Ahead of the publication of her debut YA novel, Ten Steps to Us, author and Novel Studio alumna Attiya Khan kindly found time to answer some questions from Novel Studio Course Director, Emily Pedder.
- How did the idea for Ten Steps to Us first come about?
The opening scene started as a simple writing exercise in a creative writing workshop that I was part of. It got really good feedback in the class and the story just blossomed in my mind. The characters of Aisha and Darren and their forbidden love developed over time into a full novel.
- Did you always know you wanted to write a Young Adult novel?
I have three teenage kids and I remember my daughter saying there were so few books that she could relate to because there were so few BAME characters. This really spurred me on to write such characters. I also think the angst and the pain you feel as a teenager, when you are learning who you are as a person, are so interesting to write about as there is so much conflict.
- Which writers or books have inspired you?
I love all kinds of books: thrillers, crime, romance and literary fiction. At the moment I am a little bit obsessed with Elif Shafak and am working through all her books. I recently finished The Forty Rules of Love which is about Sufiism, and I thought it was a masterpiece.
- Your novel deals with complicated issues of religion, race and class in an accessible and entertaining way. Was that important to you when thinking about writing this novel?
It was very important to me. The book is not an autobiography but there are elements of myself in Aisha. As a Muslim girl growing up in Kent I often felt very isolated and that I didn’t quite fit in. I am very interested in the angst that people feel when they are caught between two cultures. I wanted to play with the idea of being stuck in the middle and the confusion and pain that brings, when you don’t quite know which way to turn. I wanted to convey that it’s okay to be confused about who you are and to feel torn. You don’t have to be perfect to be a Muslim. Religion is a very personal thing, and it really is between you and God. Everyone finds their own way.
- What’s your writing process? Do you plan first, or do you write to find out what you want to say and how you want to say it?
A bit of both to be honest. With this book, I wrote the beginning and then the end. I got stuck in the middle so did a chapter plan and worked out what was going to happen and then wrote it.
- You’re a graduate of City’s Novel Studio. Can you tell us a little about your experience on the course and how it fed into your novel?
The plan that I just talked about was suggested by the Novel studio in one of the tutorials and it really helped. I probably wouldn’t have completed the first draft of the novel if it wasn’t for the Novel Studio. We did a showcase and following this an agent contacted me saying she wanted to read the rest of the novel. This motivated me to complete the novel.
- What was your path to publication? And how has the experience been so far?
The agent who contacted me following the showcase didn’t actually sign me, but her interest led me to believe in myself a little more. I completed the first draft of my manuscript after she showed interest and shortly after this was selected for David Higham’s Open Day for Underrepresented Writers and then longlisted for Undiscovered Voices 2020. I really started to believe in my novel after this. I got picked up by Hashtag Blak, a publishing house for underrepresented writers at the start of the pandemic. It has been a great experience so far. We have been through several rounds of edits and the book is out for publication 9th September. Exciting times!
- Amazingly, you’re not just a novelist but you’re also a GP and a mother of three. How do you find time to write?
It has been very challenging, especially with the pandemic when work became very, very busy. However, for me, writing is an escape from the stress of day to day life. I also got a lot of support from the critique groups that I was part of. It is hard but I love it and I guess that’s what kept me motivated.
- What advice would you give your younger writing self?
Believe in yourself! Listen to constructive feedback and take it on board but also develop a thick skin. Other people’s opinion is very subjective, what one person hates another person may love. Tell the story that you want to tell.
- What are you working on next?
I am in the middle of writing a GP thriller. (Again, I must stress this is not an autobiography!) It’s about a doctor with mental health problems who is working with another doctor who she suspects is a murderer. Is she losing her mind or are her suspicions correct – and if they are correct how will she get anyone to believe her?
Thank you so much, Attiya! And huge congratulations on your brilliant debut. We wish you all the success in the world with it.