Qaisra Shahraz, where were you born, and where did you grow up?
I was born in Pakistan and arrived in the UK at the age of nine. I grew up in Manchester.
What sorts of books were in your family home?
All sorts. In my childhood days, there was a book shelf stacked with volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica that my father bought to educate his children along with books by famous Pakistani poets, for example the work of Allama Iqbal. Near my bed I had Enid Blyton’s Malory Tower series of six novels and the Famous Five collection. In my teenage years, quite a few Barbara Cartland books entered my bedroom. In our ancestral home in a wooden cabinet in Lahore I came across two of William Shakespeare’s plays. One was my father’s student copy of Hamlet, with margins lined with notes neatly scribbled in his elegant handwriting. As I pursued my studies of English literature, I proudly lined my bookcase with volumes of world literature, including numerous classics. I developed a literary appetite for the works of Leo Tolstoy, Henrik Ibsen, Ruth Prawar Jhabawalla, Molière, Emile Zola, the ancient Greek tragedies, as well as the work of many popular Victorian novelists, including that of Elizabeth Gaskell. It was a proud moment when I was invited to read in her house at 84 Plymouth Grove here in Manchester.
Who were early formative influences as a writer?
The work of Buchi Emecheta was a favourite along with that of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen and George Eliot – especially her Middlemarch. I am sure I was influenced by them. My publisher once affectionately called me “the Pakistani Jane Austen” which tells me that Austen has definitely left her mark. Emecheta’s vivid description of rural life in Nigeria instilled a passion in me to explore Pakistani rural life in my short stories and novels, The Holy Woman, Typhoon and Revolt.
Do you write every day, and do you write many drafts?
In normal circumstances I try to write every day. In reality my writing would be sandwiched between my other work commitments such as inspection responsibilities for Ofsted. Currently MACFEST: Muslim Arts and Culture Festival that I have set up in Manchester has taken over my life. It is being launched next month. As its founder, director and curator, with over fifty events planned, there is no time for writing. It’s been twelve months since I last touched the script of my latest novel set in Morocco. I do several drafts. There were seven for my first novel The Holy Woman and nine for Revolt.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
I am very glad that my books are enjoyed by readers in several countries. The Holy Woman has been translated into ten languages and been a bestseller in Indonesia for the last fifteen years; it has been reprinted again and again, once as a gold edition. I am proud of my latest book The Concubine & The Slave Catcher which is a collection of ten stories set in ten countries, across four continents and covering wide-ranging themes: the invasion of the Incas in Peru, slavery in America, the Holocaust, as well as the Partition of India & Pakistan.
Spotting the occasional typo in a published text after the editing has been done would embarrass me.
Books that changed your life?
Gender discrimination is a burning issue for me. On this issue there were two books that changed my life: George Eliot’s Middlemarch which I studied for my A-level English literature course, first degree, and later I wrote a dissertation on the life of the heroine Dorothea Brooke. I really empathised with Dorothea and the discrinimation she faced as a woman.
Dale Spender’s book Mothers of the Novel also changed my outlook on women writers. My post-graduate research revealed a shocking truth: that there were over three hundred English women writers living and working before Jane Austen’s time who had not only been forgotten, but were literally deleted out of the history books.
Your views on book publishing?
To have the support of a reputable publisher who produces a good book, including a lovely cover, is obviously hugely important for an author. It is an achievement. Publishing is such a competitive world. For many publishers the main aim is to make money out of the books, so they are invariably biased towards authors who will get into the bestseller lists. Of course publishers have many authors to nurture, and how they look after their authors and promote their work varies. The onus is also on the author to promote their book to the public, ensuring it becomes well-known and doing their bit too. In this age of the internet, new authors are highly privileged as there are so many more opportunities available than when I first started my writing career. And there are so many online self-publishing opportunities possible. Working with overseas publishers can be challenging, though my personal experience has been positive on the whole. I have had very good experiences particularly with my German and Indonesian publishers. All are highly professional not least when it comes to the payment of royalties and looking after me as their author; and arranging literary tours.
How important were, and are, editors? Have you had much encouragement from them?
All my editors are of enormous, invaluable importance to me as a writer. I respect the editor’s role and suggestions. I work well with them. All my editors including those in other countries have ensured that my work is in the best possible shape before being printed. There are funny moments. For example, my editor almost had to pull the manuscript of my last book out of my hands since I could not stop revising and redrafting!
And yes, I have received much encouragement, especially from my first editor, Joan Deitch. She really loved my first novel, The Holy Woman, and gave me good advice, feedback and encouragement. It meant a lot to me. We are still very good friends because of that process.
Which is more important, style or voice?
It’s difficult to say – both to my mind. It depends on what I am writing and the contextual mood of the text. When writing a TV script, such as for a drama series, naturally the voice is more important. It all depends on the genre, the context, the writer’s personal preferences and what messages they are trying to get across.
Your views on the explosion of creative writing courses? How helpful are they in reality?
Indeed, there are a great many creative writing courses, including those run by universities. I personally welcome them as I have benefited from two even three courses myself. I completed a master’s degree in Scriptwriting for TV and Radio as well as a shorter course on how to write short fiction, journalism and magazine feature writing.
Writing is an art form – a skill to be mastered and honed over time. The appropriate, high-calibre course can provide an excellent opportunity for a writer to develop their skills. The writing group is also a useful arena in which to showcase one’s work and benefit from any advice given, as well as sharing and discussing differing points of view.
What are your favorite literary journals?
I have had little time to read journals of late – but my favourite magazines are Myslexia and Wasifiri. Also the American on-line journal Women and Books.
How well are your books received in Europe?
My second novel, Typhoon, was published in Holland in 2003. I have no idea how it was received. However in Germany my story, A Pair of Jeans, has been studied as part of the German Abitur, English Advanced level exam, for the last twenty-eight years and my work is well received across that entire country; it is read and studied by thousands of students. I have visited over one hundred and fifty schools over the last fifteen years while touring Germany. The story has been published by leading academic publishers and chosen by the education boards of various federal states.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? What about social media?
I have very strong views on the subject of modern technology and have spoken about this on panels at festivals. I can’t imagine life without my smartphone and laptop. However I believe we are becoming slaves to technology. We are all mobile phone addicts, constantly poring over small screens. It’s embarrassing to see it all around us. We are anti-social even with our families. At a personal level, I see how it has affected my writing life since it has stolen that quality writing time which I once had twenty years ago. I am more easily distracted if the internet is available while I work on my laptop. My time is often sucked away by the distractions of social media.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
Mongolia, or back to the Incan civilizations of Peru. My story The Concubine is set in sixteen-century Cusco. I would love to witness the life of that period with my own eyes and savour the ancient traditions of that time. As for Mongolia – it seems so remote from life in the UK. I am especially fascinated by the nomadic life of the herders. I would love to sit in those Mongolian tents and start my next book imagining what life was like on the famous Silk route from the Middle East to China in the Middle Ages.
Your favourite prose authors?
There are many but in particular: Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Vikram Seth, author of A Suitable Boy which is one of my favourite modern day books, and Khalid Hosseini.
Favourite feature films?
Ben Hur, the Predator, the Jurassic Park, The Planet of the Apes and Bruce Willis’s Die Hard series, as well as many current Indian movies.
Five favourite bands?
I loved the music of many bands of the 80’s and 90s . . . to name a few: Abba, the Bee Gees Michael Jackson and Queen.
Your chief characteristic?
Generous in giving praise. Feeding and hugging people!
Your bedside reading?
There is very little time to do any reading at the moment due to the pressure of MACFEST. Currently there are two books lying on my desk which I’m hoping to find time to read: A Fire At Sea by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev and Poem Hunter by the Indian poet Mirza Ghalib.
I have coined a motto that I currently use with our MACFEST team: “We are doers and deliverers.” This is to motivate all of us. I also go around to many events with a peace banner with its slogan, “Spread Honey Not Hate” in order to promote messages of peace.
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