In conversation with… crime novelist Kia Abdullah
Best-selling author Kia Abdullah tells us about her affinity with little penguins and how travel inspires her novels.
Kia Abdullah is a bestselling author and travel writer. Her courtroom dramas have won critical acclaim and awards while she has covered a range of topics for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Times, The Telegraph and the BBC.
Born in East London, Kia studied computer science and then worked in travel publishing. In 2014, she quit her day job to found Atlas & Boots, an outdoor travel blog now read by 150,000 people a month. Today, she spends her time writing, hiking, mentoring pupils from Tower Hamlets and visiting far-flung destinations for Atlas & Boots.
You're a crime novelist and a travel writer, how does that work?
For the last eight years, travel writing was my ‘day job’ so to speak. I wrote for Lonely Planet and Rough Guides as well as my own blog and started writing fiction in my spare time. I’ve always enjoyed short-form, but there’s nothing quite as creatively challenging to a writer as a full-length novel.
Kia Abdullah (Credit: Kia Abdullah)
I finished Take It Back in 2017, but it took an excruciatingly long time to get an agent. Once I managed that, I was offered a two-book deal by HarperCollins and that set me on a course to becoming a full-time novelist. These days, I do far less travel writing. I’m not averse to being wined and dined in exotic locations, but there’s always a book deadline to contend with!
Where do you find inspiration for your novels?
For me, it’s really important to be out in the world and interacting with new people and places. Travel in particular brings a real texture to my writing. There aren’t any grand Agatha Christie-esque journeys in my novels, but I’ve certainly used details that I’ve seen on the road. I might be swimming in the ocean and notice how seaweed looks like a woman’s hair floating in the bath and use that description in fiction, or watch a stranger flick a cigarette and note how the embers skitter across the stone. The pandemic was incredibly difficult because I was suddenly cut off from this wealth of inspiration.
Kia takes inspiration from her travels (Credit: Atlas & Boots)
Tell us about Those People Next Door
Those People Next Door is a thriller in which a small neighbourly dispute turns into a nightmare. It begins when teacher Salma Khatun moves with her family to a safe, suburban street on the outskirts of London. In her first week there, she spots her next-door neighbour, Tom Hutton, knocking out the anti-racist banner that her son put in a plant pot. Salma chooses not to say anything. Her family are new there and she doesn’t want to cause a fuss, so she takes the banner inside and puts it in her window instead – but the next morning she wakes up to find her window covered with paint. This time, she does confront Tom who reacts with hostility. Tension begins to escalate – some of it with racial overtones – and it quickly becomes clear that somebody is going to get hurt.
Kia's latest book (Credit: HarperCollins)
Do you have a favourite author or book?
In terms of literary fiction, my favourite writers are Donna Tartt, Jeffrey Eugenides and Jhumpa Lahiri. In terms of crime, I think Jim Thompson is extraordinary. More recently, Gillian Flynn and S. A. Cosby.
Moving on to your other passion, what made you want to visit Antarctica?
I had a strict religious upbringing which dictated everything about my life: where I went, who I spoke to, how I dressed, what I ate. For me – a reader fuelled by tales of adventure – this was extremely stifling. I dreamt of travelling far and wide and that’s what I did as soon as I left home. I began with places like Paris, New York and Thailand. As I grew in confidence, however, I travelled to less-trodden places like Vanuatu, Tonga, Lesotho and Djibouti.
Kia on the Antarctic continent (Credit: Atlas & Boots)
I had seen about 60 countries across six continents when the opportunity to visit Antarctica came up as a travel assignment. Antarctica felt like the ultimate freedom; a way to finally quell the yearning I felt as a child.
Could you tell us about a stand-out moment from your trip to Antarctica?
There are so many but the most magical was watching a baby humpback whale sleeping off the bow of the ship. I and about a dozen other passengers gathered on deck, all of us hushed to a whisper. We watched this extraordinary creature gently bobbing beside the ship for more than five minutes. The moment had a surreal, filmic quality, like something from an Attenborough documentary. Even the captain came out to watch it. Eventually, the whale woke up. It lingered for a while before diving and disappearing. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
A sleeping humpback whale (Credit: Atlas & Boots)
Do you still have a dream destination you haven't visited?
If you can believe it, I’ve never been to India or Canada! Those are at the top of my list.
What's next for you?
This year is all about writing! Last year, I travelled a lot as a sort of desperate antidote to the pandemic. I went to Antarctica and to Svalbard in the Arctic and over a dozen countries in between. Now that I’ve dealt with my travel withdrawal, it’s all about knuckling down and hitting my next book deadline!
Finally, what’s your favourite species of penguin?
Ha ha. I’m going to say the Little Penguin, the smallest species of penguin. I’m 5’2” so I feel a certain affinity with my fellow diminutive beings.
A little penguin (Credit: ymgerman/Shutterstock)
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