Q&A interview with Muhammad Khan and Lucy Pearse, author and editor of
Bright but shy Muzna is the sixteen-year-old only child of Pakistani parents now settled in Britain. Her father wants her to become a doctor whereas she can only think about her writing. The story changes course when Muzna gets dangerously over-involved in a manipulative terrorist cell.
The judges were very impressed at how Muhammad Khan handles a difficult subject, found the dialogue authentic and really believed in his character Muzna.
You knew from early that you wanted to write. When did you decide that you would write for teenagers and young people?
I began writing YA fiction back when I was a teenager myself. Writing for people my own age seemed logical. I remember posting stories online and the rush of receiving positive feedback or requests for more. It was especially validating for a lonely child. I guess I’ve stuck with it ever since.
There is a gritty hopefulness to YA fiction that you just don’t find anywhere else. A heady fusion of growth, discovery and emerging wisdom. Just as puberty is the most transformative period in a person’s life, I want my books to echo that energy by never shying away from real issues young people may face. My characters make choices which don’t always pan out but they learn from their mistakes.
I believe all teens are fundamentally good people who are shaped by their life experiences, both good and bad. Our duty as teachers is to try to help them navigate the things they cannot change, to reach for the stars and ultimately become the best version of themselves. As a YA author, I like to see myself as a long-distance teacher.
What did you enjoy most about the editorial process and working with Lucy?
I really lucked out with Lucy! She gets my characters without me having to go into extensive explanations and justifications. As a creator it’s exciting and special to get the chance to work with someone on the same wavelength.
Lucy’s understanding of story is phenomenal and I have learned so much from her. I tend to get caught up in the details, or fixate on just a couple of characters, while she advocates for all my characters, making sure they get a fair deal. She’s a stickler for continuity and constantly challenges me to produce my best writing. What more could you want in an editor?
What would you say were the elements of I Am Thunder that were hardest to get right?
I Am Thunder deals with incredibly sensitive themes of Islamophobia, radicalisation and extremism. I wanted to give a balanced picture of the issues involved while highlighting the double standards we often see in reporting when a crime has been committed by a Muslim. Primarily I wanted to give a voice to my own students who felt excluded from the conversation even though young people are exploited and groomed by extremists more than any other demographic. My students’ feedback was invaluable in getting Muzna’s voice and motivations right.
What are you most proud of in the book?
My biggest dream was to write a book with an inspirational Muslim hero at the centre of everything. Muzna breaks the trope that religion equals extremism. The more research she does, the more she grows to understand that Islam not only condemns terrorism but makes it incumbent on its followers to speak out no matter what the cost. After all the misrepresentation in the media, I am most proud that I was allowed to provide a counterpoint.
What is the best piece of advice Lucy, or indeed anyone else, has given you as a first time author?
Lucy has given me tons of excellent advice but what springs to mind right now are words of wisdom from children’s author SF Said. We were at an event together and I was a nervous wreck: would readers misunderstand the messages in my book? He told me not to worry; that only a small percentage of books make it to publication, so my book was already an achievement to be proud of. He advised me to let go off my book and push on with the next. It was the best advice I’ve ever received.
What made I Am Thunder stand out when you read the manuscript?
So many things, but mostly the teenage voices.· I had never read a YA submission like it, with such a range of young characters, all so completely believable.· It was, and still is, a very ambitious story, but coming from the perspective of these honest, funny and totally clued-up characters, I felt like any reader would be able to navigate and identify with some of the more difficult issues that Muhammad was looking to explore.
What would you say are the qualities of Muhammad’s writing that marks him out as a talent to watch?
His willingness to confront difficult subject-matter head on, but without ever getting too heavy.· He writes about urban teens today and the sometimes terrifying situations that cultural pressure can put them into – but he writes about them with humour and honesty.· His ability to access those difficult questions and find common ground with readers, no matter their personal experience, make him and his work fantastic ambassadors for young people.· He has created a platform to speak directly to teenagers who want to see themselves in the role of writer, creator, and protagonist and ultimately his work does just that – it celebrates the power of teenagers to make that change and challenge the status quo.
What were the main elements you worked on editorially with Muhammad to help him make the book even better?
We worked on bringing out Muzna, the main character's personal journey. There was a fabulous message at the centre of her story which fed into all of the sub-plots and subjects that Muhammad was addressing – the power that owning your own story can give you.· So focusing on Muzna, how she felt at any given point and what her reaction might be to a certain set of circumstances helped to simplify all of the ideas and character journeys that Muhammad wanted to include.
What would you say is the hardest thing for debut authors when working on their manuscripts?
I think being able to let go of the work that you've been holding on to for so long is a very difficult thing – whether that's approaching an agent for the first time, having your debut sent to press for review, or anything in-between.· It's just been you and your writing for a long time and it's nerve-wracking and even upsetting sometimes, to think that people will pass judgement.· I think that knowing you as the author have agency as part of the team working to bring·the novel to market is very important, making it easier for the process to feel much more collaborative from the start.
What advice would you give to anyone writing a contemporary YA novel?
Remember that young people have opinions; let your characters be strong within their narrative and they will be much more real as a result. Try to pinpoint what the centre of their journey is – what will they discover about themselves and what friendship / drama / love / adventure will they have whilst doing it? Everything should come back to that central question and by focusing on it as you write, you will see your way through the structure of it all much more easily.· Read widely (everyone says that!) watch TV, listen to music, use social media, see what young people are talking about, and never be afraid to ask questions.·
Thanks to Muhammad and Lucy for answering our questions.
Muhammad Khan - Photo by Sarah Blackie