This week, I was lucky enough to interview an extraordinary friend of mine, Zoulfa Katouh! She recently signed with Alexandra Levick of Writer’s House for her novel AS LONG AS THE LEMON TREES GROW!
Zoulfa is hilarious and thought-provoking, and you should definitely read below to learn about how her identity and history influenced her novel, the importance of finding a support group while writing, and her time as an AMM mentee.
Can you tell me a little about the book that got you your agent?
ZK: Before introducing the book, I have to say why I wrote it and I’ll try not to get emotional. It’s my message to the world that illustrates what’s happening in Syria in a novel-like way.
When I moved to Europe and introduced myself as Syrian, I had a lot of people asking me about the plight in Syria.
All the information about it comes in cold hard facts that jot down the number of casualties with no emotion in huge books or from the news. Both don’t show the reality. That these are people who are suffering for something they’ve had forcibly removed from them. And so the idea for AS LONG AS THE LEMON TREES GROW came to my mind.
It’s about a Syrian girl named Salama who’s living in Homs, the capital of the Syrian Revolution, where the rain of bombs never stops. She volunteers at the hospital there as a pharmacist while trying to find a way out of Syria before her very pregnant best friend, Layla, who she swore to protect, gives birth. The only way out is through the Mediterrenean Sea by boat which holds its own dangers. But the clock is ticking, and Salama has to move fast before a bomb finds her next.
Can you tell us about your querying journey?
ZK: *tired Spongebob meme*
I’ve always heard how subjective each author’s querying journey is. And I have finally lived through that.
What really kicked off everything was me participating in DVpit of October 2018. That’s where Allie liked my pitch. After sending her my full, she requested a Revise and Resubmit, which I was able to work on with my amazing mentor in AMMR6 Joan F. Smith. Allie offered rep with the revised version!
Of course, that all sounds short and sweet, but the whole process from when I wrote down the first word in my MS (NaNoWriMo 2017) to the minute I signed my contract (August 2019) was a year and nine months. I go into full detail in my blog How I Really Got My Agent on my website. Not to be confused with How I Got My Agent (TV Version) which I’m told is a fun read as well.
Can you tell us about your time as an AMM mentee?
As I’m writing these words, there are people talking on the group. We’re always in contact with each other, always helping one another out. Most of the time I curse the distance between countries and continents that doesn’t let us see each other face to face.
With Joan’s help, I’ve become a much stronger writer. My problem is that I over-write and Joan was able to hone it down. Now, (I hope) I write what is needed, what causes the most impact. The best part is that AMM stays with you for as long as you want. I know Joan will always have my back and I’ll have hers. I know that whenever I’m in doubt, my AMM friends will be there to wash them away, as I’ll be there for them.
Do you have any advice for future mentees?
ZK: Enjoy every single second of it. And don’t sweat the edits! At first when Joan sent me my edit letter, I was hyperventilating. The scenes started jumbling up in my brain and I felt like I’ll never be able to organize them.
The editorial letter is a blueprint. It’s the skeleton of your future amazing updated novel. Meaning you have already written the meat of it. It’s all about rearranging and perfecting!
And always, always ask your mentor if you’re in doubt about anything! Your mentor believes in you and loves your story. It’s the reason they chose it from other applicants!
When and why did you start writing?
ZK: My mom taught me to read at age three and ever since then I’ve never stopped. I love books. But growing up and visiting libraries and bookstores, I never read a book where I was represented. Or about a girl who looks like me. For a long time, I didn’t think a book could ever exist where I’d be the hero. To be honest, I didn’t even know how that would be written. All I read were the stereotypes that didn’t apply to anyone I know and certainly not something I lived through. You know, Poor Oppressed Muslim Girl™. That impacted me greatly, and I thought if I were to ever write a book, the main character would have to be a white non-Muslim person because that’s the only thing I knew!
It wasn’t until much later in my life. Late teens, early twenties, when I realised that isn’t the case. I had put these imaginary rules for myself that have no basis or any valid reason. It was like waking up from a deep slumber and finally seeing the colours for the first time in a long time. I can write characters who are proud of their identity, who don’t succumb to stereotypes, who love freely with their hearts, who follow their dreams.
Coupled with that was the start of the Syrian Revolution and the idea just wriggled itself between my brain cells.
The ideas haven’t stopped since.
Who would your dream coauthor be?
ZK: I have too many because I love them all!
I am drawn to lyrical prose. Lesyle Walton has such a beautiful command of it in The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. As does Tahereh Mafi in her amazing Shatter Me series. I get goosebumps thinking of certain lines she penned down.
I love the way Marrissa Meyer’s characters are so unique, that if you see a meme or a textpost you can immediately be like omg this is so Thorne or Cinder.
S.K. Ali’s voice in her books is everything I look for in an unapologetic Muslim story. It makes me put down the book and dance around my chair while making incoherent noises of feels because I IDENTIFY!
I want them all.
What inspires you?
ZK: Sunsets and flying airplanes.
Sunsets with their assorted splash of all shades of colour marking the sky as their canvas.
I am lucky enough to be living within near distance from the airport, so the sky outside my window is always streaked with the white lines that follow airplanes and I just love staring at them and wonder about the plane and where it’s going and how would we look to the people inside looking out the window.
Also the stars. But sadly, I can’t see them clearly during the night because of all the artificial lights. But I am head over heels for stars, space, nebulas, everything really.
Pinterest Text Posts, they inspire many a cute scenes that I write for my characters.
Soundtracks especially from the channel called HDSounDI on YouTube. And a lot of Ed Sheeran’s lyrics.
What would be an author dream come true for you? Fanart? A tattoo of your words? Movie adaptation?
ZK: I could honestly see my book transforming into a movie. I even have the trailer soundtrack picked out! It’s a big dream, but I’m training myself to reach for the sky.
And because lemons are a reoccuring theme in my book, if I see readers wearing shirts with lemon prints, I will openly burst into tears.
You said your novel is speculative–can you talk a little bit about the fantastical elements to your story?
ZK: Sure! Think THE ASTONISHING COLOUR OF AFTER meets the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Things happen that seem real but… are they?
Do you have a favorite food or drink while you work?
ZK: I am made up of 85% of Diet Coke. Though, I can’t eat and write at the same time because I need to use both hands to type and pausing between writing cuts off my line of thought.
What was the hardest part about writing this book?
ZK: Honestly all of it. Although there are certain scenes and chapters that are harder than others (I’m sorry beta readers for making you cry </3). The fact is that this book takes from real events that have happened to Syrians. Still happening even. And to describe their pain, their deaths, their agony was very difficult. There were times where I’d write a paragraph and stop for some time to catch my breath. My keyboard suffered a lot from my spilled tears.
What was your favorite part?
ZK: I am a romantic through and through, and so my favourite part was writing the r o m a n c e. My reason for writing it is that I wanted to have a message of hope for the readers. That despite it all, we will survive. We will live.
The quiet moments between my OTP are very cute, if I can say so myself.
Was there a time when you were querying where you felt like giving up? If so, how did you continue to persevere?
ZK: Actually yes. My DVpit pitch got more than fifty likes from agents. I queried half of them with most requesting fulls, but their replies were all rejections. And I was bummed. After Allie sent me the Revise and Resubmit, I didn’t write for two months because I had been expecting an offer. I still remember throwing myself on my bed, crying and listening to Can’t Help Falling In Love from the Crazy Rich Asians soundtrack. Yes, I was being very dramatic.
AMM was the one that pulled me out of that sadness I surrounded myself with. To be more specific, a writing group. This is why, and I can’t stress this enough, it’s very important to have one.
Favorite romantic trope?
ZK: My all time favourite is Enemies to Lovers. I just… you know?!
I also have a soft spot for tropes that cause emotional pain. Like the Person A is hurt but doesn’t tell Person B. Person A realising they love Person B just when Person B is about to die… (Not to worry, those two examples aren’t in my book…. Or are they?)
Also, Person A, looking at the stars: Aren’t they beautiful?
Person B, looking at Person A: Yeah.
I aspire to write an OTP that incorporates the energy in the Hand Holding™ and the Hand Clench™ scene in Pride and Prejudice 2005.
Oh and gimme all the Sad Broken Bois™ and Hella Strong Girls™
What’s a book you’ve been OBSESSED with lately?
ZK: Serpent and Dove by Shelby Mahurin! I’m reading it right now and I don’t want it to end! My god. It’s like Shelby opened my imagination, peaked inside, knew exactly what I want as a story and wrote it. I c a n n o t!
Do you have any advice for querying authors?
ZK: The journey is long and filled with both sad and sweet moments. I went through it alone with my first novel (which we will never speak about because I cringe when I think about it), the one before Lemon Trees.
You need someone to hold your hand during this journey. Someone to share all the good and the bad. Find a writing group because mine saved my writing. Friends who read are amazing, but friends who write are very much needed during querying and writing. When you swap MS’s, their eyes will catch on stuff that will make your book so much better. You learn from each other.
Another perk is exchanging music recommendations, inside jokes and getting to know amazing people you wouldn’t have another chance of knowing elsewhere.
Zoulfa, thank you so much for your time!
More about Zoulfa…