It gives me immense pleasure to introduce you to my first to-be-interviewed author- Ms. Zeenat Mahal. After publishing her first novella – ‘The Contract’, renowned publishers – Indireads, publish her latest publication – ‘Haveli’.
Dear Zeenat, Thank you for accepting the request to-be-interviewed.
BNI: Please, tell us (and our readers) something about yourself and your background.
Zeenat: I’m from Lahore, Pakistan, but I’m currently living in Kingston upon Thames, London. I’m doing the Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing here. Because I enjoy several genres of writing like romance, YA and literary fiction, I also enjoy writing in different genres. Although I’ve never yet completed any manuscript that wasn’t romance.
BNI: So, what all you have written and published till date?
Zeenat: The Missing Slate, an online literary magazine has published one of my short stories, and an excerpt from the novel I’m writing, which can perhaps be called literary, although it’s fast becoming a contested term in writing circles. Running out of Ink, another online magazine, published a short romance story of mine. I write romance, using my nom de plume, Zeenat Mahal. I also blog using the same name, and I usually write about topics that concern writers, especially those who are new to the craft.
Indireads has published two of my romance novellas, Haveli and The Contract. My third novella, Thank you he’s for me, will be coming out soon, also by Indireads.
BNI: It is an inspiring answer for me (and may be for my readers as well) but what inspired you to write your first book (and for that matter say this book)?
Zeenat: Stories hatch in my head and I write them. Some take longer to develop, others are easier to write but, it’s just something I’ve always done. Either nothing inspires me or everything does. I don’t know which.
BNI: A 30 word tagline for your book(s) please
Zeenat: Haveli is an enchanted world, in a by-gone era; a mouthy heroine and a hero who knows exactly what to do with it.
The Contract is the bitter response to practicality by two people, whose mutual suspicion dissolves into something they’d both thought was impossible to find.
BNI: The title – ‘Haveli’ is an interesting and intriguing at the same time, how did you come up with this gripping title?
Zeenat: I grew up in the haveli of my grandfather before we moved out into a more contemporary house, much to my disappointment. The grandmother in Haveli is based on mine, and so I sort of named the novella Haveli. The other one I’d named Spring in Autumn, which I still think is more appropriate to the storyline, but my publishers wanted to change it to The Contract, and so that’s how it was.
BNI: Give us an insight into your main character. What does he/she do that is so special?
Zeenat: Chandni in Haveli is both exasperating and adorable. She’s been hurt badly but still has a very generous heart. Shahira, in The Contract is a more serious, mature woman. Both of them defy cultural norms and fight back to find their own HEAs on their own terms.
BNI: Who is your intended audience and why should they read your book?
Zeenat: Most of my books can be read by girls of 15 onwards. I like women with courage and strength who are not afraid to go against the grain. My heroes may be arrogant at times but then which romantic hero worth his salt isn’t? I like sparkling repartee between the protagonists. Anyone who likes such ingredients in a romance should read them.
BNI: Generally speaking, who is your favourite and least favourite character? What makes them so?
Zeenat: My least favourite character in literature is perhaps Estella in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, because she’s selfish, with an unattractive sense of entitlement, thoughtless, manipulative. My favourite…just one? In that case, Hamlet. Love him. He is an idealist stuck in an existentialist world. I can relate to his anguish. Every emotion he feels is heightened at supra-human level, and the world is too ordinary, too small for the epic proportions of his love and suffering.
BNI: What was the hardest and easiest thing about your latest release?
Zeenat: Well it hasn’t come out yet, but my soon-to-be-released novella, Thank you he’s for me, was more challenging than the previous two because Fardeen is a tortured hero, and attractive as such heroes are, they can be bitter at times and the balancing act can be tough at times. The easiest thing with this book was perhaps the scenes between the two protagonists. As soon as they come together, things happened. Whether it’s fireworks, or sweet nothings, or complications, their chemistry is so natural. I enjoyed writing them immensely.
BNI: Can you please share some interesting story about the book writing/cover development.
Zeenat: Haveli really came together for me when I visited Bahawalpur in Southern Punjab. It used to be a very important and prosperous Nawab state and it still shows. What with its numerous palaces, beautiful gardens, masonic artistry, architecture, and history. It was absolutely gorgeous. But the most amazing part for me was Cholistan at night. Desert landscape at night, is an extraordinary sight. We listened to the music of Rohi. The starry open skies, Sufi poetry and a simple orchestra of flute, dhol, iktara and cymbals. One of the most memorable experiences of my life.
BNI: Is there a message in your novella that you want readers to grasp?
Zeenat: I think readers find their own meaning in books. My job is to try and tell a good story as well as I possibly can, and every good story will have humanistic elements that touch us in one way or another.
BNI: Do you meet your readers at book signings, conventions or similar events? Any plans in relation to this book.
Zeenat: These are e-books and so I haven’t had any signings but I have had a public reading and got a very enthusiastic response.
BNI: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
Zeenat: So far the majority of my readers have said wonderful things about them. Most, like Chandni a lot, as well as the exchanges between her and Taimur. For The Contract most people say that it’s a sweet romance. I value critical feedback, and when it makes sense to me, I keep that in mind to make my future writing better.
BNI: When and how did you decide to become a writer? Do you write full-time or part time?
Zeenat: I’m a full-time writer and I cannot thank God enough for that! I’ve always known I wanted to be writer. There was nothing else. Ever.
BNI: Which writers inspire you?
Zeenat: So many. Edith Wharton, Jean Rhys, Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen. Then there’s Nora Roberts, Judith McNaught, Jude Deveraux, Julia Quinn, Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Patricia McKillip, Ursula Le Guinn, Susan Cooper…I don’t think you’ll have enough space here. I should stop.
BNI: What draws you to this genre (i.e. Romance)?
Zeenat: Romance novels are the equivalent of chocolate 🙂 Need I say more?
BNI: According to you, what is the hardest thing about writing?
Zeenat: Writers tend to get attached with what they’ve written. We cannot be precious about our writing. One has to be a ruthless critic and editor oneself.
BNI: What are your ambitions for your writing career?
Zeenat: I want to write many, many more books. I also hope to publish my ‘literary’ novel traditionally.
BNI: What has been the toughest criticism and best compliment to you – as an author?
Zeenat: The compliment came from nearly all of my tutors at Kingston University. They said that my dialogue livened up the page. That just tattooed a grin on my face. The toughest…hmm. I guess that was by Jayne Smith at Dear Author, who pointed out something about my male protagonist in The Contract. It made me realize that South Asian romance is more different from western romance than I had previously thought. Cultural differences are very deep-rooted, and, Jayne’s comments on what she interpreted as the insensitivity of the hero, was but the natural reticence of a South Asian male for me. Something was lost in translation and I’ve since become more conscious about that.
BNI: What will be your one favourite tip to get through the writer’s block?
Zeenat: Walk. Drive. Clean. Do something that has nothing to do with writing or reading or the computer.
BNI: What are your thoughts on book series? Would you like to have one for your latest book?
Zeenat: I really enjoy reading book series, so yes, I’d like to write a series someday, but it won’t be for any of the ones I’ve written so far.
BNI: Would you like to give any advice for fellow writers (either budding or established)?
Zeenat: I’ll say what my tutors at the university tell us: Read.
BNI: Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?
Zeenat: It was a breeze with Indireads. I was very lucky. A friend of mine mentioned Indireads to me and I sent them the first few pages of Haveli. Naheed Hassan got in touch soon after and offered me a contract. I was thrilled.
BNI: What was your favourite chapter (or part) to write and why?
Zeenat: I liked writing the confrontations between Alpha Male and Chandni and then of course Zoella and Fardeen.
BNI: Did you learn anything from writing your book? What was it?
Zeenat: I guess the process of going through drafts was very enlightening. Editing is as important as the writing, if not more.
BNI: Any amusing story about marketing this book, so far.
Zeenat: Well, I did this reading in a local library last year, at Kingston upon Thames and I was afraid that nobody would show up. However, there was not only an impressive group of people, we chatted for an hour after the event had ended. It was fabulous and so unexpected. People were so interested in South Asian writing and especially the idea of romance writing from women of South Asia. There are lot of stereotypes breaking at Indireads all at once. In fact, I’ve been invited to do another reading in spring this year.
BNI: What do you think about – What does your protagonist think about you?
Zeenat: Wisest is she, who knows she does not know :).
BNI: How about a snippet from your book that is meant to intrigue and tantalize us?
“Who’s Khalida?” he asked, seating himself. He wasn’t really interested in the answer until he caught the look of shock and disgust on her face, though she masked it quickly.
“The woman who has worked for you for the last twelve years.”
And just like that, he knew that he’d been judged and hanged. She emanated a whole new level of indifference, and the politeness had been replaced by barely veiled disdain.
“Right…well.” Then deliberately, “Shabana…”
He waited for her inflamed correction. To her credit, she didn’t seem to mind the mangling of her name as much as she’d minded his overlooking Khalida.
“It’s Shahira,” she said, without rancor. “You’ll need to remember it for the next few hours at least. It will seem very odd if you keep calling me by other women’s names.”
She gazed at him with a tolerant half-smile and asked politely, “What would you like for breakfast?”
“What do you have?”
“Not French cuisine, that’s for sure,” her voice too sweet to be genuine.
Why he’d spared her a single thought was beyond Hussain. Fine, she was pretty. So her voice was sexy and the combination of schoolmarm properness and that huskiness was intriguing—but that was it. The rest of her—well she had a great body too, but apart from that, the rest of her was pure evil. If she weren’t human, she’d be a black widow spider.
BNI: What are your expectations for the book?
Zeenat: I think any new writer has to give herself time before even considering having any expectations. You have to be out there in the market at least three to four years before anyone even notices. Publishing today is very different from what it was even five years ago, especially with self-publishing authors and indie publishers the market is gigantic and therefore much tougher.
BNI: Do you think book cover an important role in sales?
Zeenat: A pretty cover makes the product more attractive to the consumer, so yes, I think it does.
BNI: According to you, what is the top most advantage / disadvantage of self-publishing?
Zeenat: Honestly, the biggest disadvantage is that if you don’t choose to get a package that includes editing, sometimes the quality is compromised. The advantage is that one has more control over the product.
BNI: ebook, pdf, mobi, kindle or printed hardcover book, what is your pick?
Zeenat: I’ve never been fond of hardbacks for reading. They’re big and cumbersome. Between paperback and e-versions, I’d take any, as long as I have something to read. However, I have to admit, of late I have begun to see the advantages of e-publishing over print, the least of which is the cyber storage space.
BNI: Is there anything else that you would like to add that I have not included?
Zeenat: I’d like to share the wonderful news that my novel Mehrunissa will be serialised weekly in the Sri Lankan newspaper, The Sunday Observer, on a weekly basis. It’s a story set in colonial Lahore and is, of course, a romance. I’m very excited about that.
BNI: Oh, that is great news. Wish you luck! On a concluding note, I would like to thank you again for taking out time and answering the questions. It was a nice experience and got learn interesting facts about you and your interests.
Looking forward to review your novella – Haveli.