Welcome to the two hundred and thirty-fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with multi-genre author Shah Husain. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Shah. Please tell us something about yourself and how you came to be a writer.
Shah: I was born in Karachi, Pakistan. We didn’t have TV when we were growing up but we had gardens, lots of dogs of different kinds, feral cats who had kittens in our creepers and a range of birds, butterflies and space in which to run about and invent worlds. I can tell you if you burrow into a creeper to find your ball and see an enchanting little kitten metamorphose into a spitting, scratching monster in a few seconds flat, you experience true horror and it gets the imagination going. Equally if you see a glittering spider-web stretched out between flowering bushes and at the centre a gold spider with a black frame-like pattern on its back, you can easily believe in magical worlds. It all provides lots of theories on which stories can be built. My environment nourished my imagination and provided worlds of experience, pleasure, fear, joy, pain…you name it. My imagination flourished – I started writing at 5.
Morgen: It sounds wonderful, and inspiration indeed. What genre do you write?
Shah: Primarily, I retell traditional stories from around the world. I grew up listening to fairytales, folk tales and fables both in Pakistan and from my family in India, on the other side of the border. When I grew up I realised that they held meaning and significance for all ages. I write screenplays, too – no particular genre, just try to make a good story. I also write non-fiction and I’ve written a novel which I’ve just completed and sent on its journey. Fingers crossed. It feels weird to be a ‘newby’ after 20 years of being commissioned.
Morgen: A very experienced ‘newby’. 🙂 What have you had published to-date? How much of the marketing do you do?
Shah: 14 books for children (15 with the one out in a week or so) – the Wise Fool – 6 for adults. I’ve also written 2 plays for kids and more than half a dozen commissioned screenplays. I’ve been lucky to work with publishers who have marketing departments to handle publicity. I try to be as accommodating as possible and ensure I can make time if they want me to write, do photo-shoots, radio interviews and personal appearances. I confess, I loathe personal appearances unless they’re with kids. But you have to be professional and do what you’re asked.
Morgen: I think most people reading this would be in awe of your experiences although understandably nervous of live events. I’ve done a few open mic nights and the audience was the mostly the same each time so less scary as I went along. Having done so much, do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Shah: I have been agented since 1986 though I’ve changed agents a couple of times. They are actually harder to convince than publishers – or used to be. Publishing is always changing. With self-publishing and digital books on the increase, I don’t know how things are going to develop. One thing I’ll say – as self-publishing gets professionalised and so much more respectable, traditional publishers may need to review their options; conversely, they may sit back and check out what comes on the digital market and then cherry-pick the best of the new talent.
Morgen: I have heard it’s more difficult to get an agent than a publisher and it’s certainly an interesting time. You mentioned digital books, are your books available in that format? Were you involved at all in that process? And do you read eBooks?
Shah: My publishers, Virago, have just suggested turning my titles into e-books and POD. I’m very excited about that. They soon will be available, with luck. I love my Kindle, so, yes, I do read e-books. The process: haven’t been through it yet but am hoping to put together a couple of writing guides which I might put straight on Kindle, Nook etc. They are based on courses I’ve taught many times and for which I’ve had great testimonials. I know from e-books I’ve read that there are a lot of badly produced, badly-written books around. It’s really important to ensure that when we self-publish we do so to a high standard. Traditional publishers spend a small fortune on getting it right – the least we can do is get our work rigorously edited. If you’re selling something make it worth the money. Graphics aren’t always necessary with e-books but the writing, editing and the formatting needs to be professionally done.
Morgen: There was an author on LinkedIn who said he could edit his own work and didn’t need a second opinion – needless to say everyone else (including myself) disagreed with him – we’re too close to our own work and need an editor (or equivalent) to not only pick out errors but give great suggestions (mine does). What was your first acceptance and is being accepted still a thrill?
Shah: Always. My first book was a collection of Indian myths for 12+ readers: Demons, Gods and Holy Men from Indian Myths and Legends. I was beside myself with excitement. As I completed that, I was asked to write a children’s non-fiction book, Focus on India. It was thrilling. I never looked back. And when Virago accepted my proposal for the Virago Book of Witches, I kept thinking they’d change their minds. All these books are still in print, which is great.
Morgen: Virago does seem a very supportive publisher, and they produce some great books. Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Shah: Most of us have had rejections – it’s the writer’s baptism of fire – but writers are dogged people who don’t let go because they can’t. It’s in our blood and we have to keep going. Personally, my energy and wellbeing comes from writing so I can’t stop. Send something out and get right on to the next project. If you’re passionate about it, you’ll get absorbed and it’ll get you through the tough times.
Morgen: I love your description of writers – it’s exactly how I feel. 🙂 What are you working on at the moment / next?
Shah: I’m luxuriating at the moment in the joy of seeing my new children’s book launched into the world. The Wise Fool, published by Barefoot Books. Also, I’m devising a TV series and am in the middle of another novel. I have the next goodness-knows-how-many projects carefully listed in a file along with notes and titles.
Morgen: I have more ideas than I have time (so far) to write but having different projects on the go certainly sounds like it suits you. Do you manage to write every day? What’s the most you’ve written in a day?
Shah: Most of the time, I do. But I can be erratic sometimes. I used to do 9.30-3.00 and then 4-6, like clockwork – that’s changed a bit. Strangely since I’ve cut down on my other career, a private psychotherapy practice, I’m less disciplined. I think the lack of structure lulls me into a false sense of time. And I’m always taking time off to be with my grandchildren.
Morgen: Oh dear… not for being with your grandchildren, but I’ve just left my job and that’s what I’m dreading; I do find I get more done if I know that I have a limited time, more focussed I suppose so I do plan to have a… well, plan. I’m sure it helps. Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Shah: I have suffered from it and it was a shock because I didn’t believe in it. The commonest cause is not knowing where to go next with a project – research helps. I got rid of it by making myself sit down, read through what I’d written and then eventually just telling myself it had to be done and that if it was bad, I was enough of a professional to salvage it or rewrite it. Over-planning can be a problem, sometimes, so simply getting started is a good way to get going. Also, changing one’s energy. I get up, walk around, cook, garden, watch TV, read a magazine, go for a walk – but I set a time limit for breaks.
Morgen: Absolutely, I’m sure variety keeps the brain active. You’ve just mentioned over-planning, do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Shah: I do plot if it’s a longer work. With short ones, I simply decide where I have to get my character in a particular section – how s/he gets there, or does what s/he must is often a surprise to me. I have noticed recently that planning a screenplay works for me better than prose work.
Morgen: I don’t have much experience of script (just Script Frenzy in 2010) so that’s interesting you say that. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Shah: There’s a semi-autobiographical novel written 20 years ago. I occasionally dust it off and look at it but I’m not sure I have the will to do what needs to be done to fix it. Maybe work with a good editor and turn it into an e-book? Kindle, here I come.
Morgen: 🙂 My last novel (for NaNoWriMo 2010) was a very dark therapeutic work so I know how you feel. 🙂 What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life?
Shah: The freedom, I think and the fact I can be as reclusive as I like, not have to socialise or hang out with people and not miss out on special events with my children and grandchildren. I find it very hard to stay focused and finish without having a deadline.
Morgen: What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Shah: Write from passion. It will shine through. Don’t talk too much about the content until it’s written. Be dogged. Don’t give up. Don’t let anyone tell you can’t do it. Listen to constructive advice and keep revising and rewriting. If one project doesn’t make it, put it away and get onto another. Learn from your mistakes. Keep writing.
Morgen: Absolutely, if you don’t write it, you can’t edit / submit it. What do you like to read?
Shah: Everything. My taste is eclectic. I’m not a reading snob – but I don’t read as much as I’d like to because I prefer to write. Researching a project allows me to discover the most interesting things and find areas and worlds I had no idea about.
Morgen: Are there any writing-related websites and/or books that you find useful and would recommend?
Shah: Check out my website, coming soon: Narrativesonline.com. There are endless writing resources on the internet – not all good – people promising that you can write a novel in a week and promising to make your book a best-seller if you do as they ask. Sorry, but there are no guarantees about these things because there are just too many variables. But read good writers. Follow their attention to dialogue, point of view, structure. ‘A Writing Life’ is a great work for all writers, David Lodge’s books ‘The Practice of Writing’ and ‘Consciousness and the Novel’ are worth reading. Some screenwriting books are good such as Robert McKee and John Truby and Karl Iglesias on dialogue. But you know what, I’d rather get down to writing than reading or thinking about it. If you want to write, write. And then when you’re ready to rewrite, you can consult the books. Instinct is vital. Learn to trust it – I truly believe the human mind is hard-wired to tell stories.
Morgen: We are, in a variety of formats; electronic, paper, verbally around a camp fire. 🙂 Where are you based, Shah?
Shah: I feel really lucky I’m in the UK. London, my home, is so brilliantly well-connected and book focused in many ways with plenty of bookshops and literary venues and opportunities to be in touch with adult and child readers.
Morgen: London definitely has a strong literary scene. Northampton used to be good but sadly funding issues have changed that but I think that’s happening everywhere. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how invaluable do you find them?
Shah: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and loads of others. But I’ve not really made use of them yet. Will try my hand at it this time round, though. I’ll report back in a few months, to let you know.
Morgen: Please do as I’m planning the same and I think it’s definitely important for a writer to be on the networking sites (without too much touting of course). Where can we find out about you and your work?
Shah: You can check my personal website on www.ShahrukhHusain.com. Google turns up quite a few hits and all the major online stores stock my work. There’s an interview blog coming up on Barefootbooks.com and the Virago website has something up, too as does a site called WriteWords. I’ll try to remember and compile a list of links when my own website gets going next month. Remember: narrativesonline.com – and I’ll be checking in on this blog, so if you have any questions, I’ll try to respond.
Morgen: Thank you so much Shah, lovely to meet you.
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