#tbt Author Interview: Randa Abdel-fattah

For #tbt, most people share old pictures, but since this is a writing blog, I’m going to share an old interview I did with a fantastic Sydney-based author, Randa Abdel-fattah. She was a litigation lawyer and is now a Ph.D candidate, exploring everyday multiculturalism and racism in Australia. I don’t know if I ever shared this interview on the blog so I dug it out of my archives. Check it out!

Randa Abdelfattah

1. How would you characterize your journey as a writer since your first published book, “Does My Head Look Big in This?”

I’ve been writing ‘fast and furious’, so to speak. I’ve always got a novel in the works and been fortunate enough to write widely and for a range of audiences. Each novel has presented me with different challenges- whether that’s plot development, writing a male protagonist, setting a story in a country I’m not physically in at the time of writing or seeing the world through the eyes of a Grade Five student.

2. Your latest books have been targeted towards a little bit younger crowd. What made you decide to do that?

I’ve always wanted to write from the perspective of a younger character and for a younger audience. I can’t offer you a reasoned and thoughtful analysis of why this is the case. It’s just been an instinctual, ‘gut-feeling’ kind of impulse that drew me to write for a younger audience. I know that my very vivid and fond memories of primary school have probably been a factor in drawing me closer to that age.

3. What is the literary community like in Australia and how do you see yourself in it?

The writers’ world I float through is mainly young adult and children’s writers and they truly are a wonderful, friendly, warm, open and brilliant group of people. I love attending writers’ festivals and being amongst such an amazing circle of writers who all invariably share a passion for getting children excited about books and reading.

4. Do you feel like your identity as a Muslim and Egyptian-Palestinian still dominates people’s impression of you and your work?

When I first started writing my background certainly had a major influence in people’s impression and interest in my work. But as my work has grown to involve all sorts of ‘issues’, stories and characters, I think I am being increasingly accepted as a writer in my own right, not as a ‘Muslim’ writer or niche writer. As long as people don’t box or label me, I’m happy to talk about writing, about my identity, about politics, about human rights! I make no apology for the fact that these are all things I am deeply interested in.

5. Are you satisfied with the narratives that are being disseminated about Muslims globally?

No. We are in the midst of an ongoing and systematic campaign of Islam and Muslims being demonized, otherised and stigmatized- represented through the prism of negative imagery and stereotyping. Rather than elaborate, I would like to share with you a poem I wrote last month. I wrote it during my lunch break at work, at a time I and other Australian Muslims were dealing with a barrage of media interviews regarding the ‘burqa’- which inevitably turns into a wider conversation about Muslims in the west, identity politics, ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Poem- I am Not Negotable

It was published on different sites but this is one of them:

http://muslimvillage.com/2011/07/12/i-am-not-negotiable/

6. How involved are you still with interfaith dialogue, Palestinian human rights or media engagement on Muslims and Islam?

I no longer engage in interfaith work simply because I’m so time poor. But I’m still deeply committed to Palestinian human rights campaigning (especially the boycott, divestments and sanctions – BDS- movement) and media engagement. I give a lot of talks and media interviews pertaining to Palestine, Muslims, Islam and identity politics. I also use my opinion writing for newspapers and journals to address such issues.

7. How are you balancing your job as a lawyer and writer, as your career in writing is rising?

There’s only one word to answer that question: caffeine.

The difficulty is not so much balancing law and writing. It’s adding my two young children to the juggling act. They’re the biggest balls to juggle (but also the best). Ultimately, I am passionate about what I do and blessed to have the choice and opportunity to purse my passions. So while it’s challenging and exhausting and the balls sometimes seem about to spill out of my hands, it’s still worth it! And, really, no matter how difficult it can get, the whole ‘time-management/brain fried due to work/life/childcare balance’ thing is so in the ‘first-world problem basket’. When it gets tough, I remind myself of how blessed I am and get some good old-fashioned perspective (and caffeine).

9. What kind of feedback have you gotten from youth or readers in general about the various books you’ve written?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive and humbling to read emails and letters from readers here and around the world who tell me I’ve changed their lives or perspectives.

10. Have you toured outside Australia for your books? If so, what has that been like?

I’ve been to the UK (twice), the USA, Palestine, Sweden (twice), Brunei, Malaysia, Qatar and Egypt. It’s been awful…just kidding! Every trip has been transformative, fun-filled and stimulating. More please!

11. What is your favorite speaking engagement you participated in this year?

Oohh, this is a tough one! I’m going to be cheeky, ignore the parameters of your questions and name my top three!

  1. A one-week writer in residence in Palestine in April where I ran writing workshops focused on writing for children and young adults in Ramallah, Jerusalem, and by video link to Gaza.
  2. Speaking in Brunei in March to an audience of ambassadors and dignitaries from around the world at an event organized by the Australian High Commission on the 100th anniversary of international women’s day. I offered my perspective on human rights, women and Islam from my perspective as an Australian Muslim lawyer.
  3. The Melbourne Writer’s Festival last month where I ran writing workshops and presented an author talk at the Immigration Museum’s identity exhibition.

12. How can aspiring young writers who want to write about Muslim characters avoid being categorized narrowly in “multicultural fiction” or simply “Muslim fiction” and be accepted in the mainstream book community as you have?

I suppose a lot depends on the tone and approach of writing about Muslim characters. A book that is preachy and clearly aimed at selling a message will always have a narrow audience (and probably won’t do very well anyway). The point is that books that contain Muslim characters need to have mainstream appeal because the writer is writing with a non-religious/non-ethnic, ‘neutral’ audience in mind. If, as a writer, you don’t see your character is a deviation from the norm but in fact part of the mainstream then I believe that kind of confidence and attitude is infectious and will impact on your reader too. For example, I wrote a book for younger readers called Buzz Off. It’s about a boy who discovers he can hear flies talk- a useful skill in Australia’s summer heat when flies threaten to ruin a good picnic or game of football in the park! The entire book is about this boy’s ability to hear flies talk and discover the secret to getting rid of them. That this boy happens to be Muslim is never stated in the text. It is implied through one simple image of his mother wearing hijab. I wrote a story that involved a character who happened to be Muslim in a story that had nothing to do with this character’s faith or identity. So young writers need to find creative and subtle ways to challenge our definitions of mainstream fiction so that a book containing a Muslim character doesn’t necessarily have to be an ‘issues-based’ story.

13. Is there any kind of writing you would like to branch off into, like poetry, screenwriting, short story…?

I’ve tried my hand at screenwriting (just experimenting on my own) and found it required a different skill set and approach to writing than fiction. It’s something I might be interested in developing in the future. I’ve also just finished my first adult novel (No Sex in the City– a cheeky spin on the traditional chick lit genre). But my main passion is writing young adult and junior fiction.

14. Have any of your books been optioned for movie adaptations before and would you be interested in that avenue?

Two books- “Does My Head Look Big In This?” And “Where The Streets Had A Name” have been optioned for TV series. OF COURSE I’D BE INTERESTED IN THAT AVENUE. Any writer who tells you otherwise is lying. Seeing one’s book on the screen? Could it get any better?!

Be sure to follow Randa on Twitter: @RandaAFattah 

Planning and plotting your novel

I’m taking some time out today to work on structuring my novel for NaNoWriMo and I’ve been finding a lot of cool methods. There’s obviously no perfect way to do this, but it’s worth reading and trying some different ones until you find one that really speaks to you.

1. The Snowflake Method

2. How to Make Sure your NaNoWriMo Project isn’t a Hot Mess

3. 25 Things You Should Do Before Starting Your Next Novel

4. The Jim Butcher Way

5. Marathon Training to Finish Your Book

I’m using Scrivener to organize all my character sketches, research, and notes, and then when it’s time for the writing, I’ll also be typing the novel in here. I haven’t decided if I’ll also handwrite my story as well, because if I’m not at home with my laptop, I don’t want to lose precious writing time. But typing up my handwritten copy to check the wordcount doesn’t sound like fun either…

Last thing, here’s one of 2012’s author pep talks by Melissa McCafferty that I really like. Also, I really need to read her Jessica Darling series!

NaNoWriMo 2011

Today is the first day of National Novel Writing Month and if you’re looking for support while you attempt this crazy writing sprint, then you’re in luck! I’ve collected some great links for you to check out.

What are your novel ideas for this year? Share them below if you want and add me as a writing buddy on the NaNo website!

Is NaNoWriMo pointless?

I read an unexpected and strange Salon article by Laura Miller bashing the idea of NaNoWriMo and the people who participate in it as being foolish, wasteful, idealistic, naive and non-readers. After reading the end of it, I didn’t even know where to start with her illogical arguments, but realized Miller completely misses the point of NaNoWriMo and the message it sends writers.

Obviously writing a novel or 50,000 words in one month isn’t a recipe for an amazing, engaging and perfect bestseller. That’s not what NaNoWriMo is endorsing or even promoting. It’s promoting literary abandon, the freedom to pursue what you’ve been meaning to do but never found the push or time or the support or the courage:write!

There is more to writing a book than a first draft.

We all know that first drafts are meant to be crappy, rough outlines whether you write it in a one month writing marathon or over several months on your own time. Most people can not get through that step and don’t understand that their inner critic that wants them to write perfectly the first time around is wrong. Just wrong.

Revising, editing, workshopping–those are the tools that help shape your book and get it ready to be sent of to a publisher, if you so choose. And NaNo announces after the end of November, “I wrote a novel. Now what?”

If you successfully get through NaNo through honest means, not by giving your character four names or having them repeat everything they say, all you need to do is learn how to sustain that momentum through the next month, year and so on.

And that brings up another fallacy of Miller’s argument: that everyone who does NaNoWriMo wants to be published or immediately wants their novel to be published or want to get that novel published at all. Not true!

If I finish my NaNo novel, I’m not going to print it out, stick it in an SASE envelope to a publisher that I chose by closing my eyes and picking a name out of a list. I’m going to continue working on it until it’s ready, which is what I’m doing with the one I started last year. I might have rushed through the first draft, but I’m definitely not going to rush through the rest of the writing process.

NaNo writers aren’t readers

Miller say that all the people participating in NaNoWriMo should all go read a book instead, because most Americans never read do. So people who are supporting and engaging themselves in the creative arts community, the very process that makes books, are the ones who are the reason Americans don’t read more books? Really?

I fully believe you cannot be a real writer if you are not also a reader.I’m a huge bookworm and spending this month writing isn’t going to prevent me from being a reader, just like it won’t prevent me from talking to people, eating, doing homework etc. I would argue the majority of NaNo writers are in fact readers themselves.

Real writers don’t avoid life. They might cut out luxuries and going out to movies all the time, watching TV, but why is that a problem? Applying yourself to your passion/job isn’t an absurd thing, if you ask me. Spending one month on a dream, on a goal is never fruitless. It’s empowering and self-actualizing.

No one can prove that someone is a bad writer.

Miller certainly doesn’t know all the participants in NaNoWriMo or their skill level, education, publishing history or profession, so how could she paint them all in one brush as irrational, bad writers?

They may be an underdeveloped one, they may not have recognized their authentic voice, they may be trying to imitate someone else’s ideas, but that doesn’t mean they are a bad writer. Should we have said Einstein was stupid and would never amount to anything because he failed math in school? Why can’t we give writers the benefit of the doubt?

I don’t think we should blame NaNoWriMo for making people who aren’t “good writers” put everything aside to write the Great American Novel and further extend editor’s slushpiles. That’s like saying if it weren’t for American Idol, we wouldn’t have tone-deaf people believing they can get a singing career. People are always going to have impossible dreams and inaccurate perceptions of their talents and skills, but how is that hurtful or detrimental to society?

Takeaway Message

We all have our time and place and if given the opportunity, those who accept the challenge and allow themselves the chance to achieve will in the end be successful. NaNoWriMo could be the challenge that allows a young writer to see their potential with all the encouragement, support, positivity and constructive criticism.

I’m happy to see Carolyn Kellogg’s response to Miller’s argument in defense of NaNoWriMo and I hope that you will still be encourage to continue your writing, whether or not you are keeping up with the daily word counts.

People will always come up with a billion excuses for you to not achieve your goal.

You only need one reason to do it: because you can.

Hannah Moskowitz on Organization

Ladies and gents, I’d like to present the first guest post on Young and Writerly. The honor goes to Hannah Moskowitz, young adult and middle grade fiction writer of books like Break, Zombie Tag, Invincible Summer, blogger extraordinaire and college student. Yes, she really does all of this! Which is why I asked her to share how she deals with organizing and planning a story.


If people from my real life knew that I’m writing a guest post on organization, they would laugh themselves to death. I’m about as far from organized as you can get. But when it comes to writing, it’s a different story.

I have processes for planning and organizing—a lot of them. And I’m not sure which work and which are just ritual and superstition, but I do think that’s an important part of the process. A lot of the harder parts of writing can be solved simply by getting yourself in the right head space. There was some famous writer, I can’t remember who, who could only write when he had a basket of rotting apples under his desk. That’s pretty excessive, I think, but if it helps you get it done, then it works.

I will never start writing an idea on the day I get it. Waiting is probably second nature to a lot of people, but I have to force it. When I’m very exciting about it, I want to do it right away. I think I inherit that from my mother, who once bought a new car the same day she decided she needed one.

So I have to stave off that urge every time. I spend a few days in a document, NOT the book’s, where I just dump all my ideas. I write them out as a stream of consciousness to keep momentum up…here are two excerpts from my NaNo document.

“So there are three triplets. Mom muchanusens all over one of them because he’s one who doesn’t feel pain and he’s agreeable. He dies. It’s tragic, but nobody really notices because people are dying all over the place (though the plague is really ending around this time). Then mom dies or something? Don’t worry about that right now.”

“the ghosts do not want her there. She isn’t sick. Meanwhile, she’s…is she trying to find a cure? They want to harvest the ghost’s blood for antibodies or whatever. They’re probably teaming up with a nurse to do this, but can they trust her?? she’s probably going to have to die.”

If I keep going on like that for long enough, I eventually come to realizations that make me write “OHHHH” or “yesssss” across the document, and that’s when I know I’ve hit something good. And it makes the whole plotting process worth it.

And by structuring it as a brain-dump, it makes it less daunting for me. I don’t have to make a pretty graph of how the characters relate to each other; if I try that sort of thing, I get paranoid that I’m doing something wrong, that I’ll somehow mess the graph up. This way, I can change stuff as I go and follow my own thought process when I have to go back (as I always do) and figure out how the hell I came up with this plot point that is obviously not going to end up working.

Before I’m allowed to start writing, I need to have the beginning, the ending, and a few major events along the way mapped out. I need to have an order for these things, and I need to know the climax. And I need a very, very good grasp on my characters’ relationships to each other, even if I don’t know the characters themselves yet. Their individual personalities tend to develop from those relationships.

If I haven’t nailed all of that down, and I’m feeling stuck, I usually go into my music files and make a playlist. A lot of writers do this, and it sounds really silly and stupid, but it helps me nail down the tone of the story, as well as the plot progression. If I look at my playlist and go, wow, this is a lot of weepy songs in a row in the third act, I know I need to go look at my plot and figure out where my action went, and if there’s any place I can throw in some hard rock.

A balanced playlist puts me on the road for a balanced story. And I can listen to the playlist while I’m plotting to get into the zone. I started doing playlists when I wrote INVINCIBLE SUMMER, and it was absolutely crucial for that book. I made the entire playlist before I started, and it acted exactly as an outline for me. I could refer to the list and go “ohhh, this song is next, that’s for the part when X happens.” So useful. I listen to it while I’m writing, when I’m not watching TV (shhh).

Once I’ve nailed down a few events and some character motivations, I’m ready to go. My first drafts are usually very, very short—just the bare bones of the story. I like to get the first drafts down very quickly, so I don’t lose interest, and then I can go back and add the details and clarify motivations and layer the characters and all that.

So even though my planning is pretty highly ritualized, I make sure to keep some stuff loose. It keeps me interested and engaged while I’m writing. I still haven’t figured out if the mom dies.

Prep for National Novel Writing Month

November is National Novel Writing Month. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s something I think every one has got to try at some point in their life. Basically, the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel between November … Continue reading