Uzma Jalaluddin grew up in a diverse suburb of Toronto. Her favourite place in the world is the nearest bookstore or library, so it came as no surprise to anyone when she started writing her own stories, poems, plays and other creative writing from an early age. Her debut novel, AYESHA AT LAST (2018), is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in the Toronto Muslim community. The novel was a Goodreads Choice Award Finalist, was featured on The Today Show, and was a Cosmopolitan UK Book of the Year. AYESHA AT LAST has been optioned for film by Pascal Pictures. Her second novel, HANA KHAN CARRIES ON, will be published in April 2021. She writes a culture and parenting column for The Toronto Star, and has written for The Atlantic. Uzma lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and two sons, where she also teaches high school. She is probably dreaming up ideas for her next book right about now.
FUN FACTS ABOUT UZMA
Tell me about your writing journey
I was always a reader, and my passion for writing first manifested as a love of reading. I read widely, and across genres. I was always interested in writing, but I did not know where this interest would take me. Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of South Asian, Muslim women who were writers, or who were artists of any kind! That lack of representation made me feel as if this line of work were not meant for me. Still, I couldn’t help writing, as a hobby. I kept a diary, and wrote short stories, poems and plays all throughout my childhood and early adulthood. I studied English literature at the University of Toronto, and trained to be a high school teacher. Yet I still held on to my dream of one day seeing my words in print. It wasn’t until after I had my second child, and with the support of my husband, that I decided to actively pursue my interest in writing. I started my first novel. It wasn’t very good. After two years, I started what would become Ayesha At Last, and I also started writing for magazines, and eventually for The Toronto Star. It was a long journey towards book publication. It took me 7 years to write Ayesha At Last, from start to finish!
Your books often involve Muslims falling in love. Did you have an arranged marriage?
Not exactly. My husband and I were introduced by a mutual family friend, and our first meeting was at his sister’s house. It was a rishta – a set-up for the purpose of marriage. Sort of like an awkward blind date, except with family members watching (and laughing). Mostly we made awkward small talk, but also discussed our favourite sci-fi authors. After the initial meeting, we exchanged email addresses and began to communicate over text, and meet up for coffee, lunch, or dessert. After six months, we decided to take the plunge and became engaged. We (read: I) decided to throw the massive Indian wedding of my dreams. The festivities lasted three days, and six hundred people attended our reception. We’ve been married since 2002.
What inspired you to become a writer?
At first, I wanted to become a writer because I love reading. Now, I continue to write because I want to contribute to the world of literature, and to the tradition of storytelling, by adding my own unique voice. The representation of marginalize, and diverse voices is incredibly important to me. I believe stories help build understanding, empathy, and compassion.
How do I get an agent/become published/have my book optioned for film?
To get a literary agent, you must first finish writing a book. Make sure it’s well written, has a clear plot, compelling characters, and a fascinating premise. Have other people, preferably writers, read it over and give suggestions. You can also have trusted friends/allies give you feedback. Work and polish this manuscript until it shines. Next, make a list of agents who represent books in your genre. You can learn more about agents on twitter, or Publishers Marketplace, which is a trade online magazine that charges a monthly fee. Each agent will have their own requirements for submissions. Be polite, be respectful, and listen to their instructions. A good agent will believe in you and your writing career, and will never charge you money up front. Good luck!
To get published, most of the time you need a literary agent to represent you. There are some smaller, boutique publishing houses that do not require agents, but most of them do. Your agent will make a list of editors who might be a good fit for your book, and then send them your manuscript. This is called being “on submission” and it can be nerve wracking! I recommend you keep yourself busy by starting your next book during this time. If an editor loves your book, they will make an offer to publish, and offer an advance. Hurray! After you accept this offer, you will work with the editor and production team to make your book the best it can be, and then launch your story into the world!
To have your book optioned for film, your literary agency may work with a film agent who will handle any queries about your novel. Alternatively, a film agent may send the manuscript to various producers to garner interest. This sometimes happens before a novel is even published, or shortly afterwards.
Do you have any advice for new and emerging writers?
Keep writing. Remember that writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint. Make a writing schedule that works for you. Surround yourself with cheerleaders and allies. Listen to the people who know you and your book best. Try not to take constructive criticism personally. Always take mean criticism personally. Find writing friends, preferably those at the same career level as you, so you can celebrate each other’s triumphs. And always always keep reading! Good luck! You can do this!