Harini Nagendra, Internationally Known for her Scholarship on Sustainability, Writes her First Mystery Novel
Harini Nagendra is a professor of ecology at Azim Premji University, and a well-known public speaker and writer on issues of nature and sustainability. She is internationally recognized for her scholarship on sustainability, with honors that include the 2009 Cozzarelli Prize from the US National Academy of Sciences, the 2013 Elinor Ostrom Senior Scholar award, and the 2017 Clarivate Web of Science award for interdisciplinary research in India.
Her non-fiction books include Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future, and two books co-authored with Seema Mundoli–So Many Leaves, and Cities and Canopies: Trees in Indian Cities, which received the 2020 Publishing Next Awards for best English non-fiction book in India, and was featured on the 2021 Green Literature Festival’s honor list. The Bangalore Detectives Club is her first crime fiction novel, and a foray into an alternative life–her mid-life adventure (she’s having way too much fun to consider it a mid-life crisis,).
Harini lives in Bangalore with her family, in a home filled with maps. She loves trees, mysteries, and traditional recipes.
Tell us a little bit about your books. What is the title? Let us know what they are about. Pay particular attention to your most recent book and/or your first book. Focusing on your most recent (or first) book, tell our readers what genre your book is and what popular author you think your writing style in this book is most like.
The Bangalore Detectives Club, my first fiction book, is a light-hearted historical mystery set in 1920s colonial Bangalore. My main protagonist, Kaveri Murthy, is a newly married 19-year-old full of spunk, who loves mathematics, sleuthing, and swimming in a sari. Kaveri is at a dinner in a swanky local club with her husband, when she stumbles across a dead body. When their milkman runs away from the scene of the crime, and a vulnerable woman is implicated, Kaveri is impelled to dive in and set things right. The “Club” refers to a motley mix of characters–Kaveri and her husband Ramu, their inquisitive elderly neighbor Uma Aunty, the milkman’s younger brother Venu, and a few other characters whom I can’t tell you about, because–spoilers!
Against the backdrop of this murder, you can see larger global events gathering force, including the fight for Indian independence from British rule, and women seeking the right to be educated and to vote. It’s a book in the tradition of the Golden Age mysteries, along the lines of an Agatha Christie – but addressing issues of social justice.
And there are recipes–wonderful, traditional recipes for a flavorful South Indian meal, adapted to contemporary conditions so they are also quick and easy to make.
Are you currently working on any writing projects our readers should watch for release soon?
I’m wrapping up final edits on book 2 in The Bangalore Detectives Club series–Murder Under a Red Moon. In this, Kaveri’s acerbic mother-in-law Bhargavi plays a major role. Kaveri has an uneasy relationship with her mother-in-law, who believes that too much studying makes a woman’s brains go soft, and is very uneasy with the fact that her daughter-in-law has now become famous in Bangalore as a woman detective.
Do you have a “real” job other than writing, and if so, what is it? What are some other jobs you’ve had in your life? Have any of your jobs outside of writing influenced your writing?
I am an ecologist and a university professor, with over 30 years of research on the sustainability of forests and cities. I’ve written a number of non-fiction books for adults and children, close to 200 research publications, and do a monthly Sunday newspaper column. Decades of writing have strengthened my writing muscles, and my teaching experience gives me comfort with social media publicity and speaking events. But academic writing needs to be crisp and concise, within a tightly defined word count. I found it very difficult at first to switch gears mentally, and write fiction in a very different, less constrained style and voice. With practice, I now find it comes more easily. People tell me there’s a lot of ecology in my fiction books, and the historical research I do for my academic work is the reason that I elected to write a book set in the 1920s instead of the 2020s – so I guess the two are very tightly interwoven, much more so than I anticipated when I began.
Do you belong to any writing forums or organizations that have helped spur your career as a writer? If so, tell us about them and how they’ve helped you.
I joined Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and both of these have been a treasure house of resources. It’s not easy being a writer based in India, trying to market books to an audience in the UK and USA. I can’t do many of the things that would be useful – like visit independent bookstores, do book signings, in-person author events, attend conferences and meet people. But the wonderful people of SinC and MWA offer so many writer events online, that help me feel connected, as do the email discussions that I get to be a part of. In a SinC Southern California meeting, I connected backstage with Catriona McPherson, whose books I love–she was so incredibly generous to a new writer, offering immediately to write a blurb for me (I hadn’t even thought of blurbs at that point) and connecting me to many other writers including Susanna Calkins, Vaseem Khan and Sujata Massey who also wrote blurbs – as did Rhys Bowen, whom I was fortunate enough to e-meet while taking an online class through SinC. I also joined the Crime Writers of Color, which is such a supportive group again–and one that’s been extraordinarily generous and helpful. These groups help me feel less isolated.
How long did it take you to write your most recent book? When you started writing, did you think it would take that long (or short)?
My first fiction book took forever–or at least, it seemed like forever. I started writing it in 2007, but then completed the draft that went to my agent only in 2019. I then revised it based on her inputs, and it went out on submission in 2020. So it took about 13 years to get that one done. I was on a tight deadline for book 2, and more importantly, I had figured out my own process for getting the book done from start to finish. So I actually finished the first draft of book two in under two months, writing at top speed–and trying to fit it all in between my day job, and some semblance of family life. When I started writing The Bangalore Detectives Club, I was pregnant with my daughter–she’s now a teenager, and gives me plot inputs, which is such fun! I’m actually glad it took this long, so she can now be a part of it.
Is there anyone you’d like to specifically acknowledge who has inspired, motivated, encouraged or supported your writing?
My husband and daughter–they’re my biggest cheerleaders and my best beta readers. I couldn’t do it without them.
It’s said that the editing process of publishing a novel with a publisher is can be grueling and often more difficult than actually writing the story. Do you think this is true for you? How did you feel about editing your novel?
Maybe it’s the academic in me–but I’m so very used to editorial input. Every research paper I write goes to at least two anonymous reviewers, plus an editor–and those comments are often brutal, but also very helpful in improving the quality of the paper. I love getting good feedback. But my editors at Little Brown gave me major structural inputs for the first book. They told me what wasn’t working, and more importantly, they helped me understand why. After signing the contract, I rewrote almost the entire plot based on their feedback, and inputs from my agent Priya Doraswamy. I’m so glad I did–the process made me a much better writer.
Is there anything else you want your readers to know about you? Include information on where to find your books, any blogs you may have, or how a reader can learn more about you and your writing.
You can find more about my books and me at my personal website www.harininagendra.com, and about my research at my university website, https://azimpremjiuniversity.edu.in/people/harini-nagendra. I can also be reached on twitter @HariniNagendra, Instagram @harini.nagendra and Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100008345929330.
Thank you, Harini, for giving the readers an insight into your novels,