Hi Syed! Thanks for speaking to us!
Absolutely! Thank you so much for having me!
Can you give our readers a little overview of your debut novel 'More Than Just A Pretty Face?'
More Than Just A Pretty Face” is a romantic comedy that tells the story of Danyal Jilani, who is handsomebutnot very bright, at least in his own opinion. (Well…that’s actually also the opinion of a lot of people around him.)In order to impress the family of a girl he wants to court, Danyal ends up having to prove that he is more than just a pretty face by taking part (reluctantly) in a prestigious academic contest. It is a story of Danyal growing up, discovering love and his own depth of character.
Titles are so important, how did you come up with the title for this book? Did you come up with the title before, during or after the writing process?
I actually didn’t come up with the title! I’m objectively terrible at them. So far the titles of everything I’ve written have been suggested by my editors or my agent.
So yes, titles are really important, but having an awesome team that has your back is more important still!
A lot of authors get their inspiration for their characters from themselves or people they know. Where (if any) did your characters come from?
The book is built around a trio of friends: Zar (who is religiously lax), Danyal (the pretty one caught in the middle) and Sohrab (the religiously committed one). I’ve been Sohrab in my life and I’ve been like Zar too. Those two friends of Danyal’s are personal to me, in the sense that they are, in some ways, past versions of myself. Writing them was important. I wanted to show that Islam is not a monolith. People, even fast friends, can and do have complex and divergent relationships with their own shared identities. You don’t get a sense of that if your only exposure to Muslims is through the news.
What advice would you give someone wanting to write their own YA novel?
Read a lot of YA. There are so many brilliant, brilliant, brilliant YA authors out there. See how they do it. Let them inspire you. Learn the craft from them. From IbiZoboi to Karen McManus to AdibaJaigirdar, you’ve got so many great contemporaries. You’re in the golden age of YA. You can still enjoy it while you’re taking part in it.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? What made you want to write a YA novel?
To be honest with you, I didn’t set out to write a YA novel. I had just finished “The Bad Muslim Discount,” which is for adults. It is by no means an entirely serious novel, but one of the two narrators in the book is intense.
I was interested in writing a book about forgiveness—who gets forgiven and who doesn’t, for what and why. But, at the same time, I wanted to write something cheerful and full of hope. YA is the fiction of hope, in my opinion, so “More Than Just A Pretty Face” just…I mean, it just sort of happened. It wasn’t planned. I discovered the story as much as I wrote it. I’m not really sure if there is anything in my background that helps explain this. I will say that I’ve always enjoyed wandering my way through the world.A little disorganization and chaos, in life and in writing, is in my experience, not entirely a bad thing.
You’ve already had some fantastic reviews. How does that make you feel?
To quote BismaAkram from the book, I feel super validated.
Seriously though,trade reviews are very nice, and I appreciate truly them. But honestly, the most memorable feedback has come from readers. I’ve had people tell me that they don’t usually read but they read “More Than Just A Pretty Face” in a day. I’ve had a few say that the book busted them out of long reading slumps. I’m not sure there is anything better one can experience as an author. It’s amazing and I’m very grateful.
What do you want your readers to take away from More Than Just A Pretty Face?
I want people to have fun. It’s a rom-com, after all. Aside from that, I hope they reflect on the central theme of the book, which is acceptance. Our hero, Danyal Jilani, is not good at much, but he’s excellent at that. The world would be a better place if more people in it had Danyal’sopen and kind heart.
All authors are different. What is your writing process like?
Awful. I’m only half-kidding here. It’s a little painful. I don’t plot at all. I just start writing and see where things go. This means that I usually end up tossing out the first fifty pages of everything I write, and the first edit is very extensive.On the plus side, I’m always as surprised by what is happening as the reader is, so that’s genuinely a lot of fun. Wanting to know what happens next keeps me going in my first drafts. When I try to plot, I lose all that steam. It just doesn’t work for me.
Do you have any writing heroes? Do you take any inspiration from them?
I think Mohsin Hamid is brilliant. Also, Kazuo Ishiguro is a legend for a reason. (In terms of classics, Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde are my jam, along with Sufi and Urdu poets.)
However, the author who helped me most was Stephen King. His book “On Writing” was a revelation. My process is very similar to his in that I start with a scenario in mind and just sort of let the story take shape. Getting advice from someone who has had success with that method was incredibly useful.
Have you planned your next novel? Have you got anything your working on?
My next novel is actually literary fiction for adults called “The Bad Muslim Discount.” It is a comic novel tracking the lives of two characters, one Pakistani and one Iraqi, that collide in San Francisco in 2016. Fireworks ensue. It’s out 11/17/20.
My next YA novel does not have a title yet. However, I can tell you that it is about a boy who has been raised and homeschooled by his hundred-year-old great-grandfather and who is having to adjust to a more mainstream life now that he’s attending high school. He ends up as the dance partner of a girl who confuses him entirely and vice-versa. It’ll be out next year.
Your main character Danyal wants to be a great chef. Are you a big cook? What is your favourite meal to cook?
I’m not much of a cook—I’m more of a foodie—but I’ve got a few dishes I’m pretty good with. My nihari, in particular, is excellent due to a desi uncle I found on YouTube.
I’ve recently discovered a bunch of vegetable dishes thanks to the books of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. I’ve been trying out their recipes and they are fantastic!
The final word is yours Syed! Any parting message you’d like to give our readers?
Don’t trust first person narrators. Any of them worth spending time with have blind spots, biases and things they don’t know or understand. Their views—which incidentally are not always the author’s views—represent one, possibly flawed, perspective on the world.
This is both good and valuable. It means that when you’re done reading their story, you’ve learned something…but it is only a little something. So keep reading! Read whenever you can. It will help you remember that the canvas of human experience, like libraries, is varied and vast and beautiful.
Thanks so much Syed, below is an extract from his novel he has chosen himself, we hope you enjoy. And Happy Book Birthday!
The Akrams—was I supposed to know these people?— were seated in the formal living room of my parents’ deceptively nice house when I snuck in. Mom and Dad had bought it with the only serious money they’d ever had, my father’s inheritance, and were lucky that they’d made the purchase just before houses in the Bay Area got crazy expensive.
So now my parents were house rich. Their home was all they really had in the world, which was fine. It wasn’t like we were living in the earthquake capital of the world or anything.
The house was their fortune and their misfortune. It made people expect that they would live lavish lives, host ing and attending parties, driving cars that cost more than they could make in a year. I don’t know why my parents cared about what “society” thought of them, but they did, at least enough that it made their finances really tight.
It would have given them hope, I think, to imagine that there was help coming from their son, that he could grow up to be a doctor or lawyer or engineer, capable of making the facade of their lives real.
I think they’d gotten to know me well enough, how ever, to realize they shouldn’t dream such dreams. The slightly sweet smell of saffron-¬infused chicken biryani that lingered in the air distracted me from the guests and lured me into the kitchen. Given the pile of plates stacked in the sink, it was obvious that everyone else had already eaten.
Grabbing a spoon, I took a bite straight from the pot and let out a happy sigh. The basmati rice was perfect, each grain separate from the others. It was somewhere between spicy and mild, and the baked chicken wasn’t dry. Mom had the proportions of her dum biryani down to a science.
I was only going to have one bite, but there is nothing like the first spoonful of biryani to make you realize how hungry you are. Hoisting the entire steel pot onto the din ing table, I began shoveling food into my mouth as fast as I could. That was how Bisma Akram saw me for the first time.
“Hi,” she said.
I cleared my throat and wiped at my mouth with the back of my hand. “Hello.”
“Danyal Biryani. I mean, Jilani. Danyal Jilani.”
Bisma was one of those people who, but for one defin ing feature, would’ve been unremarkable to look at. In her case, it was her swift smile. It caused her nose to wrinkle a bit, and her cheeks dimpled. She didn’t have anything remotely like Kaval’s scorched earth beauty, and she didn’t have the figure to make everything she wore look a little tight. Bisma was willowy—no, that makes people think of movie stars and models. Wrong plant. Bisma was... palmy.
Was it weird that I was so focused on her looks? A lit tle, I guess, but that’s the reality of the arranged marriage process. Normally, our parents would have exchanged photos and biographical information before any of this happened—it was the old brown people version of trad ing baseball cards—and the picture alone would’ve deter mined whether or not we even met each other.
So don’t judge me for being shallow. Judge all desis.
Anyway, my mom was right. Bisma wasn’t hot.
There was, however, something undeniably attractive about her. Her vibe was very geek-¬California. She had on a pair of retro square eyeglasses that were slightly big for her face. Her long, light brown hair hung in loose waves. In white jeans and a baby-¬blue T shirt with Spider-¬Man’s face in the shape of a heart, she obviously didn’t care enough about being set up with me to dress up. I liked that.
“Do you want me to twirl around or are you good?”
Crap. I’d stared too long. I could feel my face get hot. That was probably the first time in my life a girl had made me blush.
“Sure,” I joked. “Go ahead.”
She blinked, obviously a little taken aback, then shrugged her narrow shoulders and spun around. I hadn’t expected her to actually do that.
“Well?” Bisma asked, hands on her hips.
I knew I should say something nice.
“Nice,” I said.
She let out an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Thank God. I feel super validated.”
Bisma laughed then, and I couldn’t help but join in.
“Hear that?” I heard my mother say from the other room. It was practically a squeal. “They’re getting along. I think now is a good time to send them out for coffee, don’t you?”