Monica Ali

·         When did you first realize you had a gift for storytelling and you want to be a writer?

If you’d told me, when I was a child, that it was possible that one day I would be a published author I’d have thought you were mad. I grew up poor. We didn’t have money to buy books. I borrowed books from the library and I was always escaping into novels. But I didn’t think people like me could write them and get them published. So I look back with a sense of awe and a little pride.

·         Who have been the influences in your life? From where do you seek inspiration for your subjects?

They’re many and various! But for Love Marriage, I can pinpoint a particular influence. One of my favourite writers is Jane Austen, and her novels centre on engagements and marriage. Through that supposedly narrow domestic sphere she manages to tell us a great deal about society, for example, money (she’s very precise about how much, from what source), power, class and the position of women. Today’s world looks very different, but the customs, rituals, expectations and family dynamics around engagements and marriage still offer a powerful lens with which to look at cultures and societies.

·         You wrote ‘Love Marriage’ after a gap of 10 years, why did it take so long to get back to novel writing?

I stopped publishing due to a loss of confidence. A good dose of self-doubt is essential for a writer, but a total loss of confidence is disastrous. I stopped writing. But that hiatus made me realise there is nothing else I really want to do with my life, other than write!

·         What compels you to return to writing novels though you have written across genres (short stories, essays as well)?

For me, the writing comes from character, and character is endlessly complicated. It’s in relation to other people that our character reveals itself, and there’s often a gap between our perceived ‘personality’ and our deep character, so it’s fascinating. This idea that there is a solid self somewhere…that kind of self just doesn’t exist. It’s a dynamic process spatially and over time. Depending on where you are, where you happen to have been born, and in relationship to others.I like writing with that freedom, and that complexity, and depth and layers. That’s why the novel form suits me.

·         Do you research your books? Give us a glimpse into your writing process?

To a certain extent, it depends on the character. For instance, when I was writing about Gabriel, my protagonist in In The Kitchen, I did a lot of research about chefs and commercial kitchens. I read extensively, and also spent long days in hotel kitchens, shadowing people or working alongside them. But even for those characters – the ones I feel compelled to swot up on or research – ultimately the ‘getting under the skin’ part is not that. How do you sink into the character? All the knowledge in the world won’t necessarily get you there. Ignorance might prevent you from getting there. But knowledge isn’t sufficient.

I don’t have a set routine, but there are things that I typically do. I make abundant notes about a character, thinking about their families and events in their lives that most likely won’t be in the novel, but might inform the way that character sees the world. That’s the essential part, I think, because the task is to try to see the world in the same way they do. Then I settled on a name. This naming can be tricky, not just any name will do. When I settle on a name, I try out lines of dialogue. How would this person speak? It’s not about writing lines of dialogue for the book. I’m trying to hear the character’s voice. Once I start being able to ‘hear’ them, then I’m ready to start writing.

·         Has your relationship with writing changed during the pandemic? How has it impacted your thinking about writing stories, your relationship with your craft, and your beliefs about the importance of telling stories?

I started writing before the pandemic, finished during, and the run up to publication was a period of uncertainty in which we weren’t sure if we’d be going into lockdown again. Everything, including the launch party, felt in doubt. But we’ve all grown so used to plans being provisional. I think I’ve learned to take each day as it comes.

·         What role do you think reading literature plays in addressing structural  inequality, discrimination, and injustice?

I think very few novelists have had a direct impact on society. You can think of exceptions – Charles Dickens is the most obvious – but it’s not often that you can trace a straight line like that. However, it’s also true that literature feeds into the national discourse and culture. It’s a little nebulous, but if you think of writers such as Coetzee it’s hard to argue that literature is totally irrelevant in feeding into that thought process.

·         Could you tell us a little about what you are working on at the moment?

I’m adapting Love Marriage for television with New Pictures and it’s in development with the BBC. I’m absolutely loving the challenge of writing for the screen and loving still having Joe and Yasmin in my life.

·         How do you react to criticism?

It very much depends. I love working with my editors to improve a manuscript. I love working with New Pictures and the iterative process of feedback and rewriting. Anything that can improve my work now or in the future is very welcome.

·         Who is your favorite writer?

So many, but some of my favorites are Austen, Tolstoy, R.K. Narayan, Graham Greene, V.S. Naipaul.

·         What advice would you give to young writers writing in English?

Be curious. About everything. Curiosity is the greatest asset you can have. And read. A lot. Writing courses are optional. Reading is essential.

·         What about your other interests?

I practise yoga and meditation. I love gardening too. And I’m involved – as Patron – with a charity called Hopscotch Women’s Centre that helps women from minority ethnic backgrounds to achieve their full potential in life.

·         The Jaipur Lit Fest is back on the grounds, how do you feel?

I’ve never been to the festival, but this year I took part in an online conversation. And maybe next year I’ll be able to be there in person. I’d love to be able to see the legendary Jaipur Lit Fest in action!

About Monica Ali

Monica Ali  is a British writer of Bangladeshi and English heritage. In 2003, she was selected as one of the “Best of Young British Novelists” by Granta magazine based on her unpublished manuscript; her debut novel, Brick Lane, was published later that year. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. It was adapted as a 2007 film of the same name. She has also published three other novels. Her forthcoming novel, Love Marriage  published by Virago Press in February 2022.

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