In June, Simon & Schuster’s Salaam Reads imprint published Saints and Misfits, a stunning debut from Canadian teacher-turned-author S.K. Ali. Pitched as a “modern day My So-Called Life… starring a Muslim teen,” the novel centers on the life of a spunky hijabi protagonist, offering a fresh perspective in an otherwise saturated genre. Ali took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her writing process and about diversity in publishing.
How did you come to be a writer? More specifically, how did you come to write THIS book?
I knew I loved writing from a young age -- that and art, fashion, anything creative really. After high school, I went on to get my degree in Creative Writing. However, becoming a writer was put on hold after marriage, kids and a "real job" took over my life. About eleven years ago, I turned back to the craft seriously and I've been doggedly pursuing becoming an author since then. I wrote one manuscript, revised it quite seriously but when I felt like it wasn't going anywhere, I saw it as the book that taught me how to write a book (by Not Being a Book, haha). Subsequently, I wrote Saints and Misfits.
Describe the novel writing process for you. What's the journey from initial idea to completed project?
It looks like it may be different each time but there are certain markers that appear to be the same. First, I need time to not-write my book. This is when ideas are gathering and I'm settling on important threads, themes, characters, scenes, settings etc. I do a lot of note-taking during this period -- including yes, in the shower and in the middle of the night. I also look at visuals and spend time in places I want to use in my story. After that, it's butt-in-chair for certain hours a day or week when I try to write with a goal in mind; usually scene or chapter goals (I'm not a word-count counting queen). And then I have periods where I let it sit and then return to it with fresh eyes. I always discover things when I do this. Once I'm done, I let it sit again and after re-reading it and being satisfied, I'll send it to my trusted critique partners and sometimes beta readers. I incorporate their feedback and then it's on to my literary agent. Of course, I rely on his input to ensure I've done the best I can.
In recent years, publishing has become much more accepting of diversity. How does writing a book with diverse characters and themes differ from writing any other book?
I don't think it's different than any other book if you consciously live with diversity. If someone doesn't have authentic experiences with diversity/humanity then it's hard to learn that -- it will be superficial and will come across that way. It's not something you can learn from a textbook.
What do you have to say to readers who criticize marginalized writers for not writing to their specific marginalizations/experiences?
Well, while I think writing from authentic spaces makes for better art, I also know that writing is an exercise in imagination. I don't think writers should be limited in what they can write. While it would be amazing if we had writers from marginalized communities sharing narratives we haven't heard, I know that for many it might not be what they're comfortable with or wanting to explore creatively. Writing should not be a to-do. Marginalized creators are not obliged to "teach" people through their art -- they can be free to be the type of artists they wish to be. At the same time, it's important to remember (for all of us) that writing outside your "lane" involves a lot of responsibility and vetting.
What other hurdles still remain in the fight for diversity?
I think we still haven't moved beyond the Single-Story idea in terms of content from marginalized writers. We're beginning to but there's still much work to be done.
How has your life changed since the publication of your debut novel? Do you approach writing differently now?
It's been crazy busy. I actually have a cloud CALENDAR now that I can access wherever I am because, yes, I get a lot of emails asking me for this or that on this or that date and I have to check everything! So it's been busy and so I'm getting to that stage where I've learned that I need to guard my writing time fiercely. Otherwise I won't get another book out and that makes me WORRIED.
What are your creative plans for the future? Any new projects on the horizon?
Right now I'm working on another YA contemporary novel, this time featuring Muslim love. (So excited about this!) I also wrote a picture book that is yet unannounced and I will be participating as an author in a YA Anthology titled Hungry Hearts, which will have interconnected short stories featuring food, family and culture. It has a great roster of authors and I can't wait to read everyone's stories!
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Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.