Coming of the amazing success of his first novel, Agency Rules – Never an Easy Day at the Office, Khalid Muhammad is putting the final touches on his second spy thriller, Scorched Earth, based in Pakistan. Khalid is Pakistan’s first internationally recognized English language spy thriller author and has started a new level of conversation about Pakistan and its history with the Taliban and terror groups. Recently, I had the honour to sit down again with the man behind the bestselling Agency Rules series and got a little sneak peek about his upcoming novel. Following are excerpts of the interview:

How did you find the process of writing the second book, Scorched Earth?

With all the research that I did for the Agency Rules series, I found when I sat down to write the story itself, it just flowed out of me like I had personally lived each moment of it. Scorched Earth was much the same. Since it was the continuation of the story, I was able to carry some of the characters forward and add some new ones for spice and substance. Agency Rules picks up from the return of the Mujahideen to Pakistan after the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan and lays the basis for where the nation’s problems originated from. With Scorched Earth, we are moving from the late 1990s to the mid 2000s, so we will see a military government installed, a major global terrorist attack and the ramp up of terrorism-related activities in Pakistan.

Did you do further research for this book or you depended on the previous research?

I did need to do some additional research for the new book because of the topics that are discussed. We are exposing the terrorist training networks, the methodologies and the recruitment tactics. You’ll actually get to see an innocent turned into a die-hard suicide bomber. Scorched Earth will take the reader on an adventure into the unseen, the unknown and the downright fearful things that are done by terrorists and intelligence operatives to keep the country safe in these changing times.

Precisely, how long did it take you to write your first draft?

When I wrote Agency Rules, the actually writing process took about 8 months. Then, as any writer knows, it goes through a professional editor, a beta readers group that provides feedback and repeats until the author, editor and publisher are happy with the final novel. With Scorched Earth, the process was a little quicker, in that it took 6 months to write the first draft. From editing to printer, the process has run us about 8 months. Now, we are all happy with the final novel and are awaiting its release.

Did the plot or an outline of this novel was already in your mind or you decided it after the overwhelming feedback of Agency Rules?

That’s an interesting question. Agency Rules isn’t like most novels because it is actually based in our own national history, with some fictionalization. So when we talk about plots and outline, my focus was more on which events are discussed/highlighted and how to make sure that the realism of the story isn’t lost in the process. But, I can tell you this much, after the bestseller status that Agency Rules attained globally, I was very nervous about the new book. It’s one thing to be an unknown author and write a great book, but when you are following up on the success attained previously, the standard is significantly higher and I had to spend more time getting the story to the next level for my readers and fans. I don’t want to disappoint those who I write for, which is part of the reason I am so active with my readers on social media and other forums.

What is the significance of the title?

I wanted to keep a military naming theme with all the books in the Agency Rules series. Agency Rules itself was a take on Moscow Rules, a commonly know intelligence term for going completely off book with tactics and operations. Scorched Earth is another military term that refers to the complete destruction of anything that the enemy can use against you. It’s a level of brutality that we see with the terrorist organizations that are currently fighting within the country. They want to strike fear into the citizens’ heart so that they don’t have any resistance in achieving their goals. Scorched Earth is the military response to their strategy – the complete and total destruction of anything that the terrorists can use – much like what Zarb-e-Azb has been.

On what mission Kamal is in this new book?

Kamal’s mission hasn’t fundamentally changed, but his tactics have. In Agency Rules, the reader watched as he developed from a precision sniper into an intelligence operative that was conflicted within his own psyche. Scorched Earth sees Kamal moving from an operative level to a handler. Not only is he undercover, but he is running his own team of intelligence operatives within different terror camps. There are so many different shades that emerge from the camps and Kamal must collate, understand and turn information into intelligence for his commanders in the ISI. Additionally, Kamal must work within the structure of the terror group to keep anyone from suspecting him as a deep cover intelligence operative.

In Agency Rules, Kaleem was a major character. Is he present in this book or some other character has taken his place?

Ah, Kaleem… I really liked creating him as a character. He gave us so many different perspectives into the people that are part of these groups and how they got there. Kaleem is in the new book, along with a few new characters that will make your skin crawl. I can’t really say more than that without giving away part of the story.

Agency Rules end on a mystery: “No Sir, I think we have a CIA operative in our custody, not an asset.” Is this mystery going to be solved in this book or the story will take start from somewhere else?

Yes is the answer to your question.

What are your expectations for this book?

Expectations? I didn’t expect the first book to do so well, so I am thinking that keeping my expectations out of this is a better plan to follow. I want readers to enjoy the stories that I write. They are a reflection of us so they are easy to identify with and give us a dangerously close perspective of what we could have been with a few more wrong decisions.

Why should we read your second book?

It will expose the terrorist mindset and operations, it will help you understand how intelligence services operate since most don’t have any idea and it will give the reader a deep look into the journey this nation has experienced since the early 1990s. Much like Agency Rules, the military speak has been kept to a minimum so that all readers can enjoy it, but the focus is Pakistan and terrorism.

Finally, when the Scorched Earth will be in the hands of Agency Rules’ fans?

Scorched Earth should hit the bookstores in Pakistan and around the world around the middle of November. When we published Agency Rules, we were looking at an international audience primarily for the readership, which worked out quite well, but we saw significant demand coming from Pakistani readers. Agency Rules came to Pakistan almost 8 months after the rest of the world had it. Well, I should say legally came to Pakistan since there were a few industrious printers that bought the book from Amazon and re-printed it without our approval for the Sunday bazaars and second-hand bookstores. This time, it’s a simultaneously global release so we are really excited with the potential.