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Maximum Shelf author interview: Kief Hillsbery

Following Wednesday’s review of Empire Made, here’s Kief Hillsbery: Writer as Detective.


Kief Hillsbery is the author of two novels, War Boy and What We Do Is Secret. He is a former contributing editor and columnist for Outside magazine, and a former writer for Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City. His new book is Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 25, 2017.

photo: Tobin Yelland

In Empire Made, you recount your relative Nigel Halleck’s mid-19th-century experiences with the East India Company. How closely were you able to stick to recorded facts, and how did you navigate points of departure?

In the beginning, I envisioned Nigel’s story as part of an account of my own experiences living and traveling in Nepal, Afghanistan and the former British India. I hesitated to make him the focus because of the scarcity of recorded facts about his life there. Very little of his correspondence survived, and what did was fragmentary. I just didn’t think that I had enough material. My ace in the hole was my taste in popular fiction. When I read for pleasure, more often than not I turn to police procedurals: Harry Bosch, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. And the hand dealt to all these detectives at the beginning of each book is the same one dealt to me at the beginning of mine: not enough material. It’s all about accumulating new material through research and analysis, and paying close attention to seemingly trivial details. Ultimately you have enough of it to feel confident in making assumptions that help advance the case, or the narrative. When I felt stuck trying to figure out what was up with Nigel all those misty years ago in India, I often got unstuck by channeling my inner detective.

For example, when Nigel transferred out west to the Punjab from Patna in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War, he was posted to a British headquarters at Jalandhar, about 75 miles east of Lahore. But he first went to Lahore, traveling 150 miles out of his way by horse at the height of the Indian “Hot Weather,” on a post road that was bordered every dozen miles with cemeteries for the interment of Europeans who succumbed to heatstroke. In other words, it wasn’t a detour undertaken lightly. I was stymied in trying to establish why he went to Lahore. It clearly had nothing to do with his new job. At the time, it wasn’t even British territory. All I could do was take my cue from Harry Bosch. When he reached a dead end he invariably went back to his “murder book” and reviewed every piece of evidence collected so far. So I re-read all of Nigel’s surviving letters. And there it was, in an aside written several years before about two friends of his who had been posted to the Punjab. He hoped one day to follow in their footsteps, so he might see for himself in Lahore the Shalimar Gardens of Shah Jahan, patron of the Taj Mahal. So even as I lack recorded facts to back me up, I feel confident in saying that I know why Nigel went to Lahore.

You switch chapters between Nigel’s travels and your own. Was that your strategy from the beginning, or did you have to work into it?

It seems entirely sensible with benefit of hindsight, but it took a lengthy false start to persuade me. I originally conceived of the structure as a mosaic of vignettes, along the lines of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. I’ve always admired what he did with that book. And it seemed like an organic approach for mine. Two mosaic tiles, one in Nepal and one in Afghanistan, ultimately provide the key to unlocking the central mystery of Nigel’s life. To my way of thinking there was also something gemlike about a series of highly polished, standalone vignettes, and precious jewels are part of the story, too. (The British publisher has chosen to title the book The Tiger and the Ruby.) The problem, I discovered, was that vignettes worked against creating narrative momentum. Chatwin didn’t have to worry about that because he wasn’t telling a linear story. I was, and I needed a structure that enabled readers to feel they were progressing towards its conclusion.

I still resisted the idea of alternating between Nigel’s travels and my own, because his were so much more extensive and occupied so much more time. The first complete draft of the book consisted of three parts, with the first telling most of his story and the second focused on my initial efforts to uncover it. A briefer third part braided the two threads together and revealed the outcome. Momentum was still a problem. What finally worked was to just accept that there would be more Nigel chapters and establish a rhythm of interspersing them with my own personal chapters. The trick was to get the two parallel narratives to Nepal in consecutive chapters. Once I managed that, everything seemed to fall into place.

Do you feel catharsis for having partly uncovered this family mystery?

My inquiries into Nigel’s life in India spanned a long period of time, and were pretty casual until I started work on the book. So the emotional connection is a little too attenuated to speak of catharsis. I definitely feel some satisfaction. It’s tempered, though, by nagging questions that will probably always remain unanswerable. The theory that Nigel was some sort of deep-cover British agent was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. But it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility. Then there’s the connection to the Koh-i-noor diamond, which played a central role in stories handed down concerning the years of Nigel’s exile. As unlikely as it seems that he was directly involved, part of me will always wonder if all the generations of smoke didn’t originate in a flicker of historical fire.

What was your favorite part of creating this book?

Since I was immersed in the staid and rather stuffy world of colonial Victorians, it was always delightful to discover the exceptions that proved the rule. There was the wife of the governor-general of India, a titled aristocrat who left him to live in a Bedouin harem. There was the chief magistrate of Calcutta, who took every opportunity to don female attire in public. There was the commander of the East India Company army, who took 13 native wives and led them on evening promenades around the walls of the Red Fort at Delhi, each on the back of her own elephant. Stories like these made me fantasize about stealing a page from Lytton Strachey and writing another book, Less Than Eminent Victorians.


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

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