Interview: Layla AlAmmar
by Huriyah Quadri
Layla AlAmmar grew up in Kuwait and began writing at an early age. She completed her master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh in 2014. Her short stories have appeared in the Evening Standard, Quail Bell Magazine, The Red Letters St Andrews Prose Journal, and Aesthetica Magazine where her story ‘The Lagoon’ was a finalist for the Creative Writing Award in 2014. She was the 2018 British Council International Writer in Residence at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival. The Pact We Made is Layla’s debut novel, exploring the lives of young women living in contemporary Kuwait. You can read an excerpt from The Pact We Made here.
Huriyah Quadri (HQ) When did you realise you wanted to be a writer, and what was the journey in getting your first book published like?
Layla AlAmmar (LA): I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, and it grew naturally out of an early love of reading, so I always wanted to be a published author and worked hard to make it happen. I finished the first draft of The Pact We Made in early 2015 and immediately started querying agents. I received many rejections and, more often than not, just no reply at all, but I kept revising and editing the manuscript and periodically sending it back out over the next couple of years. Then, in January 2017 Trump announced his Muslim Ban in the US, and in response, a bunch of literary agents over there put out an open call on Twitter seeking Muslim voices. So, I sent out my manuscript again. A few agents responded with requests to see the full manuscript and I ended up signing with one in March 2017. She started sending the book out to editors in April and by August, Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins in the UK, was interested and bought the book.
HQ: It sounds like timing was important when it came to getting The Pact We Made published. How did you feel when you realised there was this sudden interest in Muslim voices and agents were now keen to see the rest of your manuscript?
LA: I’m always wary of things like that . . . You can never tell if the people involved mean it or if it’s just a gesture. So, I actually ignored the call for a few days, but then a friend of mine kept on at me to start submitting my manuscript again, and I did. This friend received a super special slot in the acknowledgments!
HQ: The Pact We Made is said to be a Kuwaiti #MeToo novel offering a sharp insight into the lives of Kuwaiti women. What has the reception in Kuwait been like?
LA: The reception in Kuwait has been great. Friends and family have obviously been very supportive, but people I don’t personally know have also messaged me on social media to tell me how relatable they found the characters and how pleased they were to see aspects of the society they know reflected in fiction.
HQ: That’s fantastic! Are there any other books or authors you would recommend to readers who are looking for Kuwaiti representation?
LA: Well, in English, there’s a short story collection by Mai AlNakib called The Hidden Light of Objects, which incidentally won the Edinburgh First Book Award in 2014, I believe it was. In Arabic, Saud Alsanousi and Bothayna Alessa are two very well-regarded writers of my generation – the former’s The Bamboo Stalk won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2013. Some of their novels have been translated into English.
HQ: How long did it take you to write this novel?
LA: The novel started as a short story I wrote during my time on the creative writing master’s degree at Edinburgh. After graduating, the story just kept percolating and developing in my mind, and I kept seeing more and more scenes, so I knew I had to pursue it. I started expanding the story in the summer of 2014, and I finished the first draft in March the following year.
HQ: What was the editing process like? How much did you end up changing or cutting out?
LA: The editing process is horrendous! This is where I feel the struggle of writing really is. Drafting the story is the fun part, where I can just let loose. Actually taking that draft and shaping it into a novel you could pick up in a store is hard, hard work. I sent the finished novel to a few beta readers and reworked it based on their feedback. I continued to fiddle around with it even as I was sending it out to agents. Once I signed with my agent in New York, she sent over notes and I spent another month or so tightening things up (I actually ended up eliminating an entire minor character in this edit). Then I went through a revision with my editor at Borough as well. So, the book on the shelves today is very different from the first draft. It’s probably the ninth or tenth draft of this story, actually.
HQ: A lot of writers grow quite attached to their characters. Was it difficult for you to take that character out?
LA: It wasn’t difficult for me to get rid of that character. He was quite minor – only appearing in a couple of scenes – and wasn’t integral to the plot in any way, so it was easy to realise that he probably didn’t need to be there at all. On the whole, I do get quite attached to my characters and start to inhabit them as I’m writing. It can be quite disconcerting at times, but it’s just part of the process. When something doesn’t work, though, you have to let it go.
HQ: Other than editing, what was the hardest part about writing The Pact We Made?
LA: Learning what feedback to take on and what I can put aside. Learning to look at my work objectively. Learning to take criticism – that is the hardest part, especially when sharing your writing with the outside world is still relatively new to you, as it was to me.
HQ: Did you learn anything about yourself while writing this book?
LA: I think the lessons I learned about myself have come after the book was written. I learned to have more self-confidence in my voice and my abilities. I learned that my opinions are valid and that they matter. I learned, more than anything, that writing stories is who I am, and it’s what I was always meant to do.
HQ: Do you prefer writing novels or short stories?
LA: Definitely novels. Short stories are extraordinarily difficult. You have such a limited amount of space in which to make an impact, whereas with a novel you have ample room to breathe and explore and pace yourself. I do want to improve as a short story writer, though, because I think that naturally tightens up and improves your novels. My favorite novels are ones that are quite short but pack a punch – I’m thinking here of Han Kang’s work in particular, or how David Mitchell writes these beautiful novellas that link up into a novel.
HQ: What is your writing process like? Do you plan your stories?
LA: I’m not a planner. At all. I find it incredibly restrictive. I remember trying it out a few times, but I always felt constrained by my own plans, if that makes sense.
I usually hear a voice before anything else. I hear a character’s voice in my head, and they may be talking to someone or describing something or commenting on something. It’s just a voice, and so I end up writing down whatever it’s saying. I just go along with it, without judgment or intention, for a few thousand words. It’s usually at about the 8,000 to 10,000 word mark that I start to get a fuzzy idea of where this thing might be going. At that point I might have some milestones in mind that I want these characters to hit, or certain events that I think need to happen, but I’m very loosey goosey with it and don’t actively try to direct things.
My favourite quote about writing is what E. L. Doctorow said: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ That’s exactly how I approach my novels. I just have to trust that I’ll get there.
HQ: What has studying creative writing done for your work? What inspired you to study it and were you writing before?
LA: I was writing before, but I considered it a hobby more than anything. Kuwait doesn’t have a lot to offer young writers, especially those writing in English, so I really didn’t have anyone to share my writing with or to get feedback from. After university, I ended up in a corporate job that was very demanding, and, consequently, didn’t have any time for writing. I actually went without it for about four or five years, which had a significant impact on my mental health. I developed an anxiety disorder and just felt incredibly unfulfilled. So, I decided that if I didn’t take my writing seriously, then I never would. I quit my job in 2012 and applied for the creative writing master’s degree. It was easily the best decision I’d ever made.
People have a lot of opinions about creative writing degrees. They’ll say that writing is about talent and you either have it or you don’t and there’s nothing to be learned by studying it. I disagree. More than anything, being on the course taught me how to take and give criticism. It exposed me to writing styles I wasn’t used to. It taught me how to discipline myself in my writing routine. The programme was hugely beneficial to me, and I’m so grateful I had that experience.
HQ: What was your experience in Edinburgh like? Did you have any favourite writing spots?
LA: I loved my time in Edinburgh, and it is still my favourite city in the world. I return every year without fail, usually in the summer to attend the book festival. That year in Edinburgh doing my degree was phenomenal. I met a lot of great people who I’ve remained close friends with, and I continue to be inspired by the city whenever I’m there.
I spent a lot of time writing in Looking Glass Books on the Quartermile, which has since, sadly, closed down. Other than that, my friends and I would sit in a cafe off Buccleuch or at Hemma and write. There are so many great spots to choose from.
HQ: What’s your take on reading reviews? Have you been reading them or are you keeping yourself away?
I haven’t been reading them. Every writer I’ve met has told me not to. Occasionally, my friends will send me screenshots of the really nice ones, which I enjoy immensely, but I don’t think it’ll do me any favours to go looking.
HQ: What was the best thing you read about The Pact We Made?
LA: This might not count, but it’s a text I got from one of my closest friends who took a proof of the novel with her on vacation. She’s not much of a reader at all, but I got a text from her saying that it was 2:30 in the morning and she wanted to go to sleep but she couldn’t put the book down. That was nice!
HQ: There are a lot of art references in the novel. Do you have an interest in art yourself?
LA: I have a passion for all kinds of art, from music to illustrations to architecture. I’ve had an appreciation for these things for as long as I can remember, and once I realised Dahlia was an artist, it felt natural to imbue her with some of my passions.
HQ: She seems to have a fascination with dark pieces, like those by Goya. What is your taste in art like?
LA: Very much what Dahlia’s is. I’m fascinated by dark, melancholy, gothic work. I think it started when I saw Harry Clarke’s illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories in one of my collections. Poe is my favourite writer, and I have many editions of his work, and in one of them were these beautifully rendered drawings of each of the tales. From there, I discovered Gustav Dore’s work on Poe and Dante and Paradise Lost. Then I was on to Henri Fuseli and Goya, and when I was writing the novel, it seemed like the kind of work that would also resonate with Dahlia.
HQ: Your short story published in the Evening Standard presents another perspective from The Pact We Made. Do you write from different characters’ perspectives often?
LA: No, this was the first time I’d done that. I was struggling to come up with an idea for a story since I don’t tend to do well when given prompts! So, I was playing around with the idea of a completely unconnected story, but then – again – I heard a voice and just went along with it, quickly realising it was the voice of Dahlia’s father – who is a character I have a lot of affection for – and I thought it would be interesting to hear his perspective.
HQ: What was the last book you read and enjoyed?
LA: I read a lot, as you would expect, and I split my time between fiction and nonfiction. So, on the nonfiction side, I would say Dave Cullen’s Parkland: Birth of a Movement, which chronicles the journey of the inspiring survivors of the Parkland school shooting last year. It’s an incredibly uplifting and moving account, given the grave subject matter. On the fiction side, two books topped the list for me last year: Red Clocks by Leni Zumas, which is an altogether too creepily possible look at a future where abortion is once again illegal in the US, and I Still Dream by James Smythe, which is one of the most refreshing takes on humanity’s fragile and fraught marriage with technology, and AI in particular.
HQ: What’s next for you?
LA: My second novel, Silence is a Sense, will be out in the US and UK in the spring of 2021, so I’m very excited about that. It’s about a traumatised, mute Syrian refugee who is gradually drawn into the lives of her neighbours in an unnamed UK city. The novel deals with the refugee crisis and rise of xenophobic, alt-right rhetoric in Europe. I’m currently drafting a third novel as well, but it’s early days on that.
In the fall I’ll be moving to the UK to begin a PhD at Lancaster where I’ll be researching Arab Women’s Fiction as trauma narratives, which I am very excited about.