Reem first caught my attention as a picture book author and then when she announced her debut middle-grade novel in verse. It means a lot when someone who juggles as much as she does -not only is she a talented writer but also a great photographer and mom of three- takes the time to offer advice to an up and coming writer like myself, and it makes me so happy that she is my first featured guest in what I hope to be a series of interviews with South Asian authors.
Reem, tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m an author who tries to write lyrical stories that reflect my experiences. I’m also a mom, former teacher, photographer, and mess maker.
Describe your writing journey in one word.
Okay in more than one word?
I know my writing journey could have been longer, but it feels long to me. I started writing picture books in 2010. My first picture book LAILAH’S LUNCHBOX was published in 2015. I wrote and wrote for the next few years. I thought once you had a book published, the rest of your manuscripts would be snatched up and published as well. I was wrong!
During those years I was often asked Do you have another book coming out? It felt like being asked When are you having your next baby? Although I worked and worked and wrote and wrote, it seemed like I was writing into a void.
Now SIX years after my first book was published, I’m finally seeing those stories come into fruition and I have three books AMIRA’S PICTURE DAY (Holiday House 2021), my debut middle-grade novel in verse UNSETTLED (HarperCollins 2021), and I CAN HELP (Eerdmans 2021) coming out this year! I also have a new non-fiction picture book based on my grandmother MILLOO’S MIND (HarperCollins) coming out in 2023.
You are so transparent about your writing journey on your own blog (thank you!) and it seems you have run the gamut of experiences when it comes to agents and book deals. Could you share some highlights?
You’re welcome! Yes, I try to share as much info as possible in case my experience helps anyone querying and beyond.
I went through the querying process for a new agent after my first agent left the profession. I stayed with her boss, but a few months later, she amicably split with me. I remember feeling as if I was starting from scratch all over again! My manuscript UNSETTLED needed some tweaks and further development and I wasn’t feeling as motivated to get them done.
Once I knew I had to find a new agent, I felt a sense of urgency to complete the manuscript once and for all. The summer of 2019 saw me staying up late past midnight, sitting in my kitchen with a stack of papers from my manuscript and flipping through them, adding post-it notes and highlighting areas that I needed to fix. A few days into revising, I saw the final pieces of the story. It was almost like when you find the last pieces of a puzzle and put them in – it was so gratifying. I then eagerly started querying. It felt great to get full requests from agents but also disheartening when I got those inevitable rejections. It was when I did get a couple of offers of agent representation that things started to look up for me. I signed on with Rena Rossner and she was enthusiastic to get my book on submission.
I remember going to a family wedding and in the wee hours that followed, thankfully taking off my makeup and changing into my pajamas and making Rena’s edits in the hotel room after my toddler was asleep. The unglamorous –yet cozy– writers’ life!
I wanted to incorporate Rena’s edits quickly so she could submit the story before the holiday season began. Something interesting was that my story felt like it got more editorial interest than agent interest and my book went on auction! We signed with Alyson Day of HarperCollins and am grateful that I get to be a debut middle-grade author.
What is your favorite genre to write, and why?
It changes, but currently, it’s middle grade. I love tackling tender topics. I also swoon for a good middle-grade voice.
As a fellow mom, I’m always interested to know how other moms find the time to write, especially during the pandemic. What has helped you?
Taking it one day at a time, one word at a time, and trying to be consistent.
Before, when my two older daughters were in school and my toddler was home with me, 10 am seemed to be our magical time. The sun would stream through the windows. I would set up my youngest with an activity or a TV show and I was finally ‘awake’ and ready to write.
Now, 10 pm seems to be my magical time. The children are in bed (doesn’t mean they’re asleep though!) and I sit down and write.
Being at home all the time in a pandemic, I try to change up my writing spots. Sometimes I’ll write at my desk, sometimes at the kitchen table, and sometimes on the lazy, brown sofa with a blanket and maybe a candle in the distance – so cozy! If I have a candle, it also reminds me to give my eyes a break and to look at it every now and then!
It’s obvious your culture influences your writing. I’d love to know more about your cultural roots, and how this affects what you want to write about.
I’m Pakistani and American and I used to live in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, and finally moved to the United States when I was thirteen years old. I remember when I was applying for college and had to write an essay, my father told me that I had lived through different places and experiences and encouraged me to write about what made me different.
Years later, when I was just starting out with my picture books, I wrote some manuscripts that reflected my culture and some that didn’t, and the ones that directly reflected my culture were the ones that got the most attention.
I love my grandparents and my family is very important to me, so when I write a story with a Pakistani character, I try to reflect that by adding a strong family dynamic. I’ll always try to add a grandparent or two, when able!
Tell us a bit about your upcoming book Unsettled. How excited are you about the launch?
It comes out on May 11th, which is my grandparents’ anniversary. I actually received my contract on the day my grandfather passed away from covid, so it’s been a bittersweet journey.
I’m guessing the launch will be virtual and I worry about all the things that could go wrong. Like what if my computer dies dramatically in the middle of the launch or my Wi-Fi stops working, or my 3-year-old barges in?!
Who are the authors you admire?
There are way too many! It’s hard to choose.
I love Chris Baron’s verse, Beverly Cleary’s humor, Hena Khan’s prose, Jacqueline Woodson’s depth, Enid Blyton’s imagination, Roald Dahl’s whimsy, and Sandra Cisneros’s lyrical words.
What are some of the more recent reads you enjoyed?
All Thirteen by Christina Soontornvat. Each line at the end of the chapter was a mix of poignant, heartbreaking, and hopeful, and made me keep turning the pages for more. Knowing it is a true story made it all the more incredible!
Right as Rain by Lindsey Stoddard. Stunningly written with relatable characters and a gorgeous voice.
Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park. This was lovely and so eye-opening that I even made my mom read it!
In picture books, Fauja Singh Keeps Going by Simran Jeet Singh & Baljinder Kaur was very inspiring!
Similar to beauty being in the eye of the beholder, so it is with books – it could mean different things to different readers. But as an author, what do you hope kids will feel when they read your stories?
If they’re Muslim or Pakistani, I hope they feel seen and that my book validates their experiences.
If they don’t share my faith or culture, I hope all my readers still feel seen and realize that no matter what our cultures or faiths are, our human experiences are universal, and that deep down, we’re all quite similar!
Huge thanks to Reem for being my first interviewee on the blog! I could imagine her writing this in her little nook in the kitchen, I could sense her pain about her grandfather’s passing, and I could feel her excitement as her book went to auction! I’m sure her stories too will have that magical ability to take the reader on a journey and I wish her all the very best (and no spotty WiFi!) for this exciting year ahead!
You can follow Reem on Twitter @ReemFaruqi and read about her upcoming releases here.