Welcome to ASMSG Electorate Blog Hop, where a group of ASMSG authors are swapping interviews over the next couple of weeks. We have a selection of authors from all genres, all with their own unique style. Check out the dates and blogs of the other participants at the end of this interview and don’t forget to enter the RAFFLECOPTER with free e-books available to the lucky winner.
Today, I am delighted to welcome Khalid Muhammad who has written AGENCY RULES, a complex military thriller set in Pakistan in the 1990’s. Raised in the US, Khalid returned to live in his home country, where he transforms from a normal marketing business executive by day into a political-spy thriller author by night.
CL: Khalid, I’ve been looking forward to hearing all about your book, Agency Rules!
KM: Before I get into the book, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to interview me. Being that this is my debut novel and I’m… wait for it… an independent author, I really appreciate it.
CL: You are welcome! You’ve written a complex and exciting thriller. What made you choose Pakistan as the backdrop for your story?
KM: Pakistan has dominated the headlines since 9/11, proclaimed as a terrorist state that can’t be controlled, which is factually incorrect. We have a vacuum when it comes to real and honest leaders, which is where the problems in Pakistan stem from. We have a military that is more powerful than an elected government constantly ready in case the country heads in the wrong direction. If that isn’t enough, we throw religious fundamentalist “parties” into the mix and the whole country ticks like a time bomb. But we’re neither a predominantly fundamentalist nor a militant people. Except once, when all other parties abstained from running, we’ve never elected any of the religious parties to power. Very few people know that, or how much it has cost Pakistan, in terms of terror acts within the country (over 70,000 lives lost), to stand against the religious fundamentalists.
Agency Rules is a great story, but you have to be able to follow multiple trains of thought and characters to really get the story in its entirety. Being a huge fan of spy thriller writers like John le Carre, Helen MacInnes, Tom Clancy and Frederick Forsyth, I learned how to craft a story reading their books over the years. I say all that simply because I believe that a good spy thriller not only has layers, but has the ability to challenge what you believe to be true about anything. That’s the beauty of the espionage/intelligence world, there is so much below the surface that the public never knows that when we read this genre, we have to be ready for an adventure.
Beyond that, I would hope that the reader will get caught up in the story, identify with the characters and feel what we feel every day. I wanted the readers to see why I fell in love with Pakistan when I moved back from the United States in 1997. There is so much more to Pakistan than what you read in the newspapers and see on the evening news.
CL: Why the ’90’s?
KM: The ’90s provide a great backdrop for the story for a number of reasons. We were just coming out of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, where Pakistan was a frontline state supporting and training the Mujahideen. We were also in a state of flux politically, with successive governments being sent packing on corruption charges. Lastly, the religious fundamentalists had taken root in the country during the dictatorship of Gen. Zia ul Haq and his Islamization of Pakistan policies. We went from a fairly liberal country to an extremely conservative one by force during the Afghan conflict. With that as a background, it makes crafting the story a great deal of fun as well as extremely challenging. What people don’t know is that Pakistan has been at war with itself since the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, if not before. We have religious groups that fight with each other (Shia vs. Sunni), while demanding more Islam in the regular lives of citizens. We have political parties that fight with each other but fail to deliver anything to the people in spite of the glorious pre-election promises. We have a military that has regularly stepped in to save the country from default and being wiped off the planet due to bad governance. And this is just a ten-year snapshot of Pakistan.
CL: Kamal is your protagonist. Tell us about him.
KM: Kamal is brash when you first meet him. He is an accomplished soldier having been trained at the prestigious Sandhurst Academy in the UK, Fort Benning in the US as a sniper and his service in missions in Kashmir and around the world with UN peacekeeping forces. He is a soldier first. Through the story, you see behind the facade that is Kamal. You experience the conflict between him and his father, his drive to achieve, and his intelligence to be able to think and move on his feet in the most compromising of situations. This book takes you through the transformation of Kamal from the soldier to the spy and everything in between.
CL: What do you like most about Kamal, and what do you like least?
KM: I’m divided here. Kamal is a great character because he covers all ends of the scale. He is a master interrogator and very intelligent, but he is also kind hearted and very human at times. You can’t help but cheer for him.
What I like least about him… nothing. He is flawed, which is what I wanted for Kamal when I crafted his character. He has grey areas, not black and white. What he did in one situation, he may never do again. It’s all about the mission and objectives to him. He would kill his best friend if it endangered the success of the mission, but it would cost him a great deal to do so.
CL: And what about the baddies? Who will we want to run away from?
KM: There are a number of antagonists that will make your skin crawl when you read the book. There are traitors to the uniform, deceivers to Islam and criminals whose exploits will make you shudder. If you ask me to pick one, I can’t because there are two that espouse special hatred.
The first is Imam Shahid, who is a recruiter for the terrorist operation in the tribal areas. He is the one that plucks kids from their homes and sends them off to fight someone else’s wars under the guise of jihad.
The second is Sheikh Atif, a battle worn commander that oversees the terrorist camp in terms of financing, arming and training. He is deception personified. He crosses between Taliban controlled Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas for protection. I still cringe a little when I think about the character and how he is part of the story. He will make you hate him by the time the book is done.
CL: You carried out an incredible amount of research into the history and politics of Pakistan. How did you incorporate that into the story?
KM: I’ll give you two quotes from the book itself that will help you understand the sheer gamesmanship that goes on in Pakistan. The first is from early in the story, during a meeting between the political and military leadership, where the Chief of Army Staff (the highest ranking uniformed officer in Pakistan) says:
You need to eliminate the thought from your mind that the Pakistan Army operates under the purview of the Prime Minister or any other member of government.
The second quote comes from an interaction between one the terrorist supporters and a financier, who has a personal hatred for the way Islam is practiced by the jihadis:
He had always hated these pretenders to Islam. Becoming a hafiz at a young age and because some unknown seminary in Pakistan had ‘educated’ them, these fools called themselves maulanas, mullahs and imams. Their entire knowledge of Islam came from the mouths of those who also couldn’t understand Arabic beyond what was written in the Holy Quran. They make good cannon fodder for our wars, too stupid to know what jihad really means.
CL: Have your reviewers identified themes in your story that surprised you?
KM: I should preface my answer with how I read reviews. I am looking for specific things – what did they get out of the story, did they understand it, did they have any objections to parts of the storyline and did they enjoy it overall. For me, these are key because it tells me what I need to improve on in future books.
Coming back to your question, I think the thing that impressed me, or caught me by surprise as you said, was that 90% said that it made them think about Pakistan in a new light. It’s one thing to write a book that entertains people, but to actually make them look at a whole country’s reputation… Well, I’m pleased, I can say that much.
CL: What did you discover about yourself or Pakistan while writing this story?
KM: Two things really impacted me while I was researching, storyboarding and writing Agency Rules. There are so many things that we, as Pakistanis, don’t understand about the people standing around us. I spent a lot of time talking to people and understanding where they were in their lives, what they felt and how they made ends meet. Their stories really inspired me because no matter what they struggled with, they were patriotic to the core. They wanted to see a better Pakistan. I couldn’t say the same for the other side of the scale, who were only interested in where they were going to vacation or how to move permanently out of the country. Interestingly, they are the biggest abusers of society and the system as a whole.
My wife likes to say that the first book that an author writes has a great deal of themselves in it, which is true with Agency Rules. I left it all on the pages. So much of what I felt was poured out on pages, almost like a catharsis. I found that I am very pro-Army and extremely patriotic to my Pakistan, even with all the problems, because I know what the people are capable of if they are even given a chance. Hopefully, those who read the book will see that as well.
CL: I have a sneaking suspicion they will. Connecting with readers is a skill. What advice do you have for military thriller writers?
KM: Make it real. There are too many people that write military thrillers who don’t take the time to get the details right. One of the things that I noticed in le Carre, MacInnes and Forsyth’s writing – they took the time to get the details right. It all adds to the picture that the reader enjoys. From the street vendors to the military operations, do the research and get the story right. The more real it is for the reader, the more they will love the story.
CL: Great advice. So what’s next after Agency Rules?
KM: What’s next?!? I just got this one out in January so my attention is focused on promoting the book, reading others and diving head first into research for Agency Rules 2. When I started writing Agency Rules, I envisioned it as a 4 or 5 book series. I started the research into the next book of the series while I was editing this one, and will be storyboarding the book in a few months. I’m hoping to get the next book out around Christmas this year. Just in time for a stocking stuffer for the thriller fans in your family and friends.
Outside of Agency Rules, I would like to write a couple of books outside the military/spy thriller genre. Maybe something in crime or politics, but I am not sure yet. I have been toying with some ideas, but nothing is concrete yet because my attention is all focused on marketing and research for Agency Rules 2.
CL: How do we keep up with everything happening with your writing and Agency Rules?
KM: Well, I’m a digital media addict. I have my own website, where people can keep informed on what I am writing outside the Agency Rules series, new developments and things that interest me from current affairs. And, of course, I’m on all the social media platforms so you’ll find me on Facebook, twitter and Google+ at all hours of the day and night.
CL: Fantastic. Khalid, thank you for being a wonderful guest. And for treating us to an excerpt from Agency Rules! (Excerpt after Rafflecopter.)
KM: Thanks again for hosting this interview on your website, Ceri! I hope your readers have enjoyed the conversation and please feel free to ask questions or strike up a conversation with me on any of the above platforms. I love to talk to readers!
CL: You are very welcome. Your love for your country shines through and it’s been fascinating to hear how your experiences have influenced your writing.
Other Interviews with ASMSG Electorate Blog Hop
followed by the RAFFLECOPTER!
Kirstin Stein Pulioff http://www.kirstinpulioff.com
Stefania Mattana http://dailypinner.eraniapinnera.com
Christoph Fischer http://writerchristophfischer.wordpress.com/
Murielle Cyr http://www.muriellerites.wordpress.com
Tina Power Traverse http://writersonthewharf.blogspot.ca/
Ann Rothchild http://christinamandara.wordpress.com/
AND NOW FOR THE EXCITING GIVEAWAY!
Just follow the link below to the Rafflecopter:
>>>>>> http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/d496871 <<<<<<
And a final treat:
An 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.