Interview with Shaila Abdullah, Author of Saffron Dreams

Shaila Abdullah is an award-winning author and designer, based in Austin, Texas. Her creative work focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of Pakistani women and their often unconventional choices in life. Her debut book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall, is a collection of stories about Pakistani women struggling to find their individualities despite the barriers imposed by society.

Among other accolades, the book won the Norumbega Jury Prize for Outstanding Fiction and the DIY Festival Award. Abdullah received a grant from the Hobson Foundation for her new novel, Saffron Dreams which is about the trials and tribulations of a 9/11 Muslim widow.

Abdullah has written several short stories, articles, and personal essays for various publications, such as Dallas Child, Web Guru, About Families, Sulekha, Women's Own, She, Fashion Collection and a magazine of the Daily Dawn newspaper called Tuesday Review, etc. She is a member of the Texas Writers' League.

A Pakistani-American, Abdullah is also a seasoned print, web, and multimedia designer as well. See a complete bio at http://www.shailaabdullah.com/bio.html


Welcome to The Writer's Life, Shaila. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

Thanks for having me as a guest on your blog. I am a Pakistani-American author based in Austin, Texas. My creative work focuses on the strengths and weaknesses of Pakistani women and their often unconventional choices in life. I have been writing on and off since 1993. I have published several short stories, articles, and essays for various publications, including Women’s Own, She, Fashion Collection Sulekha, and Dallas Child. My new novel Saffron Dreams explores the tragedy of 9/11 from the perspective of a Muslim widow. I received a grant from Hobson Foundation for that body of work. My 2005 debut book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall is a collection of stories about Pakistani women struggling to find their individualities despite the barriers imposed by society. The collection won the Norumbega Jury Prize for Outstanding Fiction and the DIY Festival Award, among other accolades.

Can you please tell us about your book and why you wrote it?

In Saffron Dream, the protagonist Arissa Illahi, a veil-wearing Muslim woman, loses her husband in the tragedy of 9/11. Pregnant and alone, she discovers the unfinished manuscript of her husband and decides to finish it as a tribute to him. Her unborn son and her husband’s legacy provide a renewed sense of hope to Arissa as she struggles to put the pieces of her life back together. In the novel, I have attempted to capture how ordinary Muslims were affected by the tragedy of 2001—the silent majority who lead very normal lives and are law-abiding citizens of this land. They are the ones we never hear about because their lives are too ordinary to be the subject of the nightly news.

What kind of research was involved in writing Saffron Dreams?

There were many different pieces of the novel that required extensive research. The time and place where the tragedy unfolded, how it manifested, what were the dynamics of the situation, etc. Often it felt like feeling in the dark for one more piece to finish the puzzle. It’s amazing to watch a story unfold; it sometimes surprises even the author. The character of the protagonist’s son who was born with a rare disability required methodical research too. It involved interviewing parents of such children and really getting to know their daily struggles.

How much input did you have into the design of your book cover?

Since I designed the cover of my 2005 debut collection, I deeply appreciate the fact that Modern History Press took into consideration my desire to design the book cover for Saffron Dreams. There are many things a book cover is supposed to do: engage the buyer, convey something about the story and leave the buyer wanting more. I will let the buyers decide whether the cover does all three and most importantly, how well.

Has it been a bumpy ride to becoming a published author or has it been pretty well smooth sailing?

It is definitely not an easy path. I self published my first book too, simply out of a desire to break out in an otherwise tough market and had Saffron Dreams published through Modern History Press. Of course, it is much better to have a backing of an established publisher. There are more avenues open for marketing going the traditional route.

For this particular book, how long did it take from the time you signed the contract to its release?

The normal publication cycle is 9 months. I would say it took a year from the time I signed up with Modern History Press.

Do you have an agent and, if so, would you mind sharing who he/is is? If not, have you ever had an agent or do you even feel it’s necessary to have one?

I had an agent for a while but we parted on good terms because we had very different ideas for my future. Finding an agent is probably not tough, but you have to be certain that when you do find one, that you have a united vision for your future.

Do you plan subsequent books?

Actually there are two books that I am currently considering. One is a novel about street children of Pakistan, a book that the protagonist is shown working on in Saffron Dreams and another is a young adult novel about an Indian teen torn between her passion for dancing and keeping the family business alive.

Are you a morning writer or a night writer?

Most of Saffron Dreams was written during the night because my days are usually so packed. I believe that if you are passionate about something, universe finds a way for you to get to it. Yes, I do have a very busy life but my work is what drives and motivates me.

If money was no object, what would be the first thing you would invest in to promote your book?

Distribute free copies to all the libraries in US and to college professors who teach Asian or Islamic studies and touch upon the historical significance of 9/11 as well as its effects on the broader Muslim-American community.

How important do you think self-promotion is and in what ways have you been promoting your book offline and online?

Whether you are published through a big or small publisher, you have to take some ownership of promoting your work. Although I have a publicist, I took an active part in putting together the press kit and promotion plan. Online communication has evolved considerably in the past few years with the eruption of new avenues for social networking and the novel ways of engaging readers like Goodreads and Facebook. For that reason, my publicist suggested kicking off the book release in the form of an online book launch which was pretty successful.

Any final words of wisdom for those of us who would like to be published?

Ask any published author and they will tell you how discouraging the publishing world is. The rejection rate is close to 94% by some standards. Despite that, there were over 170,000 books published in the US alone last year. My advice to any aspiring writer is this, enter this field, if you are not afraid of rejection and can take criticism well. Write with humble goals in mind and don’t make fame your first and foremost objective. Finally, work hard to finesse your work and make persistence your friend.

Thank you for coming, Shaila! Would you like to tell my readers where they can find you on the web and how everyone can buy your book?

You can find a wealth of information on my website at www.shailaabdullah.com including a reading guide, excerpt, reviews, and buying information. For those with comments and questions, I can be reached at shailaabdullah@gmail.com. If you mention The Writers Life, you will receive a free e-book called A Taste of Saffron, containing recipes of dishes mentioned in Saffron Dreams. Readers who sign up for updates on my website will get a free excerpt of my 2005 book, Beyond the Cayenne Wall.
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