Leila Aboulela In Conversation with Toni Kan – ‘I write in the mornings before breakfast.”
L.A: My name is Leila Aboulela, my latest book is called Bird Summons. I have also written The Translator, Minaret, Lyrics Alley, The Kindness of Enemies and a short story collection called Elsewhere Home
T.K: Thank you. Do you feel comfortable
calling yourself a writer?
T.K: So, at what age or stage did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
L.A: Very late. I started writing in my sorta
mid-twenties. Actually, late 20s and I was published late into my 30s. And I
think it was a little bit late
T.K: Was this before or after the Caine Prize.
L.A: Before the Caine Prize. I won the Caine
Prize when I was 36 years old. And I had published my first novel, The
Translator the year before. The Caine Prize sorta accelerated things for me and
made more things accessible.
T.K: Now that we agree that you are a writer, if you were to write a short story or a novel, how does it come about? Is it an idea, a scent, a sound, conversation, what sparks the ideas for your story?
L.A: Usually, it’s an image and based on the character. My work is very character driven. I am interested in people, so usually it would be an idea about a person, and then I write the story. I am also interested in the immigrant experience, especially Sudanese immigrants who moved, just like myself.
T.K: With Minaret for example, what was the
L.A: With Minaret, I saw a woman ringing a bell in front of her house, which is the beginning of the novel. And I saw her as she was going in to start work as a maid in this family and I became interested in her story before, during and after. With The Translator, the image that I had is also of a woman doing some work in the snow but this was encountered later in the novel not at the beginning. When I started to write, I went back to the image.
T.K: So, now you have your image which has become an idea right? How do write? Do you have a target or do you go away or write at night or in the morning? What’s your process?
L.A: When my children were young I was tied to the school schedule. So, I used to take them to school and then come back and write. I would only write during the term time. When they were on holidays, I wouldn’t write in the afternoon. But now my children are grown up and leaving the house, so I discovered a very good way of writing. I write in the mornings before breakfast. Before looking at the news, before looking at the emails. I found that with this, I can produce a lot more words. Because once you put on your phone and look at the news, you are distracted. So, I discovered this and found it useful in producing a flow of words. I can push through this for an hour and produce 800-1000 words. At the end of the day, I could rewrite, add more or edit because you have to edit.
T.K: Writing or rewriting, which is tougher for you?
L.A: The blank page is tougher, especially. The beginning of the story is always tough because there is nothing to work with and usually, at the first 10,000 words I find it tough and then it becomes easier afterwards. The best stage is when you are at the middle of the novel, because you feel you have climbed one side of the story and its time to descend the other and then you feel good about doing something.