Hello Mixed-Up Filers!
We are in for a treat today! Today we have Hena Khan, author of More to the Story, which came out in paperback on September 8th, from Salaam Reads/ Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
JR: Hi Hena, thanks for joining us today.
HK: Thank YOU! It’s my pleasure!
JR: First off, for those who don’t know, what can you tell us about the book and where the idea for the story came from?
HK: The book is about Jameela, a girl with a big heart and a quick temper who is determined to be an award-winning journalist but is thrown off course by a mysterious and charming new friend, Ali. The idea came from my deep obsession with Little Women when I was growing up and wanting to write a similar type of book featuring a large, loving Pakistani American family that tackles some big life challenges. I wanted to draw readers into my work the same way I was captivated and wanted to live in that story, with that family, forever.
JR: This book is an interpretation of Little Women. What is it about that book that fascinated you to want to do an updated version?
HK: There’s so much to love about it, but I think I was most attracted to the well-developed characters, the focus on friendship and sisterly dynamics, and the very subtle romance. As a child of immigrants trying to find my way growing up, I connected strongly with Jo, who was fighting to be more than society allowed her to be. My goal was to write a story that was inspired by the one I loved, but to also change the parts of the book that didn’t go the way I would have wanted!
JR: Side question. Which movie version of Little Women was your favorite?
HK: The newest one! Before the Greta Gerwig film, I honestly never loved any of the movie adaptations and considered them all a betrayal of the book for one reason or another. Even after seeing the trailers for the newest version, I went in with low expectations. But then I was blown away and adored it! I think my reaction to the movies over the years is actually what prevented me from retelling the book or sticking closely to the narrative myself in More to the Story. Instead, I picked out some of my favorite themes and moments and wove them into an entirely new and fresh story. That way, I hoped loyalists to Little Women would see it the way I do, as a love letter or tribute more than an imitation.
JR: Your book deals with a lot of different emotions and difficult subjects, but still has a lot of humorous parts. How difficult was it for you to try and find the right balance in writing that?
HK: I’m so glad you said that, because I tried really hard to find that balance, to make the book fun to read, and to give readers some emotional relief when writing about tough moments. In real life, we find comfort and see beauty and receive support in different and sometimes unexpected ways, and I like to focus on the small ways we lift each other up when things are difficult. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Ali teases and makes her sister Bisma laugh, and how Jameela realizes how valuable that is.
JR: I read that you grew up in Maryland. What from the local customs/flavor, have you been able to incorporate, or has helped to influence your books?
HK: So much of what I write is based on my experiences growing up in a suburb of Maryland, outside of Washington DC. I draw on the diversity of the area, the strong Pakistani American community, and things like the tastes and scents of my favorite restaurants or the local Islamic Center, even if I set my stories in other places. More to the Story takes place in Atlanta suburbs because my sister lives there with her family, and I loved the idea of setting my book in the South and incorporating local flavors of another place I’ve come to appreciate over the years. I was also surprised to learn that there’s a very large Pakistani American community there, and even a Pakistani radio station!
JR: I also read how you felt that your children feel more comfortable in maintaining a balance between your Pakistani heritage/Muslim faith and living in Maryland, than you did at their same age. How did those feelings help contribute to your writing?
HK: These are such great questions! I’m so glad that my kids feel more comfortable in their skins than I was at their age. I make it a point to write characters who, like my own children, don’t struggle with their ethnicity or religion, and whose identities do not form the basis of their challenges. I think that they, both in their actual lives and in story, deserve to see themselves and be seen as they are, unapologetic and proud Pakistani American Muslims.
JR: I know every author puts something of themselves into their books, so what from you has been included into More to the Story, and which character are you most like and why?
HK: I sneak a lot about myself into my books, and most of my characters resemble someone from my life, and many of the details and small moments come from my own life or are stolen from the lives of people around me. A lot of Jameela’s personality and experiences are derived from my own. Like Jameela, I’m the second eldest child, I loved writing as a kid and wrote a family newspaper, I was an editor for my school newspaper, and I felt a lot of responsibility for my younger siblings. I also struggle with a quick temper, which is my default emotion when I’m stressed out or scared. So having her grapple with that was cathartic for me.
JR: More to the Story centers around four sisters. Did you come from a large family?
HK: Yes! There are four of us siblings in my family too, although we are two sisters and two brothers and much further apart in age. Probably because I come from a large family, it was fun to write the scenes of sibling banter and friendly competition, and I loved giving each of the girls a distinct personality. My siblings and I are all very different from each other but are still close.
JR: Okay, serious question. I read your bio on your site, https://www.henakhan.com/, and I would be remiss to not ask, just how great of a flamenco dancer are you?
HK: Haha, not great at all! I took lessons for several years, many years ago, and it is such a difficult form of dance to master. I don’t think I ever graduated past beginner to be honest. But I think it’s so beautiful and would love to take it up again one day. The good thing is that many of the best flamenco dancers in the world are older women, which is super cool, and still gives me time to go back and give it another try!
JR: You’ll have to give us an update if you do! You’ve traveled a lot. I read that you’ve been to over thirty-five countries. Wow! How has that helped your writing?
HK: In college, I studied international affairs and I’ve wanted to live in another country my entire life. But other than a semester studying abroad in Spain, I’ve lived in the same five mile area my entire life! I’m really grateful to have been able to travel as much as I have, to connect with different cultures and experience the joys of new foods, sights, and customs on different continents. And over the last few years, I’ve been able to visit a bunch of new states and parts of the US that I’ve never been to before, which was so much fun. I think travel overall has influenced my writing by reinforcing my belief that at our core we all share the same values, and I try to speak to the universal human experience through my specific background.
JR: Can you discuss with us your path to publication?
HK: Sure! I got my start in publishing as a writer-for-hire for several Scholastic book clubs, like Spy University, Space University and others. They served as a crash course for me to learn how to write for kids, since at the time I was a technical writer and editor focused on international health issues. I realized I loved writing for kids, and since I was a young mother reading to my toddler, also started to think about the books I didn’t have a kid, that I wanted my children to have. I started to write picture books that included characters who were like them, and my first was published in 2008. For a few years I continued to write picture books, and other writer-for-hire projects, while working in international health. I completed my first novel, Amina’s Voice, in 2013; it took me about six months to find an agent in 2014, and the book didn’t sell until early 2015. It’s been a long road, and I’m grateful for all the support I received over the years, especially in the beginning of my career when there wasn’t as much of a focus on representation and inclusion as today.
JR: What is your writing process like?
HK: I usually chew on an idea for a bit, and once I commit to it as a book, write a synopsis and then a pretty detailed chapter outline. While I write, I edit myself continually and agonize over my first drafts. In the beginning, I suffer though a lot of self-doubt and have to force myself to push through. I think I’m much more of a natural editor than writer, or at least it’s the part that I enjoy more! I write in fits and spurts, at different times of day, in different locations. And I write a lot in my head, while on walks, in the shower, even while trying to nap! But somehow, slowly, it gets done, and I love the process of going back and putting the shine on a story and cleaning up language.
JR: When I try to nap is always the time ideas start coming in for me! What’s the best piece of writing advice that you’ve ever received?
HK: Someone told me once that a full day’s work for a creative writer is three hours. And that makes me feel a lot better about my level of productivity! But seriously, I think the best advice I’ve gotten, which is very hard to do, is to not compare yourself to others. Your creative journey is unique, and there is no one path to what you consider a satisfying writing career. It’s a tricky industry to navigate for most people. And it takes both a tremendous amount of persistence and a commitment to continually grow and learn to do it better.
JR: And what advice can you give to writers looking to break through?
HK: I highly recommend joining or forming a writing group with people who read children’s books, and whose opinion you value. I can’t tell you what a difference having the support and feedback of other writers has made for me, and I still depend on it. If you don’t have a group, a single critique partner is great too. But it helps to be accountable, to get advice on how to strengthen your work, and to get used to the editorial process.
JR: What was your favorite childhood book?
HK: Apart from Little Women, I adored the Ramona Quimby series. She was my fictional hero, and Beverley Cleary is my real one.
JR: Favorite childhood movie?
HK: The Princess Bride! I loved the silliness, cast, the quotable lines, and everything about it. And it was even better that my sister had shared the book with me first.
JR: Your book gets made into a movie, who plays the lead?
HK: That is a hard one! I don’t know of too many young Pakistani American actors, and I would prefer for them to be if possible. I imagined Ali to look and sound like a young Zayn Malik when I was writing his character, so someone who looks like him!
JR: Something people would be surprised to learn about you?
HK: People who don’t know me are often surprised by my age (I’m not telling!) and that I struggle with a quick temper. People who do know me witness the way I walk super slowly and always carry around a back pillow, and they know to steer clear of me when I’m angry!
JR: Duly noted. How can people follow you on social media?
JR: What are you working on next?
HK: I’m working on the first book in a companion series to Zayd Saleem Chasing the Dream, that features his sister Zara. It’s been a blast to go back to the family I adore and write about them again! And I hope you’ll check out the sequel to Amina’s Voice, called Amina’s Song, which is coming out in March!
JR: Hena, I’d like to again thank you for joining us today!
HK: Thank you so much for having me!
Everyone, please make sure to go out and get a copy of, More to the Story!
Until next time Mixed-Up FIlers . . .