Beyond Vassar

A New Path in Fiction

By Larry Hertz

It took Amin Ahmad ’89 about a quarter of a century to become an “overnight success” as a novelist. Encouraged by his family to follow his father into the banking business, Ahmad quickly rejected that path after a short internship at a bank. After graduating from Vassar, he earned an architecture degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked as an architect for over a decade, all the while writing short stories, essays, and two novels that remained “in the drawer.” Ahmad, who works under the pen name A.X. Ahmad, started writing full time at the age of 42, and his first published novel, The Caretaker, earned rave reviews last year from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, Booklist, and Library Journal as well as from bestselling authors Richard North Patterson and T. Jefferson Parker.

In a recent conversation with the Vassar Quarterly, Ahmad talked about his journey from a remote boarding school in
the Himalayas to the Vassar campus to his life as a writer of crime fiction. His second book, The Last Taxi Ride, is due out this summer.

1. You’ve received acclaim for your first novel, published 25 years after graduating from Vassar. But before you became a novelist, you were a banker, then an architect. Tell us about that serpentine journey.

I grew up in India, in a family of storytellers. At the end of each day, my aunts and uncles would come home and launch into tall tales—“You won’t believe what happened to me on the way home …” I’ve been listening to stories, and telling them, all my life. In a sense, I’ve always been a writer. It’s just taken me 25 years to discover my own voice and my story.

At Vassar, I was an economics major and intended to be a banker, like my father. One summer I interned at a huge bank in Dubai and hated it. I returned to Vassar, realized I needed a new career, and took art classes. I decided to be an architect, because it seemed artistic, but practical—an important consideration for an immigrant kid. I spent many years practicing architecture, restoring old houses, and building low-income housing.
All this time, I was getting up at dawn to write before work. I completed two novels and many short stories this way, but never published them. A chronic illness ended my career as an architect, so I decided to start a new novel. This time I had the confidence and self-knowledge to get to publication. So I’m back to telling stories. Life has come full circle.

2. Did your experience at Vassar and your previous professions contribute to your success as a writer?

Writing a novel and then convincing someone to buy it requires the ability to face rejection and still stay the course.
At Vassar, I became used to walking into a new discipline where I knew absolutely nothing. I gained the confidence that I could read and write my way into knowledge. I approached writing and publishing the same way: I took evening writing classes, read books about it, and taught myself how to write a novel.

My many years as an architect taught me how to sustain a long creative process. Designing a building takes many tries—it is an iterative, grueling process. Architects try different design approaches, fail, and often go “back to the drawing board.”
When I began writing in earnest, in my early 40s, I brought both these formative experiences to bear.

3. How did you choose Vassar, and what was it like encountering a different culture when you got here?

I went to high school in a boarding school deep in the Himalayan Mountains of Northern India and lived a completely isolated existence there. I chose to apply to Vassar on a whim—somehow I had read a copy of Mary McCarthy’s The Group and the college intrigued me. The open, liberal arts model that Vassar followed appealed to me; it was so different from India, where we were expected to specialize at the age of 15.

Coming to Vassar was a huge shock. I’d been in a boys’ boarding school for six years, wearing a uniform, and suddenly I was surrounded by women. It was even hard to find a men’s restroom in Main! I’d never written a paper before, and I didn’t know how to type. Several of my professors sensed I was lost and took me under their wings: Lilo Stern, Richard Willey, Sandy Thompson. They taught me how to write, invited me to dinner, checked in with me.

4. The main character in The Caretaker—and in your two upcoming novels of the trilogy—is a Sikh immigrant. How did you choose this character?

The first wave of Indian writers in America has already written about the immigrant experience: cultural confusion, the problems of assimilation, of alienation. I did not want to repeat these narratives, so I looked for a new form of storytelling.

Writing a thriller/mystery was very liberating. My protagonist is a former Indian Army captain who has left India in disgrace and is struggling to find his place in America when he becomes accidentally involved in a shadowy political plot. Working within the suspense genre allowed me to explore the immigrant experience, while opening up a whole different world of plot options.

Like me, my protagonist is an immigrant trying to find his place in America. In the first book, he is a caretaker in Martha’s Vineyard, in the second, a cab driver in New York City, and in the third he is running a motel on the border with Mexico.

I chose a Sikh protagonist because, post 9/11, Sikhs have become a flashpoint for the xenophobia and suspicion that underlies our society. I wanted to explore that tension through my fiction.

5. Most novelists have a daily routine. What’s yours?

When asked how I manage to write so much, I reply that I use the ancient Chinese art of tai-ping. (Get it?) I write every day, for four or five hours, at my favorite coffee shop in DC. They see me coming and make me a cup of green tea. I find that the buzz of noise and conversation actually allows me to concentrate, and I don’t feel isolated. By mid-afternoon my brain is usually fried, so then I switch to editing and email and all the stuff an author now has to do. Evenings are for cooking, chatting with my wife, and going for walks. It’s a quiet life, but it works for me. Every time I get frustrated, or feel lost in my writing, I remind myself that I’m not working for a bank, or out on a construction site, wrangling with workers over a faulty concrete pour. I never, ever forget that.

—Interview by Larry Hertz

For more on Ahmad’s work, visit