Shazia J Altaf on winning the Creative Future Writers’ Award

Why did you enter the Creative Future Writers’ Awards? 

I have been on a strange journey with writing and life up until this moment… After ten years of working on a novel, I decided I needed to start sending my work out… I didn’t know any writer people, and wasn’t part of a writer group, or anything like that. I’m a total outsider. Where I am from writing just isn’t the done thing. I’m sure I saw the Creative Future Writers’ Award listing on The Asian Writer. There were concisely placed listings for many competitions and awards, in date order, which I genuinely found really helpful.

Tell us more about your writing journey.

I started writing after the birth of my beautiful little girl Ayah. She was the metaphorical push and the literal one. I always knew I would write a novel someday, even as a teenager in school, but I never said it out loud. I was a prolific reader, eating sometimes ten books a week from the local library as a kid. I wasn’t thinking about publishing or anything, just that I would write something one day… The short story I entered for the prize was adapted from this longer work. I finished writing it fairly quickly.

I also started writing a few other short stories this past year and was listed for a story in the Exeter Story Prize 2021. My novel, Jammed Ascent was shortlisted for the inaugural Primadonna Prize 2021 but sadly had to be withdrawn, as I signed with a literary agent. It’s been an eventful year!

Where were you when you heard you had been longlisted and what was your immediate reaction?

It was a really burning hot day in the summertime. I was at home, had the laptop on, and my little boy was running around my legs… the cutie pie. He’s only three and thick with milk teeth. I saw an email ping, and I thought it was another rejection… I didn’t want to look, because it can become brutal over time but when I did I couldn’t quite believe it. 

And when heard you won, what was going through your mind?

I remember I kept saying to myself, this isn’t true… this isn’t true… this isn’t true… I was dumbfounded. Disbelief ran cross country through my mind. I even emailed Matt Freidson, the Creative Future deputy director to double-check they had emailed the right person, and ask if he was serious. I thought it was a mistake, or maybe someone was pranking me, but then I thought who would bother to prank me? Nobody even really knows I write. When Matt emailed back it was really true and the judges were really deeply impressed with my entry, I was flabbergasted.

Tell us about the prizes you won and what doors have opened since.

The prizes are phenomenal from Creative Future. They are so deeply generous, and they talk the talk about helping under-represented writers. I entered because the prizes offered the possibility of a TLC Manuscript assessment, a Faber Academy place, or a Curtis Brown course, and many others amazing prizes.

I had some agent interest before the Award, but after my win that increased a hell of a lot. A few agents who previously rejected me while praising my writing got back in touch and asked for the manuscript again. Publishing is a funny old place… I think this novel is such an unusual story, that some people struggled with the breadth of it. I have now found the right person to champion my work and recently signed with the absolutely wonderful Liv Maidment at Madeleine Milburn Literary, Film and TV Agency. Liv is really something else, she got the novel’s heart, and that’s all I ever really wanted. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s nice if people believe in you… but it also doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is believing in yourself. Don’t you dare stop! You are the bet you have to place, follow the words and the words will follow you… nothing else matters…  Who would have thought a writer like me from Middlesbrough would come through? 

Shazia J Altaf is a writer from Middlesbrough, in the North East of England from a working-class background, and is currently working editorially on her manuscript Jammed Ascent with the TLC received for winning the Creative Futures Award 2021, Platinum prize for prose for her short story Essential Thread. As part of the award, Essential Thread was published in this year’s Creative Future Writers’ Award anthology, and performed at the Southbank Centre. She has been listed in the Exeter Story Prize 2021. Her novel Jammed Ascent was short-listed for the Primadonna Prize 2021. Shazia is represented by Olivia Maidment at the Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV, and Film Agency.