The Audacious Writer: Shobha Nihalani

It’s been around seven years when the first book in the NINE Series was released in 2013. I have always been a fan of Thrillers. She said, “Thank you for your continued support! Yes, you are right, I love writing thrillers. It is also my favorite genre of books to read.” She continued as I could sense the enthusiasm in her voice, “Thrillers are like a magnet for me, I am pulled into the storyline. I have always been enthusiastic about fast-paced suspense stories. Even with films, I prefer action and thriller types of energetic plots.”

Ever since I got hold of her book, I wanted to interview Shobha and was waiting for the right moment. Recently when I got to know about her latest book, The Blue Jade, another thriller from her, it became irresistible for me. It was a Friday morning when the weather was at the brim of calmness, and everybody was inside in the comfort of their homes, thanks to the turmoil created by the COVID19, I called Shobha to know how did she write such riveting thrillers.

The Reading Worm  

I was curious to know what led her to write and it was not a surprise by knowing that reading was in her blood since her childhood. “As an only child, I loved books, they created a whole new world in my head. I just loved to read all the time. This continued for many years. Later, in my twenties, I felt the urge to write stories,” she beamed.

As the love for thrillers and suspense struck a chord in me too, and as she writes thrillers, it was quite evident that she loved reading thrillers as well! I was ready with the next question in my mind and I asked her. “Thrillers are my favorite. Frankly, I don’t mind reading any genre as long as it has got me hooked. I read a number of non-fiction books too.” She answered.

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She was somewhat getting to know me very well and as we both were trying to know each other, I sensed that she knew the next question that was about to pop. Yes, her favorite authors! The answer to this was quite a surprise to me though! “I read new and upcoming authors, and they are from different parts of the world. I learn a lot from their techniques. I have been reading a couple of Japanese and Australian authors. Their techniques of creating tension and building suspense are excellent.” Not to forget the name of her favorite author, Jane Austen which she quotes as her all-time favorite authors. “Any specific reason for that?” I asked. ” Yes, her books were a great influence in my formative years,” she replied instantly.

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Life as a Writer

As I waited for my coffee to be ready with about a couple of minutes remaining, the flow of questions changed towards her life as a writer. A female writing a  thriller is somewhat still a farfetched thing with only a few like Agatha Christie in the league, the inner writer in me was also screaming. How? I started with her NINE trilogy and compared it with Blue Jade. Shobha was seemingly aware of my inner doubts and the questions I had. Maybe she faced this earlier too!

Her reply was with a calm smile, “ The Blue Jade is quite different in its structure and plot. It is not an adventure-fantasy like the NINE trilogies, but more of a fast-paced chase and an inner journey. I wanted to layer the story of The Blue Jade with a few themes that are close to my heart. I love Mirabai, and I wanted to share her life story. Also, I am fascinated by India’s history and heritage, and the intricate artworks and sculptures of ancient sites. That is another aspect that I wanted to include in the book. At the same time, I wanted to express my indignation about the hundreds of artifacts and relics that have been stolen from India. I didn’t want it to be a preachy novel, but more of a thrilling adventure with a strong female lead character. To include all these themes into a seamless plotline, it took some time to structure and write The Blue Jade.”

shobha nihalani

Coming to the question of did she start with short stories and learning from the mistakes every new writer makes, Shobha was quite open about admitting the same. “Early on, around 2002, I joined Hong Kong Writers’ Circle, where I met other upcoming writers. I felt that in a writer’s group I would meet like-minded people and be able to exchange ideas and problems. We used to meet regularly to critique each other’s work. Yes, we all started out with writing short stories. The Hong Kong Writers’ Circle had its own publication and our stories were published there and sold in local book stores. It was a great feeling. After that, there was no stopping me! I kept on writing with a passion and learned from my mistakes.”

“After writing my first book, I thought I could sit back and relax. I assumed all the hard work was over, but no! There is a lot more to do, in terms of editing, rewriting, publishing and marketing.”

Switching to Non-Fiction – Halfway through my coffee, the questions kept pouring in my head. One was her book on Dada Vaswani and I wanted to know that whether this switch was an experiment or did she wanted to venture into non-fiction writing? She explained it beautifully!

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“In 2017, when I started writing Dada Vaswani – A Life in Spirituality, I was learning a whole new way of structuring a biography. It was challenging to switch from fiction to non-fiction. I was overwhelmed, but I wanted to write a book. By writing Dada Vaswani’s story which depicts his life as a great saint and humanitarian, I felt that I was going through subtle inner changes. His teachings had a profound effect on me, and without realizing it I felt a shift in my perceptions. I am not an ardent follower, but I feel that Dada Vaswani’s wisdom and teachings are practical and applicable in daily life. In that sense, writing brings clarity to an inner journey.”

Coming to her latest book, The Blue Jade, she said, “The Blue Jade has covered all my favorite topics: Mirabai’s story, a strong female character, and art crime. I have managed to pull them all into a story that I hope is a thrilling and exciting read.”

The Flawed Characters

Every writer I have read writes impeccable characters but I personally feel that somewhat there is a  flaw too while putting life in the character. every character, even in the fantasy novel draws inspiration from some real-life person. “Characters have to believable and flawed, they have to be relatable to the readers so that they can connect and empathize with them. For me, well-written characters are extremely important to lift the story. Before I start to write, my priority is to work on the character sketches. I spend time deciding on their temperament, likes and dislikes, behavior, personality, childhood trauma, phobias, hobbies, and so on. Even if I don’t use all these elements in the book, I create fully fleshed-out characters before I sit down and write.” Our thoughts matched in this aspect!   

Chills and Thrills

As I sipped my coffee, I asked her that is it possible every time to keep the flavor new and different in the storyline? “I jot down ideas for stories that I feel I will enjoy writing about. Then I work around building a particular structure. I don’t consciously plan to be different from other authors. Every writer has a unique way of perceiving the world. I, too, develop stories from my own perspectives. I read a lot of thrillers and learn from other authors who have a knack to create different levels of tension, and build suspense in a very clever way. As an author, I am always learning new techniques and developing my skills.” She snapped.   

shobha nihalani

With a pause, she also said, “Writing thrillers is not effortless. Creating suspense and thrills takes a lot of practice in the craft of writing. It takes time to develop the style.”

Staying ahead?

“I believe that in the creative world there is enough space for everyone. All authors have a unique way of expressing themselves, and we are all essentially doing that. So it’s not competitive but we as authors are providing a variety of stories. The tastes of readers vary, not all will want to read thrillers and many prefer other genres. So I don’t feel there is competition. In fact, I feel happy when my fellow authors are doing well and their books are well-received.”

Promoting her work –

“Nowadays, just having a published book is not enough, we need to make an effort to make it visible and available. I share my books on social media and with friends. Ideally, an author should be available to attend literary festivals and book signing events. I have elderly parents, and I cannot commit to any of these long-term fixed dates. I prefer to focus on writing, and yes, marketing does take away my focus from writing. I outsource a marketing company to handle the promotions.”

shobha nihalani

Ebooks vs Paperback?

“Many readers prefer to hold a paperback in their hands, and many like to keep a copy on their bookshelf. In recent times, with the growth of digital devices, many readers are starting to appreciate ebooks. I also feel that ebooks are a great way to encourage readers to read different kinds of authors from all over the world. Both ways of publishing are very relevant. Traditional and alternative publishing methods have their pros and cons. I believe that alternative methods of publishing have leveled the playing field so that many first-time authors have succeeded in getting published.”

The Learning

As I took the last sip of my coffee, I asked her the final question about the learning which she was glad to share her inputs on, “Learning to write with sincerity and making the characters realistic, these are what I found most useful. The least useful is the advice was given to ‘write what you know’. Instead, I feel that anyone can choose whatever they want to write about, and not be limited to what they know. In fact, writing about what you don’t know is even more exciting, because by doing research, you learn so much about this new topic.”

I thanked Shobha for her time and her insights about her journey in writing thrillers and wished her best of luck or her upcoming thriller romance novel before disconnecting the video call.

The Cover Story first appeared in Storizen Magazine April 2020 Issue