Author:tamraparni dasu

All that sexy data



It is no secret that I am addicted to data. I love numbers almost as much as I love writing. These days even political campaigns and nonprofit foundations are all agog about using “data science”. In fact, Paul Rudnick wrote in 2012 that statisticians were the new sexy vampires. So, in the spirit of the Age of Data, I thought I’d spice up my writing career through some thoroughly unscientific experiments with data.

***Disclaimer: The discussion in this blog post is based solely on the study of my website Tamraparni Dasu and my Facebook author site, and cannot be generalized. 

Typically, after the initial burst of energy that accompanies a book release, things get alarmingly quiet. If you are not Salman Rushdie or Jonathan Franzen, your book will wither and fade and ultimately go to rest in the graveyard of books. Unless you keep giving it little vitamin shots, which by the way, are not guaranteed to keep it breathing. The hope is that you keep it limping along until your next book comes along and it’s buzz will drag along the earlier book and so on until you make it to the New York Times’ best seller list. Easy!

The two-part question, therefore, is, what are these vitamin shots and how do we measure their effectiveness?

A vitamin shot is any action that could potentially increase the number of people who know about your book. Publicizing your book is the only thing you can control–you can’t make people buy your book, nor can you make them read it. Author events at libraries and book stores, articles in magazines and newspapers are real world actions; online giveaways, discounts, posting to social media networks, getting mentioned in popular blogs are online actions. And of course, getting picked up by a book club like Oprah’s is the ultimate vitamin shot that gives you and your book eternal life.

A vitamin shot is effective if it drives traffic to your website because the number of visits to your website is a proxy for the number of people that now “know” about your book. Facebook Insights, Google Analytics and almost all website hosting services provide ways of tracking traffic through your website. They grab “eyeballs” that wander over to your website and categorize and count them by time of day, day of week, age, gender, location, referring websites, and how long they perused your website and which pages on your site they spent most time on. In general, all data are anonymized and aggregated so that no personal information is revealed.

When I started examining the data provided by Facebook Insights and Google Analytics, there were two things that surprised me. First, a lot of traffic comes from websites ending in “dot ru”, scam sites based in Russia, presumably. Do they, as a matter of principle, trawl every website on the Internet (probably!), or was there something particularly alluring about my website? Second, my most popular post BY FAR, was A Thinking Woman’s Spy and I still can’t figure out why. Was it the pretty flower? Did the international spy community suddenly take an interest? Or was it the use of the words “thinking” and “woman”, that too in the same sentence? Very curious.

In my next post, I will describe some of my other experiments.

(***I would like to give a shout out to my friend and writer,  Spencer Seidel, for getting me thinking along these lines; also, to Tara Sarath, for suggesting that I should post on this subject.)






Strange bedfellows



Last week, I had a very strange experience. I had been working on a scientific paper and had spent the whole day worrying about experiments and their accuracy. That night, I sat down for my usual nightly ritual of fiction writing.

I wrote: “Furthermore,” Stephen said to Nina”. At that point I had to stop. I checked what I had written, and to my horror found “Therefore”, “Thus” and “In addition” sprinkled throughout the dialog. I was afraid to go back and check the paper I had been writing. But I had to, and there it was…I had described a diagram as “graceful”. I had no choice but to stop writing fiction…yes, I mean the novel…until I had finished my paper.

Traditionally, scientific writing favored passive voice narration in order to remain impersonal and objective, although that is changing now. The emphasis was on being clinical, impartial and precise in the service of science. Every statement had to be supported with evidence, either in the form of a theoretical proof or exhaustive empirical corroboration.

In fiction, the more personal you get, the more powerful the story. It’s about breaking down walls and inhibitions and getting right inside a person’s head. And, you are allowed, actually required, to make things up. Which I find to be the most liberating part of writing fiction.

Yet, as I had mentioned in my interview, my scientific training has helped me think clearly about my characters and articulate their innermost thoughts. Most of all, the minimalism of mathematics has been a huge help while writing and editing my manuscript. I am still working on this skill and I hope that readers can see it in the evolution of my style from novel to novel.

Science and romance, odd but happy bedfellows.






Researching the spy stuff


Many readers have asked me–how did you research spy material for the novel? Unlike John le Carre or Graham Greene, I have no background in this field. But there is no shortage of information.

Before I explain, I’d like to debunk one popular piece of advice: write what you know. The problem is that 99% percent of human experience is common, and things would be pretty boring if I wrote about data mining and Big Data (my area of expertise) or the immigrant experience (my personal story) which has been flogged to death by every immigrant who ever picked up a pen (or keyboard). We would never have Tarzan if Edgar Rice Burroughs stuck to writing about what he knew–pencil sharpeners.

In terms of research, newspaper headlines are a gold mine. For instance, the terrorist attack in the novel is based on the real life attack on the Taj in Mumbai in November, 2008. The attack was scouted by an informant and double-agent named David Headley who is the inspiration for the character of Sid Ali. We will learn more about Sid and his motivations in the next two parts of the trilogy. And, the hero’s encounter with the nasty photographer in Goa is similar to the Raymond Davis incident in Lahore. Davis was a CIA contractor who got into an altercation with the locals and the US government had to pay a settlement to secure his release.

Other references include:  Spycraft by Robert Wallace and H. Keith Melton; The Reluctant Spy, by Jack Kiriakou.

For me personally, the biggest and most important source of inspiration was reading the literary classics in this genre. And, Alec Guinness as George Smiley. Sorry, Gary Oldman.





An Evening at Kemmerer Library



I was nervous–would I have to read an excerpt? What if I was heckled? But Lotte Newlin, director of Kemmerer Library of Harding, assured me that the evening would be a lot of fun.

She was right. A wine and cheese gathering by the fireside turned into a warm and lively discussion about writing, publishing and the joys of reading. And before long the conversation turned to Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and the enigma machine. We even discussed a plot (proposed by Martin) for a thriller set in a library!

It was a fun evening and a wonderful experience connecting with fellow book lovers. I deeply appreciate the encouragement and kindness of Kemmerer Library community members who came out in the cold and rain to talk to me and extend their support and best wishes.

Thank you, Lotte, for organizing it.

Photo credit: Kristin


Spy, Interrupted featured in Harding Township Living


Thanks to Eugina Smith of Harding Township Living for featuring Spy, Interrupted: The Waiting Wife in the March 2015 issue!

The entire process was so much fun. It started with a chat with Eugina over terrific homemade cookies that she’d brought so graciously. Then came the photo shoot with Countryside Studios on a freezing February day. Just getting the equipment inside the house was difficult given the layers of compacted ice and snow (which are yet to melt, a month later!), but Adrienne and her team made it easy and stress-free.

Thanks HTL, for the support and encouragement. Read the article in its entirety by clicking on its image above.


Spy, Interrupted: The Waiting Wife


Gabo’s women


Ever wonder what makes Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s love stories so compelling? It’s the women. They are powerful-sometimes ornery, sometimes sweet, practical at times but infatuated to the point of madness at others, always strong and enduring, even in death.

The heroine of Spy, Interrupted: The Waiting Wife shares some of those traits. Granted, she is more cautious and even-keeled, but these traits seem to desert her when she meets Stephen Edward James. Like Gabo’s heroines, once she falls in love, she follows her heart through some pretty trying times. That’s not an easy feat, given her lover’s volatile temperament and general moodiness. She argues with him, fights with him, throws tantrums and even threatens to walk away, but through it all, he and she both know that they have an undying affection and respect for each other. By the end of the novel, she helps Stephen emerge from his emotional wasteland and turn into an almost likable human being.

I wonder if they will be able to keep it going?

“Tell him yes. Even if you are dying of fear, even if you are sorry later, because whatever you do, you will be sorry all the rest of your life if you say no.” — Love in the Time of Cholera


A thinking woman’s spy



George Smiley, as those of you familiar with le Carre already know, is an amazing man. He is supremely intelligent, a philosopher and gentleman, kind yet ruthless and unrelenting when pursuing the bad guy. And, completely clueless when it comes to his philandering wife. He longs for her affection in vain. He deserves better.

I wanted the hero of Spy, Interrupted: The Waiting Wife to have a phenomenal relationship with his wife, and have the emotional security and love that George Smiley craved. But how do you get a cynical and hardened man like Stephen Edward James to fall for a girl? The answer lies in his history.

Stephen  is a victim of his past. His mother was faithless and drove his father to suicide. Stephen doesn’t know it, but he is in search of a woman who has two traits that he prizes above all: loyalty and love. The realization dawns on him the first time he meets Nina. So, despite being somewhat of a cold fish, he plunges in.

His spy intuition proves right. His impulsive romance and marriage to Nina is the best thing that ever happened to him and brings warmth and joy back into his life. Nina takes “stand by your man” to new extremes. And, she is smart, competent and wants to change the world just like him, but through kinder, gentler means.

Lucky him!