M. Salahuddin Khan – Sikander

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

Sikander is the title.

It’s a story about a young Pakistani (Sikander) who dreams of coming to America in the mid 1980s but who gets involved with Afghan mujahideen in fighting the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan. He learns to use the advanced Stinger missile and takes part in inflicting a Soviet defeat with American help. Returning to Pakistan he’s welcomed back by his family with his Afghan bride. Years later he becomes a successful entrepreneur but when 9/11 happens, his family ties in Afghanistan cause him to be return to help them escape the war. Things don’t turn out as planned and his life is turned upside down as a result until finally he is able to reunite with his family. His impressions of America become more complex but he still harbors a wish to live there. However, when he finally comes to the USA, he is confronted by demons from his past and must deal with them.

SIKANDER is a human story about being misunderstood and fighting to retain humanity despite all the pressures to slide into inhumanity. It also provides a very complete sense of participation in “ordinary” Muslim life which is a far cry from modern misrepresentations of Islam and Muslims. It allows a non-Muslim to feel and experience that ordinariness in compelling ways and thereby to become more familiar with “mainstream” Islam and its varied and textured nature.

Tell us something about yourself.

I’m from Pakistan originally, but moved at a young age to England, grew up and was educated there. I spent a considerable amount of time working with professional colleagues in Europe, Asia and America during my career, before moving to Boston, MA. After 10 years in Boston I moved to the north Chicago suburb of Lake Forest, IL. I’m an engineer by profession (aerospace) but spent a lot of my time since graduating in business strategy, technology development and marketing. I’ve held positions of Chief Technology Officer and SVP of Marketing at major publicly traded companies, most recently at NAVTEQ in Chicago which was sold to NOKIA for 8 billion dollars just after I left. I’m an even spread between artist, scientist, engineer and entrepreneur, and I’m a dedicated amateur student of human nature.

I have some background in writing and publishing, having been for over two years the publisher of ISLAMICA Magazine which is now out of print. I also write articles on www.helium.com on diverse subjects. SIKANDER is my first venture into a book and into fiction.

What inspired you to write this book?

I’ve spent my life figuring out I’m a citizen of the human race much more than of any country. While this might seem heretical when measured by modern conceptions of patriotism, I feel a real connection with the underlying essence of humanity and how fragile it can sometimes become. For me SIKANDER is a story about such humanity and it is expressed through the life and experiences of one young man who passes through some of history’s most turbulent currents in the last quarter of the 20th century. It’s about coming from a culture but belong to the species and it’s about transformations both outward and inward. In character, I identify with SIKANDER in experiences they’re nothing like the ones I’ve had.

How did you choose the title?

SIKANDER is the south Asian rendition of Alexander (as in The Great). As such the name belongs to a seminal figure in the history of Europe and those parts of south Asia that are today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan. The name carries a transcendency across eastern and western cultures which seem appropriate to the subject matter of the story. As a title, it also has an easy pronunciation across most languages. It’s memorable.

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

I had no real idea about publishing a book and in particular the sheer amount of work to edit. It was clear that being of a timely subject, trying to go the literary agent – publishing house route might lose too much time and would require many attempts before even winning over a literary agent. So, I decided to go the self-publish route. But I wanted to do it “properly” so I set up an imprint (KARAKORAM PRESS) under my company (QMarket Corporation) so that I could take on titles from other others and help them bring their work to market. I’m already looking at two such projects. Having been a marketing professional, I knew I would need both a professional editor and a professional publicist so I didn’t spend too long trying to do either of those things on my own. Engaging with printing companies and figuring out how to get a selling effort going were the toughest challenges.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

I didn’t “know”. But given the speed with which my first book came out of me and the reaction of reviewers, I feel this has been a dormant inclination. I wrote SIKANDER’s 586 pages in six weeks (end of December 2009 through mid February 2010) and spent roughly three months in editing with my professional editor. I started by doing a LOT of online and book research. Although familiar with Pashtun culture, I needed to get all of my historical information as accurate as possible and this meant both buying books and reading multiple online records on the topics of Afghanistan, the Mujahideen, fighting tactics, weapons systems, Pakistani politics and much about the topographical details of the terrain which almost assumes the level of being a full fledged character in the story. I also recalled the many characters from that part of the world that I’ve come across in my many visits there.

Do you have any writing rituals?

I think I’ve learned that I have to map out the “hard points” through which the story needs to pass and then imagine the movie in my mind. I let the characters develop and their personalities seem to interact as they “should” and as long as they proceed through the “hard points” the story comes out without myself even knowing a priori exactly how. It’s a curious blend of planning and discovery.

How do you come up with the names for your characters?

SIKANDER is as described above. For the rest, I don’t think it was anything but random. There’s no real meaning in the choices of names. But having given them their names, I feel like I didn’t create them and they’re just people I know. They no longer “seem” fictitious even though my rational self clearly understands that they are.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?

Yes! It’s hard. It’s fun. It’s extremely rewarding when someone completes reading it and conveys their enjoyment or how it changed them (which is a reaction I’ve had more than once). For publishing, I’ve learned enough about the process to be of use to other would-be budding authors.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

I’d have lined up the publicist earlier in the process.

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

I’m not so big on reading fiction as I am with contemporary non-fiction and often times popular science or technology related subjects. However I have taken a liking to both Greg Mortensen’s work and Khalid Hosseini’s. Both of them convey the same human dimensions of the part of the world I’ve come from. From more classical works, I am a REAL fan of Shakespeare – I love Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I also enjoyed reading Frank Herbert’s science fiction because it too really exposed his deep understanding of inner psychological tumults especially in the Dune series. Tolkien is also a favorite. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy in a single almost non-stop marathon during the summer of 1971.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

It would be an overstatement to say I’m actually working on it at this time but I am rumbling a few ideas around in my head. One particular subject I think hasn’t had sufficient exposure is the Partition of British India and the human stories that have flowed from it. It was the largest single forced migration in all of human history. It also has numerous themes of being misunderstood which is a subject I think I can readily write about.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Don’t “decide” prematurely that you can’t do it. Give it a try. Don’t try to nail it all down. Pick the key turning points and let the fabric weave itself. Stay honest and true to the characters. Relax and focus on the characters’ natures not their individual actions, but also let their natures grow naturally. Let them guide the actions and don’t be too afraid of letting them go places you didn’t expect.

As for publishing, it’s much easier than it’s ever been to self-publish but because you’re doing that don’t skimp on some essentials like professional editing, hiring a publicist and a good book cover designer. Be prepared to read your work between 10 and 15 times before you’ll have what should be printed. Make sure you get a compelling website together and blog about your subject. It’s makes a difference to reviewers, producers and editors. Lastly, find a good book distribution company that will knock on doors to try getting your book on book store inventory but be wary of how they handle returns or you’ll be stuck with having to pay for returned books that your distribution channel over-ordered.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

The ideal reader is one who has an interest in world affairs and particularly someone who might be puzzled about the many enigmas from the western cultural perspective that the modern Muslim world seems to present.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

www.sikanderbook.com is a very comprehensive website which carries a lot of information about the book including recent reviews and how to buy it in either paperback or hardcover forms. It’s available on Amazon also. It is available in Kindle and on the iBook store from Apple.