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‘Research came to my drawing room’

April 24, 2013

KARACHI, April 23: Oozing with confidence, writer Shazaf Fatima Haider eloquently answered questions put to her by Hani Yousuf at an event meant to know the genesis of her novel ‘How It Happened’ and the art and science of publishing on Tuesday evening.

The first question, rather expectedly, was about how the idea of the novel came about. Ms Haider replied the idea emerged from her everyday experiences, particularly with reference to arranged marriages where obese ‘aunties’ scrutinise girls and accept or reject them. She quoted one such incident when an aunty in a roundabout way termed a girl ‘ugly’. This made the writer put pen to paper (or press keys) and she found out that three to four hours flew by just like that and she was able to write 35 pages. She began to entertain the notion ‘should I publish it’. She commented all writers attempted to resolve conflicts they faced or witnessed in life in fiction, to have some sense of order, to know why people acted the way they did. Eventually it all turned out to be an ‘exercise in compassion’.

Ms Haider said it took her 10 months, initially, to write the story and then two years to find a publisher for it. She said fiction usually began as an intensely personal thing and once the writer’s done with writing the question of ‘who it is relevant to’ emerged. She remarked that her story ‘affected both genders’. At that point Ms Haider was requested to read out a passage from her book. She did. The audience enjoyed it.

Then the focus of the discussion conducted at T2F shifted to the business of publishing. As to why she didn’t approach publishers in the UK, Ms Haider said much as she’d love to, with the arrival of the e-book there was uncertainty in that market. They wouldn’t accept anything unless it’s a sure winner. However, she argued that despite the fact that her book was dubbed as an ‘Urdu-speaking novel’ by some, she met a Canadian author at the Karachi Literature Festival who told her that her daughter often groused “I can’t meet the right person”. Therefore, it’s a kind of universal issue.

During the chitchat, it was also revealed that Ms Haider was working on her second book, which was to do with the ‘supernatural’ world and how people reacted to it.

The author mentioned she now wanted to write about something she didn’t know at all.

Replying to a question on what kind of research she had done while writing her first novel, she remarked, “Research came to my drawing room”, suggesting it was the kind of people she came across in life that made her write.

For aspiring writers, Ms Haider suggested that they should understand the editing process first and silence the voice within themselves that said “nobody would read my story”. She told the audience that she showed her manuscript to writer Musharraf Ali Farooqui who read it and passed it on to his editor. She emphasised that writers had to have an agent to push their work. She quoted another writer Mohsin Hamid saying that writers came to him making the mistake of bringing the first draft of their books. Nobody had the time to go through the first draft, because if it had mistakes, grammatical or otherwise, no agent would show interest in it. She said that aspiring authors should have confidence in their work and needed to talk to an agent.

Responding to a question Ms Haider said the story she told in ‘How It Happened’ was not hers but was an amalgamation of tales she had heard. The discussion again turned to the publishing industry and the writer lamented that no publisher in Pakistan would print her book. She recalled that one publisher even suggested her to self-publish the novel that would have been her last option. Therefore she opted for an Indian publisher who did aggressive marketing for its books.

Answering another question along the same line, she said it’s hard to set up an industry in Pakistan. Adding to that, she rued the insufficient number of bookstores in the country leading to distribution problems.