Working with Words: Amra Pajalic

Amra Pajalic’s debut novel, The Good Daughter, won the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Civic Choice Award. Her stories have appeared in journals, magazines and anthologies, and Amir: Friend on Loan – her novel for children – will be published later this year.

She’ll be in conversation with Irfan Yusuf, Alyena Mohummadally, Demet Divaroren and Tasneem Chopra at the Wheeler Centre this coming Monday for Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia, discussing the eponymous anthology which she co-edited (with Divaroren). We spoke to her about drawing influence from Looking for Alibrandi, why perseverance is central to writing, and how heartfelt, honest stories can ‘provide a shining light’ to young people grappling with cultural identity.

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first piece I had published was in the local newspaper when I was a high school student. It was an article I wrote for a school assignment about a friend of mine who got bashed on the street and passers by walked past without intervening. I received a prize for this piece and a much needed boost to keep writing.

What’s the best part of your job?

That every story is different, sometimes it feels like I am hewing a story from stone, other times it pours out of me effortlessly like it was already written once before. But the process of writing itself is magical.

What’s the worst part of your job?

That everything to do with writing takes soooo loooong. From completing a draft, to the revision process, and then submitting and getting published, it really is an exercise in patience.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Getting my debut novel The Good Daughter published. I was lucky enough to receive two offers and was shortlisted and won some prizes. After ten years of building my portfolio and confidence it felt like the most amazing thing in the world.

I also think my co-editor Demet Divaroren and I have done something really special by getting the anthology Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia published. I think the heartfelt and honest stories from our twelve contributors will very much change perceptions of Muslim people and provide a shining light to young people who are going through their own messy adolescence.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

The best advice I’ve received was from Anne Gracie ‘First comes the draft, then comes the craft,’ and this perfectly encapsulates my working process. I always have to complete a crappy first draft, which is what I name my file, in order to organically let the story flow and then put my author hat and begin the process of moulding my sprawling words into a worthwhile draft.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

Some reviews of The Good Daughter were interesting where people seemed to misunderstand my characters and I felt quite offended on their behalf. I also feel that young adult fiction gets judged in a different way because the characters are viewed as role models, which I find frustrating because at the end of the day I want to tell an interesting story, not a moral tale.

If you weren’t making your living by working with words, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I am a teacher too and that’s something I will always be doing in one way or another. I love working with young people and making a difference in their lives.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I believe you have to have talent, however you can learn about the craft of writing. Having said that though I believe that there are many other qualities that come into play such as perseverance, doggedness and sheer bloody mindedness to keep going. Along the way I have met many, many talent writers who don’t have the other qualities necessary to succeed, and met others with less talent who have. So it’s not one or the other.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Understand that being a writer is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. There are many that will fall by the wayside, but those that keep preserving will reach the finish line.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I haven’t quite gotten into the ebooks. I’m hoping to buy an e-reader and change that, so for now it is still about physical books.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Damon Salvatore from The Vampire Diaries. I don’t think there would be much talking, as I would probably be drooling into my dinner. (Just Google Ian Somerhalder who plays this character in the TV show and you will understand my state of mind).

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta. It was the first time I read about an ethnic character and a world that I recognised and it inspired me to write The Good Daughter.

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