I have been writing since I was a child. I wrote my first 'novel' when I was in Grade Six. It was based on Roald Dahl's Matilda and my teacher bound it and let me read it to the class. It was exhilarating and a moment I will never forget. I wrote short stories as a teenager and the first draft of Does My Head Look Big In This? when I was about 15 or 16 years old. I revisited the manuscript when I was 23 years old. When I finished the book I sent it to a manuscript assessment service. I worked on the manuscript again, taking into account their suggestions for revision, and then submitted it to literary agents. I was fortunate to find an agent who offered to represent me and a publishing contract with Pan Macmillan in Australia soon followed with Scholastic UK and international rights following soon after that.How do you decide what to write about?
The struggle to define oneself against stereotypes is something I feel very passionately about and is the primary reason why I deal with identity themes in my first two novels. Because identity for people with a multi-layered background fascinates me in terms of the challenges and rewards such an identity brings, I have wanted to explore this from a young adult perspective. Deciding on what to write about isn't a mechanical process. Ideas simmer away in my mind based on my passions and interests and the stories I want to tell. With my third novel, set in occupied Palestine, I wanted to write about the Israeli occupation from a 13 year old girl's perspective. It was something I wanted to do ever since I visited my father's homeland in 2000.What do you like the most/the least about being an author?
I love the games a writer can play with words; the power to create a world of characters and quickly realise that ego has nothing to do with it- the story often unfolds, as though it was there all along and I'm simply discovering how to relay it. Sometimes I arrive at a scene and I don't quite know how I got there; all I know is that the scene works just right. I write because I have something to say about issues that are important to me and people who I care about. The chance to be creative is the ultimate buzz for me. For me, there is no downside to being an author. I love every moment of it!What is your preferred genre of writing and do you write across any other genres?
My preferred genre is fiction. I have written non-fiction in articles for newspapers and journals. Writing a non-fiction book is definitely on the agenda at some stage in the future. I have many topics swimming around in my head that I would love to research and explore further.What inspired you to write Does My Head Look Big In This?
It became apparent to me that the only time Muslim females appeared as heroines in books were as escapees of the Taliban, victims of an honour killing, or subjects of the Saudi royalty! I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? because I wanted to fill that gap. I wanted to write a book which debunked the common misconceptions about Muslims and which allowed readers to enter the world of the average Muslim teenage girl and see past the headlines and stereotypes- to realise that she was experiencing the same dramas and challenges of adolescence as her non-Muslim peers- and have a giggle in the process!
Ten Things I Hate About Me? is about an Australian-born girl of Lebanese heritage growing up in Sydney. She lives a complete lie at school, even her best friends have no idea she is Lebanese - she dyes her hair blonde, wears blue contact lenses and calls herself Jamie, when her name is Jamilah. She is living a double life. I wanted to explore how some people’s coping mechanism in the face of racism and bigotry is to withdraw into the safety of anonymity. They lose their identities by trying to assimilate and denying their heritage. The result of this double-life is a crush to one’s sense of self-worth and a feeling of insecurity in one’s home and school environment. The book is still quirky and funny, although it’s dealing with that very serious issue of suppressing your identity. It’s set it in the context of the aftermath of the race riots in Sydney.Who or what inspired you to write Where the Streets Had a Name?
My visit to my father’s birthplace, Palestine, in 2000 had a profound impact on me. I suddenly understood the tragedy of my family, specifically my grandmother’s, dispossession. I also saw children and young adults trying to get on with their life despite the occupation- attending weddings, gossiping with friends and neighbours, haggling at the shops, following favourite television sitcoms. I wanted to explore life under occupation from the perspective of a Palestinian child and write a simple story set in complicated circumstances, looking at the sacrifices best-friends make for each other, sibling rivalry, nagging parents, sparring in-laws, ambitious wedding plans, helpless adults, children who dream big and an occupation that impacts on the minutiae of ordinary life.Where the Streets Had a Name is set in Palestine in 2004. What sort of research did you have to do to write this book?
The landscape has dramatically changed since I visited given the construction of the Separation Wall. So I had to research the impact of the Wall’s route on the geography of the West Bank and Jerusalem, the way the roads have changed, the location of checkpoints, the travel permit system and who could go where and when as at 2004. I spoke to many people and bombarded them with questions: people who live there, students, academics, taxi drivers, business-people, children, the Mayor of Bethlehem, lawyers, human rights activists, Israelis, Australians visiting Palestine.What does the title mean? Don’t all streets have names?
Since the creation of Israel, many Palestinian villages and towns have been irreparably transformed or destroyed. This has resulted in Palestinian streets, towns and cities being renamed into Hebrew streets, towns and cities. The path of the Separation Wall has also changed the landscape and destroyed many villages and streets.
For Palestinians, memory is vital and those who lost their homes in 1948 or because of the Wall refuse to forget their villages and the homes and streets they lived in. I wanted to pay tribute to that memory and to affirm that the Palestinian people and their homeland existed and exist. The title is a direct attack on the myth of ‘a land without a people for a people without a land’ (similar to the myth of terra nullius in Australia).
As a child I adored the delicious wickedness of Roald Dahl and the enchanting worlds created by Enid Blyton and CS Lewis. As a teenager I was obsessed with the Steven King, R.L Stine and Christopher Pike novels (I loved a good scare), the Sweet Valley High series, the Babysitters Club series, Robin Klein, Judy Blume, John Marsden, JD Sallinger, Harper Lee, Jane Austen…the list goes on. If these books influenced me they did so in the sense that they sparked an urge to create a story that put my reader in as good a place as I felt when I was reading a good book.
It can be. But I think versatility is one of the best ways to nurture the imagination. I don’t feel like I’m in crisis by pursuing both career paths because I accept the particular demands of each role and each path fulfils certain aspects of my personality. Ultimately, I’m interested in people and their stories and being a lawyer and writer gives me plenty of access to these.What is the hardest thing about writing for young adults?
Accurately capturing the voice of my characters without being patronising or unconvincing.Where do you get your ideas?
Interacting with people, my personal experiences, my family history, my travels, stories I read, newspapers, eavesdropping when I’m on public transport!Are you disciplined about your writing? Where do you write?
I’m not disciplined. I write when I feel like it, rather than to a strict schedule. If I’m writing and working, I write on my long train rides into the city. On weekends or my days off work, I usually write in my study or sitting on my bed with the laptop propped onto my lap. It depends on my mood (and if my children will let me!).Do you plan out the whole plot of your books ahead?
Never. I often have a general idea of the direction of my plot but I take each chapter as it comes. Having said that, I knew the last line of Where The Streets Had A Name before I started the book. How I was going to get there was part of the adventure of writing the story.What advice do you have to give to aspiring writers?
It may sound trite, but you can’t be a good writer if you’re not an avid reader. Read anything and everything- bad and good writing- so you learn from others’ mistakes and triumphs. And write regularly.