5 from 35: Author Q & A with Soniah Kamal

KamalSonia Kamal published her second book, UNMARRIAGABLE, earlier this year. Her first novel, AN ISOLATED INCIDENT,  was published when she was 42. 

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How long did it take you to write your first (published) book, start to finish?

An Isolated Incident took me ten years to write. I wrote and rewrote it from scratch at least four times. It’s set against the ongoing political conflict over Kashmir’s right to independence and also delves into terrorism, life after loss, and U.S. suburbia’s privilege of comfort and safety.  It was a difficult novel to write and one I promised my late Kashmiri grandfather that I would write. Unmarriageable took two months to write and in this respect is a debut of a different nature. A parallel retelling of any classic comes with its own set of challenges. For instance, transposing scenes from Regency England two hundred years ago to a very modern Pakistan, as well as writing a novel that would satisfy four  very different audiences—Austen lovers, readers who have never read Pride and Prejudice, Pakistanis, and those who only know Pakistan through news blips or not at all.

What kind of work did you do to earn money while writing your first book? 

I write book reviews, interview authors, judge literary prizes and other things book critics do as well as write personal essays and I teach creative writing. I’m also married to person who thankfully believes that telling stories and writing is important and is thus very supportive financially and in every way. That said, I have three children and run a household in suburbia meaning I’m the cook, chauffeur, driver, child psychologist, Laundromat and have all the responsibilities that are the full time job of being a homemaker and a mother. I love being a mother-writer. I’m proud to say that I can write through my kids fighting and my youngest competing with the laptop for my lap—he always wins :).

What compelled you to write your story?

Growing up, there were no novels in English set in Pakistan and I used to imagine everything I read terms of my Pakistani culture and upbringing. I read Pride and Prejudice when I was sixteen years old. I immediately knew I wanted to do a parallel retelling one day which turned out to be Unmarriageable. Jane Austen called Pride and Prejudice her “light, bright and sparkling” novel and it is a delightful tale, but it is also the story of a mother desperate to see her five unmarried daughters married-well and that seemed very Pakistani to me.

Did you ever want to quit? 

I want to quit all the time. The publishing industry is hard. While I do love writing now, writing was not a dream of mine per se (see my TEDx talk on regrets and second chances) and so I find the psychological aspect of a writer’s life quite daunting. I mean balancing praise with rejection, the constant waiting game, the huge patience one has to develop to emotionally survive, even the time lag between writing a novel and its appearing on the shelves. What kept me going? Sheer love of telling a story that I want to read, channeling these voices/people who seem to reside in me and, as odd as it may sound, the love of hearing my fingertips on a keyboard.

What are you reading right now?

Promotion for Unmarriageable leaves very little time for leisure reading which is why it’s perhaps ironic to say that I’ve picked up the thick tome that is William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.

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