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Ayisha Malik: 'Think about what makes your story unique – why it's different to anything that's out there already'

BY Discoveries
13th Oct 2021

CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and Audible to run Discoveries, a writing development prize and programme, which offers practical support and encouragement to aspiring female novelists of all ages and backgrounds, from across the UK and Ireland.

This week the Discoveries team talk books and writing advice with acclaimed author Ayisha Malik. Ayisha is the author of the critically acclaimed novels, Sofia Khan is Not ObligedThe Other Half of Happiness, and This Green and Pleasant Land. She was a WHSmith Fresh Talent Pick and Sofia Khan was a London CityReads choice in May 2019. Ayisha is winner of The Diversity Book Awards and has been shortlisted for the Asian Women of Achievement AwardMarie Claire’s Future Shapers Awards and h100’s Awards for Publishing and Writing. Ayisha is also part of the Discoveries 2022 judging panel – she will join author and founder of the Women’s Prize Kate Mosse, award-winning author Irenosen Okojie, CBC’s founder and director Anna Davis, and Curtis Brown literary agent Lucy Morris.

Before becoming a full-time writer, you worked as a publicist for Penguin Random House. Did you always want to work in the world of books?

I always wanted to be a writer and I was told during my MA in creative writing that the best way to get published was to get a job in publishing. Even if it's just as a cleaner.

When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?

At a very young age. But it felt like more of a pipe dream. I don't think I wanted to do anything else. I'm certainly not equipped to do anything else.

Your debut novel Sofia Khan is Not Obligedhas been called the ‘Muslim Bridget Jones’ – you’ve spoken before about how the lack of Muslim representation in literature was one of the reasons you wrote the novel. Can you tell us a bit more about your experience of writing your first novel and your initial path to publication?

I was one of the lucky ones in that I managed to get the first book I wrote published. It took a while to write (the luxury of not having a contract) and it was a huge learning curve for me in terms of understanding structure, pacing – all that editorial stuff that writers aren't taught but learn along the way. Working for Cornerstones, a literary consultancy, helped me a lot with that. After signing with my brilliant agent, Nelle Andrew, it took a few months to get a publisher. So much of it is timing, who's looking for what and good (or bad) luck.

Your latest novel This Green and Pleasant Land follows accountant Bilal Hasham as he undertakes his mother’s dying wish: for him to return to his English village and build a mosque. Where did you find the inspiration for this book?

I don't think inspiration comes in any one way, but this idea struck me quite vividly. I've been based in London my whole life and my previous books were quite London-centric, but Brexit taught us many things, and one of them was that London is a bubble. So, I wanted to move out of that and base a book in a quintessential English setting, bringing in a rather controversial idea. I like thinking about the inevitability of change and the tension and conflict (and eventual – hopefully – acceptance) that comes with that.

Your stories always have a brilliant character at their heart. What comes to you first the premise or the lead character?

It's often the premise with a type of character attached. Character for me develops over drafts – but I generally know the core of who they are before I begin.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

How to choose! Bathsheba Everdene is a favourite of mine. As was Dorothea Brooke – I'm re-reading Middlemarch right now and it's so interesting the way your perception of character changes over time, depending on when you read the book.

Which book do you always recommend to others?

Heartburn by Nora Ephron. And obviously anything by Austen. Also, I read anything by David Nicholls who is one of my favourite contemporary British writers.

We’re so pleased to have you onboard as a judge for Discoveries 2022 – do you have any advice for aspiring authors getting ready to submit to the prize?

I know it sounds silly, but check carefully for typos! Think about what makes your story unique – why it's different to anything that's out there already. Why do you feel you're the right person to tell this story?

What will you be looking for from entrants when reading for Discoveries?

For me, it's voice and style that captivates me. Something that makes me laugh is always a good sign – or makes me think, question, wonder. But a unique style can't be taught, and it's that sort of talent that makes me sit up.

Find out more about Discoveries 2022 and enter by 17 Jan 2022.