Interview with Akmal Ullah, author of ‘Accidental Rich Boy’
Akmal Ullah is a teacher of English at a state school in London and an author of YA fiction.
He holds a BA (Hons) in English and History, a Post-Graduate Certificate of Education (PGCE), and a Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL).
We caught up with him to talk about his YA novel ‘Accidental Rich Boy,’ which was published by Beacon Books and Media Ltd.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I grew up and lived in London all my life.
I attended my local primary and secondary school and went on to complete my A Levels at a Further Education College in central London.
After completing my A Levels, I deferred my place at university and I took a gap year to focus on learning Arabic, Quran and Islamic studies privately with a teacher. Learning scared knowledge never stops, and I consider myself a life long learner.
I then went on study English and History at Queen Mary, University of London.
For the English side of my degree, I studied texts which encapsulated key aspects of western philosophy and theory from the Enlightenment period until modern times. I also focussed on Medieval and Post-Colonial literatures.
For the History side of my degree, I focussed on Medieval History including the history of the Crusades. I also focussed on history of the British empire and particularly World War Two.
After graduating, I completed my PGCE in English at UCL Institute of Education. I then spent two years teaching at a state secondary school in central London.
Followed that, I obtained a full scholarship to study Law at the College of Law in London. However, after completing my Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), I returned to teaching English and decided not to pursue a career in Law.
Where do you get your ideas?
Quite simply by reading in my genre as much as possible and trying to live a full life!
Every author will delve into aspects of their personal experiences, whether they are difficult painful experiences or pleasant happy moments and fictionalise them in order for it to conform to the current publication standards within their genre. A good author will also read as wide as possible within their genre to learn about current reading trends and what is commercially popular.
What is your writing process like?
The writing process really differs from author to author. Some writers can sit and write really good fiction without any planning, whilst others require a detailed plan regarding character, plot, structure, pace etc. I tend to do a bit of both – I plan the ‘bare bones’ of my plot and think about my what my characters will do. I then start writing, bit by bit hoping the creativity will flow until I’ve written a full first draft.
After that, I leave my first draft for a few months allowing me to have some distance from it, which is an important part of the writing process. When I return to it, I look at it with ‘fresh’ eyes in order to edit it.
Once I’ve done about three or four rounds of edits, I send it out to friends and colleagues who give me valuable and critical feedback. Once I’ve made further changes and I’m happy with a ‘polished’ first draft, I then send it out to different agents and publishers hoping and praying for it to be picked up by someone!
Do you have to read great number of novels before you start writing or is it possible for ideas to just pop up?
I would say someone intending to write fiction, should read about ten books that have been recently published in their particular genre. That would give them a good understanding of the kinds of fiction that is currently popular with readers of that genre.
Reading is also something that should continue throughout the life of an author as good readers inevitably makes good writers. Reading is also one of the most important ingredients for developing creativity.
Can you talk your book ‘Accidental Rich Boy’ What is the story behind it?
‘Accidental Rich Boy’ is the first instalment of an exciting new YA series that explores the struggles of growing up in inner-city London, and particularly the importance of faith and hope. It tells the story of the challenges faced by fifteen-year-old Nadim who lives in a London tower block. Nadim who just seems to keep getting hit by one problem after another. Keeping on top of school work and dodging the ‘street boys’ is hard enough, but Nadim also has to find ways to support his struggling family.
He finally seems to have a stroke of good luck when he lands in an unexpected situation that promises to turn his fortunes around, but at a price. He faces a moral dilemma – should Nadim do the right thing and let his family suffer, or give in to temptation and risk serious, life-changing consequences?
From an Islamic perspective what moral and ethical values can one learn from your book?
The novel was written with a strong Islamic ethos in mind. I wanted to present to young readers, the importance of faith in dealing with difficult situations and always doing the right think no matter how strong the temptation is to turn to evil for a perceived temporary peace.
Do you try to be more original or to deliver to readers what they want keeping the Islamic perspective in mind?
I try not to fall into writing about characters who are having a moral crisis or identity issues, which is common in YA fiction at the moment. Instead I try to write about how youngsters can leverage the gift of Islam in order to face difficult and challenging situations in their lives.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I think anyone can be a writer – you just need to be able to develop the skills and techniques to write creatively and really convey the thoughts and feelings of your characters and what is happening in their ‘world.’
If you could tell your younger self anything, what would it be?
Have higher goals and ambitions and read more! Believe it or not, I never used to like reading when I was at school. I only really started to read and enjoy fiction as an undergraduate many years ago. But now, as a teacher and educator, I tell my students and parents that reading has so many benefits; it helps expand your vocabulary, develops your intellect, harnesses your ability to express yourself and ‘feeds’ your creative mind.
My wife and I are trying to instil the love of reading with our own children – we’ll see how that goes.
What was an early experience where you learned that language can be very powerful?
As a youngster my late father (may Allah have mercy on him) always got me to write letters whenever he faced an issue or problem in his life, which is a very different to writing fiction I know, but sometimes he made me write letters of complaint to the local council, my school and my local hospital. It was at that time, I realised how important it is to be able to convey your ideas clearly and consistently using persuasive techniques and powerful language if you want to be taken seriously.
What does literary success look like to you?
I never view literacy success to mean financial gain because writers are quite simply not well compensated in our society and culture unless you’re one of those very few fortunate authors whose books have been made into Hollywood films! For me literary success means to write work that you feel passionate about and you can call your own, which has a loyal readership amongst your intended readers.
How many hours a day do you write?
I usually wake up very early and try to write for about thirty minutes per day before I set out to go to work. That doesn’t always work, so I try to fit in writing wherever I can – including during the evenings, weekends and school holidays.
What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult)?
I mostly write for Young Adults (11 to 18 years old) because I have been a secondary school teacher for the last 15 years and this is the age group I have most interaction with so I can relate to their problems, challenges, ambitions and various societal pressures.
Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I am a huge fan of sister Niama B. Roberts’ works. I love the way she writes in order to represent characters from under-represented religious minority and minority ethnic backgrounds. Her works always made me think about giving a voice to complex characters from diverse backgrounds that are not always well represented in commercial fiction in the UK.
What is your favourite childhood book?
I love English classics such as Charles Dickens novels and I was a particular fan of Roald Dahl’s books growing up.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
When you’re first draft has gone through various edits and you hit a ‘writer’s block.’ At those times, its important to get feedback from your peers and practice methods such as ‘free writing’ in order to remove the ‘writers block’ so you can keep moving forward.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
My wife and children are incredibly patient with me when I have a deadline to meet. This often means I’m locked in my bedroom at my desk for several hours while my children drive my wife absolutely crazy!
When I hit a ‘brick wall,’ my wife always ‘throws’ ideas at me to help me navigate through my mental blocks. Sometimes we stay up discussing ideas after the kids have gone to sleep and we’ve manage to get some peace and quiet.
If you had to do something differently as a child or teenager to become a better writer as an adult, what would you do?
I wish I could have attend writing courses by reputable publishers or literary agents on writing, editing and pitching. They are incredibly helpful in teaching you new skills and techniques to improve the whole writing process as well as helping you sharpen the way you pitch your novel to potential literary agents and publishers.
Unfortunately due to time constraints, I still haven’t been able to commit to a writing course yet, but I do hope to do one some time in the future inshallah.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
I think once I’ve got a detailed plan about my plot, structure, character etc, it can take about six months to complete a full first draft.
As they say, great novels are written in the re-draft, it is this drafting and editing process which takes about two years until its at publishing standard. Although it’s a long, arduous and mentally draining process, I do love the way a novel develops during the editing process.
Everything is ‘tightened’ up during the editing process – character, plot development, structure, pace, dialogue, inconsistencies etc.
What advice can you give to a Muslim youngster who wants to become a writer?
Everyone has a story to tell! You have a unique opportunity to transmit your social and moral principles through fiction. It is a brilliant way to challenge Islamophobia and racism by presenting the positive impact Islam and Muslims make in societies. So get out there, do plenty of reading and start writing!
Do you think a library at home has a positive impact on the children’s development?
A home family library needs to be one that is always building and increasing over time. In order to have a positive impact on children’s development, I think not only is having a library important, but children also need to physically see their parents reading books on a regular basis. So put aside time to read as a family for at least 15-20 minutes every day and don’t just leave that to reading at bed time! It will develop a love for reading in your children and keep them off electronic devices – at least for a few minutes!
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
My second novel is currently going through the final editing process, so watch this space. I hope to tie things up shortly with my second book and have it ready for publication by the end of this year inshallah.
After that, I plan on taking a bit of a rest before embarking on writing my third and final instalment of this current YA fiction series.