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To celebrate the publication of Grounded, a new middle-grade novel surrounding four kids searching for a lost cat in an airport, Huda Al-Marashi discusses the art of writing and publishing collaboratively. She sheds light on the technicalities of the collaboration process, the value of writing friendships, the commitment required to finish a book, writing for adults vs. kids, her advice for writers at two distinct parts of their careers, and more.
Huda Al-Marashi is the author of the bestselling memoir First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story. Her other writing has appeared in various anthologies and news outlets, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, and al Jazeera, and she is a fellow with the Highlights Foundation Muslim Storytellers Program. Grounded is her first novel for young readers.
In this episode:
- First Comes Marriage: My Not-So-Typical American Love Story
- Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women
- Jennifer Marie Donahue
- The Breakfast Club
- Arab-American representation in fiction and in children’s literature
Huda Al-Marashi (00:00): Meticulous revising, rewriting, trying to find out what you're really saying, trying to find out what your character really wants. And it taking several drafts to get there that hasn't changed. <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter (00:16): Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Today we're speaking with Huda Al-Marashi, author of the memoir FIRST COMES MARRIAGE: MY NOT SO TYPICAL AMERICAN LOVE STORY and also one of the co-authors of the new middle grade novel GROUNDED that releases today. We'll talk about writing collaboratively, writing for adults versus kids, the value of literary friendships and a lot more, Huda, welcome to the podcast. Huda Al-Marashi (00:59): Hi Laura! Laura Maylene Walter (01:00): Now this is usually where I ask my guest about their Ohio connection. I think we should just come clean about it right away. You are currently in California, but you did previously live in Cleveland where we got to know each other through writing groups and becoming critique partners and eventually writing friends. But what can you tell us about your time in Cleveland and what that time was like for you as a writer? Huda Al-Marashi (01:24): Yeah, I really look at my time in Cleveland as my literary home, my literary hometown, my literary birthplace even if you will. We moved to Cleveland in 2006 and we lived there until 2013 and they were very formative years of our lives on a personal level and on a professional level for me. You know, my youngest son was born there, my oldest son went through K through 5th Elementary. So really deep memories were formed there. We talk about Ohio all the time, but on the literary landscape, that's where I got my start as a writer. I don't know that I would've become the writer I am today if it wasn't for the time we had together in Cleveland. We first met at a public fiction writing workshop in I think 2006. As soon as I got there and you were one of my favorite writers in the bunch. Laura Maylene Walter (02:17): Same! Huda Al-Marashi (02:18): It was really the work we did outside of the workshop that I think solidified who I am as a writer. You know, we made these dates to meet in coffee shops and that's really together with you at the other side of the table and our mutual writing friend Jennifer Marie Donahue that I drafted, FIRST COMES MARRIAGE. One of my fondest memories is you and I made up our own NaNoWriMo January. Laura Maylene Walter (02:44): Oh, I almost forgot about that. You're right. Huda Al-Marashi (02:46): I got a good chunk of drafting done during that month and it was in January when we didn't participate in the the actual NaNoWriMo. But I think you and me, we made a commitment that we were going to show up to that. It was a Caribou coffee on Detroit. It's closed now, but we were going to show up there every single day for that whole month. Looking back on that, I can't imagine doing that again, making a space no matter what was going on that day, to show up for our work. Laura Maylene Walter (03:16): Yeah, it was really amazing when you think about it, at the time. I was working full-time as a trade magazine editor. It was January of course, cold, dark, busy, and you had young kids at home and we still found a way to meet every, pretty much every day. That is, yeah, I don't think I could do that again either. It is amazing Huda Al-Marashi (03:38): And it was really, we showed up for the commitment of having showed up and I think that says a lot right about the kind of promises you have to make to trick yourself into getting your first book written almost, until it becomes an established habit. Not to segue too much, but I do want to say that when I left Ohio, it was kind of a crisis for me as a writer because this landscape had given me so much, like outside of the writing friendships that I built there, the community, the literary community had been very generous. I had gotten one of the community partnership for Arts and Culture grants while that was a thing in 2012 and that really made it possible to finish the first draft of my book. I moved away from Ohio having that draft ready and ready to query. It did take me, oh like three extra years to find an agent for that book to really land anywhere. But Ohio made a lot possible for me as a writer. Laura Maylene Walter (04:38): Hearing you talk about those earlier days and your search for an agent, it reminds me how having writer friends like you and Jennifer, the three of us were really in it together for a number of years. It is a way to share both successes and the difficult times when you won that CPAC grant, which listeners who aren't familiar, the grant doesn't exist anymore, but it was a $20,000 grant for individual artists. I went with you to your, it was a ceremony for all the new grantees. I attended that with you, which was really nice just to be able to celebrate that on your behalf. And also I remember so many conversations when we were sitting around the table talking about agent rejections with each other because we both really went through it looking for an agent at various times through the years. Laura Maylene Walter (05:24): And so I think writing friendships are so important in both respects because this is usually a private pursuit where you're alone with the page alone with trying to pitch, not in all cases if you're writing collaboratively and we'll get to that in a minute, but it is so helpful to have friends and just so many hours spent with you and Jennifer at Caribou, RIP Caribou. It's no longer there either. So, so much has changed. You need to come back and just let us go back in time a little bit. That would be fun. Huda Al-Marashi (05:51): It's true. I love having this kind of conversation with, you know, a close writing friend cause I think it makes transparent the kind of invisible support network that's probably behind most writers. Usually a writer just gets to come on these podcasts or do events about their book and you're just talking about the finished product. But I really, if I go back in my writing history and my publishing history, I can see your hands or Jennifer's hands behind almost every publication I've ever had. Whether it was from us talking about where I could possibly submit this thing or hey, this didn't work here, where else should I try? Just at the most basic fundamental level, the feedback, I think we've all even grown tremendously as feedback partners too. As we've all become better writers. We've gotten better at giving each other feedback as well. Laura Maylene Walter (06:50): Yeah, and it's also helpful when you've spent years with someone and their writing to know their writing on a deeper level so that can help provide feedback that might be more likely to help the writer, right. You know, what they're trying to go for or what their voice might be. Or you can talk about their vision and that can offer a deeper level of feedback than showing up to a workshop and just getting cold readings from people, which can also be very helpful. And I know you and I have been in our fair share of workshops and writing groups and things like that and so all feedback can be helpful but there is a different kind of relationship I think when writers are able to work together behind the scenes for a long time. Huda Al-Marashi (07:27): Absolutely. And I don't want to like over romanticize like, oh we haven't made, cause we have each other, right? Laura Maylene Walter (07:32): It's still hard. Huda Al-Marashi (07:34): We have each other as our early readers and it's, the greatest gift of my writing life. I don't also want to diminish that, but at the end of the day we will all have to seek outside readers even from outside of our circle because we show each other things so much that then you still need, Laura Maylene Walter (07:50): Oh yes. Huda Al-Marashi (07:51): Fresh eyes to come in from outside. Laura Maylene Walter (07:54): Absolutely. I tend to go in cycles or batches, so I might show something to you and Jennifer and then wait for another draft and send it to completely different writing friends at different times and I think that can be really helpful. Yeah. Huda Al-Marashi (08:07): I do the same thing too. Laura Maylene Walter (08:09): Well one of my other memories from when you, Jennifer and I would meet at the cafe all the time, well two things. First, when we first started meeting we were all a little shy or didn't know each other very well and we were afraid of interrupting each other while we were working. And as time went on we grew more and more comfortable with each other and became friends and soon we started talking maybe almost as much as we were writing. So that could be a little, a little thing to watch out for writers if you're trying to write with your friends. But mostly I remember the food when we first started writing at Caribou, which didn't have a full cafe menu or anything like that, but we were afraid to bring in too much food. But do you remember by the end we would just bring full picnics, we would just set up. Huda Al-Marashi (08:47): It was a spread, there was sandwiches coming out of it. But it was always like a slow process, right? Like here's a sandwich, <laugh> here comes like things just kept coming out of the bag and showing up at the table. Laura Maylene Walter (08:59): I feel like I remember just spreading it all out on the table. Just everything. Huda Al-Marashi (09:03): Everything. The carrots. Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter (09:05): The employees didn't care. They were glad to have us. But another memory from writing in cafes is, you know, it'd be three of us sitting there with our laptops, our notebooks like typing away, maybe chatting sometimes on multiple occasions people would come up to us, just other customers and they would ask like, what are you working on? And we'd say, oh we're writers. And they would say, oh are you all writing the same book? And we used to laugh at that, like how absurd that we would write the same book. Of course we're writing our own things, but I think that is a transition to your collaborative book. GROUNDED. Congratulations. Huda Al-Marashi (09:38): Thank you! Laura Maylene Walter (09:39): Which you did write with three other authors with Aisha Saeed, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow and S.K. Ali. So can you tell us about GROUNDED? What is the premise of this book and how in the world did you write a book with three other people? Huda Al-Marashi (09:55): Well that is the perfect segue because it is an idea and a notion that would've struck me as absurd before. Like how could you possibly write a book with three other people at the same time? Like how would that even work? And I think that's a question I get a lot when they hear that I've done this collaboration is how would that even work? And on the more technical level, like how it got started was that, Aisha Saeed and I both had an essay in the collection, LOVE, INSHALLAH: The Secret Love Lives of Muslim American Women. That came out in 2011. We never met but we were just on each other's radar and in the circle of authors who had participated in that collection. We both went on to write other things, other projects work on our own respective books. After my memoir came out, Aisha Saeed and S.K. Ali invited me to participate in anthology called ONCE UPON AN EID, it was going to be a middle grade anthology. Huda Al-Marashi (10:54): I had never written any fiction nor any fiction for young readers, but I needed to do something different. You know, writing creative non-fiction pulls from a lot of emotional resources and maybe we'll get into talking a little bit more about that kind of post pub year later, but it draws a lot from you. And I didn't have the emotional resources to write anymore creative non-fiction at that time. And I thought, okay, yeah, why not? Let me just try this. And I had a great time, my story in ONCE UPON AN EID was called "Not Only an Only" And the reception to it was really positive in a lot of reviews, that story kept coming up. And GROUNDED, the idea for its Aisha Saeed and S.K. Ali's concept. And they sent me an email and said, hey, would you like to participate in this project? Huda Al-Marashi (11:46): And again, I just had that gut instinct like I did with ONCE UPON AN EID. Like yeah, I want to try this. I've never done anything like this before, but it felt very exciting. I run on the more extroverted side, I do like working with others, I don't necessarily need to kind of be alone with myself. And I was very curious about how this was going to go down. So how it went down, how it started, you know, Aisha Saeed had kind of the concept that there was going to be these four unlikely friends who meet at the airport when all their flights are grounded and they go on an adventure to find a celebrity cat that's gone missing at the airport. But we each came up with our own character. She had conceived this as kind of like a breakfast club concept. So she had the idea that kind of each kid would be a certain type of person, but it was up to each one of us to flush that person out. Huda Al-Marashi (12:47): So in the very beginning we just came up with kind of a shared document with stock photos that we had pulled of like who our character might be able to look like. We wrote character treatments for them and then we set out plotting like what would this plot look like, what might happen here on a chapter by chapter basis? And then based on that kind of treatment, the book sold and then we had to come back together and actually write this book. We didn't shop the book with the manuscript written, it was sold on proposal of what it was going to be. Laura Maylene Walter (13:24): Right, and I think it's important to point out for listeners that in general you do have to have a complete manuscript if you're writing a novel to sell it, to get an agent, to have an agent submit it, it almost always has to be complete. The exception could be if there are authors involved who have a track record and have published a lot and that was your case. And in that case sometimes novels are sold on proposal and that is how GROUNDED came to be. Huda Al-Marashi (13:48): Right. And it was a very fleshed out, very detailed proposal. And yes, I was working with three other authors who had a longer standing track record in the field of young adult writing and children's writing. So then we had to get to work actually writing it. And that happened over zoom, over text, over email, over consistent meetings. We would plot out what we were going to do and then set a deadline. So everybody was going to do their chapters, we would have a meeting, we would read each other's work and then plot forward the next chunk. And in order to keep ourselves on the same page, you know, we needed the documents kind of with the photos. We needed a fact sheet, we needed maps of the airport, we needed all the factual material of what was happening, timelines when things were happening so that we could each reference them and plot forward with the same world. Right? We all had to be in agreement about where things were happening, when things were happening. But otherwise what you are reading per character is each individual author's voice. Laura Maylene Walter (14:57): Yeah, I think that's an important point to make a collaborative book where there are four authors, four point of view characters, so each author has their own point of view character to work with. That sounds much more easy to digest than just all trying to write in one voice Huda Al-Marashi (15:12): Simultaneously. Laura Maylene Walter (15:14): Yeah, right. Well I want to get back to the process in a minute, but first let's just talk about the book a bit. This book, everyone is so adorable if you have kids and especially kids who might like cats, absolutely they need to read this book. So the cat that goes missing in the airport, we need to just pause and appreciate the name of this cat: Snickerdoodle Mildred Hoffman. So that is who is missing. And these four kids are in the airport after a Muslims of North America Conference. Huda Al-Marashi (15:43): Yes. And that's a fictional conference based off of a conference that does actually happen <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter (15:50): Right. So they are all in the airport ready to go home from this conference when a thunderstorm grounds all the flights and they end up meeting each other in the airport and they go off on this search to try to find the lost cat. So before we go any further, one thing I had never really thought about and it's very sad, is pets in airports and pets getting lost. And this is apparently something that happens. Can you tell us a bit about what you learned about real life airports and pets when you were writing this book? Huda Al-Marashi (16:18): Yeah, you know, it was something I didn't know about at all either. And when the other authors pitched it to me, I was kind of like, oh, huh, okay, that's interesting. And I thought it was something that they were just like a situation that they were creating, but it is a thing that does happen. There have been real life Snickerdoodles and some of them have not even had the happy ending our Snickerdoodle has, which is really sad. I don't have any statistics like on how many cats or animals get lost in airports. But it is a thing like if you Google pets getting lost in airports, you will be ushered into a landscape that you probably didn't even want to know exists. Cause once you know about it, you can't stop knowing about it. You can't stop thinking about it. But just like our luggage gets lost, people's checked in, animals do get lost. Huda Al-Marashi (17:09): And there has been, even while we were writing this book, so there was a a real life kind of Snickerdoodle that got lost in Boston Logan Airport and prior to our Snickerdoodle, there have been other versions of, you know, and they have become kind of like celebrity cats. So that part is real. People have banded together on social media to try to help find them. And the kind of Facebook pages where we reference real things that people did get together to do to try to find these real life animals that were lost in airports. Laura Maylene Walter (17:45): Yeah. So I guess that's just a PSA for anyone traveling with pets. I had already been aware of, you know, dogs being put in cargo holds and horrible things like that, but the thought of your cat or your pet getting lost in the airport. Now whenever I fly, if I see someone with a cat and they have to take the cat out, I suppose to go through security, I don't really know how that works. I feel so stressed out. I just want to go around them and say like, hold onto that cat as tightly as you can. So hopefully things will improve and get better as your characters are trying to affect change as well. So tell us about your point of view character. Her name is Nora, tell us who she is and what you were thinking about as you were developing her as a character. What was important to you to give to Nora? Huda Al-Marashi (18:29): Yeah, Nora is a tween, aspiring social media star. She calls herself a sweetie, which is a foodie who posts about all things sweet. And Nora is an Arab American who is not very plugged into her identity and her culture, which is something that was important to me to show because I think sometimes we, in the interest of representation, we want to show characters who are very proud and confident and kind of understand exactly where they came from and why. But I think there is a whole population of young people who very much don't know where they fit. And especially now I was kind of thinking about my children and my children's children who will have been here for several generations, what is that going to look like? What is their relationship going to be with their Arab American identity? So Nora's trying to figure that out and through these friendships she is learning a message about identity, about belonging, about community, and about friendship. Laura Maylene Walter (19:38): Yeah, and one thing I really loved about Nora and how it worked in the book is that her mother is a congresswoman. This creates a line of tension because she feels, you know, her mother is of course very busy, she has a very important job. So she feels maybe sometimes a little neglected or that she could use some more attention and some time from her mother. But on the other side, when she and her friends are trying to find this cat when they're trying to kind of investigate what's going on in this airport, I loved how the mother is often, she's brought up as this source of power that they might have because they do have a connection to someone who can work to fight for change on the national level. So I thought that was a really rich layer to add to Nora. I really love that. Huda Al-Marashi (20:20): Thank you. Yeah, Nora sees her mom as a major Flex <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter (20:24): Which she should, right? <laugh>. Huda Al-Marashi (20:25): Which she should. Yeah, she's got an awesome mom. Laura Maylene Walter (20:28): And I also just want to point out to everyone that as an influencer, Nora posts on NokNok: N-O-K, N-O-K, instead of TikTok, which I thought was really adorable. So I read the advanced reader copy of this novel and there's an author note in the beginning that talks about having four characters who are Arab American or who are Muslim. But the story doesn't surround that. It's not a story all about explicitly identity, it's about trying to find Snickerdoodle. So can you talk a bit about that? Why was it important for you for all of you to write a story that wasn't about identity exclusively? Huda Al-Marashi (21:06): Yeah, we were all in agreement that we wanted this to be a book about four kids who just happen to be Muslim because Muslim kids in general don't get to see themselves as the protagonists of the kind of fast-paced, action driven, even more cinematic storytelling. And, we're all four of us are mothers. And I know that I have had this conversation with my kids where I have seen it even impact my own children's creativity. You know, when my oldest son was younger and I would read his stories, the protagonists always had to be white children, they all had to have white American names. And I would ask him like, well, why don't you make your main character somebody who's a little bit more like you? And he would say, well, Muslim kids don't do those things. And so like the Muslim-ness felt like this limiting factor that he could only have certain kinds of experiences once that identity became a part of who the character was. Huda Al-Marashi (22:13): So it's really important to me to be a part of this book that shows children the creative potential. Like these kids in the book are no less practicing, with the exception of Nora, Nora's trying to figure out her place. But the three other children have just come from this Muslim of North American Conference. Their parents are, you know, the observant kind of Muslim families that would've taken this to this conference. They, you know, make Dau, and prayers to help find Snickerdoodle. They do stop to say their five daily prayers at different junctures during the adventure. But we wanted it to be kind of the natural way that an American Muslim kid might see themselves and where their religious identity might just fall kind of to the background as they're busy going off on this adventure. Laura Maylene Walter (23:03): Yeah, I love that. And it is an adventure and as you said, it is definitely fast paced. It's fun, it's really funny. I laughed a lot. It was just such, such an enjoyable read. So I would love to get back to talking about the process of creating the book. You talked about how you were open to seeing what it would be like to work with other writers, that you don't always feel the need. Like some of us who are more introverted to always be alone and alone with work. And I was thinking about this, I've always viewed writing myself, and I think some other writers are like this as a private thing. It is maybe personal and it is a way to have control over your creative work, right? You're alone with it and you have time to revise it. And even when you share and get feedback, you're opening yourself up in that way. Laura Maylene Walter (23:47): But then always, always it comes back to you and it comes back to the page. My first experience with writing collaboratively was actually in the MFA program a number of years ago, and we had a visiting instructor who asked us to get into small groups and workshop and write a collaborative story. And I have to be honest, at first, I really pushed back against this, just mentally. I thought, I don't really want to do this, this is silly. And I would say my co-authors and I ended up having a lot of fun. We wrote a silly story, we didn't take it very seriously, but I don't think that's bad. I think sometimes maybe it's good to not take yourself so seriously when you write. And that process actually helped me, but I was surprised by how it was something that I could see why people would want to do it. So for you, I'm curious how your expectations of beginning GROUNDED, how those expectations aligned with the reality of writing a book with three other people? Huda Al-Marashi (24:38): Yeah, you know, we writers so seldom get to experience those moments of generative creative energy where you're bouncing ideas off of other people and there's this kind of like escalation of, well what if we did this well, what if we did that? Oh, we could try that. That process was so incredibly rewarding, satisfying, interesting to me. And I feel almost spoiled by the process. And I think all three of us felt a little bit of a sense of like, oh no, now I have to go back and work on my own stuff by myself. We will all express to each other at different times the sentiment of like, why don't we do this more often? I wish I had all three of you on my other project that I could talk through all my issues with. And so that was the part that was just so exciting and so wonderful to have was to have three other authors that so intimately knew the project you were working on and that you could troubleshoot and get generative ideas and solutions to problems that were coming up in the text almost instantly, right? Huda Al-Marashi (25:56): Like when you workshop, you have to wait your turn, you have to wait your turn to workshop your chapter, and then you get some feedback and then people don't feel creative ownership over that project. So they're so weary and shy to suggest actual solutions. And it's kind of a workshop no-no, right? Like don't suggest solutions to the writer, this is the writer's work, don't write for the writer. And it's kind of like taboo. But this project showed me that it's fun on the other side too. Like it is wonderful to get ideas from other talented writers and it takes a good idea that you might have and maybe make it great because somebody just added like, you know, you brought up the NokNok? I had "NockNock," but as N-O-C-K, it was my idea, but that's how I was spelling it. And then Sajidah came back and she was like, no, let's do N-O-K, N-O-K, and I love that. Like yes. Laura Maylene Walter (26:56): Yeah, it works. Huda Al-Marashi (26:57): N-O-K works so much better. That's so much more TikTok-ish. <laugh>. And that stuff is constantly happening where the polishing is happening as you are creating. Laura Maylene Walter (27:08): Well, speaking of the polishing, so you and your co-authors sold the book on proposal, then you had to set about writing it, and then you submitted it of course to your editor who had notes and edits. How did you approach the revision process with your co-authors? Huda Al-Marashi (27:23): Yeah, so the revision process did get a little bit trickier, right? Because now we're not just working in isolation. Each one of us just drafting what we want to draft for our character, for the most part, we were each responsible for just revising our own character section. But, in order for it all to flow, we all had to read each other's whole book multiple times, leave multiple layers of comments on everybody's sections. You know, in order to kind of make these seamless transitions. We all went in and edited our own character's voice in each other's characters. So lines of dialogue, you know, that might not have felt quite like how we would've had our character say it. We went in and tweaked those things and then we had to really get back in under the hood with our plot outline. We had to make sure that each individual's characters arc that we set out to tackle in the beginning was fully resolved, fully closed within their own individual story lines. It involved many, many lengthy zooms. And we did have to do some restructuring, some reordering that required re-authoring, right? Like if we moved a certain section to another place, then sometimes we had to go back and say, Hey, actually this needs to be in your character's voice. You're going to have to rewrite this from your character's perspective. And that really happened more in our midpoint, kind of in that more action driven middle where things were happening and events were escalating. We had to do a lot of restructuring. Laura Maylene Walter (29:01): And I'm sure on a technical note, listeners would be curious to know what program you used to write the novel. Were you in Google Docs? Were you in a Word document? How did you go about sharing the document with each other? Huda Al-Marashi (29:15): We did do everything in Google Docs because it needed to be live and simultaneous, but to submit to our editor then one of the authors, it was usually Sajidah, did the heavy lifting of copying and pasting into a word doc and reformatting everything and getting everything nice and tidy for submission, which meant our editor would then give us feedback on the word doc that we would then have to go copy and paste back into a Google Doc so that we could work on it together. And then it would have to go back to the word doc. So that process is time consuming and it was tedious and we did have to do it multiple times and one person did end up kind of doing the heavy lifting there on that. Laura Maylene Walter (29:57): Yeah, I could see that being tedious, even just being on your own as an author, all the files and when you're going through the publishing process, going through the copy edits, the proofing, all of these different layers, it can feel a little overwhelming. I think my folder for BODY OF STARS has, just the publication folder has, you know, it feels like hundreds of files, so I could imagine it being more complicated with four people. But you know, maybe having a point person and of course making sure everyone is as organized as possible would be helpful. So I think that's great. Huda Al-Marashi (30:27): And one thing that you reminded me about the editing process, that is a major win, kind of working with four authors. You know, when you're by yourself and you get that edit letter, it's all on you and you are trying to interpret, you know, there's like a gap between the language of what the editor's asking and how you receive it, how you perceive it, how you think you're supposed to respond to it. And that was one thing that we all agreed was really helpful and incredible to have was to have three other people who received the same edit letter that you could have a conversation with, like, no, I'm hearing her ask for this, I'm hearing her ask for that. And then to kind of like talk through it and figure out a path. And it really made me think of all the times that like we get an edit letter and we think like, oh my God, this is in gold and I have to follow this and I don't know what to do. And to see how like three different minds could respond to the same letter was really illuminating. Laura Maylene Walter (31:34): You're inspiring me for a project. I'm working on one of my own personal projects that it is all about how you respond to the feedback and you're right, nothing is objective at all in this business. There's no one answer for writing. Huda Al-Marashi (31:47): There's no one answer. And like we have big feelings when we read edit letters, big feelings that cloud our response to what needs to be done and what needs to happen. And it was just so nice to be able to process and to see like, oh my God, all authors go through that same thing. It's not just me. You get the letter and you panic. Laura Maylene Walter (32:06): Right? And then you're miserable and think its all lost. Huda Al-Marashi (32:09): Miserable. Yes and there's this first explosion of feeling like, oh my God, how can we do more? We can't do more. Right? And then to process it with people together, that's really, really nice too. Laura Maylene Walter (32:23): Well, along those lines of sharing some of the burden of publishing a book. Earlier you alluded to the year after publication, your memoir came out in 2018. It's a lot of work to publish a book on the publicity side, on the marketing side, on the emotional side, we're posting this episode on the day GROUNDED comes out. So I know you haven't gone through this process yet fully, but what can you share so far about being able to share that publicity side with three other authors? Huda Al-Marashi (32:52): Oh my God, it's so much less pressure, right? We all feel so much pressure to share and to post and to amplify and to get the word out there, but even just with our cover reveal, the publicity that we have had up until now, it's just so nice to know like, okay, well three other authors are going to share this. That's three other authors set of eyeballs. Or we had an interview that came out with our cover reveal. Two of us happened to be traveling. So the two of us who were local took on the weight of doing the interview. And just to know that going forward events can be shared for ways or like I'm having the pleasure of speaking to you now, but there are three other authors who are going to go on and share some of that weight of that pressure of getting the word out there. There's three other authors getting the word out there with me. Laura Maylene Walter (33:46): That sounds like a dream to me, frankly. Because I think the publicity side is always the hardest part. Or you know, sometimes it can be hard to talk about your book or worrying that you're talking about it too much, etcetera. And having three people to kind of share the load with sounds really amazing. So I'm happy for you. Huda Al-Marashi (34:05): And you know too, like after your book sells, there's a lot of emailing that goes on back and forth. . Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter (34:11): How did you handle all the emails? Huda Al-Marashi (34:13): Oh, and then that was something that we also shared. We have to do a little bit of kind of prep work behind the scenes. You don't want to speak on behalf of everybody. So we have a constant text chain going and okay, it's my turn to respond, this is what I'm thinking of saying, anybody need me to add something, say something differently. And then it's up to that person whose turn it is to compose the email and actually send it. But that's also a weight off to know that it's not all on you. Like we're all writers too, so we all can spend obsessively too long. Laura Maylene Walter (34:47): Absolutely. Huda Al-Marashi (34:49): Writing those emails that shouldn't require that much time and just trying to find the right word. And now you just have to do it once every fourth time. Laura Maylene Walter (34:58): What tips would you have for writers who might be interested in starting a collaborative project? We will just say it's a collaborative novel. What are your main pieces of advice? Anything they should look out for? What should they focus on? Huda Al-Marashi (35:12): I think it really is going to have to come down to who you're doing it with. Do you have a good rapport with them? There has to be managed expectations also on your part, right? Like I went into this very much thinking like, I want this to be a great project, I want to be a helpful, useful contributor. You know, like we kind of thought of this like a school project, like what would happen if you brought like the best of every school project together, right? That everybody's equally willing to do the heavy lifting, to step up, to truly honor the deadlines because you're making this up, right? So when you set the deadlines, you have to honor everybody's time. So if everybody's going to show up to have these zoom calls, like those meetings have to be kind of set in stone or truly honored because that's what could make the process address. So I guess what I'm trying to say is like find somebody who has similar work ethic to you who can treat the project professionally. You can set deadlines that you're willing to meet, set meeting times that you're willing to meet. And then you also have to be open to really having very open conversations about people's timelines, what they're able to contribute to the project and on what timeline. Cause those are all things that could be sources of frustration. Laura Maylene Walter (36:40): Well, we did mention your memoir FIRST COMES MARRIAGE, which is a memoir for adults. So I want to talk a bit about the differences that you've experienced between writing for adults, writing non-fiction for adults, and now writing fiction for a younger audience. Can you talk about what that transition has been like and any challenges or unexpected benefits you experienced along the way? Huda Al-Marashi (37:05): I will say making the departure to writing fiction felt very freeing, but it wasn't even a freedom that I could grasp quite early on. I noticed that a lot of my early drafts when I was trying to make the segue into middle grade, ended up being very self-referential in the beginning I was very accustomed to kind of pulling from my own experience because that's kind of what I've been steeped in and been doing as a writer for the last ten years. So that's been a very, it's been a bit of an evolution for me is to learn to start with some kind of a nugget, but then to actually give myself the freedom to make these kids completely different, different from my own experience, give them their own selves, their own lives. So that's the one part, there's been this freedom kind of making a departure from writing creative non-fiction to writing fiction, but there are parts that are not that different. Huda Al-Marashi (38:00): We're still, us writers are still constantly coming back to that same toolbox of meticulous, revising, rewriting, trying to find out what you're really saying, trying to find out what your character really wants. And it taking several drafts to get there that hasn't changed. Situating yourself and the voice is different. Kind of working with different sentence structures is different than I would've done in the memoir. And that's something that I've had to work through on various drafts was learning to write different length sentences, things that were a little bit less, I don't want to say less interior, cause I think I still try to make these middle grade characters have a lot going on in their interior life. It's a different kind of observations. Laura Maylene Walter (38:47): Is there anything you'd like to share about what you're working on now? Are you working on other projects for children, for adults? What would you like to tell us about your current projects? Huda Al-Marashi (38:57): I am working on another solo middle grade project that I had actually finished drafting when the Invitation to GROUNDED came my way. But I tend to be a one project kind of author. So GROUNDED really took over my attention for about a year. And now I've come back to this other middle grade project that I'm working on about a Muslim girl who attends Catholic school, which again, like I was talking about being self-referential, that's rooted in my own experiences. But now in these later drafts, I'm learning to give this character her own freedom, her own life. And the other project, though, interestingly that is coming and pulling away my attention from finishing my own middle grade project is I've found myself in another group project with you. Laura Maylene Walter (39:47): Oh, have you <laugh>? We're going to be a little cagey about it, but yeah. Huda Al-Marashi (39:52): Yes, with you and our other writing partner from our Caribou days, Jennifer Marie Donahue, we are actively drafting a little nugget of an idea that came to the three of us that we would've never even entertained trying to write if I had not been invited to be a part of this project. Laura Maylene Walter (40:12): Which I think is another huge benefit of having writing friends, is they can introduce you to new things. I never would've thought about trying a collaborative project, you know, if I hadn't seen what you went through with Grounded and how it was really positive and how it can actually be refreshing instead of scary to write with other people. Huda Al-Marashi (40:31): And how like, technically how might we go about doing something like this? Laura Maylene Walter (40:36): Oh yeah. It would've felt so overwhelming if you hadn't already had the guide of what you did for GROUNDED. So I really appreciate that and I think we'll probably leave it at that. As I tell people, whenever anyone asks what I'm working on, you know, I have a novel in progress that I'm working on and stories and then I say and a fun little side project with friends because as writers we never know what our projects will turn into. We just don't know what the future is for them. But it's exciting to try and have fun with it. Huda Al-Marashi (41:04): I think like as writing friends, we have talked about co-writing something for years. We just wanted to write kind of an essay on literary friendship. We've talked about even making an anthology about literary friendship. It's just really interesting how we could never manifest that though until this other project came into my life and it was like, well, this is how we could do it. This is how we could structure it. This has how we could organize our time and this is how we can make it possible. It's been fun. Laura Maylene Walter (41:34): It's been really fun and it is so fun and refreshing to really enjoy the process. It's a good reminder that you hear this all the time, like to be a writer, you have to love the process and not the publication part of it exclusively because it is all about the process. And so I'm just following what is fun with the project we're working on now, which I really love. And I think it's also a good reminder that writing as always is a long slow career. Things develop really slowly, and as you said, we had kind of been talking about maybe a non-fiction project or an anthology for probably over a decade now. I mean you and Jennifer still lived in Cleveland when we were talking about this. And it's only now that we found a completely different entry point. And I hear this from other writers too, that it can just take a long time and then the project might manifest in a way that they didn't expect. Huda Al-Marashi (42:24): Yeah, and I think what I learned working on GROUNDED, let me say it this way, one of the real gifts of that project was watching three other writers process. When would you ever get that kind of a sneak peek at the way three other different writers plot or tackle their chapters. And one thing I was really struck by was they were plot driven and really outlined and thought about their acts and their plot points. And then the three of us in our Ohio writing days together, have always been kind of more literary fiction readers, literary memoirs, very intuitive, very plotting, kind of outlining a verse. And I remember saying to you like, if we're going to do this, let's just plot it out. Let's just use an actual outline. I think I even use a language, let's just give people what they want. Like let's write a satisfying pulpy kind of fast-paced read that hits these plot points. And I think it really has been a fun exercise and it speaks to being willing to try something new, to stretch yourself out of your comfort zone and to try on other writing hats, you know? Laura Maylene Walter (43:42): Yes, and I am so outline-averse, I just do not outline. Although even in this project we have talked through the plot a lot more in a way that I don't work through my own plots on my own as I'm writing. But I also don't think we had a really detailed outline from the start. We kind of worked on it together bit by bit, chapter by chapter as we were working. It is such a different process to have two people to talk to, to talk it out. And you know, plotting has not always been my strong suit. And so this has been eye-opening and I think it will probably affect how I approach my own projects in the future, which is fantastic. You know, as long as we're growing as writers and learning new things about ourselves and our process, I think that's a win. Huda Al-Marashi (44:25): No, a hundred percent. Because now the solo project that keeps getting put on the back burner, while I keep running off and doing these fun group projects I've come back to in these revisions and been like, oh, a little bit of that plot attention that I was giving these other two projects, I haven't given this project. Laura Maylene Walter (44:42): Right, exactly. Well, as we start to wrap up, because we're going over time, and I don't want to keep you too long, you know, I've known you as a writer now for a long time and I've watched you go through some real career highs, publishing your first memoir and now publishing your first collaborative middle grade book, which is so exciting. I'm just wondering, when you look back on your writing career and how your writing career was formed and created and built over the years, what is maybe one piece of wisdom or something that you've learned along the way that you would like to share with our listeners? Huda Al-Marashi (45:15): I think I have two chapters kind of, of advice. Like if I had to say in the early chapter, pre first book, my advice would be just the sheer persistence of it all. You can't get anywhere if you don't show up. You know, you'll never get that first book published if you don't put the hours in. And the only way it will never be a thing is if you stop trying to make it a thing. Sheer persistence will be rewarded, whether it's that project that you started out writing, but it's also the persistence to be willing to put a project you started aside and to start another one if it's not working. It's that absolute commitment and belief in yourself that gets results. It will finally, eventually get something done. But the second chapter of a kind of like the post book life, I have a different set of advice to myself that I have to keep coming back to. Huda Al-Marashi (46:10): And that's kind of a very narrow look at my own writer's journey. Like I need to borrow like a phrase from yoga, like to keep my eyes on the mat or to stay in my own lane. As your world widens and you have so many other writing friends and like a rich writing life where you're constantly seeing what other books are doing, what other people are doing, what other writers are doing. I have to keep coming back and reminding myself that what matters is what's on my laptop. What matters is what's in my notebook. That I can only do the projects that are calling me. I can only focus on the projects that I'm working on and that I can only do so much, right? So first half of your writing life is just show up, be committed, put in the hours. And the second half of your writing life is, again, it's a similar spirit, right? It's persisting and showing up for the page. But doing so with a little bit with blinders on, you almost have to buy back the beginner's mind that you had in the first stage of your writing life. Laura Maylene Walter (47:17): You're so right because the goalpost always keeps moving out when you're an author and it is so easy to compare yourself, so there's always another author getting more than you, or whose book seems to be doing better, etcetera, etcetera. So I completely agree. And probably having writer friends also helps us with that too, right? To be able to talk through the hard times and to focus on each other's accomplishments. So today, I'm so excited for your accomplishment of publishing GROUNDED, so congratulations! I'm so excited for you and your co-authors, and I hope everyone goes out and reads this book. Huda Al-Marashi (47:50): Thank you, Laura. It was so fun catching up. Laura Maylene Walter (47:54): Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcast. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at ohiocenterforthebook.org, follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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