Thursday, June 10, 2021

Guest Post: Imran Mahmood


This Friday, I'm delighted to introduce you to my good friend Imran Mahmood. Imran is a practicing barrister with almost 30 years' experience fighting cases in courtrooms across the country. He hails from Liverpool but now lives in London with his wife and daughters. His debut novel You Don't Know Me was longlisted for Theakston crime novel of the year and for the CWA Gold Dagger, and has been adapted for screen for the BBC in association with Netflix. 

When not in court or writing novels or screemplays he can sometimes be found on the Red Hot Chilli Writers' podcast as one of the regular contributors.

His new book, I KNOW WHAT I SAW, is out this week.

Have any experiences from your youth worked their way into your stories? How about other life experiences? Do you consciously select these in your writing or do they suddenly appear on the page?

There are two kinds of writers in my experience. On the one hand there are all those writers we admire like Yann Martel or HG Wells or Mary Shelley who stitch together complete worlds and characters (literally in the case of Mary Shelley) from nothing more than the power of their huge and impressive imaginations. And there are those on the other, poor creatures like me who can't do that – whose imaginations are just children on the shore collecting pebbles. 


The one good thing about falling into the second category is that by the time you hit the half century mark, there are loads of pebbles. There are so many pebbles in my head that if you shook me hard enough and pointed me at your semi-detached I’d give your walls a lovely spar-dashing.


I used to feel self-conscious about using so much from my life in my stories but these days I'm so unabashed about it that you have to be careful about sharing any of your own stories with me. I'm like a magpie – if the story of your morning coffee even catches the light the right way, I’ll have it and re-purpose it as my own. Once I met Meghan Markle for five seconds and I spent the rest of the year telling anyone who’d listen, how awful my life in the Palace was with no-one but Corgis for company – especially when my better half was off discussing colour charts with the rels.


Take my latest novel I KNOW WHAT I SAW. The story follows Xander Shute a formerly wealthy ex-banker who finds himself living on the streets. One literal dark and stormy night he takes shelter in a flat that he believes is unoccupied. He wakes to hear the residents return and then witnesses one of them murdering the other. When he tells the police – they don’t believe him. When they visit the scene, they discover the crime was impossible. 


Now although I haven’t represented this particular murderer in my career and have never committed a similar murder myself (or any murder at all – I promise), I did rely heavily on events from my youth to create Xander. When I was 15, because we didn’t have books at home, I spent a lot of time at the local library. Another person who spent a lot of time there was a man who would later be re-purposed as Xander. He was what we used as kids to call a tramp. He was pretty ripe, dressed head to foot in layers of muddy clothing and had a beard to shame Osama. At first, I thought he was using the library as a place to keep warm – but I was wrong. He was using it to read philosophy and quantum physics. One day when I was revising for my French O’ Level (yup – I'm that old) he sidled up to me and offered to sell me some slim volumes of French Lit. He had an impressive list running from Gide to Maupassant, from Camus to Molière – each one at a knock-down price. I didn’t know how he could turn a profit at those prices and more than that, I was puzzled about where he was keeping them. And I SWEAR– it did not once occur to me that we were in a library and that there was a really easy way he could be solving both of those problems.


The real question, of course, I had was how such an intelligent and obviously educated man had become so destitute. I was genuinely baffled. When I later found out that he was one of the Oxbridge lot I’d heard of (but had never met in real life) I was more than baffled. I was livid. ‘You could be rich,’ I said to him. He smiled and asked me whether my parents would mind if he had a bath in my house. I told him that I wasn’t allowed friends and that it probably wasn’t a good idea but the truth was, I wasn’t sure he’d feel all that comfortable being spoken to in Punjabi as he was thoroughly mistaken for one of those bearded Muslim guys who turned up at the house making dawah (a kind of proselytism if you’re interested). He nodded in understanding, good-naturedly. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I am rich. I'm rich in every way that is important to me. I have good friends. I have my health. And I have freedom. I've done my bit for society. And now I’m choosing to do my bit for me. Nobody is richer than me.’


It was years before I truly understood what he meant. Decades in fact. And ultimately it took the writing of I KNOW WHAT I SAW in order to understand it in the way that I think he meant it. My only wish looking back is that when he’d finished saying what he had said, that I hadn’t said. ‘John Paul Getty. What about him? He’s considerably richer than yow.’




James W. Ziskin said...

Great post, Imran. Really hits the question on the nose. Thank you. Looking forward to reading I Know What I Saw.


Susan C Shea said...

Wonderful anecdote from your life. I'd enjoy it more if it didn't remind me just a bit of a relative of mine....It's a pleasure to have you here on the blog, Imran.

Brenda Chapman said...

Imran - Terrific post! Pebbles and magpies pretty much sum up an author's brain :-) I note that you and Abir have the same sense of humour, a trait to be highly valued.