Shaila Abdullah is represented by the interviewer's Pump Up Your Book Promotion, a public relations agency specializing in online book promotion.
Shaila Abdullah is an award-winning author and designer, based in Austin, Texas. Her creative work focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of Pakistani women and their often unconventional choices in life. Her debut book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall, is a collection of stories about Pakistani women struggling to find their individualities despite the barriers imposed by society.
Among other accolades, the book won the Norumbega Jury Prize for Outstanding Fiction and the DIY Festival Award. Abdullah received a grant from the Hobson Foundation for her new novel, Saffron Dreams, which is about the trials and tribulations of a 9/11 Muslim widow.
Abdullah has written several short stories, articles, and personal essays for various publications, such as Dallas Child, Web Guru, About Families, Sulekha, Women's Own, She, Fashion Collection and a magazine of the Daily Dawn newspaper called Tuesday Review, etc. She is a member of the Texas Writers' League.
A Pakistani-American, Abdullah is also a seasoned print, web, and multimedia designer.
We interviewed Shaila to find out more about her new book, Saffron Dreams, and her life as a published author.
Thank you for this interview, Shaila. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?
Thanks for the opportunity. I am an author and designer based in Austin, Texas. I am originally from Pakistan and moved to US in 1995. I spent five years in California and then moved to Texas in 2000. I have been writing on and off since 1993. In many ways I follow muse wherever it leads me, be it through creative writing or design. In 2005, I penned a short story collection called Beyond the Cayenne Wall and a novel this year called Saffron Dreams about a 9/11 Muslim widow.
Do you write full-time?
No, I don’t. I have a full time job as a designer for an educational nonprofit in Austin called SEDL.
At what point in your life did you make up your mind you were going to become a published author?
I think it was never a goal of mine but the hope of many around me. Growing up, my parents performed the role of gentle guides, nudging us in the direction we were inclined toward and then stepped back and watched us grow. They were never judgmental or overbearing and never gave up on us even as we stumbled, faltered, paused, gained momentum and eventually reached our goals. I wasn’t judged when amongst siblings with successful career paths such as doctors, MBAs, and valedictorian nurses, I proclaimed my decision of being a designer. With that writing became a cherished hobby.
Was there anyone in your life that you can give credit to helping pave the way?
There are many without whom I wouldn’t be where I am today –– my family, especially the men in my life –– my father and my husband and their encouragement, as well as numerous friends and fans who forced me to not stop at book #1.
What was your favorite book to read as a child?
As children we liked –– no, adored Enid Blyton, the most successful British children's writer of the twentieth century. We were especially captivated by her Magic Faraway Tree series. For us, it had the same charm as Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I can’t wait for my five-year-old to grow up a little more so I can introduce those books to her.
What is your favorite book at the present?
Definitely Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. It has been a life-changing book for me and has allowed me to slow down a little and reflect on the important things in life.
Can you tell us a little about your latest book?
Saffron Dreams is book # 2 for me. In the novel, the protagonist Arissa Illahi, a veil-wearing Muslim woman, loses her husband in the tragedy of 9/11. Pregnant and alone, she discovers the unfinished manuscript of her husband and decides to finish it as a tribute to him. Her unborn son and her husband’s legacy provide a renewed sense of hope to Arissa as she struggles to put the pieces of her life back together. Harvard professor Dr. Ali Asani describes the novel as "eloquently written, a must-read for any one interested in exploring the lived experiences of Muslim women in the United States."
What was the inspiration behind your book? Why did you feel a need to write it?
I have attempted to capture how ordinary Muslims were affected by the tragedy of 2001 — the silent majority who lead very normal lives and are law-abiding citizens of this land. They are the ones we never hear about because their lives are too ordinary to be the subject of the nightly news. In the terrorist attack of 9/11, the shards of glass reached far and wide wounding the minds of Americans who had been very accepting of the melting pot their country had become. The event put them at odds with a community that had come to this country with very simple objectives: to work hard and lead honest lives. Saffron Dreams is the story of basic human desire to be accepted in society, no matter what your background, ethnicity, or race. The issues that I explore in the novel are universal––racism, discrimination, bias, muddled or forced identities –– those are all common issues that drive the value and worth of an individual in a society.
What kind of research did you have to conduct to write your book?
There were many different pieces of the novel that required extensive research. The time and place where the tragedy unfolded, how it manifested, what were the dynamics of the situation, etc. Often it felt like feeling in the dark for one more piece to finish the puzzle. It’s amazing to watch a story unfold; it sometimes surprises even the author. The character of the protagonist’s son who was born with a rare disability required methodical research too. It involved interviewing parents of such children and really getting to know their daily struggles.
What message are you trying to convey with this book?
The tragedy of 9/11 was a great shock to the American psyche. Some of that anger was directed towards those who shared the race and religion of the terrorists, especially those who publicly exhibited symbols of their faith such as veils, beards, even their own names. With Saffron Dreams, my intent is to convey that most Muslims lead their lives guided by the general principles of goodness and peace. One has to also recognize that terrorists do not represent mainstream Islam. Having Faizan, an innocent Muslim man, die in the attack shows that terror has no religion or race.
Why did you choose your particular genre?
I feel that the geopolitical concerns that have drawn Islam and the West into many conflicts since 2001 have also generated a thirst for multicultural literature with a Muslim angle. At a time when much of the world associates Islamic culture with oppression and terror, the new genre is tackling such universal themes as love, hope, and women's issues. I find that there is a great thirst among readers today to learn more about Muslims and what drives them. The interesting thing is even the followers of mainstream Islam can’t tell you what drives terrorism. We are as clueless as the rest of you but keep reading. At least you will learn something about the true face of Islam.
Where do you get ideas to write your books?
Inspiration strikes you at the most unexpected of places. After awhile your mind becomes kind of an idea factory. You can be in a restaurant surrounded by dozens of people and then an idea would hit you and the conversations around you would dim and fade away as you drift away in the haze of inspiration.
How do you deal with rejection?
Very well. I am firm believer of the fact that with every dozen people who love your writing, you will encounter another dozen or so who might not. The best way to deal with it is to never take it personal. Reading is very subjective and depends on the genre and style that meshes well with you.
Do you write mainly by day or by night?
Most of Saffron Dreams was written during the night because my days are usually so packed. I believe that if you are passionate about something, universe finds a way for you to get to it. Yes, I do have a very busy life but my work is what drives and motivates me.
Do you ever get writer’s block and what do you do when that happens?
Rarely but when I do, I distance myself from my work for a short time. It’s no use forcing yourself to write when you are not inspired.
Do you have an agent? What were your experiences finding her/him?
I had an agent for a while but we parted on good terms because we had very different ideas for my future. Finding an agent is probably not tough, but you have to be certain that when you do find one, that you have a united vision for your future.
How long did it take your book to be published from the time you submitted and was accepted to the time it was finally released?
The normal publication cycle is nine months. I would say it took a year from the time I signed up with Modern History Press.
Can you tell us a little about the publisher who published your book? How have they been to work with?
I have nothing but compliments for Victor Volkman of Modern History Press. Working with him is sheer joy. He is very inclusive, listens well to his author’s suggestions, and responds to their needs in a timely manner. He is also great with ideas on marketing and book promotion. With him, there is no waiting for the phone to ring. If you have a question, you can bet that it will be answered at once. I deeply appreciate the fact that he also took into consideration my desire to design the book cover for Saffron Dreams.
Do you blog? If so, what can you tell my readers about the advantages of blogging as a useful tool in book promotion?
Online communication has evolved considerably in the past few years with the eruption of new avenues for social networking and the novel ways of engaging readers. I don’t blog as often as I would like to but I do believe it’s a great way to reach your readers and fans.
Do you have a website? Do you manage it yourself or do you have someone run it for you?
I do have a website and being a professional designer, I designed it myself and manage it on my own. It earned the Preditors and Editors Award. I also have a successful freelance career as a designer and my client base ranges from businesses and corporations to nonprofits and even authors. Authors find it comforting that a fellow author is designing their website who knows the ins and outs of the industry.
What’s next for you?
Actually there are two books that I am currently considering. One is a novel about street children of Pakistan, a book that the protagonist is shown working on in Saffron Dreams and another is a young adult novel about an Indian teen torn between her passion for dancing and keeping the family business alive.
Thank you for this interview, Shaila. Do you have any final words you’d like to share with my readers?
You can find a wealth of information on my website, including a reading guide, excerpt, reviews, and buying information. For those with comments and questions, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you mention Blogcritics, you will receive a free e-book called A Taste of Saffron, containing recipes of dishes mentioned in Saffron Dreams. Readers who sign up for updates on my website will get a free excerpt of my 2005 book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall.