Shereen Malherbe is a British Palestinian novelist and children’s author. She has an English Literature with Creative Writing Degree. Her debut novel, Jasmine Falling was voted in the top 20 Best Books by Muslim Women (Goodreads). Her second contemporary novel, The Tower was published by Beacon Books, 2019.It is now required academic reading at an American University on a course on Muslim voices post 9/11. Her migrant children’s series, the first book, The Girl Who Slept Under the Moon was published by Beacon Books, 2021. She is a key speaker at events for new writers and gives advice and interviews throughout the year on writing, narratives and authentic representation. We were very excited to know more about her experiences and her novels
How do you research for your books?
I always begin with an idea that I have read or have a need to tell. Then I begin by researching the subject. What is the location like? What is the reality of the world the character occupies and what does that look like? This extends to the character themselves. What type of person are they, what are they afraid of. For many of my character’s, I research trauma effects, effects of displacement so I read quite a few journals to see if the symptoms and traits are realistic for my characterisation’s.
My novel writing is accompanied by continuous research. If you get the detail wrong, your reader is broken from that escapism and I aim to try and avoid that.
As an author, you’re known for your writing, but how much time do you actually spend reading, and is it more time spent reading than writing?
Daily I try and read non-fiction. I find all content expands your area of interest and expertise in life and beyond. I read fiction when I am on a writing break. Then I read a book every few days. But when I begin my novel writing process, that is where my time goes and I stock up my reading pile to begin again when my drafts are finished.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to author something but hasn’t yet made that first step?
Be clear on what you want to write and commit time to it. Try not to think of the end publishing process too much as it can become overwhelming. Instead, concentrate on what you want to say and perfect your craft of doing that. Read widely and follow your favourite authors for inspiration and tips.
How do you come up with the titles to your books?
I do always title my work as it gives me direction but I don’t get too focused on them because if you have your work published, the publisher usually has control of that.
What time of day do you prefer to write?
I did prefer working in the early mornings, but as my lifestyle changes and with continuous lockdowns, I aim to write in my spare moments and currently, they tend to be at random times! My advice here, is to write. Whether you feel like it or not, if you are serious about becoming a writer you will need to allocate some time and stick to it. Rarely are we in the mood, or always continuously inspired but stay focused and try to write as often as you can.
What is the best way to become a better writer?
By studying the craft of writing through technical application, such as completing my degree in English Literature. Short courses, or reading are great alternatives. You can also borrow library books that talk about the craft of writing and how to approach it. I tend to stick to those options as the internet and blogs tend to give conflicting advice that can simply confuse novice writers.
What are your favourite books?
My favourites change with my mood, but currently English gothic literature classics are my favourite.
How many drafts do you normally end up writing?
I can’t really answer that because I work on a main document and continue to rewrite it for months until it is ready.
Do you ever hide any secrets in your books that only a few people might know about?
No, I don’t although I have heard of authors doing that I do reference my books or places in my previous books but I like to think of that as accessible for my readers as opposed to secrets no one would know!
If you could go back 10 or 20 years, what would you do differently to help you be an even better writer?
I would probably stop surfing the internet for advice and take a structured approach to learning writing as a craft. But there isn’t much I would change because your experience, and the mistakes you make help you to become a better writer. I would also tell myself to slow down and be patient. It is a career that takes time to build.
How many books do you read each year?
It varies depending on my projects but I would say that I am always reading something!
In 20 or 30 or 40 years time, what sort of a writer would you like to be seen/remembered as?
I don’t tend to think that far ahead but I would like to think that my stories add to a positive narrative of Islam. I would like them to be an inspiring addition to capturing society so our history is varied and nuanced and not dominated by stereotypical texts.
Is it true that to be a good author you’ve good to have exceptional English?
If you are writing in English then your work will need to be edited for others to read it flawlessly. This doesn’t mean that you can’t mix different language words or have your own style or creoles. For some variation in modern text look at and research Sam Selvon’s modern classic. The Lonely Londoners.
With any professional submission, the work will need to show that you can write to a standard that means others can read it or they will be tripping over your words and never fully get into your story. If you struggle with this, write in your native language. There are many amazing books written in other languages that have had grants to help them to be translated into other languages. A lot of books I read are translated texts. Check out ArabLit.org for examples.
Where do you get inspiration from to write what you do?
I am inspired by what narratives are missing. I like to write for underrepresented voices, that is what drives me to finish my projects, because there are so many misrepresented, or underrepresented stereotypes and my drive is to add a different narrative to the world of literature.
My first novel Jasmine Falling was written to capture the eroding stories and narrative of my Palestinian family. This was the main driver in working on and publishing this novel which is now recognised as one of the top 10 books on Muslim representation. (Goodreads). It was rejected by UK publishers six years ago because, “they didn’t understand my market.” At the time, I was disappointed but it ended up launching my career in Muslim representation and I continue to work within that field. It gave me the confidence to understand that not everyone will understand your aim but be true to what you are trying to say. Others may not understand your work if it doesn’t conform to typical stereotypes but we are in a world where we can publish on various platforms. The publishing industry still has a long way to go before diversity is anywhere near the norm.
Do you have a target of how much material you want to get published each year or is it a case of going with the flow?
I prefer to let my projects and ideas lead or you can end up with unfinished or uninspired work, so currently no, I don’t set myself targets, although I do always like to be working on something! I do short stories, novels and children’s books so usually I have more than one project on the go.
Do you find that what you’ve read over the years has shaped you in any way today?
Absolutely. New content and different writing approaches will only add to your experience and knowledge as a writer. I feel as if I stopped reading, I would stop growing as a person and an author.
Do you work on a laptop or write out everything by hand?
I use one specific laptop that I write with. I know the keys so well that it helps me because I can type as fast as I think…more or less! But I do all my notes and plotting in a notebook.
Do you feel it’s important to get useful life experience in order to write good material?
Life experience helps to a certain extent but being inspired by other people’s stories I would say is just as important and just as useful for generating new content.
Reading used to be seen as a form of entertainment or relaxation a long time ago. To what extent do you feel this is still the case and what would you say we could do as a society to generate more interest in young people to read more and get more involved in writing?
I think young people are natural storytellers. There are many mediums for young people to get their work on platforms. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the medium of a novel or a n epic. Short stories, flash fiction, word art and other forms of storytelling are as relevant. But like with any craft, reading widely will only increase your craft. I would even say that experimenting with different genres is not only good fun but also creatives. You may find that you prefer playwriting over novels, or word art over fiction. Understand your uniqueness and your passion for what you have to say and get creative over how you want to say it. The key here, is to be driven by your passion Any project or career will be fuelled if you really believe in what you are trying to say.