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Leila Aboulela: 'Some of the happiest and most inspiring moments in my career took place when I was an unpublished writer'

BY Katie Smart
20th Jan 2021

Leila Aboulela is an award-winning author. She is the author of five novels, Bird Summons, The Translator, a New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year, The Kindness of Enemies, Minaret and Lyrics Alley, Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Awards. Leila was the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing and her latest story collection, Elsewhere, Home won the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year Award.

We are delighted to welcome Leila to the CBC team, she is a mentor for The Breakthrough Writers’ Programme our new outreach initiative that supports under-represented writers. Our first-ever round of Breakthrough Mentoring closes for applications Sunday 24 January. Five talented Black writers will receive nine months of fully funded mentoring from a published author.

We caught up with Leila to talk about her approach to crafting fiction, teaching creative writing and the advice she has for aspiring authors…

Hi Leila, we’re very excited to welcome you to the CBC mentoring team. What is the most rewarding part of working with aspiring authors?

The enthusiasm they bring and seeing how tender they are with their writing. Some of the happiest and most inspiring moments in my career took place when I was an unpublished writer. It’s rewarding to see others go through these aha moments and the self-confidence they bring.

As well as novels, you write short stories and radio plays – is there one form that you prefer over the others?

I prefer short stories. Specially ones which are not too short, about 6,000 to 8,000 words. They are long enough to contain a complex fictional world and are fulfilling to read (and write).

Your latest short story collection Elsewhere, Home won the Saltire Fiction Book of the Year Award. Do you have any advice for writers who are new to the short story form?

The short story form is versatile. A short story could be a miniature novel, one scene, one glimpse, a conversation. It can be an interrupted flow, a whole that is trimmed or even slashed. It’s great for beginners because its faults are easily visible and so one gains more skills practising it. Also, you can quickly get feedback from a short story as compared to a novel when you would be working for months and months before being able to share it in its entirety.

Your work often explores themes of faith, family, and cross-cultural relationships. What inspires you to write?

I started writing after moving from Sudan to Scotland in my mid-twenties. I had previously always been an avid reader, but I wasn’t interested in writing. The anxieties about the move and my homesickness made me suddenly want to write. I realized that people around me in Scotland hardly knew anything about my identity and I was keen to share my heritage.

What does a typical day of writing look like for you?

Before switching on the wi-fi, talking to anyone, or eating breakfast, I write steadily (without editing) for about a couple of hours. The rest of the day I tend to be less disciplined mixing editing, re-writing, research, emails, social media and sometimes more writing but that session in the early morning is when most of the fresh writing is done. I am dependent on it.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. He is so moody and intellectual. At the same time, I doubt I would get along with him in real life, so he is better off staying on the page.

What book do you always recommend to others?

The Sudanese classic, Season of Migration to the Northby Tayeb Salih

What advice would you give writers preparing to submit their work to The Breakthrough Writers’ Programme?

Don’t hesitate. You will definitely gain something. Writing is a lonely process and it’s easy to get bogged down. A programme such as this one could be the helpful nudge forward that you need.