Learning to tell a story deeply and develop characters takes years of practice, so if you want to be a serious writer then give yourself the gift of that learning curve.
When Soniah Kamal, an award-winning essayist and fiction author, was asked to speak at TEDx she talked about regrets and second chances. She explained how being denied her first dream of becoming an actress lead to the flourishing of her second – becoming an author. We chat to Soniah about waiting for inspiration, being a good literary citizen and the ever-changing nature of leading a literary life.
Please give us a brief overview of yourself and your work.
My first and forever love is writing novels and I’m so excited about my most recent, Unmarriageable, which is a retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and set in Pakistan I’m also a short story writer and personal essayist with work in the New York Times, Buzzfeed, the Guardian etc. I’m on the creative writing faculty at Reinhardt University’s Low Res Creative Writing Program where I teach fiction. I review books for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and more. I’m still trying to figure out what exactly a literary life looks like but mine is a combination of the above.
How did you begin writing?
I actually never wanted to be a professional writer. I wanted to be an actress but, unfortunately, since my cultural heritage—I’m Pakistani-Muslim-- traditionally views actresses as prostitutes, my father forbade me and, I, uncharacteristically enough, listened to him. As I explain in my TEDx talk, he said my decision would ‘ruin’ my family and since I didn’t feel right ruining everyone else simply for my dreams, I gave in. I actually refer to myself as the reluctant writer in an essay as my work tries to make sense of individual desires versus responsibility to community and what is lost-- what I lost-- in-between. However now I feel as if writing chose me and, as such, I’m grateful for the wonder it has been in my life. Reading was everything to me growing up and to think that I’m an author myself now is a surreal, fantastic feeling. As for how I began writing— since age 8-9, I was always entertaining myself with storytelling and at some point I began to scribble them down, but it wasn’t until age 24 that I decided to pursue writing professionally by which I mean trying to publish fiction and get paid for it.
Do you have a writing routine? How do you motivate yourself to write?
I rely on inspiration and when it does finally strike I try to get a draft out as soon as possible. I’m convinced that a schedule would be way more productive and cause less angst than waiting for inspiration but I have three kids and their schedule dictates mine and too often their schedule and my inspiration are at odds.
Are you a plotter or pantser? How do you outline your story and begin writing?
Pantser. I do occasionally jot down ideas and plot point on napkins and loose scraps of paper which I promptly misplace.
Is there any particular incident that has happened along your writing journey that you’d like to share?
Here’s a funny one. I’d just finished a story and wanted to print it out but the printer wasn’t working. I called my husband at his work and complained about technology and how the printer was letting me down even though I’d begged it to work, fiddled with the ink cartridge, put in fresh paper, banged on it, begged it, everything I could think of etc. When he got back home that evening, it turned out that I had not plugged it in. I felt like such a fool but we had a good laugh and memory so there is that.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Sit down and write. Learning to tell a story deeply and develop characters takes years of practice, so if you want to be a serious writer then give yourself the gift of that learning curve.
Also, write the story you are craving to read. Even if it has already been written there is no definitive story or perspective of any topic so your words and view matter too!
What do you think is the biggest challenge for new authors?
Getting a literary agent who is right for your work.
What methods of book marketing do you find the most effective?
Everything and nothing. I guess everything helps and nothing can hurt except that it’s extremely time consuming and exposure doesn’t necessarily translate into book sales if that is your goal. For me being a good literary citizen is important, that is, promoting the work of authors I admire. For instance, let me mention here that I run a blast interview series called Drunk on Ink—it allows readers to get to know writers in a completely fun and different way.
What struggles did you face in the writing/ publishing process?
Way too many. I’ve been writing for twenty plus years. Rejection is my old companion. I’ve had six literary agents, some of who dropped me when I didn’t turn out to be an overnight wunderkind. But I’m all the prouder for where I am today—pure tenacity and getting up and going on. My friends call it ‘stubborn’.
How do you handle rejection as a writer?
Some people like tea, others coffee, others wine. My work is not your beverage of choice. It’s taken me years to understand this.
What is the best writing advice you have received?
I gave it to myself after finally figuring it out: Try to out-write your last work because your only competition is yourself. My first novel An Isolated Incident was an immigrant tale set against an ongoing civil conflict, terrorism and parents who want to keep you safe and suburban American teenagers who don’t realize how precarious safety is. My second novel Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan is a retelling of Jane Austen’s classic and set in Pakistan. It’s about a marriage-obsessed mother who believes in one set of rules for her five daughters to lead a successful life and her daughters who disagree with her for different reasons. It was a leap going from a war novel to a society novel but I’m glad I took on the challenge.