We did promise a bio, and this one was published in the Mystery Readers Journal, vol 23 in 2007. So it's not that much up to date, on the other hand it's pretty accurate. I've added another "Present" at the end - since this is 2011. So, happy reading!
Against all odds
Singh & Normann
Twelve years ago, we were two starry-eyed writers with no knowledge of the world of publishing. Our first novel won a competition for Norway’s best suspense novel, and we were on top of the world. With our book in bookstores in Norway, we decided what we needed was a British agent. We ordered a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, and, starting with the A’s …, compiled a list of agent’s names. We found cheap plane tickets to London, and hit the streets, armed with nothing more than our novel and our dream of being published in English. Well, that and a street map. The reality-check was harsh – and very educational.
Who are we?
We are – at first glance – unlikely partners in crime. Anan is born and raised in Punjab, India, a Sikh with wanderlust. He came to Oslo on a student visa, fell in love with a blonde and stayed because of the unstable situation in Punjab after the murder of Indira Gandhi. Natalie is Norwegian, brought up in a small town on the West coast; from where she was determined to leave as soon as she could reach the counter at the hydrofoil boat’s ticket office.
The writing dream was always there, and the partnership grew from discussions about literature between friends: “If they can do it, so can we”.
The first book, our “X marks the spot” so to speak, was set in Hamburg in 1943 (none of us has ever been to Hamburg), featuring Molly, a single mother (of twins!) sent to the bombed-to-rubble city of Hamburg to find a man with a map. (Very cloak and dagger stuff). It was great fun to write, even if we did get the research wrong in one or two places, but we did complete it, which was our humble goal. It was sent around to publishers and finally to a competition for “Norway’s best suspense novel”.
One of Norway’s war heroes was a judge in the competition. She was convinced the writer was a man who had lived through the war – we took that as a huge compliment. (Boy, was she surprised when she met us).
The long walk: reality check continues …
Almost five million people live in Norway, so the market is small, although Norwegians are avid readers, and crime literature one of the most popular genres. On average, a Norwegian publisher receives about a thousand manuscripts in a year (translations not included) – which is what most British agents receive in a week. Blissfully, we didn’t know that at the time.
Until this point, we had no idea what true competition was. We spent a week in London, knocking on doors, talking to people who sometimes shook their heads, and sometimes took our portfolio with a look of pity and patience on their faces.
Back home, we checked the mail box for responses while working on ideas for new projects. The rejections filed in soon enough, but there were enough encouraging comments from agents to keep us going.
Our Hero: Dara Singh
What we came up with was Dara Singh, former CID-officer from Amritsar in Punjab, refugee from the attack on The Golden Temple in 1984, when he refused to shoot other Sikhs on the command of his Hindu superiors. In Norway, his background is not appreciated (still a problem in our society) and he drives a taxi in Oslo.
Very reluctantly, he gets involved in the investigation of a gruesome serial killer-case that goes back over twenty years when he meets a beautiful woman with no memory of the first seven years of her life. The story is called Find her; Keep her. The serial killer of the story:
“He stood hidden in the shadows, watching her. For a moment he thought something was wrong, then he realised she was an adult. Of course, he knew she was grown up now, but his image of her had remained that of the little girl he remembered. He didn’t know her any more, and he accepted that she did not know him. She needed to remember, although he was sure that she knew him in her heart”.
Find her; Keep her. 1996
Our first publisher merged with a larger publishing-house, and the new publisher loved the new book. Find her; Keep her was published in Norway in 1996. The publication of the book coincided with the unravelling of a huge paedophile case in Belgium, and as such mirrored reality.
The book did well, and we threw ourselves wholeheartedly on the next project – which our new publisher rejected. We found a new publisher and our third thriller, Angel Fish, again featuring Dara Singh, was launched September 12, 2001 - which was bad timing, to say the least. No one noticed our book, not even we.
So there we were; three books with three publishers, no agent, and no new novel.
We contacted a Swedish agent and translated Find her; Keep her into English, and hoped for the best. Unfortunately we changed the location, setting the book in the UK, rather than keeping the Norwegian setting. It didn’t work well with editors who “found it odd”. But by then it was too late to go back to the original setting, and after a year or so, the agent threw in the towel. Our Swedish agent managed to sell the two Dara Singh-novels to Sweden and Denmark, but then it halted again. Apparently, the world in the late nineties was not ready for an Indian police officer cum taxi driver in Norway.
“Ethnic” in Norway
When we read the Ethnic issues of Mystery Writer’s Journal, we wondered whether Dara Singh should have been presented there, but realised Dara is not an ethnic detective. In Norway, we have immigrants, minorities and other Norwegians. The phrase “ethnic” doesn’t really have good associations here; it sounds odd, and echoes the German occupation when anyone not an ethnic Norwegian, would be persecuted.
Also, out of almost five million people, only 400.000 are immigrants, and about half of them come from other western countries. We don’t have a “Chinatown”, a “little Tokyo” or a “little Italy”. There’s a street in the east part of Oslo, that goes by the name of “little Lahore” and another nick-named Tamil Street, but that’s as far as it goes.
“Foreigners from every part of Asia and Africa were crammed into run-down old blocks of flats just below Oslo’s Police Plaza. A few blocks that didn’t belong to Norway. Not really.
Fruit and vegetable shops abounded with exotic spices, enveloping the pavements. The sweet scent of clove and cardamom entwined with the sharp smell of olives in vinegar and garlic.
Little Lahore resembled the food market in Amritsar, Dara thought as he stuffed coins into the gum-covered parking meter. It was as if he was in the bazaars in Purani Dehli, apart from the icy wind and the slush, of course.”
Angel Fish, 2001
Because of this, our books were quite the revolution. Anan was by then the first Asian to write a crime novel, and Dara was the first non-Norwegian hero in Norwegian crime literature.
We wrote a third Dara Singh novel. The publisher said no; they didn’t have the resources too develop new writers. By this time, we were frustrated and borderline desperate, fed up with Norwegian publishing and in need of some drastic action.
A change of scenery …
The question for us was whether we should keep struggling in a small market – one that wasn’t quite ready for an Indian detective yet – or go for the big pot? Did we dare to do it?
We decided our English needed improving if we were to have any chance at all. So we pooled our money and headed for the South of England – for as long as the money lasted, anyway.
We decided against London, thinking it would be too expensive to live there and also because we wanted to meet English people rather than other foreigners all the time.
Cheltenham is a small, beautiful town (Edwardian in style, whatever that means) about two hours from London (three if you, like us, had to depend on the National Express bus-service to get there). We found a small house (next to the railroad), and started to work. Inspiration was everywhere.
We became members of Crime Writer’s Association, found an English writer to go over our manuscript and look at the language - (a wise choice since our English is a mixture of American and British English with the whole Norwegian/Indian thing in there somewhere).
We also kept sending our manuscripts to agents, thinking that perhaps it was easier to get a foot in the door if our return address was in the UK rather than Norway. Which turned out to be the right thing to do.
This is not what Norwegian writers do. In Norway there’s no need for agents. A writer sends his or her manuscript directly to the publisher, waits, and if unlucky, submits it to the next publisher and so on. As there are only about half a dozen publishers, the writer’s association has negotiated a standard contract with very little reason to re-negotiate. Mostly the publishing house will also function as an agent when it comes to foreign rights
There was no office in our little house by the railroad, so one of us sat in the kitchen and the other on the floor in the living-room. We decided to come up with something new, not a Dara Singh novel, and so ended up with Nimmi Kaur, a Norwegian-Sikh woman, living in Oslo. About 200 pages into the manuscript, we decided to shelve it for now because it didn’t feel right. We’ll get back to it in due time.
Instead we have returned to history, but that presentation belongs in the next issue of Mystery Writers Journal – we also have to finish the book first …
To be able to write, we have worked as freelance journalists, translators and interpreters, editors; Natalie writes romance stories for women magazines; Anan worked as a translator and an interpreter for the police, the judicial system, lawyers and social services.
This week we published a non-fiction book for children with Norway’s largest publisher. (Our first published book in almost six years – yeah!) In short, we do anything to be able to keep writing our novels.
There’s always hope … and persistence. Somewhere out there a publisher is looking for someone like us.
The present - 2011
It's been awhile since 2007. I'm always surprised time flies by so fast. We have published three more chilren's books since then; all horror books for children ages 9-12. The lates was published in February this year. They are all picked up by a Danish publisher, so that's great. Great fun to write and publish.
I'm writing romance/fantasy now, a wonderful way to make a living. It's really hard work, but as long as it's fun I'll do it! It sure beats translations ...
At the moment we have the manuscript for a new crime novel, resting on the Kindle (or something like that) of an editor. He promised to get back to us at the lates after Easter, so a few days away. Phew
An update will follow ...