Midway through a podcast, author Patrick Ness begins to tap on wood, loudly, for the benefit of his listeners. The interviewer, Karachi-based writer and voiceover artiste Mahvesh Murad has just finished asking Ness — the author of The Chaos Trilogy and Carnegie Medal winning novels Monsters of Men and A Monster Calls — how he manages to globetrot and attend literary events. In response comes the knock, along with his answer, as a sign of gratitude for his good luck.
But oddly enough, what stays with us by the end of that interview — which covers everything from the upcoming Hollywood movie based on his novel to writing for young adults and being called a ‘health hazard’ by the Daily Mail — is that knock. Or, to be more precise, its sound quality. Did Ness come to Karachi and we, somehow, not know about it? Murad laughs when we ask her. The interview, she says, was conducted over Skype and no, Ness was not in Karachi for it.
With writer Vikram Seth
The interview with Ness and other authors such as Audrey Niffenegger, Robert Sharp and Megan Abbott, is part of Murad’s four-month old series of bi-weekly podcasts called Midnight in Karachi, where she talks to genre fiction writers. The podcasts are recorded at Murad’s old, 7x7 sq ft storeroom in her Karachi home, which she soundproofed (with some help from her driver) with egg crate foam mattresses and her aunt’s blankets from 1976.
“I wanted a professional set-up and invested in a good microphone. But even if you scratch your head, the microphone picks up everything. Also, I live by a busy road, so if it picks up even the sound of a rickshaw during an interview, I am done. So, I can’t even have a fan in my studio. During the winters it’s fine, but it’s very hot now and I can’t even wipe my forehead during interviews,” she laughs. Murad adds that she has the fastest possible Internet provider for her work, including the best two backups. “I can’t take a risk. I can’t be the woman whose Internet just died in the middle of an interview. I don’t want to be that person,” she says.
Exploring different genres
Murad spent her childhood in Karachi, where she grew up listening to the Arabian Nights and ancient Greek myths. “In our part of the world, we have such a strong culture of oral narrative and storytelling,” she points out. At the age of 11, she shifted to London where she spent three and a half years. Here, she was introduced to public libraries and the works of authors such as Diana Wynne Jones. It was also here that she explored different genres such as fantasy. “I feel very strongly about children in Karachi not having enough access to public libraries,” she says.
She also likes reading speculative and dystopian fiction, explaining that “speculative fiction speaks more truth than any other kind of fiction”. She enjoys reading novels such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World which, Murad opines, would resonate with anyone living in Karachi. “My friend (and author) Kamila Shamsie says, ‘Love dystopian fiction, live in Karachi, and pretend the two are not related’,” she smiles.
On returning to Karachi, Murad visited bookstalls at the city’s many marketplaces and bazaars, where books and magazines were sold as per its weight. The dusty, musty smell of books led her to the works of writers such as Graham Joyce, Terry Pratchett, Iian Banks and Margaret Atwood. “You had these huge, old bookstalls in the heart of the city, where you could get all kinds of magazines and hard-bound science fiction novels,” she recalls. After completing her undergraduate course at McGill University in Canada, Murad returned to Karachi, where she worked in the TV industry for a while before switching to radio. She, later, hosted the radio show titled 89 chapters for a radio station, which is widely regarded as Pakistan’s only radio show
Turning to podcasts
During 89 Chapters’ seven-year-run, she reviewed books and interviewed writers such as Vikram Seth, Graham Joyce (“His work left a lasting impact and I was lucky to have interviewed him. He was a wonderful person and an incredible writer”), Bill Willingham of Fables’ comics, Ben Aaronovitch of the Rivers of London series, Nilanjana Roy and Kashmiri writer Mirza Waheed among many others. Her last interview, she painfully remembers, was with George RR Martin (who, she recalls, was curious to know about Pakistan and was amazed by the success of his novels in Pakistan), just before the show got cancelled in August last year for being too “high-brow”. The radio station had decided to go ‘commercial’. “This is my sad story: I edited George RR Martin’s interview, made the promo and everything and had just submitted it. The CEO called me and said that we need to cancel the show. And I said, ‘But I just gave you George!’”
In retrospect, however, Murad decides that it’s a good thing the show got cancelled, as it forced her to leave her ‘comfort vaccum’. Midnight in Karachi happened because Murad felt she owed her show’s many fans and listeners an explanation. Tor.com, an online platform for science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction and horror writing and content, was looking for more podcasts and soon, she was onboard. The platform’s definition of genre fiction is fairly wide, says Murad, adding that she cannot praise the site enough. So how does she get in touch with such elusive authors? “Twitter and the authors’ publicists,” she explains, pointing out that one of the many benefits of working with a platform like Tor.com is the international exposure.
Murad has just finished interviewing Bangladeshi author Saad Hossain and even tried to get Kuzhali Manickavel on her podcast, although they eventually settled for a review of one of Manickavel’s books. So does she have a wish list for her podcast? Murad tells us that she has been trying to get an interview with William Gibson for a while now and promises us that she “shall continue to try”. And, who else? “Stephen King. And oh,Neil Gaiman!” she nearly shouts in excitement. “Whom do I have to kill? Send me the list!”