Interview with Kamila Shamsie about her works of historical fiction

images5I am grateful for the invitation to write an article for the HNR about Kamila Shamsie’s historical fiction with the 2014 publication of A God in Every Stone. I read both A God in Every Stone and Burnt Shadows as part of my research and was astounded at how this author tackles so many hot-button topics in her novels. From the relations between subjects and Empire during the Raj in India to the WW2 atomic bombing of Nagasaki, to the Partition and formation of Pakistan and a inside look at the Afghan mujahedin  (opposition groups who initially rebelled against the government of the pro-Soviet Democratic Republic of Afghanistan  (DRA) during the late 1970s, and fought the DRA and the Soviet forces during the Soviet War in Afghanistan), even to a glimpse at modern-day terrorism. Not only does she tackle historical periods and events but also social topics like feminism, morality,  cultural divisions, and everything in between.

I was fortunate to conduct an e-mail interview with Ms. Shamsie, which helped inform my article. Much of the interview could not be covered in the piece and has some interesting information for fans of the author, so here it is, in its entirety from September 29,  2014:

BECAUSE THE AUTHORS BOOKS SEEM TO RANGE BETWEEN LITERARY FICTION AND TRADE FICTION, I WAS CURIOUS ABOUT HER THOUGHTS ON HER BOOKS IN THIS SENSE

1) Who are your literary influences?

It’s such a hard thing to pin down–much more easy to talk about literary loves. I love Virginia Woolf, but I don’t know that I can claim to be influenced by her, for example. So let me pick a few loves and readers of my work can decide if there’s influence there. Earliest loves – Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh. University-era loves: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino. More recent loves: Ali Smith, David Mitchell. I tend not to let go of old loves; just add more onto them as time moves on.

2) Do you consider your books to be literary fiction or more trade-focused? Do different novels fall into different categories?

I always cringe a little at the term ‘literary fiction’ which seems to imply all other books lack literariness – or that you can either be literary or commercial (which is just insulting to readers.) Having said that, the books I read fall within the category referred to as literary fiction, and I suppose I write into that area where I read.

HERE, I WAS TRYING TO GET AT THE ESSENCE OF WHO SHE FEELS SHE IS WRITING FOR, WHAT KIND OF AUDIENCE SHE TARGETED WHEN SHE CAME UP WITH HER CONCEPTS.

3) What audience are you aiming for with your books?

Honestly? Anyone who’ll read them.

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4) Your novels have been described as international historical epics- how would you describe them?

Generally if someone asks me to describe my book I turn to the nearest friend or relative and say, ‘please describe my books for me.’ I suppose if I had to I’d talk about them as novels which look at what it means to live individual lives entwined with history – how to reconcile the awfulness of the world with the joy of it; how to love, how to be loyal.

THIS WAS THE MOST FASCINATING RESPONSE OUT OF ALL THE QUESTIONS, FOR ME AT LEAST, IN LIGHT OF THE POLITICAL NATURE OF HER WORK…

images35) How is your work received in different parts of the world? Different reception in the UK, in India, in Muslim countries? Have any of your books caused controversy?

I don’t really recognise ‘Muslim countries’ as a category. All my books are connected to Pakistan, which is where I’m from, so of course my work is going to speak far more directly to people there than in, say, Indonesia or Iran. No major controversy that I’m aware of – though in Pakistan, there were quite a few people raising eyebrows when my novel Salt and Saffron depicted a relationship between people of different classes (that caused more of a stir than anything I’ve ever written about politics or religion). But yes, different countries have different responses based on their own histories and anxieties. With A God In Every Stone the UK responses were very much centred on the figure of the Englishwoman in the novel and the First World War, while in both India and Pakistan the Pathan/Pashtun figures got more attention as did the colonial aspect of the book. With my previous novel Burnt Shadows journalists in Denmark and Norway asked a great many questions about my thoughts on migrants – very much tied to Scandinavia’s very recent history of having to contend with having a migrant population.

THE REST OF THE QUESTIONS ARE DIRECTLY RELATED TO THE TWO HISTORICAL NOVELS.

6) How did you choose the settings and time periods for these two books?

There’s nothing particularly ordered about my writing process. With Burnt Shadows I thought I was going to write a book set in Karachi during the summer of 1998 when India and Pakistan tested their nuclear bombs, but that lead me to think about the use of atom bombs in Japan in 1945 – and next thing I knew I had a novel starting in Nagasaki; researching Nagasaki 1945 made me think of parallels with post 9/11 New York – so the entire geographical trajectory of the novel changed. With A God in Every Stone I was interested in exploring the city of Peshawar and thought that, as with Burnt Shadows, I would write a multi-part novel that would come up to the present day – but after writing my way from 1915 to 1981 and beginning to imagine sections in the 90’s and 2009, I discovered that actually it was the early 20th century story I was interested in, so I cut out everything later and concentrated on 1915 and 1930. And those stories lead me from Peshawar to the Eastern and Western front of the First World War.   Somehow it all comes together in the end, but it’s a terrifyingly haphazard process.

index7) Where did the archeological historical theme running through Gods in Every Stone originate?

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient history – and the city of Peshawar is so rich in material along those lines for a novelist. It’s a city that’s been continuously inhabited for over 2500 years – it was part of the Persian empire (Herodotus writes about it); Alexander and his armies came through there; later it became one of the great centres of Buddhism; and it’s home to the extraordinary syncretic Gandhara art which shows all these influences – you have statuary of Buddha being supported on the shoulders of Atlas and other such wonderful images. Hard not to be drawn to that as a writer. One of the first things I knew about the novel was that it would have archaeologists and an ancient artifact that everyone was looking for (perhaps my childhood love for Indiana Jones coming through there…)

images47) Burnt Shadows: Interesting evolution between a bomb survivor of Nagasaki leading to a young man choosing his allegiance in the war in Afghanistan- how in the world did you get from one place to the next? Can you talk about your thought process?

If you look closely enough at history, it’s all so interlinked. Pakistan’s history is the most obvious link between those stories – nuclear bombs and Afghan wars are both so much a part of the country’s recent history that I don’t really see it as much of a jump to get from one to the other. I suppose another way of saying that is, the novel follows its characters, and the characters travel from one link in history to another. What I mean is, I didn’t start off thinking I would go from Nagasaki to Afghanistan and New York but I allowed the characters to follow their trajectory through history. (I would argue, though, that the young man is never unclear about his allegiances – it’s the people around him who doubt where his loyalties lie)

8) One of the major themes threads through both books is the English-Indian relationship, and you write about the overarching themes in this relationship. What is empire to its subjects? Was colonialism enlightenment or slavery (being treated as second class citizens)? What are your thoughts about this issue?

Colonialism was a system of economic exploitation which justified itself on the basis of racist ideas about the superiority of the ‘civilised’ English over the ‘uncivilised’ Indians. Hard to see that as enlightenment. But as a novelist what I’m most interested in is how the inequality of historical positions gets in the way of relationships between people of different nations who do have a certain degree of affinity for each other. And of course there are other complications – if you’re an Englishwoman in Imperial India, as is the case with Viv Spencer in A God in Every Stone, there’s a complex interplay of patriarchy and imperialism going on.

9) We have seen in the news since America got involved in Pakistan much about the Pathan culture- did you write this book with current events in mind? If so, how did they influence this story?

As I mentioned, the novel was originally supposed to end in 2009, so yes, I did very much start with current events in mind. All that changed, but I suppose what remained was an impulse to write about the Pathans in a way that goes beyond the crass stereotypes of people who live and die by the gun – in the early 20th century there was a very sophisticated and popular movement of non-violent resistance to colonial rule which I wanted to explore in the novel, while also exploring the very old syncretic traditions of Peshawar.

10) Confusion over cultural identity and loyalty to one’s nation/sect/tribe seem to be overarching themes in both books- are these things you have personally struggled over? Family history? Witnessed? What led to your focus on these themes?

In some odd way, I think I’m interested in it because I haven’t considered it a struggle. It’s been pretty angst-free for me to move between Karachi, London and the East Coast; and within my own Pakistani family there’s a German grandmother, Danish cousins, England-raised mother etc etc. – none of which I’ve ever regarded as problematic or confusing to me personally. But I suppose at a certain point I realised that not everyone has the luxury of feeling simultaneously so fixed and so fluid about their relationship to nations and ethnicities and other such groupings, and that divergence from my own experience became an interesting thing to examine. Though really I’m just guessing here – I have a strange superstition about not really wanting to examine the connections between my life and what I’m interested in writing about. It’s almost as if I think the tap will turn itself off it I try to work out why it’s flowing.

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*Thank you very much to Meghan Walker at Tandem Literary for arranging this interview.

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Interview with Joan Druett: Straddling Two Worlds

“It’s no longer an either/or world. It’s both and why the heck not?” — James Scott Bell

You are a prolific writer and have been published by various major publishing houses, such as Simon & Schuster, Algonquin, and Random House. . . . Although you write in various genres (with the maritime world being the overarching theme), such as mystery, biography, and maritime history, let’s focus on your journey from mainstream to Indie publishing through your historical novel, A Love of Adventure (previously Abigail).

Abigail was first published in 1988 by Random House, and then in paperback by Mandarin and Bantam. How did your original publisher find you?

As so often happens, it was a case of who-knows-whom. The novel was written in the middle of a burst of passion for the stories of whaling captains’ seafaring wives and daughters, and read by an interested friend with publishing contacts in London.  He passed the manuscript to a friend there, who handed it on to a professional reader, who loved the book so much that she harried him into giving it to an agent. From there, it went to the publishing director of Macmillan, who thought it was “a smashing book,” and also to another agent in New York, who handed it on to a good friend of hers, who was a senior editor for Random House.

As you can imagine, it was a very exciting time. Suddenly, out of the blue, two major houses had bought my seafaring adventure!

With so many contacts in the big publishing houses, why did you decide to self-publish A Love of Adventure (Abigail)?

The eBook phenomenon fascinates me; I truly believe that it is the most exciting development in publishing since the invention of print. I have blogged about it a great deal on my site “World of the Written Word,” and followed the fortunes of a large number of Indie authors, becoming more intrigued as the months go by. The idea of self-publishing an eBook as an experiment became irresistible, and Abigail, being my first novel, was the natural choice.

After looking at all the alternatives, I decided to do all the formatting myself, with just two conditions: that it would cost me absolutely nothing, and that I would share what I learned with the world, via my blog. This I did, ending up with seven “tutorials” that ranged from preparing the manuscript through designing the cover to the ePublishing process.  These garnered so much interest that I created a dedicated blog, “KindlePublishingHints,” and transferred the tutorials, in descending order, onto this. It pleases me greatly that in the one month since this guide went up, over 200 people have used it to create their own books.

 And why choose to publish as an e-book instead of in print?

I have been sent many self-published print books for comment or review over the years, and have often been dismayed at their quality. Print-on-demand seems to be particularly bad, in this respect. The alternative of having proper print-runs means the problem of storage—one author told me that she ended up storing unsold stock in the crawl space between the floor of her bedroom and the ceiling of the lounge below!

And I truly believe that eBooks are the popular reading of the future.

How much input on title or cover design did you have at the big houses (compared to the freedom of self-publishing)? When searching on amazon.com, I came upon a rather racy mass market paperback cover from 1989—would you classify your novel as romance? Do you think it was marketed to the correct audience?

Having control over the title, cover, and general design is a huge incentive for self-publishing. I was never happy with having a girl’s name as the title, as it limited the audience to women, and I knew from male readers that it was a book that appealed to men as well, particularly because of the whaling and seafaring scenes.  So I certainly don’t believe that it was directed to the correct audience.

And the jacket designs!  I was given no say in these at all, and none of them, in my opinion, reflected the thrust of the story. As for the Bantam paperback, you should have heard my shriek when I opened the carton! Later, when the Mandarin paperback came out, a newspaper featured both covers, side by side. The Mandarin version was sedate in the extreme, being a rather plain girl at the ship’s wheel, while the Bantam one (which features a bosomy female in Regency frills being ravished by a muscle-bound male) was captioned “Abigail and her shirtless friend.”

Well, it really was rather funny, I suppose. But it was a particular pleasure to design the cover I had wanted all along for the eBook: a ship disappearing into a spectacular sunset.

It seems that you straddle two worlds at the same time: that of the mainstream and that of the Indie. Can you compare and contrast the two “worlds”? What is it like being on both sides of the fence? Do mainstream publishers give you a hard time about publishing an Indie e-book? Do you feel as though you don’t fit in with Indie authors?

I’m rather used to straddling two worlds, being a maritime historian as well as a novelist.  However, you are right, because there is a huge contrast between traditional and Indie publishing. There is nothing like working with an editor who loves your book, but wants to make it even better. Not only do you have a sense of direction, but it is confidence-building, as well.

But it only lasts until the book goes into production; while your editor keeps an eye on the process, and is available for answering questions, he or she has moved on to other authors and other books, so that the production process becomes more and more impersonal. When the book finally comes out (and remember that this is many months later), you are handed over to a publicist, but this is a finite situation, too.  Authors are strongly encouraged to do their own marketing, and before the month is out, they are completely on their own.

I enjoyed the sense of power and independence that ePublishing A Love of Adventure gave me, but had the advantage of a professionally edited book to work from, plus the confidence given by years of experience. I notice that a lot of the Indie authors who contact me feel uncertain about their self-editing skills, no matter how many writing classes they have attended, and many of them go on to say that they have hired an editor—which is a very good move, I think.

And you are right again—I do feel a closer connection with authors who are self-publishing after being traditionally published, than I do with newbie Indie writers.

I still haven’t found out what my mainstream publishers think of this experiment in self-publishing, but am very conscious of their possible reaction.  For instance, it makes pricing the books rather tricky. I am currently writing a fifth Wiki Coffin mystery, to follow the series of four that were published by Minotaur/St. Martin’s Press, but feel it is probably a good idea to wait until they bring out the first four as eBooks, so that I don’t underprice them by too much.

What are your thoughts about the quality of Indie books right now and how has the quality changed since you first began your SP project?

As I mentioned before, I found the first self-published print books disappointing, but those that have arrived on my desk more recently have certainly improved. I think this might be a result of Indie publishing becoming respectable. More established authors are going for the experiment, which raises the quality, so that newbie writers have good examples to follow.

Likewise, the formatting of self-published eBooks has certainly improved. I noticed that in the publishing guides put out by Kindle, the need for thorough proofreading is constantly stressed; as they say, having a lot of typos can mean three stars instead of a five-star review.

Can you give readers a sense of what your process of self-publishing was like? What were the advantages and the pitfalls?

My best answer to this is to recommend the running blog I wrote while I was going through the process, at www.kindlepublishinghints.blogspot.com  It was an intensive, deeply engaging experience.  And, what’s more, it was fun!

If you could offer aspiring SP authors the three most important lessons you learned while self-publishing, what would they be?

Proofread, proofread, and then proof again. And get your formatting right. It’s the only way you are going to end up with a professional-looking result.

Choose a jacket design that looks good in thumbnail—make it eye-catching but plain rather than fussy. It’s your major marketing device.

Let the world know what you’re doing, through social media such facebook, facebook groups, and twitter. Facebook is particularly good, as you connect with people who are doing the same thing, and who have great feedback to offer.

Finally, thank you very much indeed for posing such pertinent questions, and giving me the opportunity to share what I learned while ePublishing A Love of Adventure.