Kia Abdullah is a British novelist and travel writer. Her novel Take It Back has been named as one of the best thrillers of the year by both The Telegraph and The Guardian.
We got together virtually to discuss all things writing.
Firstly, thank you for agreeing to the interview. I can imagine how busy you must be at the moment!
So I know that you graduated in Computer Science at university. What was your route into writing? Was it something that you always wanted to pursue?
I really don’t want to be one of those annoying writers who are like, “Oh, yes, I wrote my first novel while I was still in the womb” – you know the ones, right? – but I definitely knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a writer. I wrote stories in primary school that my teacher would bind for me so that they looked like books. When I was leaving for secondary school, he gave me a notebook and pen and told me to write down snippets of conversation I heard in public to use in my stories. He’s the first person who told me I would be a writer and that was an incredible vote of confidence. I always tell people if you see a spark in a child, tell them because you don’t know what that will fuel.
Anyway, I was convinced I’d be a journalist for many years. At 14, I did my work experience at The Sunday Times Magazine and that was brilliant. I started my own ‘Household News’ zine like a loser and basically wrote and read loads throughout my youth. When it came to choosing a degree, however, I followed the money. To be honest, I couldn’t see anyone who looked like me making a living as a writer and I – the daughter of working-class immigrants – didn’t want a life of penury, so I followed the money. I worked in tech for three years, then took a 50% pay cut for an editorial role at a magazine. I have no regrets though. Without those early years in tech, I wouldn’t be financially secure.
That’s great advice about encouraging kids – if you don’t tell them, they might never hear it from anyone else.
It sounds like you’ve enjoyed both reading and writing from a very young age. What was your route from the editorial role at a magazine to travel writing, and ultimately your first novel?
The travel writing started as part of my role at the magazine. I was Features Editor at Asian Woman and occasionally covered travel for Asian Bride (namely honeymoons!). As part of that role, I visited the Maldives, St Kitts & Nevis, St Lucia, French Polynesia and so on (please don’t hate me). This taught me how travel marketing, PR and editorial all work together, so when I went on to take a role at Rough Guides at Penguin Random House, I already had a good grounding in how the industry works.
After two years there, my boyfriend and I quit our day jobs to spend a year travelling the world (after a year of hardcore saving!). He’s a photographer and I’m a writer so the natural thing was to start a travel blog. Initially, it was a way to keep our skills sharp so we’d have something to point to when re-entering the job market, but the blog took off. Today, it’s read by 250,000 people a month and it pays our bills! In those couple of years, I was also writing fiction. I finished Take It Back – a courtroom drama set in East London – and got a two-book deal with HarperCollins. I don’t want to make it sound easy though. There was a lot of graft and a lot of rejection along the way. You need a tough skin to stay in this game.
Wow, the Features Editor job sounds incredible. And I love the idea of starting a blog to keep your skills sharp. I guess I’ve done a similar thing with my own blog, although I don’t think mine has been read by 250,000 people in total, let alone per month..! That’s genuinely impressive.
So, in terms of novels, where do you begin? Does inspiration suddenly hit, or do you consciously try to find a premise?
Novels are such a long-term commitment, so I really think you have to be invested in an idea. For me, consciously trying to find a premise rarely leads to an idea that can sustain my focus and enthusiasm for the course of a year. I much prefer a bolt of inspiration.
This is why I think it’s so important for novelists to get out into the world: to meet people, go places, observe things. That wealth of experience feeds into fiction. You might think you can write a Virgin Suicides type of novel which is very narrow in terms of location – claustrophobic in fact – and therefore doesn’t need you to be in the real world, but Jeffrey Eugenides got the idea for that novel after a conversation with his nephew’s babysitter who told him that she and all her sisters had tried to take their own lives. Imagine if he had stayed home that day. He wouldn’t have had that conversation and we might not have this exquisite novel. For me, just being out in the world can be a form of working.
I totally agree. It’s so important to actually ‘be’ in the world to get inspired. I had an idea for one short story by noticing a creepy kid while I was on holiday, and an entire novel of mine was prompted by my disillusionment with going to auditions.
So, once inspiration strikes, what do you do next? Do you just start writing, or work on an outline?
Which novel? It sounds like an interesting read. Is it darkly comic or straight up dark?
I’m a planner, so I outline my novels first. This is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it can save a huge amount of rewriting later down the line when you realise that a character or subplot isn’t working. On the other hand, if you plan too much, it can feel like a chore to fill in those scenes. Instead of letting your creativity set the course of the story, it can feel like ticking tasks off a list.
I definitely had more freedom with Take It Back because I didn’t have a book deal when I wrote it. With its follow-up, however, I had a contract and a deadline, and so had to be very disciplined. That’s really important if you want to make it as a career author. I still don’t know if I’ve got what it takes in terms of longevity, but I hope I do!
I do the same actually – outline everything – although I do try to keep some of it unplanned otherwise, as you say, it becomes a bit of a chore. Painting is more fun when it’s not paint-by-numbers, I guess…
And the novel I mentioned – The Artist – leans more toward straight up dark than darkly comic. Definitely not a chucklefest!
So in terms of discipline, do you have set times of the day that you write, or a set word count per day/week or anything?
I love dark fiction so I will check out The Artist!
I write 1,500 words five days a week. They’re usually terrible words but I think it’s really important to get the first draft on the page. Once that’s done, I look for weaknesses in the plot, pacing and characters. I spend a couple of weeks amending the outline and then dive into editing – again aiming for 1,500 words a day. I used Freedom to block out social media which is really key for my productivity. At the moment, I’m contracted to write a book a year and that feels quite daunting. I can’t complain though. I spent years writing without an agent, editor or audience waiting for my work. The fact that these people exist in my life still feels amazing.
My favourite quote about first drafts is about remembering that you’re filling a sandpit full of sand so that you can build sandcastles later. I find that very apt.
It’s great you’ve got a set writing routine, and I definitely find that blocking social media helps. It’s too easy to get sucked into a thread or article and get lost for an hour…
Turning to marketing your work, is this something you focus on very much? And what, if anything, have you found to be effective?
I can’t afford not to! If you’re a household name, perhaps you can neglect marketing but for everyone else, it’s a necessary part of being a professional author. Selling books is really hard. Publishers can’t click their fingers and conjure an audience for you. If you’re a flagship title, they may pour lots of marketing dollars into your book, but even this doesn’t guarantee readers. Marketing guru Seth Godin says that the best time to start selling your book is three years before you write it! You have to start building a tribe of people who are interested in you and your work. I’m active on social media, I blog and I write for newspapers and magazines when I can find the time. There’s a lot more I could be doing, but I think marketing works best when it’s in a medium you naturally enjoy. If you’re forcing it, your audience will see through it.
That’s so true. As humans we have a really good barometer for when we’re being marketed ‘at’. It’s never a good feeling.
And I’m not sure if you’ve read All Marketers Are Liars by Seth Godin, but I’d definitely recommend it.
So, another author I interviewed mentioned Take It Back as her favourite book of last year! How are you finding the buzz around it? It’s been – deservedly – really well received.
Oh, that’s lovely. I’ve been bowled over by how supportive other authors have been. Readers and bloggers have been incredible too. It’s strange and wonderful to come across Take It Back in the wild (like when someone names it as their book of the year!).
As with most authors, I’ve been plugging away for years, but Take It Back took my career to a whole new level. I always find it funny when people call me a ‘new writer’. I first published something at the age of 24 (a column in Asian Woman magazine) and I’m 38 now! I 100% take it as a compliment though. It means that my work is reaching a bigger audience. I suppose it’s like when ‘overnight successes’ often say ‘Wait a minute, I’ve been working for two decades, there’s nothing overnight about this!’
That’s the thing, people often talk about overnight successes, but most of the time there’s this huge amount of time, work and dedication behind it. I agree you should take it as a compliment though!
So I know we spoke about inspiration earlier. Do you keep a file of ideas to dip into, or do you wait for the end of one project and see what you’re inspired to write next?
Oh, I wish it were the first! Some authors have dozens of ideas buzzing around at the same time. That’s not me. I work sequentially. What I’m learning though is that if you want to make it as a career author, you have to keep at least three books in your head at the same time: the one you last published (in my case, Take It Back), the one you’re publishing next (Truth Be Told) and the one you’re writing now (working title: Next Of Kin). For me, adding another book on top threatens to topple the whole lot!
That said, while I won’t explicitly think about other ideas while working on a novel, as I said earlier, I believe that being out in the world naturally brings ideas to you, so I expect there’s something percolating in my subconscious brain!
Yes, that 3 book idea makes a lot of sense. There’s always lots of juggling going on.
So I know some authors like to explore an idea through the process of writing, whereas others see writing as more of a way to express an already-explored idea. Which are you, if either?
I think I’m in the first camp. I start with a kernel of an idea and that often leads me to a conclusion or opinion I didn’t necessarily hold before.
For example, before writing Truth Be Told, I believed that there was an inherent tension in being a gay Muslim. If you were one, then it was really hard to happily be the other. Through the process of writing the book – particularly a scene in which Zara (the protagonist) debates this with her sister – I thought, ‘You know what? Screw it. Of course you can be both.’ Your identity is a personal thing and no one has the right to tell you how you can and can’t define yourself. Writing through that idea really helped me figure out what I think and even how I define myself. I ended up writing an article on being a ‘cultural Muslim’ as a result of that process.
So when you got to that particular scene and kind of decided ‘ok, this is what I feel about this’, did you then rewrite earlier parts of the book to reflect that view? I mean, I’m sure there was rewriting and editing anyway, but did that realisation cause you to specifically change earlier parts of the book where maybe you hadn’t come to any conclusion?
Luckily, no, because Zara has always been progressive – probably more so than I am! She’s the driving force of the novel so it was always going to broadly align with her worldview
It’s more that in debating with the other characters (namely her sister Salma and her best friend Safran), she managed to convince me too. I apologise if that sounds pretentious. I always cringe when writers start referring to their characters as if they’re real people
That’s so funny, I do that too. Same with actors who talk about the characters they play, although to be honest I do both of those things too so who am I to talk…?!
So what advice would you give to someone wanting to start writing, whether that be a novel, blog or journalism?
In terms of craft, I think the most important thing is to be a reader. People talk about creative writing courses and MFA programmes, and of course those things have value, but the only pedigree a writer really needs is to read widely.
The other piece of advice goes back to marketing. Start building an audience early. Don’t wait. It doesn’t matter if your early work is cringe-inducing; you will get better over time and your audience will grow with you.
Yes, I totally agree. Reading is incredibly important.
So lastly, what have been some of your favourite novels as a reader recently?
I’ll try to stick to books published in the last two years as opposed to older books I’ve only read recently.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I came to this book relatively late after it was already a massive phenomenon. I’m usually sceptical of stratospheric novels, but this completely lived up to the hype.
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh is haunting and so incredibly inventive.
I’m going to break my two-year rule for When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy. It was published in 2017 and is just exquisite.
I’ve heard really good things about Where the Crawdads Sing, and will check the other two out as well. I love finding new authors to read.
So, thank you so much for your time and for this interview, Kia. I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s been fascinating getting an insight into how you work!
And congratulations on the success of Take It Back, it is really resonating with people.
Thank you, Angelo. This has been so interesting. Also, I want to thank you for introducing me to that wonderful quote by actress Stella Adler that you shared recently. “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.” I can’t think of a better way to end.
You can find Kia at:
And Truth Be Told at: