Qaisra Shahraz

Q. Tell us about your latest novel, Revolt?

Revolt is a multi-layered, multi-faceted story of love and loss, finding and losing, and mixed-race marriage. It is the tale of three wealthy sisters and their servants and the problems that no amount of money can solve. There is a daughter, abandoned because of an impulsive marriage, an aunt who pines for lost love, and a bridegroom with the biggest problem of them all. Set in England and the fictional village of Gulistan in Pakistan, Revolt centres on the forthcoming marriage of two rich cousins and explores the lives of many households in the village. It deals with topical issues like migration, mixed race marriage, generation, East/West, poverty/wealth and urban/ rural gap. Those readers who have enjoyed my previous two novels, The Holy Woman and Typhoon can regard it like a trilogy, although the characters are totally different and the canvas far broader.

 

Q. What is it about the lives of ordinary people that inspires your writing?

I am so glad that you have picked up about this aspect in my writing. I don’t know why but I  love writing about ordinary people, from all walks of life and can relate to them very well on a par as those from the higher classes. Since childhood I have been fascinated by class divisions, in particular in Pakistan. In my work I explore how these divisions impact on human beings and their relationships. Class divisions is a theme that runs through all  my three novels and some of my short stories in my new collection ‘A Pair of jeans and other stories.’ In my novels – in Revolt as well as The Holy Woman and Typhoon the minor characters become almost ‘major’ characters. As noted by many readers my affection for them becomes so obvious to the reader; for instance one of my favourite characters in Revolt is the character of the gossip monger Massi Fiza, the local washerwoman. As one reviewer points out, ‘The minor characters have their moments to shine too.’

 

Q. Your novel, Revolt, flits between England and Pakistan. Why did you decide to do this?

In Revolt I have explored cross cultural/East versus West issues and also mixed race marriage.

This has resulted in me setting my novel in Liverpool and a fictitious village of Gulistan in Pakistan. It is the story of Daniela, the English teacher and Ismail, the Pakistani landowner’s son.

 

Q. Your novel, The Holy Woman received great critical acclaim. Is it difficult to keep up the momentum of writing after a huge success? How do you keep motivated?

I am very motivated and have no choice but to remain so. I juggle a busy family life and a successful writing career with an equally successful one in education as an inspector and consultant specialising in three remits. There is always so much to do.

In particular, I found the writing process of my third novel very difficult. Written at a different phase of my life it was difficult to keep up the momentum with the writing of Revolt; it literally took me 8 years to complete. I was very busy with many international tours and a demanding full time education job as a quality manager – I was left with literally no time to write.

Moreover it became a blockbuster of a long novel and therefore it took longer time to complete. I wanted it to be as good as the other two; both have been published well including by Penguin India. So I worked on it for a long time to improve its quality.

 

Q. Tell us more about your novel writing process? What works best for you?

I am trying to finish the first draft of my 4th novel (5th work of fiction) set in Morocco.The writing of the first draft – getting scenes, dialogue, description onto a page from the head as a novelist is the challenging part of writing but also very exciting too – as the story begins to take shape and characters come alive. It’s shaping well at the moment. New characters have entered and changed the dynamics of the plot and the relationships between them. It’s all so fascinating! You can follow the ‘writing’ journey of this novel on my webpage under, the heading of ‘writing diaries’.

I write mainly in the morning and edit some parts late at night. Otherwise the middle of the day and evenings are taken up with other commitments – cooking, writing related admin work, including preparing for tours, interviews or inspections or family life etc. When I do inspections there are long spells of no writing time, I am afraid. Then I have weeks away from home and writing when I am touring other countries to attend literary festivals or to promote books in translation. I am enjoying this Easter break as at last I am reunited with my characters, including with Turaya and Hind.

In the old days, for instance with my earlier short stories and first novel, I used to write by hand. Now I am delighted to say I can write, even my first draft, straight onto the computer screen. This is a great bonus, as it has saved me the word processing costs. Also it is great that I am able to edit my novel as I go along. However, in other ways it’s a totally different process to my first novel. For instance my head is always so crammed with other matters and relating to my writing life, that often, there is little space for pure creativity. This is worrying at times. I have no time to have a writers’ block. Other bad news is that – there is a new distraction on the scene, which is eating up my creative time quite significantly – online social media! I find myself often being lured either onto Twitter, or Facebook. When I wrote my first novel 17 years ago I had more ‘quality’ writing time. Also there were no world literary tours or promotional events to plan.

 

Q. Why do you think there is still a lack of published works by British Pakistanis, especially women?

I think writing still remains as a career that most would aspire to – but think it’s for others or simply shy away from. Combined with this is the sad reality that very few writers can live off it apart from journalism. I am still dependent on my education work as my main source of income. I am not complaining – in fact delighted that I have two successful careers. I encourage aspiring writers to have another career or interest under their belt; for writing alone is not enough to pay your bills. Also I could not be a full time writer, (writing alone in a room all day) because I enjoy the company of other people too much and love my work in the field of education.

At the moment there are quite a few British Pakistani women poets and novelists – the younger generation of British Pakistanis. When I started writing in the early 1980s – I only knew of Farrukh Dondy and Meera Syal in Britain. Neither were Pakistanis. There were plenty of Indian writers but no Pakistani writers in Britain then; no Kamila Shamsies or Nadeem Aslams – they came much later. Hence I felt a need to write stories and later my novels set in Pakistan.

 

Q. What book are you reading at the moment and which female author excites you the most?

I am reading a book called ‘Look after mother’ and absolutely love it. We can all relate to this theme – talking about mothers. It’s written by a famous Korean author, Kyung Sook Shin with whom I recently shared a literary panel in London, as part of the London Book Fair and Asia festival events.

I have loved the works of the English author, Jane Austen very much and been much influenced by it. Also by George Eliot. I have studied this author’s work up to a master’s degree level by writing a dissertation on her best work, her masterpiece, Middlemarch, comparing her heroine, Dorothea Brooke’s life with Leo Tolstoy’s heroine, Anna Karenina in his famous novel of the same name.

 

Q. What’s the best advice you’ve had when it comes to writing? And what’s the advice you wished you’d ignored?

Most of the advice and tips I have received from other writers has been most useful. There is nothing that ‘I wished I’d ignored’. ‘Write about what you know best, enjoy writing it and be true to yourself,’ is the first and one of the most useful pieces of advice I received as a writer and thoroughly valued. As a result I wrote about what interested me, what meant a lot to me and what was familiar and I could relate to. I loved reading stories and novels set in other countries – I really enjoyed them as they introduced me to other worlds. This enjoyment resulted in my interest in having Pakistan as a setting of many pieces of fiction. I wanted to take, in particular the western reader on a journey to the rural world of Pakistan, and to introduce Muslim countries and other cultures and ways of life. However no work of fiction of mine is based on real people or real events – all are pure pieces of fiction.

 

Qaisra Shahraz is a prize-winning and critically acclaimed novelist and scriptwriter. Born in Pakistan, she has lived in Manchester (UK) since childhood and gained two Masters Degrees in English and European literature and scriptwriting. Being a highly successful and achieving woman on an international scale, Qaisra was recognised as being one of 100 influential Pakistani women in Pakistan Power 100 List (2012). Previously she was nominated for the Asian Women of Achievement Awards and for the Muslim News Awards for Excellence. Her novels, The Holy Woman and Typhoon, are translated into several languages. The Holy Woman (2001) won the Golden Jubilee Award, was the ‘Best Book of the Month’ for Waterstones and has become a best seller in Indonesia and Turkey. Her award-winning drama serial Dil Hee To Hai was broadcast on Pakistani Television in 2003. A critical analysis of her works has been done in a book entitled The Holy and the Unholy: Critical Essays on Qaisra Shahraz’s Fiction (2011. Qaisra Shahraz has another successful career in education, as a consultant, teacher trainer and inspector.