In conversation with

Huma Qureshi

Author & Journalist

Huma Qureshi

Introduction

Introduction

We believe in Anne Lamott’s sentiment of embracing shitty first drafts, and have adopted it as copywriters and strategists. But it’s always interesting to hear from authors who are drafting works of fiction, or in the case of Huma Qureshi, memoirs. Especially as writing about yourself can be challenging enough, as she admits.

“I remind myself that just because it’s on the page, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way or that I can’t delete it, which is very liberating,” she tells us. “At some point in every draft, I feel like I can’t do it, but a little distance from what I’m writing gives me some perspective and helps me remember that I am doing it even if it doesn’t always feel that way.”

We spoke to Huma about the challenges of writing about yourself (“I’m actually a very private person”), the writers she reads for inspiration (Virginia Woolf, Elena Ferrante and Elizabeth Strout), and the themes she wants to write about (“what it means to be loved, or to lose love and where that path takes us”).

 

Question and Answer

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?

There’s a short story in my forthcoming collection, Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love, about a woman who goes away for a disappointing weekend with her husband and new baby, and the opening paragraph of the first draft was thick with description of this old house where they went. I got a little carried away with describing the yellowed stonework and how the walls smelt like the pages of a damp book. My first reader, who happened to be Abby Parsons of the excellent publishing platform for women Dear Damsels, said, “This sounds beautiful, but what’s it doing? How is it moving the story onwards?” and this question is the best piece of advice I’ve ever received. I literally ask myself “what’s this doing?” every time I write; it’s always in my head. I’ll write it out at the top of my page to remind me to stay focused on moving the story forward, and that every word must count towards that.

As a writer, you move between journalism, essays and fiction. Which format do you like best and why?

My dream was always to write fiction and in a way all my other writing has (finally) led me there. I became a journalist after university and though my experience of working on a national newspaper was incredible, I reached a point where I found it limiting. Writing my memoir and writing fiction has been a way out of all that, and a relief. For my memoir, How We Met, I had the most supportive publishers and I wrote my coming of age story on my terms. That mattered to me greatly because women of my background are rarely given the chance to tell our stories, mostly because someone else is doing the telling instead.

But it’s in fiction that I feel most free and this is the form I like the best (right now, I’m writing a novel which will be published by Sceptre in a couple of years). I love the feeling of meeting my characters on the page, (mostly) women who don’t have to be defined by what boxes other people put them in. I feel free to explore the themes that I’m drawn to again and again; loneliness, love, miscommunication and fractured relationships. These are the sorts of things I find fascinating as a writer, almost to the point of obsession. Fiction is also the most challenging form for me and I like that it does something to me; it drives me crazy. But I’m learning to trust the push and pull of the process and I’m finding my way through.

“I've also started to think of each draft in terms of layers, building upon the foundation of something, and taking what works and leaving what doesn't, rather than feeling like each draft is beginning all over again from scratch, which can be quite overwhelming.”

Your most recent book, ‘How We Met’, is a memoir. What was the most challenging part of writing about yourself and your relationships?

I’m actually a very private person and I would have totally rolled my eyes if someone had told me a few years ago that this was the book I was going to write. I rarely talk about my relationships, let alone my love life, and then I went and put it all in a book. I guess this in itself was a pretty big challenge for me to overcome. I had to ask myself again and again why I was doing it and why it was so important and in the end it all came back to two things. One: that it was important to write the book I never had when I was growing up and two: I wanted to be able to be honest to my children. I wanted them to know that it’s okay to choose a different path to what others might expect of you. Those were the things that kept me going every time I doubted myself.

At Sonder & Tell, we believe in embracing shitty first drafts – how many does it usually take you to get to the finished piece – and do you have any tip on getting through the writing process?

As a journalist, I rarely ever drafted my work; I didn’t have time, because the deadlines were so tight. I got into the habit of writing quickly and editing as I went along instead so the piece was done in one go. This served me well at the time but it’s clearly not the best habit to have when it comes to writing fiction or memoir and so I had to unlearn a lot of it.

I’ve come to accept that the drafting process is more than just one draft (I’ve written four drafts of my novel and in total there were four drafts of How We Met too). I’ve also started to think of each draft in terms of layers, building upon the foundation of something, and taking what works and leaving what doesn’t, rather than feeling like each draft is beginning all over again from scratch, which can be quite overwhelming.

As a former journalist I used to always know the angle before I started writing, and effectively knew what the piece would be, but as an author I have had to work hard to let go of that expectation of knowing everything at the outset, and instead I tell myself to just give it a try, test things out and be a little more free. I remind myself that just because it’s on the page, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way or that I can’t delete it, which is very liberating. At some point in every draft, I feel like I can’t do it, but a little distance from what I’m writing gives me some perspective and helps me remember that I am doing it even if it doesn’t always feel that way.

What three things do you always consider when going over a draft?

I ask myself if the story is moving forward and if the plot works. Creating a structure for a novel compared to a short story is mind-blowing to me, so this has become more and more important. It matters to me that I leave my readers feeling something in their hearts, and so I comb through the language, trying to make those emotional connections real. Also, and I don’t know if this will sound too much, but it means something to me, to write as beautifully as I possibly can. So I look for that beauty. Even if I can’t admit it to myself or self-doubt stops me from seeing it, I hope that someone else might.

Huma Qureshi

Which writers or books do you look to for inspiration?

I re-read a lot and love unpicking favourite books, trying to figure out what knits them together. Lately, I’ve been mesmerised by re-reading Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies), Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge) and also a lot of Elena Ferrante and Virginia Woolf. I’m a bit of a nerd about Tolstoy, and I love, love Anna Karenina (a huge novel which went through so many drafts, which in itself is fascinating) for all its minute precision and the way it moves through time; I often pick a page at random when I’m feeling stuck, just to kind of immerse myself in the language for a while. There is so much I love about the short story form and I suppose it’s no coincidence that many of the writers I look to for inspiration are short story writers as well as novelists.

What themes or topics are important for you to write about?

In my fiction, I’m really drawn to what it means to be loved, or to lose love and where that path takes us. It’s not always romantic love either. I love to test relationships, romantic or between family, to the extreme. I love asking myself the question: ‘What if?’ and wondering how far one might go in pursuit of love or to flee their loneliness or to find a place they might call home. My fiction is infused with a sort of sadness (or so I try) and so it’s important to me that my non-fiction, which is very real (!), is very much the opposite. That’s why How We Met is sweet and uplifting and very different to what you might find in Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love or my novel, for instance

Huma's Storylist

Books

  1. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
  2. The Margot Affair by Sanae Lemoine
  3. Look How Happy I'm Making You by Polly Rosenwaike
  4. The Mothers by Brit Bennett

Magazines

  1. Harper's Bazaar
  2. Mslexia
  3. The Observer Magazine
  4. 91

Newsletters

  1. Zeba Talkhani
  2. Tigers Are Better Looking

Podcast

  1. Browned Off
  2. The Wintering Sessions
  3. The Missing
  4. Brown Girls Do It Too

Websites

  1. The Cut
  2. The Modern House
  3. Modern Love by The New York Times
  4. Buro
Previous Story
Molly & Joel Jeffery

Founders of Desmond & Dempsey

Next Story
Aaron Cole
Aaron Cole

Chief Marketing Officer at THE OUT

Articles

Featured storytellers

View all

Sign up to our newsletter