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Q. How do you come up with the titles to your books?
A. For the book The Cosmos that Allah has Designed, it was pretty evident, it’s a line that was used a lot in the book. There were a few comments where people asked why the book was not named The Cosmos that Allah Designed , and why I had added has in it.
It’s because I wanted to explain that this is in the present, if it was just ‘The Cosmos that Allah Designed’, it would’ve taken you to the past. So I wanted to say Allah is there, he is present and he has designed the cosmos.
I thought long and hard about the title for the book ‘Before Birth, Beyond Life’, and I finally decided to change it in the next edition of the book. I did the mistake of titling it Before Birth, Beyond Life, because its talking about what happened before you were born and what happened after but in the next edition of this book, it’s going to be called Before Allah Made You.
As a writer for Muslim children’s books, I wanted to make it more mainstream, that was my idea, I didn’t want it to be the cookie cutter kind of books that we have, that the mothers buy and keep on the bookshelves but the children never read.
I wanted this to be a little different from those. But I think the most important part is to identify the genre it represents, so the titles should represent what’s inside the book.
Q. How do you do research for your books?
A. There was a lot of research that went into these books, for The Cosmos that Allah has Created, I actually saw the whole Cosmos series all over again *giggles*. I needed to have it all clear in my brain before I put it on the paper.
And for Before Birth, Beyond Life, a lot of religious concepts were embedded into the story. For example, it talks about the creation of Adam Alaisalam and how all the souls were created. This was taken from a part of The Hadith. I had saved up all the numbers and references because I didn’t want to say anything which was not right.
Eventually the book was sent to the Saudi authority and when they had asked me their questions, I had to have everything just right. Every line in this book has references to it, and at the end of the book I have added a QR Code for whoever wanted to go back and see those references.
There are a lot of contents on this book, for example, the mother speaks about the love for her child, and it speaks regarding what you need to talk to your children about. In our culture, we never usually say that we love each other or even if we did say those words it always felt superficial. There can be thousands of ways to say I love you, and that’s among the other things I wrote about in this book.
Q.Are you on social media and can your readers interact with you?
A. Yes, I am on Instagram. I only started this year on Instagram, so my Instagram account is growing slowly. But Alhumdulilah, the response surprised me because initially when I put on the information about my first book, I had orders coming from Malaysia, Maldives and Nigeria, based only on a simple description about the book. That tells us about how much demand there is for Muslim children’s books which are written right.
Q. What was your favorite part, and your least favorite part, of the publishing journey?
A. The publishing journey is like a marathon, so it’s going to be slow, it’s going to be long, it’s not a sprint, and you should know that. People usually think that the first time they submit their manuscript people are going to be all over it and the first time they publish it it’s going to be everywhere and it’s going to be amazing but usually authors take a long time. It’s maybe after the second or third book that they actually get recognized.
100 years down line these books might be considered a classic. The life of a book, once you write it, it’s there forever. It’s going to be there long after you’re gone. That’s what I think people should look for rather than short term goals about writing and about being an author.
Q. What is the most surprising thing you discovered while writing your book(s)?
A. I feel that in certain parts of the world there is very little understanding about children’s books, and especially pictured books, so there is very little understanding on what it’s supposed to be.
I once showed my book to a distributer at a book fair, and he said that people liked thick books, and then he showed me a 300 paged book that had been written in a very outdated sort of a language. I’ve seen those kinds of books, those are the books that parents buy for their children, but their children never read it, but he said that that was what I should aim for.
So I feel this is the most surprising part I discovered. I thought that people are going to understand it but there is still a lot of educating that needs to be done in this part of the world.
Q. Are you working on anything at the present you would like to share with your readers about?
A. The third book is called Between Fear and Hope and it’s a father and son book. This writing was a part of my first book. But then my editor suggested that it should be a separate thing on its own and that’s how I developed it.
With the book Before Birth, Beyond life, I got a feedback that the book was very feminine, my daughter was very happy with it but my son lost his interest on this book very quickly.
I wanted the third book to be super heroes based, and when I ran my book by him, his eyes lit up because children get very excited with super heroes.
The book is about a father talking to the son about our traditions and about how the father would support his son no matter what they choose for their future. I think it’s very important if the fathers read this book to their sons, because then the fathers will then make up their minds that they will allow their children to be whatever they wanted to be.
In this part of the world children are burdened by expectations even from a young age. I thought this was very vital to have something like this where the parents actually prioritize what values they want to see in their children rather than what profession they want them to be in.
Other than this I usually work on 3 to 4 different projects at the same time, I have a bank of ideas that I incrementally add to my works, so hopefully you will see more of my books coming out.
Zenubia Arsalan is the author of the children’s book Before Birth, Beyond Life and The Cosmos that Allah has Designed.
She writes about faith, values, science and spirituality and finds her inspiration in science, scripture, and nature. She started her career as an Editorial Assistant in 2005 and is an avid reader.
She is from Pakistan and currently lives with her husband and children Sugarplum, Honeybunch, and Yumpkin in Dubai, UAE.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
ABOUT HER BOOKS
Q. Can you tell us a little about yourself, like what you did before you started writing?
A. I started my career as an editorial assistant for a magazine, and that’s something I always wanted to do since I was a child. I know it’s a cliché when people say ‘I always wanted to be a writer’, but I always wanted to be a writer. *giggles*
And now that I have actually published my books, people who know me from recent times were actually a bit surprised, but people who knew me since childhood knew that I would someday be a published author.
I was always interested in reading books. We grew up at a time when we did not have a lot of television shows and channels; we did not have so much of the internet or Netflix. So what we usually did back then was read all day. The books became like an anchor, a comforting blanket, and I was able to process my emotions and my place in the world by just looking at the books.
There was one thing that I always noticed in the books I read back then, it was that none of the authors were religious; all of them were mostly atheist.
I grew up in a steady diet of R.L Stine, Stephen King and Christopher Pike, and all the other books that were in the Horror genre.
And I think it was a rite of passage, I read all those novels and I got better exposures so I started being more critical about what I read. But even then, I did not see myself reflected in the books that I read.
Now fast forward many years, I am a stay-at-home mom of 3 children, and they’re all avid readers and they love to read. And by spending time with them, it made me realize that what I have to say is important, my voice is important. There came a time in my life where I thought everything about people’s lives had already been written, but that’s not true, we all have a unique voice and we all have a message which is very unique.
Q.What is your favorite book from your childhood?
A. I loved the Enid Blyton books. And now even after so many decades, my daughter is reading the same books. She is also reading and re-reading them because there’s something very wholesome about her books, about children going on adventures and children solving mysteries.
Q. Can you tell us something about yourself that not many people know about?
A. My father was a merchant navy captain and I spent a lot of my childhood at sea. We used to spend months at a port and then go back and sail off to another place. I have very fond memories of travelling around the world with my parents.
And at one point and time when I was a very young girl I became friends with the ship’s Lucky.
On every ship there are ranks, there are captains, chief officers, and the electrician is usually called Lucky on every ship. So my friend, who was the Lucky, was from Singapore. He had a huge collection of self help books and I remember reading those self help books a lot. I think I was exposed to self help books at a very young age and that’s why somehow I try to do my own thing instead of following the crowd. So that’s something people don’t know about me.
ABOUT HER WRITING
Q. What inspired you to start writing?
A. People think that my first book, The Cosmos that Allah has Designed, is a dichotomy between religion and science. Although when you think about it, in the Quran it says over and over again that “In the creation of the heavens and the earth there are signs for those who believe.” So it’s actually asking us to look at the signs.
While growing up, there were no books like these for us, so what I wanted to do was put the word God and the word Cosmos in the same sentence, and that’s what I did.
I started with the line: This is the Cosmos that Allah has Designed, and over and over again this is repeated so you go through the earth, the moon, the stars, the planet, the galaxy and the black holes, because Allah is the one who created everything, and he is the one who governs the laws of physics and the laws of science, so this is what I wanted to instill in children since the beginning. Allah is the one who has created everything.
And the second book, Before Birth, Beyond Life, started with the questions my children used to ask me all the time. “Where did we come from?” They’d ask me.
They usually love hearing stories about the time when I had them in my belly and how they kept eating up all the food.*Giggles*. They found those stories very interesting, so this is where it started from, this was my inspiration. I wanted to cover the whole cycle of life.
Q. How long have you been writing?
A. I only started to share it now, but I’ve been writing for a long time, writing can get quite deep somewhere because I think it takes a lot of courage and a lot of push to actually publish something.
Q. When did you start writing?
A. Professionally, my first job was as an editorial assistant and I wrote a regular column on children’s technology magazine which we don’t have any more so it’s now defunct, but that’s where I started writing.
Q. Have you always wanted to be a writer?
A. Yes, absolutely! I always wanted to be a writer. But I never wanted to have the conventional approach and study literature. I knew I had to go out and explore life.
I think you need to experience things to be able to write and so I followed a regular career path. I did my bachelors and I did my MBA. I worked in the corporate world but at the back of my mind I knew that I always wanted to write.
Q. What advice would you give a new writer, someone just starting out?
A. I think the best advice came to me from Julia Cameron. She recommended the morning pages, so when I wake up in the morning I read and write about 1 to 3 pages, and that actually helps me process a lot of my thoughts. So the things that blocked my creative flow gets out of the way, and then I get in the flow when I sit down to write.
I think that’s one of the best advices I got for writing. Also, you need to read, A LOT, to be able to write.
Q. Can you describe for us your ideal writing space?
A.I love to sit outside in my garden when the weather is good, and that’s my actual space. But unfortunately we can’t use it most of the year round. But there is a tiny patio that I’ve made in my garden, surrounded by green plants. I love to sit there. And the best part about that place is that the WiFi signals are very weak, so I can just sit and focus on my work completely.
Q. What time of the day do you usually write?
A. It’s either early in the morning, or late at night. I think when everything is settled down and everything is quiet late in the night, I am more creative and more tuned in and there are fewer distractions.
Q. What is the most difficult part about writing for you?
A. For the books that I am writing for children, I wanted them to rhyme. But I didn’t want to it to be forcefully rhymed; I wanted it to be in a flow. I think that was the toughest part, so it may be a very small piece, but it took a lot of time and a lot of revision to just get it right.
Q. How do you handle a writer’s block?
A. I think ideas are good anchors, so I maintain a list of ideas. If I am ever stuck on how to proceed, I just look at those list of ideas. That definitely helps. And I noticed how we usually waste a lot of our time scrolling on the internet and social media. So I started using Google Docs to just jot down my ideas and start writing so the next time I open the laptop I can use Google docs to catch up where I left off.
Q. What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
A. The first this is: you should know your audiences, that determines everything. It’s going to determine the word count, the structure and the language.
EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR ZENUBIA ARSALAN