“Rupee Millionaires” by Frank Kusy is a fascinating and highly entertaining life story of a London trader and life artist and his travels, business ventures, friends and life philosophy at home and abroad.
Written with great wit, humour, realism and honesty this is a reflective travel memoir that reads smoothly and easily and will make you think as well as smile.
Be warned, there are some adult themes and ‘language’. Very enjoyable.
Dodgy Frank Kusy, born into poverty from immigrant parents, learns to live on his wits––first as an unwitting money collector for Ronnie Kray, later as a Buddhist trader in London’s St Martin’s-in-the-Fields market.
Then he meets up with thuggish ‘Spud’ who is so good at scaring people, notably the Petrovs, two encroaching Russian gangsters, that he hires him on the spot as his business partner.
It’s a deal with the Devil. Spud is a loose cannon, liable to blow up at any moment. The two travel to India to become the largest wholesaler of hippy-Hindi glad rags in the UK, and to fulfil their dream of becoming rupee millionaires.
Along the way, they pick up a motley crew of kooky characters––Ram, a lovable, crutch-bound Rajasthani, George, an irascible American, Nick and Anna, a quirky Canadian couple, Susie, a Dagenham girl gone ‘native’, and Rose, the secret love of Ram’s life. These become the ‘Pushkar Posse’, a group of oddball traveller-entrepreneurs who meet once a year to have fun and make money in equal measure.
Join Frank on this wild rite of passage through India.
Strangely enough, I came to writing through cats. I’ve always loved cats and was inspired by one of Paul Gallico’s cat books to (at the tender age of eight) write one of my own. It was called ‘Jessie the Cat’ and even my mum liked it.
How did you come up with your stories?
I’ve always been gifted (sometimes cursed!) with a lively imagination, so fiction was the obvious way to go. My second book, penned on a series of bus journeys to school when I was eleven, was a sequel to my all-time fave children’s book, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame. This one was called ‘Toad’s Dilemma’, and surprise surprise my mum liked that one too. But then I entered Jesuit college and my artistic bent was snuffed out like a candle for seven long years. It was only when I got to India, aged 30, that I really began writing again. I didn’t have to come up with any stories in India – they poured out in a flood to me. And it was this encounter with a strange and foreign land, where every picture told a story and where just about anything could happen and often did, that I veered away from fiction and wrote my first non-fiction book, the diary-travelogue ‘Kevin and I in India’. It described four months of privation and self-torture travelling India like Gandhi – third class, no luxury hotels or comfortable transport for us! – but alongside the suffering were times of great joy and humour which I hoped readers might pick up on and make them want to go to this vibrant, madcap and thoroughly exhilarating country themselves. My good luck was that it was mainstream published in 1986, and was followed by a string of travel guides covering India, Nepal, Thailand and half of South-East Asia. These kept me in writing work for nearly 20 years.
You have created great characters. Which one is your favourite?
Oh, that’s easy. When I returned to non guidebook writing in 2009, following a bad accident which stopped my travels stone dead, I sat down and wrote ‘Ginger the Gangster Cat.’ Ginger was my favourite creation – a selfish, vainglorious, pompous and very, very greedy cat with a heart of gold. I based him on Toad from the ‘Wind in the Willows’, though his cockney language and bad-tempered ways were also based on my ex-business partner ‘Spud’, who is the psycho-genius villain of my flagship memoir, ‘Rupee Millionaires’.
Who would you cast to play the characters in a movie?
Ginger and Spud could be played by only one person in the film industry: a young and bullish Ray Winstone.
Are you like any of the characters (and how so)?
I have a birthday card which depicts a hungry-looking Ginger alongside my grinning face. It says ‘Frank was always aware of his alter ego’. I guess I’m more like Ginger than I’d like to admit – his search for “sausages or enlightenment” in his second book, ‘Ginger the Buddha Cat’, mirrors my own battle against food (in particular, sausages) in favour of becoming a lighter person!
Were the plot and subplots completely planned from the start or did they change during the process, and if so, how?
I’m an intuitive writer. That means I sit on a story for a long time, mull over all the plots and sub-plots, and then, when I feel “the time is right” I sit down and write a few chapters in a mad flurry of activity. I very rarely change a story once it’s down.
What is your main reason for writing?
Good question. I had to sit on this one for a long time too. I guess it’s the wish to express myself, to express my view of the world being essentially an absurd place full of absurd but potentially humorous situations, plus the wish or need to entertain my readers. At the core of all my writings is to pass on the message of Buddhism – that world peace is worth striving for, and that is only obtainable by each person doing their human revolution and nurturing the person right in front of them.
What is the idea behind your series?
You’ve read ‘Off the Beaten Track: My Crazy Year in Asia’, haven’t you, Chris? Well, that’s my newest one, I wrote it to bridge the gap between ‘Kevin and I’, which is set in 1985, and ‘Rupee Millionaires’, which runs from 1990 to 2000. People kept asking me what happened to Kevin, and how did I get into the hippy-dippy export business depicted in Rupees. 1989, when Off the Beaten Track takes place, was the most adventurous and exhilarating year of my life, the most emotionally confusing too. I suppose the idea of the series is to show how a fundamentally flawed Buddhist had his eyes opened to the world through travel – and developed compassion and understanding for others. Though it was only when I broke my leg 10 years ago, and stopped thinking about money and business, that this finally took place. The stories of ‘Joe and Madge’ in my ‘He ain’t Heavy, He’s my Buddha’ book plot my progress from being a rather bad, and rather fat, Buddhist into some semblance of a good one.
What are the best and the worst aspects of writing?
The best aspect, for me, are having those ‘eureka’ moments when you just know you have a winning idea or a perfect phrase. The worst aspect is when you have to leap out of bed three or four times in the night to write them down before you forget them. Oh, and of course, there’s the dreaded ‘writer’s block’. I had one of those for 12 years once. It was horrid.
How do you balance marketing one book and writing the next?
This is the most difficult trick for a writer to pull off. I remember when I was mainstream published with traditional houses, all the marketing was taken care of and I had all the time in the world to get on with writing the next one. Those days are gone. Nowadays, every writer, even traditionally published ones, has to do at least some of their own marketing. That means a chunk of time on twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms every day – if one is to keep the momentum of a book going. Then there’s plugging to big advertising mailing lists like ENT (ERreader News Today) and BookBub, with the constant hope/fear of being accepted/rejected. And if that is not enough, there is GoodReads, Google+ and read swaps with other writers to provide thoughtful reviews which give at least some sense of having read their books. It’s all about reciprocity – treating other writers as colleagues, not as competition. But when all’s said and done, I do try and put at least an hour a day into writing my next project – I owe myself that much at least!
What do you do when you don’t write?
I have a pretty sedate life now that I am 60. I get my mind off of writing (and social media) by going down the gym three or four times a week. I find that very therapeutic. I also play bridge with little old ladies every Wednesday, and attend Buddhist meetings at local people’s houses. I still sell the Indian jewellery and handicrafts through which I made my ‘rupee millions’ when I was younger, but only to a few shops now – my next buying trip to India, this April, may well be my last. Oh, and I do try to do an hour’s Buddhist chanting in the mornings, that makes my day go with a swing.
Tell us one odd thing about you and one really mundane thing.
Odd thing? Well, I have OCD big-time. I can’t concentrate on a thing if I spot a fluff on the carpet. It has to go. Mundane thing? Hmm…I don’t do mundane. Except that I watch a game show called ‘Deal or no Deal’ each day on the telly. This has some Joe Public opening boxes at random for an hour and hoping the last one contains 250 thousand quid. Yes, I guess you could call that mundane.
What else would you like us to know about yourself and your books?
Nothing, really. My life is an open book, and if you open my books, you’ll find my life. I try to follow the maxim of my mentor Daisaku Ikeda, who says: ‘Creativeness means pushing open the heavy door to life. This is not an easy struggle. Indeed, it may be the hardest task in the world. For opening the door to your own life is more difficult than opening the door to the mysteries of the universe.’
Who are your editors and how do you quality control your books?
I was an editor myself, at the Financial Times in London, so I pretty much edit my own stuff. Though I do have a small trusty team of beta readers who pick up the odd nit or challenge the odd phrase. Oh, and of course there’s my German wife Andrea, who is the acid test of all my writing. She doesn’t say much – usually just ‘That’s good’ or ‘that’s rubbish’ – but she is always spot on in her observations. I couldn’t do without her.
How have you found the experience of self-publishing? What were your highs and lows?
Self publishing has been a steep learning curve for me. For one thing, while I have always been good at selling “stuff” (I ran a successful market stall for 3 years, then an international wholesaling business in hippy glad-rags), I have never been good at selling myself. That all changed in 2009, when I started writing again after a long lay-off and found no mainstream publisher would take me on any more. Amazon had squeezed them so tight, they weren’t prepared to take the risk. Or my books weren’t so good? Anyway, I loaded them all up on the Harper Collins’ Authonomy site, got my confidence back with four gold medals, and then loaded them one by one onto Kindle. I was dreading this, even had a dream where they all got swept away and sunk to the bottom of the Amazon river. But I got a lot of help from friends I’d made on Authonomy, teamed up with three of them to form Grinning Bandit books – which now has a portfolio of ten books – and started submitting to ‘free’ and ‘bargain’ promotion sites via the KDP Select programme on Amazon. My first ‘high’ was when ‘Ginger the Gangster Cat’ hit #1 in Children’s Books in Jan 2013, I couldn’t believe it! And then, more recently, ‘Kevin and I’ got as high as #5 overall on the Amazon free chart. I had to pinch myself! Though these highs, achieved by listings with EReader News Today, BookBub, Booksends, Kindle Books & Tips etc, are rare. There have been significant lows too, when, exactly 30 days after a promotion, my books have fallen off the “cliff” of Amazon algorithms and have in fact plunged down to the bottom of that eponymous river.
The biggest low, however, was when I took a large suitcase of my books to Manchester, north England, last summer for a book fair. Nobody showed up, it was so poorly advertised, and I had to lug the whole heavy suitcase back home to London again.
What do you like best about writing? What’s your least favourite thing?
There is nothing in the world better than the ‘buzz’ I get when I am in the writing zone. There is nothing worse than when someone knocks at my door or phones me up to kill that buzz. I call it the Xanadu syndrome…after the ill-fated, half-completed poem by Coleridge.
What is your advice to new writers?
My best friend Phil is a new writer. He has this theory that if you write 100,000 hours, you will become a good writer. He is wrong. They say that if you put a barrel-load of monkeys in a room with a typewriter, they will eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare. They are wrong too. That would only work if all the monkeys got together, learnt their craft, collaborated with each other and actually read Shakespeare. Writing cannot be done in isolation. If you want to be a good writer, get out to a good creative writing class or workshop, show your work to others, take their criticism or feedback on board, and read and show interest in their work in return. Above all, learn how to ‘structure’ a story and know who you are aiming it at. The first ever comment I got on my Ginger cat book on Authonomy (which is a great community to join when you have a few chapters ready for the public) read: ‘No plot, no narrative arc, no target audience, no chance of being published.’ I cried for days, but it was the single most important feedback I ever got.
Who are your favourite authors?
Jerome K Jerome, Joseph Heller, Hermann Hesse. Oh, and a wonderfully tongue in cheek Irish writer, J G Farrell.
What is your favourite book?
‘Siddhartha’ by Hermann Hesse. Closely followed by ‘The Siege of Krishnapur’ by J G Farrell.
I love Hesse with all my heart. Good choice! What book are you currently reading and in what format (e-book/paperback/hardcover)?
I’m currently reading the e-book version of ‘The Luck of the Weissensteiners’ by a very talented chap called Chris Fischer, maybe you’ve heard of him? I love historical books with a ‘real family feel’ – you know, like the Von Trapp family – and this is up there with the best, thoroughly absorbing.
How well I planted that question lol.
What makes you laugh?
I tend to find humour in just about everything. Especially my cat, Sparky!
What (not who) would you like to take to a lonely island?
It would have to be Sparky. Failing that, a hammock or a tree house. I’ve woken up too many times in my travels with a cockroach on my head or a beetle in my mouth. Brrr…
Tell us about your other books?
My new book, which I am struggling to complete by summer, is ‘Too Young to be Old: My Crazy Years in Clapham’. Clapham is (or was back in the ‘80s) a particularly seedy part of South London, and I found myself, half a lifetime ago, running an old people’s home there. It was a particularly important time in my life for me: not only because I learnt the history of my Hungarian grand-father (who faced down Russian tanks in the 56 Revolution) but also because it was the first time I took responsibility for anything…helped in no small part by my conversion to Buddhism. These ‘crazy years in Clapham’ also paved the way for me to go to India and start writing. The rest, as they say, is history…
How do you handle criticism of your work?
I’d like to say ‘very well’, but that only applies to constructive criticism. I go out of my way to get constructive criticism, it is the only way I can improve my art. Non constructive comments like ‘Boring, boring, boring’ or ‘Is this writer the son of Satan?’ on Amazon do however make me grind my teeth. Have these ‘commentators’ nothing better to do? Being a memoir writer is particularly tricky. Especially when, as in ‘Rupee Millionaires’, half the characters in them are frauds, villains or drug dealers. Best case scenario: none of them get to read it – they’re either dead or banged up for life. Worst case scenario: they all get to read it and they’re queueing up to put contracts out on you. But I don’t care. When the truth is stranger (and funnier) than fiction, you’ve got to print the truth, haven’t you?
Kevin and I in India http://authl.it/274
Off the Beaten Track: My Crazy Year in Asia http://authl.it/21z
Rupee Millionaires http://authl.it/vy
He ain’t Heavy, He’s my Buddha http://authl.it/2nf
Ginger the Gangster Cat http://authl.it/134
Ginger the Buddha Cat http://authl.it/2pb
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