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26 August 2020

Aliya Ali-Afzal: ‘I can’t wait to hold a real, physical copy of my book’

Aliya Ali-Afzal Author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Aliya Ali-Afzal joined us for a Three-Month Novel-Writing course in 2013. Now she has an exciting two-book deal with Head of Zeus.

We caught up with Aliya to find out more about her debut novel Would I Lie to You? and to discover her secret writing fuel (magnums!).

You took our Three-Month Novel-Writing course in London, in 2013. How did the course impact your approach to writing?

It changed everything for me. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by a group of people who took their writing seriously. I loved the fact that the ultimate goal of the course was to get published, and found this ambitious approach both motivating and inspirational. Until then, I had only ever dared to think about my writing as a hobby. The authors and agents who came along to talk to us every week, introduced me to a world where writing was a profession. Suddenly, writing a novel no longer seemed like just a vague fantasy, but a possible reality.

Many of the students form lifelong friendships and writing support groups whilst studying on our courses. Are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Our group has met once a month in Central London, ever since we finished the course, and we also take turns to host annual socials at our houses at Christmas and in the Summer. We are each other’s editors, cheerleaders, PR gurus, professional advisors, and trusted sounding boards. We read manuscripts and give honest feedback, review cover letters, and help when one of us is stuck with a writing problem. It is invaluable to have writer friends who understand how hard writing is, who help restore your confidence when you hit the inevitable lows of a writer’s life, and are thrilled for you when things go well. I know we will be friends for life.

Would I Lie to You? was longlisted for The Bath Novel Award and The Mslexia Novel award, now it is set to be published by Head of Zeus next year. What has the journey to publication been like for you and how does it feel knowing that your novel will be published?

A few months after the course ended, I had to stop writing for almost three years, due to unexpected family and work commitments. I never stopped thinking about my story and characters, but I missed writing terribly, and worried that I might never get back to finishing my novel. But thankfully I did. I wrote Would I Lie to You? over the next two and a half years, and started submitting to agents in November 2019. In January 2020, I was lucky enough to sign with my dream agent, Juliet Mushens. A couple of rounds of edits later, in July this year, I secured book deals with Head of Zeus in the UK, and Grand Central in the US. So, although it took longer than I would have liked, to finish writing my novel, and the road was never straightforward, once I had done it, things moved very quickly. It still hasn’t completely sunk in, that my books are going to be published. I can’t wait to hold a real, physical copy of my book, and am so excited that people will get to read it!

The novel follows Faiza a woman who has secretly spent her family’s emergency savings fund. Can you tell us a bit more about your debut and the inspirations behind it?

When Faiza’s husband Tom, suddenly loses his job, he thinks they have their emergency savings fund to keep them going until he finds something else. But Faiza has secretly spent that money and only she knows that they have nothing left. She becomes ever more desperate, as she tries to hide the truth. How far will she go, to put things right?

Faiza is a woman with a big secret, and the novel is about the things we hide from others, sometimes even from those closest to us. I have always been the friend who everyone tells their secrets to. Often, just before meeting a larger group, a friend will pull me aside and tell me about something quite upsetting in their life- a problem in their marriage or at work, a serious worry about their child, a row with a family member, or a medical or financial issue. Then, they ask me not to tell anyone else, and go in to meet the rest of the group, with a big smile on their face. No one would ever guess the pain they are carrying. That was the initial inspiration for the novel, as I thought about the different versions of ourselves, that we present to others. But where there are secrets, there is also an ever-present sense of terror, that you might be exposed. For Faiza, her secret leads to a chain of events that threaten to destroy everything in her life.

Did your tutor Nikita Lalwani help unlock any lightbulb moments where things start to click into place?

Nikita is a very insightful teacher and she helped me to identify some of the key themes in the novel, which is so hard to do yourself, when you are knee-deep in your manuscript. She asked questions that pushed me to explore all aspects of my novel in greater depth. Nikita is also one of the lecturers on my MA in Creative Writing course at Royal Holloway, and you could say that I followed her there! At CBC, both Nikita and Anna were very encouraging, which boosted my confidence enormously.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Magnums! Also, whenever possible, running away from home. I need space, both physical and mental, to be productive. Most of the novel was written in coffee shops all over London, and a big chunk on the fifth-floor café at Waterstones Piccadilly. There is coffee, there is cake, and always an interesting conversation at the next table to entertain me in my breaks. Plus, my family can’t track me down! I have also discovered that although I can write a first draft in any old state, to edit, it helps if I’m wearing lipstick and have curled my hair. If I am really struggling, I add earrings and high heels. It seems to work!

What tips would you give to an aspiring author?

Protect your writing. Everyone has some kind of obstacle that might stop them writing. Identify it and try to find a solution. Is it a lack of confidence, procrastination, finances, no moral or practical support, or the fear of failure? For me, it was feeling guilty at ‘stealing’ time away from my family and the day job, to spend on my writing. I had some CBT coaching, which helped me acknowledge that writing was as important to me as the all the other aspects of my life. Once I had made peace with this, I made amazing progress. I am a career coach and use that approach in my writing too. What’s stopping you from finishing your novel, and what can you do to manage it?

Finally, what’s next for you and your writing journey?

My deal is for two books, so as soon as I hand in my edits for Would I Lie to You? I want to start writing my next novel, which is about 24-year-old Zara, who is planning her wedding at the same time as her 90-year-old granny is planning her funeral. I have so many ideas for so many novels in my head. It took me a long time to get here my children are all grown up but now that I have started on this journey, I don’t want to stop!

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