviewed in the U.S. as reminiscent of Megan Abbott. In addition to holding a full-time editorial post in Manhattan, she’s a faculty member at the New York Writers Workshop. She has been a Contributing Editor at The Big Thrill Magazine, which is part of the International Thriller Writers Association. Her poetry and writings have appeared in the Washington, D.C.-based literary journal, Del Sol Review, The Wall Street Journal, S&P Global, Medium, BookTrib, TheStreet.com, Yahoo! and India Today, among others.
She speaks to News World Inc about the inspiration behind Victims for Sale, her approach to writing fiction, her future titles and her stance on journalism.
NWI: What did you learn by living in different cities and countries? How does it help you in writing books?
Nish: Living in multiple cities and countries has opened me up to a wide range of human experience spanning the breadth and depth of varying cultural beliefs and mores, public practices and norms, social bonds and economic, political and social systems. These environmental factors tend to shape our self-concept, thoughts, perceptions, communicational patterns, and interactions with the external world. It is these forms of social conditioning that drive the inner conflict that is universal to all of us. It is this tapestry of varying layers and degrees of conflict that I’m keen on exploring as a writer. There’s a unity in the diversity of the roles that various types of conflict play in evolving one’s character and responses to situations and life events. That unity can be found in the riverbed of feelings that flow through each of us at different points of time – sadness, anger, frustration, guilt, regret, happiness, joy, love, despair, ego, fantasy, ambivalence, listlessness, faith and escapism. Bringing these feelings to the surface and revitalizing these aspects of the human psyche through the lenses of new characters that I can birth in new realities is what I find most joy in as a writer. That’s why I believe that fiction, if written well, can heal. It really can.
NWI: How was writing Victims For Sale special to you? How is it different from your other novels?
Nish: Victims For Sale grew out of my experiences as a journalist. While on assignment, my interactions with sources led me to discover that the sterilization of mentally challenged women by their own family members, at least partly in order to preempt the “tarnishing” of family honor, is a practice that is still rampant among South Asian families and communities. At the time that I started writing this novel, the physiological and psychological impact of sterilization and the reproductive rights of mentally challenged individuals were under-studied and under-reported topics that hardly made it to the media or popular culture. Against the backdrop of the need for an inclusive society, the reproductive rights of mentally challenged women remain as relevant in 2020, if not more. And, more broadly speaking, the Covid-19 lockdowns in many regions are helping us recognize the need for inclusion.Victims For Sale is different from other novels in that it doesn’t mince words. It’s a book that calls a spade a spade.That’s why many readers have described it as a form of dark fiction. Because of the graphic details of certain forms of violence as well as the more esoteric aspects of reflection and spiritual enlightenment and everything in between, it’s a novel that builds up the suspense and weaves together seemingly unrelated strands of experience so that it terrorizes as much as it fascinates.
NWI: Does the story of Victims for Sale spiral from your experiences in London? If not completely, some part?
Nish: I’d say that it’s my experiences in London that guided Victims For Sale in the way that you now see it. I was very young when I moved to the UK by myself. That’s where I really found myself and learned at least a little bit about what it means to love oneself. That’s where I got to address and overcome certain very complex and overwhelming challenges and life events. I’ve come out the stronger for it. When I moved to London, I found some really good friends, a few of whom continue to inform my writings. My experiences at the London School of Economics (LSE) and my unanimously elected role as executive head of the LSE TV network, LooSE TV helped me frame some of the action in the novel, ranging from classroom scenes to the protagonist Sandy’s endeavor to get hold of a spy-cam to go undercover for the BBC! I did various part-time jobs on the side too. One of these involved being a court interpreter for defendants involving various cases that ranged from arson to property disputes. My work as a court interpreter in England guided my research for the police procedural aspects of the novel, such as the processes involved in obtaining warrants. I also lived in Rayner’s Lane in northwest London, which is the setting I decided to keep for the Sawants’ residence since I’m very familiar with the labyrinth-like nature of that neighborhood! Finally, I shifted residences in the UK many times, and that experience factored into Sandy’s helplessness as a young woman, who not only becomes infamous but also loses her home as she’s running for her life.
NWI: How do you see your career as an author of novels? Any aspirations?
Nish: I see myself as a storyteller who finds purpose in exploring varying permutations and combinations of the subtleties and nuances embedded in each emotion. I hope to play my part in bringing darker aspects of the human psyche to the surface not only for entertainment and relatability but also for healing and sensitization – sensitization to the realities we have evolved from, presently live in and anticipate in the future. Novelists tend to get pigeonholed into one genre or the other. As an author and journalist, I have addressed a very diverse gamut of subjects ranging from capital markets, public policy and ethical business leadership to issues of race and immigration to terrorism, crime, family drama, and romance. So, I hope to transcend genres by developing my voice as a creator of enriching and unforgettable stories. I believe it’s the story that captivates one’s audiences and readership, and the genre that does the story most justice is the one that’ll stick. Many literary figureheads, including agents and editors of publishing houses, are increasingly recognizing the growing market for mixed-genre fiction. At many levels, Victims for Sale is itself a mixed-genre novel because it combines elements of crime, suspense, psychological thrill, social justice and literary voice.
In terms of my aspirations as a writer, keeping my readers happy is my foremost priority. I’ve had so much love and support from countless readers for Victims For Sale although I was in severe depression even as the book came out. I think I’m in a better headspace now.I wouldn’t be in the space I’m at today, were it not for my readers. For me, readers are leaders and their feedback and enthusiasm will determine my fate as a writer. I want my readers to take ownership of their own creative and interpretative processes too. For this reason, I tend to write fiction with asymmetrical endings that are open to readers’ interpretations. Writing, for me, is not about money or success or fame. It’s my way of expressing my love and connecting with the external world.
NWI: What books or authors has been your greatest influence?
Nish: I grew up reading books across genres ranging from classics and non-fiction to romance, fantasy and all kinds of thrillers. The authors who stuck the most with me through childhood were Enid Blyton and J.K Rowling. In my adolescence, it was Charles Dickens, Erich Segal, Mary Higgins Clark, Sidney Sheldon, John Grisham and Danielle Steele. As an adult, my favorites have been Gillian Flynn, Tana French and Haruki Murakami. I deeply enjoy Wilfred Owen’s war poems and Pablo Neruda’s poetry. Books that have really stayed with me are Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, Aravind Adiga’sWhite Tiger, Audrey Howard’s A Flower in Season, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Pallavi Aiyar’s Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, Mohsin Ahmed’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, ElifShafak’s Forty Rules of Love and Janice Pariat’sThe Nine-Chambered Heart. Most recently, I read American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. I’ve fallen in love with Jeanine’s voice and her talent in synthesizing and distilling complex information into compelling narratives. While I’ve found my own voice as a writer, I feel the styles of Tana French, Jeanine Cummins and ElifShafak most closely resonate with mine.
NWI: In your opinion, what makes a great crime thriller?
Nish: I don’t believe there’s a universal formula for a great crime thriller. But broadly speaking, I like the idea of creating suspense through seemingly innocuous scenes that build up momentum before rising to a crescendo. Once that crescendo is reached, I have fun cutting the scene there and moving on to a different scene involving a different character before returning to the aforementioned scene of suspense! It gives me a bit of a runner’s high to know that readers are so frustrated to learn what will happen next that they either can’t keep the book down or can’t contain their curiosity enough to keep from sifting through the pages to see how it all unfolds! If they do want to read the ending first (which some people do!), they’ll still have to go back to the pages they skipped, so that they can figure out how the characters got there! That’s one aspect I’d say is a delight in a crime thriller. The second – and more important – skill is the ability to balance scenes of intense action and/or emotion with esoteric reflections, romantic escapades and/or instances of comic relief to provide readers some diversion.
NWI: How do you manage shuttling between journalism and writing books and other hobbies like singing?
Nish: Outside of my creative pursuits, my career hasn’t been a linear one. One aspect that has been a source of constancy through the vagaries of my journalistic pursuits is my fiction-writing. It has always accompanied me everywhere, all the way from Nigeria to Berlin. In terms of how I manage my time, I first see myself as a storyteller, whether I’m operating as a journalist, novelist or a singer-songwriter. This approach has helped me prioritize each project while also taking each day as it comes. I try to be very disciplined, give gratitude for whatever I have going on at the moment, and make the most of my situation at any given point of time. Nearly all of the audio and video production and editing work for my musical compositions and renditions was done when I was either between full-time jobs or taking a break from full-time journalism work. Research for Victims For Sale was done when I was on a yearlong work sabbatical prior to enrolling at Columbia University on a reporting fellowship. Yet again, I was on a long break from full-time work and had gone freelance when I was on tour for Victims For Sale for a year and a half. It was during this time that I completed the first draft of my next novel as well as two rounds of edits on that manuscript.
NWI: What are you working on next?
I’ve completed writing another novel, Twin Flame, which is a contemporary love saga infused with historical overtones and elements of magic realism. It’s about a Pakistani-Indian Math prodigy with type-1 diabetes and an orphaned Austrian-Jewish writer who will have to embark on an etheric journey amid intergenerational trauma, abuse, recession, terrorism, an arranged marriage, depression, alcoholism, a global pandemic…and stories that heal! I have edited this novel under the guidance of Larry Kirshbaum, former chief of Amazon Publishing as well as Al Zuckerman, Writers House NYC’s founder and New York-based literary agent who has groomed authors like Ken Follett and Nora Roberts. I am seeking literary representation for Twin Flame. There are two other novels I hope to start working on soon – a financial/political thriller, which will likely be a sequel to Victims For Sale, and a multi-genre novel about a young, bisexual woman who loses her girlfriend in a rally and falls prey to a psychic fraud. This multi-genre novel will be a sequel to Twin Flame. I’m ambivalent about which of these I must get started on first, but I’m really excited!
Connect with Nish Amarnath: FB: https://www.facebook.com/nishamarnath/ Insta Author’s Account: @driverofdestiny Insta Writer’s Page: @themillennialchick Twitter: @nishamarnath Website: www.nishamarnath.com