Acclaimed author Amina Akhtar’s fiercely funny and twisty new thriller, Kismet, is a razor-sharp takedown of Sedona’s crystal-hugging wellness community. It’s also the thought-provoking story of Ronnie Khan: a young, self-effacing Pakistani-American woman who follows her seemingly perfect best friend, Marley, into the desert on a quest for self-improvement that turns toxic. With wicked gurus, mean girls, nasty aunts, chatty ravens, and a whole lot of murder, Kismet will keep you on the edge of your seat as you race to its startling conclusion.
“Amina teleports us to the passive-aggressive front lines in this dry landscape where caftans and corpses are equally foreboding. You want Ronnie to make a run for it, but she’s a real hero – she wants to make a go for it.” –Caroline Kepnes, New York Times best-selling author of You
“Kismet is funny, sharp, twisty, and spot on. Whether she’s dealing with toxic relationships or everyday racism, Ronnie Khan is a character that you can’t help but root for.” –Kellye Garrett, Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty Award–winning author of Like a Sister
I was thrilled to speak with Amina about the inspiration for those ravens and so much more in her dark and delicious new novel.
Emily: Your first novel #FashionVictim (which I loved) was a hilarious and chilling take down of the fashion world. With Kismet you take aim at the wellness community in Arizona with equally funny and frightening results. What inspired you to set Kismet in Sedona?
Amina: Well, I moved out to the Sedona area (I’m about 20 miles away) and thought it would be a wasted opportunity to not set a book out here. The setting is just so incredibly beautiful but also really wild. A huge change from NYC!
Kismet is chilling and thrilling but also deliciously and darkly funny. What are some of the rewards and challenges of mixing humor with murder?
I think it’s easier on the reader to have a bit of humor when tackling issues or murder. But from a writer’s perspective, it just makes writing more fun if you’re making yourself laugh while you write. Otherwise, it can be a bit of a slog you know?
I loved those ravens. They remind me of Hitchcock’s The Birds—if those birds could talk. They’re creepy, but they’re also truthtellers with a warning for us all. How did you come up with them and what made you decide to make them POV characters?
Ok so this is where I get a little woo-woo. I live on a mountain, and I often see wild animals more than people. (There’s a coyote who’s decided he lives here now so that’s fun.) We have so many birds but the ravens are incredible. They’re giant and beautiful and funny and such characters. And I was trying to think of how to convey the wildness that’s here. I was on my driveway, walking and a raven had dropped one beautiful, black feather. To me that was a sign that yes, I needed to included them in the book.
Ronnie goes from living with an abusive aunt in a Pakistani community in Queens, where she struggles with cultural traditions that often silence her, to a wellness community in Sedona that silences her, even as it appropriates her culture. I’m totally cheering her on as she finds her voice and fights back. What would you say to a Pakistani American woman or any young women struggling to find her herself in a community that doesn’t seem to have a place for her?
I always joke that my audience is made of other ABCDs—American Born Confused Desis. I think a lot of immigrants feel this: we have a foot in each world, and sometimes we don’t belong in either. I think it’s important to find your people, whether they’re part of your culture or not. And I also don’t think it’s necessary to run from your culture like Ronnie did. (And to be frank, I did, too.) I think once you figure out who you are you’re better able to find your people.
Second novels can be notoriously difficult to write. Tell me about your writing journey for Kismet.
It was brutal. I think I rewrote this from scratch about five or six times. Like fully just threw the book out and started over. Some versions were first person, some weren’t. I just wasn’t sure how to do it. I kept thinking what if that first book had been a fluke? And what if this one is so different that the readers don’t like it? And you have to shut all that out. Just turn off that voice that’s making you not move forward and try to tell the story the best way you can. And it took over two years for this one to even come together.
Kismet has a twisty plot that keeps you guessing and gasping along the way. That isn’t easy to pull off. Are you a plotter or a pantser?
A bit of both. I’m trying to be better at plotting. I’m in a writing group with plotters, so they make me want to be better at that. But often, the first draft of my books I have to let unfold as it wants. The little things that make me happy with my books usually come not from plotting, but from letting my mind wander. But for the third book which I’m currently doing edits on, I’m fully plotting and have an excel sheet set up and everything!
I want to see Kismet on the screen. It reminds me of one of my favorite movies: Clueless, only with murder! Who plays Ronnie in the movie or series?
That’s tricky because there aren’t that many desi actresses known in Hollywood besides, say, Mindy Kaling. (Who I love!) But I think Ronnie would have to be an unknown to Hollywood actress.
What are some of your favorite reads?
I just finished Sandra Wong’s In the Dark We Forget. I loved the commentary about how Asians are treated and fetishized. I also loved Jennifer Hillier’s new one: Things We Do in the Dark. And of course, Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett and Secret Identity by Alex Segura are must reads. Love them.
What are you working on now?
My next book takes on the folklore and superstition from my family. It’s about a woman who’s haunted but no one believes she is, not even her. And it also looks at assimilating in the U.S., and how no matter how much we assimilate, it’s never enough.
Amina Akhtar is a former fashion writer and editor. Her satirical first novel, #FashionVictim, drew rave reviews and acclaim and was covered in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Martha Stewart Living, Entertainment Weekly, Fashionista, Book Riot, CrimeReads, and more. Akhtar’s new book Kismet takes on the world of wellness and all the crystals that go with it. This #OwnVoices novel is set in Sedona, Arizona, where nature is just as much a character as anyone else.
Akhtar has worked at Vogue, Elle, the New York Times, and New York Magazine, where she was the founding editor of the women’s blog The Cut. She’s written for numerous publications, including Yahoo Style, Fashionista, xoJane, Refinery29, Billboard, and more. She currently lives not too far from the Sedona vortexes. Kismet is her second novel. Learn more here, or on Twitter.