By Gwen Florio
It seems almost redundant that Pakistan’s Omar Hamid writes thrillers, given that his life reads like one.
Hamid chose a life of police work after his father, the head of the Karachi Electric Supply Corp., was assassinated by an organized crime group for pursuing his mandate to root out corruption in the KSEC. It took nearly two decades, but his father’s killer was finally executed after several last-minute stays.
The Taliban put Hamid on a hit list, which led to a five-year hiatus from police work when he left Pakistan for London and worked as a political risk and terrorism analyst. In 2011, he was nominated to receive the Sitara I-Imtiaz, the highest civil award for gallantry in Pakistan.
His densely plotted first novel, THE PRISONER (2013), follows Constantine d’Souza, a Christian police officer, who calls upon a former colleague, now imprisoned, to help free a kidnapped American.
He has since written THE SPINNER’S TALE (2015), about the radicalization of a well-educated man, and THE PARTY WORKER (2017). He lives in Karachi with his wife and child and works in the police counterterrorism department.
Q: THE PRISONER reads more like a fifth novel rather than a first. Had you done any writing before that – short stories or unpublished novels languishing in desk drawers? How long did it take you to write it?
A: To be honest, I had no prior experience of fiction writing. I think before writing THE PRISONER, my last experience of creative writing was probably in middle school. It took me a while to write the first book, because I started writing it in London when I was studying there in 2007, and I think the initial draft was done in about five months. But then I moved back to Pakistan and started working again, so the manuscript languished untouched for three years. It was only when I moved back to London in 2011, that I finally finished it in six months. So, to answer your question, it was a yearlong process, interrupted by three years in the middle.
Q: Who are your writing influences?
A: I always wanted to write like anyone who was able to create a fictional world that completely drew in the reader. Reading people like Le Carre, you can almost smell the musty old files lying in The Circus. With Mario Puzo, you want to taste the cannoli as Clemenza shoots a mobster. Another writer who is very good at sucking you in like this is Robert Harris.
Q: Your life was already in danger before you wrote a book based in part on real events and real criminal groups. Did you worry that writing the novel could increase the danger?
A: I’m often asked this question at various events especially as a lot of readers draw parallels with real-life actors in Karachi’s political milieu. My answer is that my liabilities as a police officer are already so significant, that for the people I piss off, my books are small potatoes. They would much rather go after me for other things.
Q: THE PRISONER portrays a pervasive level of corruption among the police. Even your protagonist, the Christian officer Constantine D’Souza, is on the take, although his moral lines are quite firm. What was the reaction to the depiction of that corruption?
A: I think my depiction of corruption is an honest one. I wanted to write a book that wasn’t a caricature, either by being too negative or presenting a rosy picture. Cops aren’t angels and they aren’t the devil either. I think it worked very well because a lot of cops, for instance, have come to me and said that they appreciated me giving such a realistic portrayal of their lives while provosts citizens have told me that they felt a new respect for the difficulties that cops face in Karachi.
Q: Karachi is such a wonderful character in your books. You make a city of 15 million people (nearly twice the size of New York City) seem so intimate, in a way that only someone who loves a place can. But you were forced, for safety’s sake, to live for a time in London. What did you miss most about Karachi?
A: I missed everything about Karachi. Well not everything. I love London; it’s a place where I have often gone during some of the most turbulent episodes in my life, and it has stabilized me. But life in London is of course, mundane. I love the edge Karachi gives me. It’s a bit like New York in the 1980s, a full-on seat of your pants experience.
Q: What would you like your readers who are not Pakistani to know about Pakistan?
A: Churchill once said about Russia that it was a mystery wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside a puzzle. Or something to that effect. I think the same applies to Pakistan. It is an incredibly fascinating place and an incredibly difficult place to define or put in a categorized box. And I think the West has really failed to go beyond a superficial understanding of the country. Pakistan is a great place for thriller writers because there are just so many stories floating around to write about.
Q: How do you manage your writing around the intense demands of police work? What is your schedule?
A: I was very lucky that I was based in London and that gave me much more time to focus on writing. My three books and half of a fourth one were all written in London. The challenge has been writing since I returned to Pakistan, because the pressures of my job are such that it is hard to focus on writing. Also, I find that you need a bit of perspective to be able to write and in Karachi, with things and events occurring all the time, it’s hard to get such perspective.
Q: You said at this year’s Karachi Literary Festival that you see yourself primarily as a police officer and not as a writer. What will it take for you to see yourself as a writer?
A: Selling as many books as George R.R. Martin…I don’t know I guess when you start defining yourself as a writer, there’s a pressure that comes on.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m about to finish a new book about fixing in sport, and after that I have a couple more ideas. Maybe I’ll do a book on a serial killer or a spy thriller based in South Asia.
Q: Any advice for would-be writers, especially those who start in midlife?
A: As the Nike man says, “Just do it.” I find so many people who want to write psych themselves out before they even start. If you have something to say, my advice is take a chance, back yourself, and see what happens.
Gwen Florio is a veteran journalist whose Reservations, the fourth novel in her Lola Wicks series – called “gutsy” by the New York Times – was released in March.
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Previously in Writers’ Passport: