Writing about life: Imran Ahmad

ia-formal.jpg 

Imran Ahmad’s Unimagined (2007) is the beguiling memoir of a Muslim boy born in Pakistan, who moves to London aged two and grows up to embrace the West. The endearing narrator recalls his childhood in a series of vivid snapshots. TAWP caught up with Imran Ahmad…

Why did you feel the urge to write this book, and did you ever imagine at the time that it would be so well received?
I always wanted to write a book, from childhood days – I always had that urge. The trouble when I was younger was not having any material that I was willing to write about. That came years later, developing a willingness to write about my own experiences.
It was tragic, because I would take a sensual delight in blank note books and sheets of crisp, unused paper, but I didn’t know what to write about. I was really excited when I acquired a word processor in the 1980s, but the firm commitment to write a book was still many years away.
I don’t think that I felt comfortable daring to imagine that a book of mine could be so successful and well-received. Such daydreaming seemed self-indulgent somehow, but the daydreams have now come true – I was on ‘The Heaven and Earth Show’ and ‘Midweek’, just like I imagined I would be!

How did you feel writing this book? Was it painful to revisit some of the incidents in your past, which you were obviously very uncomfortable with at the time?
I put off writing this book for years, because I assumed that it would be a huge burden of work. I was completely wrong. When I actually sat down to write the book, the process of writing was a wonderful, joyful experience and I really enjoyed the journey. I believe that I have sufficient distance from the experiences that I can now view them somewhat dispassionately. I can still feel each experience, and it is necessary to do so in order to be able to write about them effectively, but the emotions no longer carry any weight. I think this is an aspect of personal growth – to feel an emotion without allowing it to overcome you. And being self-confident enough to be willing to share it with others.

How did you recall so many of the details so vividly, did you rely just on memory or other techniques?
I have been blessed with an amazing memory for recalling events and details about them. (Unfortunately, this memory does not apply to useful academic work!) I used to think that everyone must recall their own life to the same level of detail, but apparently this is not the case.
One thing which helped is that whenever anything significant happened in my life, I felt a part of my mind was already writing about the event, as a detached observer. When I came to actually writing the book, these events were already written about – inside my head – and I just had to type them out.
When we are growing-up, life is a series of school and university years, separated by summer holidays. One big advantage I have is that my birthday is in September, so I was able to write the book as one chapter for every year of my life, with each chapter representing a school or university year. From a structural perspective, this works very well and helps to maintain a natural pace in the book. The book was not written in order and, since I always wrote about whatever I felt like at that time, it was never forced – it was always a pleasure to write.

You originally self published this book, was there any reason you made this decision?
I self-published it because I couldn’t get any publisher or literary agent to be interested in taking it on.  The few publishers who wrote back all advised me to get an agent. I like to think that JK Rowling helped me to get published and, in a sense, she did. I was on business trip to America in July 2005 (having received all these rejections), and I was in the Barnes & Noble store in Richmond, Virginia – the night that the new Harry Potter book was being released at midnight. The atmosphere in the store was really wonderful. It was buzzing with excitement and many people were there in costumes: kids were dressed as Hogwarts pupils, the store manager was a wizard, and so on. I was really enjoying watching all this, so I loitered around in the store, sipping a venti latte from Starbucks. Whilst I was hanging around, I was browsing magazines and I picked up a financial magazine which had an article entitled: ‘Ten Things to do With a Thousand Dollars’. One of these things was to self-publish your own book, and the article gave the website address of a self-publishing company owned by Amazon. As soon as I got back to my hotel room, I looked it up and it seemed quite enticing. In fact, it was relatively easy, since all they wanted was the money and the quality of the book was 100% my responsibility. I decided to go ahead.
In September 2005, I received the first batch of my self-published books, and it was also listed on Amazon. At this point, I thought I had arrived, but I had no idea of how difficult it is to market a self-published book. It is very difficult indeed – no-one is interested.

But I did get a lucky break. I sent a copy to Scott Pack, the Head Buyer of Waterstone’s, and he wrote back saying that the content was very promising, but the physical book was clearly self-published and not of a good enough quality or price for him to stock in Waterstone’s. But he did say that it deserved a proper publisher and he would like to pass it on to a literary agent, if I was willing. This seemed a step backwards to me, since I had already achieved a published book, but fortunately I said ‘yes’. The agent called me a couple of days later, having read the book, and wanted to take me on as a client. So self-publishing was the route by which I got an agent and a proper publisher. This journey is described from his perspective by Scott Pack, in an article on my website. The story from his point of view is quite amusing.

Are there any other comments you would like to make on the subject of writing an autobiography and on writing in general that you think would be useful to other budding writers?
From an artistic perspective, you have to want to write and to really enjoy that process. If you don’t enjoy writing, and are forcing yourself to do it because you want to write a bestseller (for reasons of fortune and fame), then no-one is going to enjoy reading what you wrote. Your lack of enjoyment will come across in the text.
In terms of writing, you should find your own natural style and also write about what you know about. This might be about your own life, or work experiences, but you have to come across as knowing what you are talking about. The style aspect is very important. If you try to force yourself into a specific style, that will become apparent to the reader and you will lose credibility.

Also, I don’t see how you can enjoy the writing if you are deliberately copying someone else’s style. It’s no good presenting yourself as being ‘in the style of Dan Brown’, when it clearly isn’t your natural style. In terms of being published (if you have met the artistic criteria), you have to believe in the quality of what you wrote. Have your friends read the manuscript and get their honest feedback. Once you are sure about it, find yourself a literary agent. Getting a publisher without an agent is virtually unheard of. It can be a long, hard slog, but you need to persevere. Get a current copy of ‘The Writer’s Handbook’ and follow the instructions which specific agents give about how to present submissions.
As for self-publishing, this should be a last resort if you want wide circulation of your book – but if you are content with only friends, family and colleagues reading it, self-publishing can be an option. 

TAWP Verdict: Unimagined follows the story of Imran Ahmad from boy to adulthood. Its filled with innocence and curiosity about religion and the western world. Warm and funny it makes for an enjoyable read. Simply un-put down able!

Imran Ahmad was born in Pakistan, grew up in London and went to university in Scotland before embarking on a corporate career. To find out more please visit http://www.unimagined.co.uk