Where It All Began: In Conversation with Shuja Nawaz

Has politics always been an area of interest for you? Do you remember any particular time in your childhood when this interest started growing?

Indeed. I developed an interest in world affairs and politics at an early age. My father used to read the newspapers and discuss issues even when I was very young. After he passed away when I was ten years old, my elder brother, then a young army officer, shared his books with me and allowed me to purchase on his account at the London Book Company in Rawalpindi. We are an old military family. So history, military affairs, and of course, politics were always on my list of books. Though, and thank God for that, a heavy dose of poetry and fiction also helped feed the soul. Working in Pakistan Television on news and current affairs programs helped me see history being made, up close and in person.

What is your writing process like? One often hears of writers getting into a zone when writing about a certain topic, is that how you write, or is it in bits and pieces?

My wife will tell you that I can be very disciplined when it comes to writing. I work in one spot in a room that has a lot of table space for a mess of books and files in open topped boxes, arranged by chapter per my outline. Being a habitual early riser, I use the first few hours of the day, when the mind is rested and recharged, to do a lot of my work. It also makes the day longer and productive for me. A break for exercise and breakfast helps fuel the process. The six-day writing week is divided into planning, reading, note taking and then the actual writing. I work directly on my computer and sometimes forget to take breaks for mid-day meals. At one point, rather embarrassingly, I stood up a former US ambassador to Pakistan whom I had invited to my club for lunch for an interview because I started writing in the morning and did not break till 4 PM. My phone was switched off. And the door to my writing room closed.

Fortunately, he was very gracious in accepting my abject apology and we rescheduled the interview for later. It pays to have understanding friends and colleagues!

Which bit about bringing a book to its fruition is the most exciting for you?

At heart I remain a journalist. So the reporting is the most exhilarating part. I learn to pick up direct and indirect information. If the material is not in the main text, it sometimes makes for interesting footnotes!

You learn to listen and pick up leads in that process. Polite but firm questions are needed. Persistence pays off.  And using an indirect approach sometimes helps when you hit a dead end or face stonewalling. Always triangulate the information. Since some folks will shave or bend the truth, as they see it. Like a good lawyer, it helps to research the topic as much as possible so you have the answers to many questions that you ask. It helps keep things honest. In The Battle for Pakistan, I was very lucky in that everyone I approached for an interview was known to me because of my work on policy issues since 2008 in the United States and Pakistan. There was a level of established trust. Most people agreed to interviews on the record. Where the few interviewees went off-the-record, I resorted to triangulation to verify information.

As cliché as it might sound, what inspires you to write?

The desire to seek truth or the nearest approximation to it, so we can collectively learn from our past and avoid mistakes in the future. I remain committed to Waging Peace and see conflict as an aberration. Some of my friends disagree with this approach. Some even call it naive.  But I am stubborn in this missionary quest though the final product must be offered with a dose of humility and modesty.  Readers must make the final judgment.


 

Shuja Nawaz’s latest book, The Battle for Pakistanuntangles the complex US-Pakistan relationship in the past decade, with an aim to identify a path forward.

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