The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu Review and Interview with Tom Vator

I was not sure of what I was getting into when I picked up The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu. I tend to stick to certain genres I enjoy and only slip out of them to read books that are sent my way. Though the lovely people who do the Blackthorn Book Tours always offer up quality books so I was looking forward to reading this novel. And my oh my, this book was one hell of a trip.

This story happens in different periods of time. 1976 and 2000. The story in the 70s follows a group of hippies on a drug fueled tour through Asia. Along the way, they meet amazing people, dangerous people, and even lose some people. While the story that takes place in 2000 follows the remainders of the group, plus one adult son, through the side effects of their younger, though perhaps just as wild, days. Danger seems to follow this group, and old grudges spring up in the most insane ways with an ending that leaves you thinking “Well, damn!” 

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that the stories are told side by side. One chapter will have information regarding the 1976 story, while the next may cover the 2000 story. This allows some aspects of the earlier story to be a bit of a mystery till you get closer to the end of the book, leaving one wanting to come back for more.

So is The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu worth ready? Oh yes, pick up this book!

In addition to this review, I have an interview with author Tom Vator I will share below. He was kind enough to share with me the answers to a few questions regarding how he writes, how he comes up with characters, and his processes. You can find it below. I have made sure to mark questions and answers with our names for ease of reading!

Tawny: How did you get into writing?

Tom: Hm, that was long process. I knew quite early on in life that I wanted to do something creative. I played in punk rock bands in my 20s, toured round Europe a lot and learned a bit about sound recording. In 1993, I traveled to Asia with a small grant of the British Library to record and document indigenous music. In 1997, in Kathmandu, I met a couple who had cycled from Europe to Nepal and were writing about it. I edited their stories and accompanied them to the local newspaper. When they managed to sell their stories, I asked the editor whether he’d take one of mine. A month later I had the weekend supplement, a long feature on Nepali traditional music. I never looked back…within a year I was writing travel guides to get by, was working on my first novel, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, and my first non-fiction book Beyond the Pancake Trench. All that then provided the foundation for a career in journalism, non-fiction and fiction, screenplays etc.

Tawny: What is your writing process? Do you outline and such?

Tom: I do outline – for the novel I’m working on now, The Green Panthers, an eco-thriller, not published yet, I wrote a detailed plot outline, and separate outlines for the major and even some of the minor characters. For the plot outline, I break the story down into several acts and then as I go along, even chapters. I don’t stick to the outline religiously when I write, but I try to keep the original narrative arc intact, otherwise there’s a real danger of getting lost or writing myself into a corner.

I take around 3-4 months to write a first draft of around 80000 words. Kolkata Noir is 42000 words and I wrote that in three months while researching my subjects, story lines and locations. I then take 8 months to a year to edit the text. It goes through many different incarnations. I get others to read it, comment and then re-edit again and again. Once a novel is with a publisher, they usually demand or suggest more changes. And they are usually right.

There’s not one moment when I think a story is perfect. At some point I reach saturation, get distracted by other writing projects or the book simply slips away and goes to the printer.

I write anywhere any time, not precious about location, mood or timing – it’s a job after all. Can’t imagine a plumber saying, ooh, today I don’t feel like laying pipes. Similar with journalistic work. There are usually deadlines. With writing fiction, I do get stuck sometimes. But usually, when I am in the flow, I leave the text for a few days, then return to it, look at the outline again and get right back into it. I have never had writer’s block, touch wood, never will.

Tawny: How do you come up with your characters?

Tom: Major and minor characters are a mixture of people I have met and characters I read about, see in news stories, or in movies. As a journalist I get to meet and interview a wide variety of people, rich and poor, crooked and straight, smart and stupid, entitled and humble etc. Some characters are really based on these real life encounters, some are entirely made up, most are a mixture of both. I do try and nail them down in character studies I commence before I start writing, and then add to as I get into the text.

Tawny: How do you come up with your stories?

Tom: I read a lot, I travel for my job (I am Southeast Asia correspondent for Reise Know How, a German travel publisher, and Thailand expert for The Daily Telegraph), pretty constantly before Covid19 hit.

For the novels, it takes me quite a long time to come up with a basic premise/central idea that is strong enough to sustain a long story. I have long lists of such ideas, but most don’t pan out. In the particular case of Kolkata Noir, I was selected as artist in residence by the Goethe Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan for the Indo-European Art Residency in Kolkata in 2019. I spent three months in Kolkata – never slept, just drifted around the city and wrote, wrote, wrote, and came up with three novellas and a short story. As I had been visiting Kolkata for many years, I decided to set one story in the past I knew (1999), the present I was observing (2019) and the future I could imagine (2039) – the latter crammed with ideas of what might become of Kolkata.

Kolkata has a fictitious detective called Feluda, the brain child of well-known art house film maker Satyajit Ray. Feluda is the city’s equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. I would never dare to write a Feluda story, but I did create a female character for Kolkata Noir, a police inspectress who’s his grand-niece.

Tawny: Do you read yourself? And if so what genre do you enjoy? I know they say to read what you write, but I have met authors who enjoy reading outside their genre from time to time.

Tom: Writing without reading, as anyone will tell you, is not possible. I read widely. I just saw that I have read 900 articles in The Guardian this year so far. As well as aticles in countless other publications. I read a lot of fiction, I guess two or three novels a month when I am on form and have the time. I read commercial fiction, crime fiction and espionage because that’s what I write, but I am always interested in reading other stuff – at the moment I am ploughing through a very good coming of age story set in Leningrad in WWII (City of Thieves by David Benioff) and a book about left wing and anarchist resistance to capitalism in Berlin since WWII (Berlin/Stadt der Revolte by Sontheimer/Wensierski).

Tawny: What are your hobbies outside of your writing?

Tom: I play guitar, occasionally in bands. But most of the time I travel, read and write. Being a freelance writer has been a full-time job for 25 years – that doesn’t leave all that much energy for other endeavors.

Thanks very much for giving me the opportunity to talk about my work.

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