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Banker-turned-writer Ravi Subramanian talks about his latest book, the first ever bitcoin-thriller, God is a Gamer, and the life of a writer of commercial fiction
Part of a new wave of popular writers post Chetan Bhagat, Ravi Subramanian spent almost 20 years in the financial services industry and then authored a host of thrillers about bankers and banking, including two Crossword Book Award winners, The Incredible Banker and The Bankster. As the world continues to decide how to embrace bitcoin, a system of payment popularised by and on the Internet, he wrote a book set in the very middle of the strange new world of digital currency, this summer. Subramanian speaks to Open about virtual and literal success, and where the two meet.

Tell us about God is a Gamer and the reason you chose bitcoin.

The idea of the first ever bitcoin thriller is doubleedged as it might put off some people who get intimidated by the whole bitcoin thing. I’m getting a lot of interest from the US to figure out what the book is about; I got an invitation to speak in New York about bitcoin, from the Bitcoin Merchants Association. The gaming background here came from research: I did a fair bit of reading on bitcoin etc and tried to incorporate this into the book. The film rights have been optioned to Viacom.

Any unfinished business with this complicated modern subject?

There was a Turkey element but it got too complicated, I had to drop it. There will be another book set in Turkey. I’m extremely interested in what’s happening in northern Turkey, the Kurdish elements.

How do you plan your books?

I keep my chapters and pages short. The reader’s psyche is such that they think: okay, two pages left, I’ll finish the chapter. That’s what you call a pageturner! If the reader finishes 200 pages he feels wow about the experience. Ashwin Sanghi’s books have a bigger font. Readers will turn pages faster.

Any other tricks of the trade?

When the book is dragging a bit, kill someone, shock someone. It’s very easy to do—the trick is to do it classily. And Indian audiences like relatable stories. People internationally take a small incident that is blown up big. In India, there are multiple storylines, lots happening in the book. My style is plot intensive.

What did the big breakthrough with If God Was a Banker feel like? What was the reception of this and your other books on finance?

Publishers were opening up to new writers, and it was the right time. In some foreign banks, this book was photocopied because people thought it was the real story of a foreign bank. It was banned in some places. After seven years it is (If God Was a Banker) still remembered a lot. I think there is a fair bit of acceptance for true stories in the Indian market. People like to read something that happened to fellow people.

It was a nice little necklace of a story. The book became a success. That kind of made one greedy, made one aspire for more. I wanted only to write that book. If it had not been so successful, I often ask myself if I would have continued writing. It opened up a new reader base for me. It opened up a new base of financial thrillers in this country.

What is it like coming face to face with a reader?

I was quite surprised, I was at a dinner with multinational bankers and all their spouses had read my book, though they hadn’t. Given that I am a banker and the book has lots of true stories about bankers, the family wants to know what exactly happens in a financial institution.

A lot of people come and tell me “I want to talk to you and tell you my experiences, so you can use these in your next book.” It has made people conscious of the fact that anything they say can make it into my book. And yes, an author has antennae up all the time.

Is there a rapport between writers of popular fiction in India?

Everyone hangs out. In corporate life, you will have to step over a peer to get to the tip. It can be different in this world. Amish Tripathi and Ashwin Sanghi came up with the idea of sharing the stage, for events. We feed off each other; we know we won’t eat into each others’ readers,

Someone accused us of talking like banias the other day. If we spend time writing a book, we have to spend time promoting the book too. When we finish writing it becomes a business.

And is there ever a feeling that literary writers can’t handle this?

As Lee Child said, the snobbery of the literary guys is nothing but barnacles on my boat. At the end of the day, how does it matter. When I walk into a store I see that respect in the eyes of the guys at the store. Most of the guys who pretend to be literary fiction guys – how does it matter to us? The ultimate test of a book is the adulation of the reader.

What are your goals now, in terms of numbers and writing?

Children’s books, I want to do one at some point. Kids have the shortest attention span, it can be difficult. I admire writers like Rick Riordan, the creator of the Percy Jackson series.

The Indian market is big but 90 per cent of the readers in this country read romance. We sold 350,000 copies of If God Was a Banker. To really rack it up and move into a bigger space, you have to have multiple books in a year or go international. Penguin took me international: my books are available in Australia and the UK , translated into Latvian.

I read David Ballachi, Grisham, Jeffrey Archer: all thriller writers, partly for fun and partly to learn. We have yet to sell like that, big numbers, millions of sales. I’m happy to sell 175,000 to 200,000. Two million is a number up in the air.