Debut Author Spotlight: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Name: Ausma Zehanat Khan
Book: The Unquiet Dead
Series: Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty Series
Current Home: Denver, Colorado
Author Icon: Amin Maalouf, author of Samarkand, The Rock of Tanios, Leo Africanus, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, and the beautiful memoir, Origins. Maalouf is sublimely witty and wise, with a pen that skewers the sacred cows of many ages, and a profound understanding of the past. It’s a joy to meet the characters he rescues from the obscurity of history. He makes a complex world intimate and small. Samarkand is a book for travelers, believers, poets, mystics, and people whose sense of humor is firmly tongue-in-cheek. And I think The First Century After Beatrice is the one book that predicts the future correctly.
Favorite Word: Serendipity, if I had to choose one. Serendipity and synchronicity if I get to choose two, as they’ve both been instrumental in my life. Whatever isn’t a happy accident, ends up being an echo of something I’ve encountered in the past. One example: every new place I move to has a name that connects it to a place I’ve previously lived. Serendipitous synchronicity?
Was this the first full-length novel you ever wrote? I have labored in the shadows these many ages past. In other words, when I was a teenager gobbling up the Lord of the Rings, and the Shannara and Dune books, I wrote a highly derivative fantasy novel called “The O’Nea Quest.” And several more failed attempts in that genre, all neatly tucked away in a monstrous black filing cabinet that keeps company with the rest of the writing that should never see the light of day. I also write a series of children’s books for each of my nieces and nephews on their birthdays. They feature the world’s worst babysitters, Dipsy Darla and Cranky Caro. And more recently (and more seriously), I wrote a prequel to The Unquiet Dead called Summer’s Lease, where Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty work their first case together and sparks fly. The book is about a suspected honor killing and a missing teenage girl. This is one that I hope comes out of the cabinet!
Tell us about your day job (current or former). I practiced immigration law in Toronto for a while—a profession that lets you brush up against the hopes and dreams of people around the world, and gives you an acute appreciation of your own blessings. After that, I spent several years teaching law, something I loved because the students—at Northwestern University especially—were so bright and engaged, and so determined to make a difference. If those kids inherit the world, we’re all in good hands.
Tell us about your education. How did it inform the plot of The Unquiet Dead? I have a Ph.D. in international human rights law, and my specialization was military intervention and war crimes in the Balkans. I was in law school when the war in Bosnia broke out, and it immediately made the subject matter I was studying real and urgent. And then, over the next several years, I remained immersed in that world—the war and the aftermath of the war. The voices of the victims, the war crimes reports—they leave a mark on your consciousness like a psychic wound. Those voices were demanding an accounting from me, and with The Unquiet Dead, I tried to give them one.
How did you start writing? I’ve been writing all my life. No matter what else I was doing—school, work, travel—I was compelled by the need to tell stories, and to give voice to the characters in my head. I feel a little like Anne of Green Gables in her leaky boat, reciting “The Lady of Shalott.” Writing is a way of bringing the things you dream about to life, and I have so many dreams.
What was it like when you got “The Call”? Unbelievably exciting. I spent an hour on the phone with my fabulous editor, Elizabeth Lacks—when someone loves your book and shares your vision for it, it’s the best feeling in the world—you almost can’t believe it’s real. After that I cried a little, said a prayer of gratitude, and called my husband, my mother, my sister and my brothers, in that order. And then the rest of my massive family, who were all as excited as if they’d written the book themselves.
What’s your favorite paragraph in The Unquiet Dead? She glanced pointedly at the tasbih on Khattak’s wrist, a gesture that struck at him, collapsing his fluid identities inward like a lightning strike: one a symbol of thousands of the unquiet dead, the other the mark of their murderers.