Welcome back to THE BLOG! This month I’m pleased to introduce you to not one but two special guests! That’s right… this month is a DOUBLE Feature Interview! Please welcome, Marzieh Abbas! Marzieh's Bio Raised between the bustling cities of Dubai, U.A.E, and Karachi, Pakistan, Marzieh loves traveling, reading, and samosas. She is a member of SCBWI, 12x12, and a graduate of the Lyrical Language Lab, Children's Book Academy, and Storyteller Academy. She is active on Twitter, where she continues to form connections with the Writing Community, runs a kidlit review group on Facebook, and blogs about her author journey and life in Pakistan on Instagram. Marzieh was thoughtful enough to ask if the illustrator for her new book A DUPATTA IS could join us on the interview today… and of course, I said yes!! It’s not every day I get to interview an author and illustrator -especially ones working on the same project. So, right off the bat, we’re in for a treat. Let’s start with Marzieh’s portion of the interview questions… First off, I love asking my guests: what landed you in the crazy and magical world of publishing? PPD! As crazy as it sounds, I had to shut down my home-run cake business of nine years when my second born was just under a year old. I just couldn’t cope. Later I found out I hadn’t fully recovered from PPD and felt overwhelmed with all the juggling I had been doing. I began writing letters to my children and Quran journaling in an attempt to process my feelings. I had never dreamed of publishing a book, and although I enjoyed jotting down thoughts from time to time, they weren’t very eloquent. I was missing my baking business so much I subconsciously ended up writing a story about a mom with two kids who enjoyed baking. It was also Ramadan at the time, and I incorporated that special time of the year for Muslims into the story too. All this culminated in two books with Islamic publishers. I soon realized I could write for non-Muslim kids too! That’s when I stumbled upon the Children’s Book Academy course, won a partial scholarship, and the world of traditional publishing invited me in. I know the big question for many writers is: “When is my career going to take off?? How long??” and the answer can vary greatly, depending on many different variables. For instance, which route of publication you decide to take… whether it’s submitting directly to a small house or trying to find an agent, or approaching it from the independent side. Can you give us an idea of the time frame of your publishing journey so far? Mira’s CBA course ran in the fall of 2019. I began querying in March 2020 with only two completed manuscripts. I signed with my agent, the lovely Lynnette Novak, in August 2020, and my first book, A DUPATTA IS… sold in October 2020 (the contract was signed in January 2021, though.) And it just released on April 11th, 2023! What avenue of publishing did you decide to go with? And can you elaborate on some of the steps you took to get there? My Islamic books sold before I signed with my agent. The Muslim publishers work differently, and the process isn’t nearly as rigorous as the (secular) traditional publishing route. After Mira’s course, I was convinced I wanted to go the traditional publishing route and not self-publish. I also saw the benefits of signing with an agent and invested a lot of time scanning MSWL and browsing Query Tracker, so I knew I was querying the agents who were interested in the kind of stories I was writing. I joined SCBWI in 2020, and The Book was also a very helpful guide, as were the Blue Boards on the forum. I sent Lynnette my work in March 2020. She liked my manuscript and asked me to send her more work. I did, and she didn’t connect with the other story I queried her with. I then went on to invest in professional query critiques with a couple of authors. I polished my work and sent out another round of queries, this time using another manuscript, around June 2020. I also queried Joyce Sweeny of The Seymour Agency at this time. She wrote back saying her PB client list was full and she’d shared it with her colleagues, and Lynnette loved it and would get in touch. When Lynnette did touch base, I told her I had already sent her my work previously, but it had gone through considerable revisions since. She loved my work and wanted to have ‘The Call.’ I alerted the other agents who were considering, and two more agents were interested. I was in the process of sending them more material, and subsequently, we were setting up times for calls when I spoke to Lynnette. I watched all the Bookends Agency videos on which questions to ask during the call. I literally asked her any and everything I had concerns about, even the sticky questions. She was happy to answer all my questions, and we connected so well during the call. I also had a friend check date on Publishers Marketplace for me. Lynnette’s sales were the most impressive, and before I got off the call, my decision was made! In total, I sent out approximately 30 queries. Wow. That is incredible! I love your persistence. And I'm glad you mention the Bookends Channel. Bookends videos are definitely a wonderful resource to use as a helpful guide at pretty much all stages of the publishing process. (For any of our readers who are interested in entering the publishing world and aren't familiar with the Bookends Channel, I greatly encourage you to check it out HERE). So, here's the next question. How many books do you currently have published? Traditional PB publishing debut: A DUPATTA IS… Early Reader Chapter Books: Nadia & Nadir series, ABDO Publishing I also have several upcoming children’s books, including: ● AWE-SAMOSAS (Clarion, 2024) ● HENNA IS...(Feiwel and Friends, 2024) ● YASMEEN LARI, GREEN ARCHITECT (Clarion, 2024) And some unannounced projects I can’t speak about yet 🙂
I know writing can be solitary. Did you have anyone who supported or inspired you throughout this process? I have no friends or family who quite understood what I was doing at the beginning. Being a writer or a freelancer isn’t very common here in Pakistan. I found my community online through a critique group I formed through SCBWI, friends I met virtually at classes I took with The Writing Barn, and in 2021 I joined the 12x12PB Challenge and love the sense of community there. I’ve made awesome connections through the KIDLIT411, Manuscript Swap group on FB, the #WritingCommunity and the 5 am WritersClub on Twitter, the Desi Kidlit Community, and the Traditionally published and Agented Muslim writer’s group on FB. As I geared up for the launch of my debut book, I also joined Street Teams, PBSpree, The Dream Team, and Kidlit Works! They’ve been so supportive, and we even swap manuscripts. I also volunteered to be a mentor through the PBRising Stars program last year and made many author friends there. Groups like ‘Agented Authors’ and ‘On Sub’ and a Slack group called The Rockets have made the whole writing and submission process much less lonely. Thank you for sharing all of this information with us, Marzieh. These are all fantastic suggestions and places to visit. I was familiar with most all of the ones mentioned but a few stood out as something new. I hadn't heard of 5 AM WritersClub or Desi Kidlit Community, so it was awesome to learn more about them throughout the interview process. So, what would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve had to face as a writer? And what helped you through it? I feel like I’m constantly wondering if my next book will sell. The process is different for every book, and the pressure actually keeps mounting, with option clauses and non-compete clauses kicking in as more books come under contract. I am still struggling to keep myself from falling into this trap. The pressure of ‘what’s next?’ can cripple creativity. And sometimes, when you’re active on social media, it becomes even more challenging. My advice would be to focus on what brings you joy, write in several age categories, take frequent SM breaks, share stories of your struggles as much as sharing stories of your failure, and just go with the flow. This is a very unpredictable industry, and there’s no use in trying to crack the code of success! If you could offer one piece of helpful advice to a new writer… what would it be? Keep honing your craft through conferences, webinars, and tuning into podcasts. Keep revising your stories, as all the magic happens during revision! Great advice! Okay… now for some exciting book talk. I know April 11th was the scheduled release of your debut picture book, A DUPATTA IS. Which, no doubt, you’re THRILLED about. Since we have the special opportunity of having your illustrator here today as well, I wanted to ask you a few questions about this project. From what I’ve heard from some other authors and illustrators in the publishing industry, usually, the author and illustrator don’t really have much contact- if any at all- throughout the process of the project. Can you tell us about your working experience with your illustrator, Anu? Anu and I communicated often. My editor, Emily Settle, and Art Director, Mariam Quraishi, asked for my input often during the process. I pitched in at every stage of the process, from character design to final cover choice. Anu wanted to make sure all the depictions of dupattas from different regions of Pakistan were accurate. It was an amazing, collaborative process, and I hope that shines through. I’m also so lucky to be collaborating with the same team on a companion book, HENNA IS…, which releases in July 2024. Is there anything that surprised you about the illustrations in A DUPATTA IS? Since Anu is also South Asian, I knew she would be familiar with the culture of the region. But when I saw her drawings of the girl in her grandma’s room, it brought tears to my eyes. The furniture in the room, right down to the wooden bangle stand, reminded me of my own grandma’s room! Magical! Do you have a favorite spread of images in the story? It’s hard to pick a favorite (they’re all so beautiful, and Anu is so so talented)!, but I love the page with the hijabi bride best. Thank you so much for sharing, Marzieh! It's been an absolute treat having you with us. And now it's time for this month's...
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Now, I'd like to welcome our next guest today, Anu Chouhan! Anu's Bio Anu Chouhan is a Punjabi-Canadian illustrator and video game artist. A trained animator and character designer with a background in game development, Anu often combines her love of her cultural heritage into her art, as well as always being inspired by anime, nature, and global fashion. Her unique, edgy, and energetic art has been featured by the CBC, the BBC, Harper’s Bazaar Bride India, The Times of India, and The Times of London. How did you end up in the publishing world? What led you here? Where did it all begin? I was very lucky that my amazing agent Thao Le reached out to me on Twitter. At the time, I was actively trying to get more freelance work and was sharing my work through hashtags like #PortfolioDay and #SouthAsianArtists. When we connected, I indicated that I was interested in illustrating books as well as working on my own picture book. Since then, Thao has helped me work on 7 books, including one written and illustrated by me! How thrilling! It's wonderful to hear that hashtags like this can help people make illustrative connections within the publishing industry. Has art always played a role in your life in some aspect? If so, how? I have enjoyed drawing as a hobby ever since I was little. I work full-time in the game industry, and illustration is often a big part of that. But making time for my personal art and freelance projects like books every now and then is also very fulfilling. I can imagine! I believe finding balance is a key component to a living a happy and fulfilling life. And it sounds like you've managed to successfully do this.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey in children’s illustration? I have been illustrating picture books and graphic novels since 2020. At that time, working on books was my main focus. Nowadays, I'm back to working at a studio, so it's important for me to find balance. But often, working on picture books is a fun way to shift my creative gears. I know you’re trained in animation and character design, and you also have a background in mobile game development, which is SO cool. I’m curious… in what ways does your illustrative work differ from these? And what are the similarities, if any? With studio work, you're often working within a specific style that's already been established based on the property. With my own art, and often with my books, it's a way for me to establish my own style of art. I've been lucky in that a lot of publishers and art directors have granted me creative freedom when it comes to how I visually interpret the stories; this was definitely the case with A DUPATTA IS... But that said, my drawing style from standalone illustrations vs books is also quite different! When it comes to your illustration, can you share with us what your creative process like? I track my tasks by writing in my planner (feels better than using a calendar app). I try to give myself ample research and sketching time before I begin working on a book so that I'm not coming up with ideas on the fly later (although sometimes, that has happened with awesome results). When it comes to my own drawings, I like to sketch on paper and let inspiration come to me slowly. Forcing an illustration when I'm tired or uninspired has never worked out successfully for me. I love this so much. And I completely agree! I find personally with my writing, if I try to "force" creativity, vs letting it come naturally, even if I do manage to get words on a page, the quality isn't the same. I say it all the time: creativity is an art form, and as Toy Story 2 taught us, "you can't rush art"!
Are there any challenges that you’ve had to face within the publishing/illustration arena? If so, what were they, and how did you overcome them? I think that fair wages are a big issue within the arts. There are many gigs out there that don't pay artists what they are worth, and it is important for us to approach projects carefully and understand what is worth our time and what is not. I've been learning a lot about this within the publishing industry, but thankfully my agency is really good at guiding me! Thank you for sharing this! I'm sure that this will help a lot of illustrators to make sure that they're getting paid properly. And for our last question today, if you could share one piece of creative wisdom with other illustrators and artists looking to break into the publishing industry, what would it be? Speaking from experience, it is really important to know when to say "no" to a project. There be times when there are gaps between projects, but there will also be times when a bunch of overlapping gigs will come in at once! It's tempting to say yes to all of them, but it's not worth sacrificing your mental health! It's important to take breaks and make time for other aspects of life. Also, remember to stretch your back muscles often lol. Thank you, Anu. These are fantastic pieces of advice to end our interview on. It's okay to say "NO," don't forget to STRETCH and give yourself time to relax!
That wraps up our DOUBLE FEATURE INTERVIEW for May. Thanks for visiting the blog! I hope this interview helped answer some of your writing/illustrating questions. If there's ever a question you'd love to have answered, LEAVE IT IN THE COMMENTS below.
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LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR GUESTS…
Connect with Marzieh: FB: MarziehAbbas IG: marziehabbas_author Twitter: MarziehAbbas Website: www.marziehabbas.com Marzieh's Books: Hamza's Pyjama Promise. Sun Behind the Cloud Publishing, UK. 2020 Hamza and Aliya share the Ramadan Cheer. Kisa Kids, USA. 2020 ABC's of Pakistan. WHY Books & Children's Literature Festival, Pakistan, 2020 Nadia and Nadir. Chapter book series, ABDO Publishing, 2022 A Dupatta is... Feiwel and Friends, Macmillan, USA, 2023
Anu is represented by Thao Le at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She can be found on Instagram @anumation, as well as on Twitter @anumationart