John’s top tip for aspiring authors: It’s all about the pitch. So many publishers and agents have told me how poorly prepared most pitches are. Don’t skimp on this part of the process and be sure you can follow through and deliver.
John Zubrzycki’s latest book The Mysterious Mr Jacob: Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy (Transit Lounge) tells the extraordinary story of one of the most enigmatic figures of the Raj. His first book The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback, on the misfortunes of the heir to India’s richest state, was a bestseller in Australia and India. For the past two years John has been researching the history of Indian stage magic as part of a doctoral thesis at the University of New South Wales, work that has involved trawling through archives, grimoires and ancient Sanskrit texts. In 2016 he took a troupe of Australian magicians to India and gave talks on a century and a half of conjuring links between the two countries. A former deputy foreign editor at The Australian newspaper, he has a degree in South Asian history and Hindi from the Australian National University and has worked in India as a foreign correspondent, diplomat, consultant and tour guide.
Find out more about John here.
Why do you write? I love a good story and communicating that to people, particularly if it’s a story that hasn’t been told before. To write biography and narrative non-fiction properly you need to get under the skin of your subject, that involves forensic research. There is nothing more satisfying than uncovering a chapter of a person’s life or an event in history that hasn’t been documented before.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I’d be traveling the back blocks of India, along the ancient Silk Road of Central Asia and exploring the great cities of Russia. But I don’t think anyone will pay me to do that. I would find it hard not to be writing about what I saw and the people I’d met.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? I guess I was pretty lucky because I had been a journalist for a couple of decades before I approached a publisher with the idea for my first book, so they could see that I had a track record. I also had one of those one in a lifetime opportunities to document something very unique—a story that spanned continents and epochs, yet was quite contemporary. That was the book The Last Nizam: An Indian Prince in the Australian Outback.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? The research, the interviews, the travel prior to sitting down and writing. And then the response from people if they like what I’ve written. Also touching people’s lives through the stories I’ve uncovered. And of course being invited to writers’ festivals
—the worst? The final lap of editing, cross checking references, re-reading the same material over and over again and being so sick of the process you think what you’ve written is terrible.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I wish I had started earlier in life. There are so many incredible stories out there waiting to be told, and I’ve got ideas for probably another half a dozen books, but it’s hard to make a living as a writer and it takes a lot out of you.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? Don’t be afraid to sell yourself hard in the marketplace.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? These days you don’t just need to be a good writer, you also need to present your work well in public. Maybe that’s not something that has been given to me as advice directly, but it’s something I’ve learnt from successful writers.
It was a scandal that rocked the highest echelons of the British Raj.
In 1891, a notorious jeweller and curio dealer from Simla offered to sell the world’s largest brilliant-cut diamond to the fabulously wealthy Nizam of Hyderabad. If the audacious deal succeeded it would set the merchant up for life. But the transaction went horribly wrong. The Nizam accused him of fraud, triggering a sensational trial in the Calcutta High Court that made headlines around the world.
The dealer was Alexander Malcolm Jacob, a man of mysterious origins. After arriving penniless in Bombay in 1865, he became the most famous purveyor of precious stones in princely India, and a confidante of Viceroys and Maharajas. Jacob also excelled in the magical arts. He inspired all those who met him, including Rudyard Kipling who immortalised him as Lurgan Sahib, the ‘healer of sick pearls’, in his novel Kim.
Now for the first time, John Zubrzycki, author of The Last Nizam, conveys the page-turning colour, romance and adventure of Jacob’s astonishing life. Starting on the banks of the Tigris in modern-day Turkey where Jacob was born, Zubrzycki strips away the myths and legends. He follows Jacob’s journey from the slums of Bombay, to the fabulous court of the Nizam of Hyderabad, from the hedonistic heights of Simla, the summer capital of the Raj, to the Calcutta High Court. This is a story of India, of strange twists and unexpected outcomes.
Most importantly Zubrzycki enters into and truly captures the spirit of the mysterious Mr Jacob, one of the most enigmatic and charismatic figures of his time.
The book is available here.