Today we welcome Pakistani-British writer Kamila Shamsie, author of the new novel Best of Friends and past The Stacks Book Club pick, Home Fire. We discuss the shifting of global political climates, the idea of ‘girl fear’ and Kamila stresses the importance of giving new writers a chance to mature, and we tackle the question, “How do you write after success?”
The Stacks Book Club selection for October is Fairest by Meredith Talusan. We will discuss the book on October 26th with Anthony Christian Ocampo.
*Due to the nature of podcast advertising, these timestamps are not 100% accurate and will vary.
Traci Thomas 0:09
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today we are joined by Kamila Shamsie, the celebrated Pakistani and British writer best known for the award-winning novel Home Fire, which we did right here on The Stacks book club back in 2019. Her newest novel Best of Friends is a provocative and deeply moving tale about a lifelong odd couple of friendship between two women that’s tested to its limits when the past comes back to haunt them. Today we discuss the book the pressure of awards on Kamila is writing and the idea of girl fear. Remember, October book club pick is the memoir Fairest by Meredith Talusan. Make sure to listen next week on October 26th when Anthony Christian Ocampo returns for the discussion. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the stacks can be found in the link in the show notes. Listen, if you love the show, and you want more of it, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join the statspack the stocks is an independent podcast, which means I rely on listeners like you to make the show possible week in and week out. So if you like what you hear, please show your love by joining the stacks pack. In addition to supporting work that you love, you also earn perks like our monthly virtual book club. Bonus episodes. This past one was with brand new MacArthur Genius Kiese Laymon and you get access to our super duper lively discord. If you’d like to be part of this wonderful bookish community head to patreon.com/the stacks. And thank you to some of our newest members. Joseph Thomas KSA Lehmann, Michelle OB Meghan rose, David Jr. and Camille Whitaker. Thank you all so much, and thank you to every single member of the Stacks Pack. All right now it’s time for my conversation with Kamila Shamsie.
All right, everyone, I am thrilled. Today I’m joined by Kamila Shamsie, who is the author of a brand new book called Best of Friends. She’s also the author of a bunch of other books, including Home Fire, which was our book club pick back in 2019. So Kamila, welcome to the stacks.
Kamila Shamsie 2:14
Thank you, Traci. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Traci Thomas 2:16
I’m so excited to talk to you. We read homebuyer in 2019 It was such a hit, I still get people telling me that that was their favorite book we’ve ever read on the book club and all of this stuff. So I’m just it’s such an honor to have you diving in, in about 30 seconds or so will you just tell folks about best friends.
Kamila Shamsie 2:36
So Best of Friends is another that has at its heart, the particular nature of childhood friendship, you know, you become friends with people almost before you have character. And then you grew up and you become incredibly different people. And yet, you’re still friends with this person who now you may have very little in common with except the friendship. And what I wanted to do was to, to plunge you into the novel when they’re these two girls. They’re 14 years old Zara and Maria. They’re in Karachi, in Pakistan, they’ve already been friends, 10 years. And it’s a time of enormous change politically, but also, something quite important happens to them dramatically in their lives. And then we pick up 30 years later, and now they’re in their mid 40s. They’re both powerful women in London, very, very different in their professional world and their take on everything. But still the best of friends. Until that, that moment from 30 years ago, reasserts itself and all those differences that they’d been tiptoeing around, they have to face head on and the question that I started the novel with was, will their friendship be able to survive their differences? And should it?
Traci Thomas 3:45
Hmm, I love so many of the questions that are central to this novel, I think, like, obviously, the friendship, which we’re going to talk about. But there’s also a lot of other questions in this book about, you know, what does it mean to belong somewhere or to leave or to be kicked out of a place? What is the fear of authority? authoritarianism? What does it mean to be a woman? And does that mean something different in different places? It’s just like, yes, friendship. And then there’s like, all this other really, really juicy stuff in the book. I’m wondering how you got the idea to tell this story.
Kamila Shamsie 4:23
I had known for a long time that I wanted to write a novel that had friendship, just because friendship is so central in my life, and I read novels, including my own and say, God, why is it that the friendships are always in the margin somewhere? So there was it was a really vague notion, but you can get a novel from vague notion. And then 2016 happened, you know, a year many of us remembers being significant in various ways. In Britain, you had Brexit. In the US, you had Trump. And suddenly a lot of people were having these conversations where they were saying, I can no longer speak to this family man. Remember this friend who’s been in my life forever. And we’ve always been able to navigate our differences, but it’s impossible. Now, the stakes are too high, the differences are run too deep, it feels too personal. And that’s when I thought or, and maybe this is really an occasion to, to write that childhood friendship novel, where you have these two friends who are very different. And now they’re living in an in a moment where everything feels personal, the differences in the world the different ways in which you see the world. It all feels personal, because of course it is person and and Tracy, that’s the truth when when we say we disagree with someone politically, we’re really saying, Our values are different, the way we think of our place in the world is different. The thing, the way in which we relate to other people is different. And so I wanted this moment where something external happens, that forces them to confront these very deep internal differences.
Traci Thomas 5:59
Yeah. I love that you said that. Because I think about that a lot that when people say, Oh, you shouldn’t talk politics, or it’s just political, or whatever I’m like, just political. Politics is the framework with which from which we view the world and what we think is right and wrong. And I mean, the just in front of political is it’s so inauthentic, because at least for me, I feel that I am. My politics are intrinsic to who I am, right. Like, I believe that everyone deserves health care, I believe that women should have the right to do what they want with their body, I believe that we fund policing too much in America, and that needs to to end. And so when someone’s like, Oh, it’s just I’m like, You’re telling me that the things that are central to my belief system are are adjust, and they’re not their control?
Kamila Shamsie 6:53
Yeah, you know, it’s it’s such an interesting conversation. Because, you know, I grew up in Pakistan, where we never said, just politics, and then I came to America for university. And it was sort of a shock to me, that just before politics, and my writing always had some reference to political events. And, and I remember, there was one point, and this is, you know, way off to university. I was doing an event at a university around one of my books, and one of the students a woman in the audience stood up and asked her question about why politics come so much into my novel. And I said, I said, I don’t think of it as politics coming into the novels. I just think I’m writing about people’s lives and, and what is happening in the political world has bearing on people’s lives. And then I said, and I promise you, Tracy, I had no idea that what I was saying was anything other than a really hypothetical situation, but I said, I and this was around 2002. I said, if ever Roe v. Wade is overturned in America, I think you’ll stop asking that question and why I’m bringing politics into women’s personal lives.
Traci Thomas 8:03
Oh, my gosh, and 20 years later, how do you feel?
Kamila Shamsie 8:07
So depressed? Yeah. I don’t want to be right about these. No, no, not right. Because I didn’t I didn’t think even when I said it, I thought, right. You’re like hyperbole. It was sticky. I’m a fiction writer inventing a fictional situation, right?
Traci Thomas 8:23
Oh, my gosh. And what do you remember what the person said back to you?
Kamila Shamsie 8:28
I’m not sure. She said, I mean, she gave me this look like yeah, okay. I get it.
Traci Thomas 8:32
Yeah, I mean that. So that’s one of the things that I really loved about this book was how much the politics were in it. Like, even from a young age, the young women, when they’re when they’re teenagers, when they’re still girls, their families, politics, or lack thereof, and the way that they talk about it, and don’t. And I’m wondering, like, as a person, you grew up at the same time as the early part of the novel in Pakistan. So I’m wondering, how is the recent political climate in the world, but you’re you live most of the time in Britain, though, you are in California right now, just down the street for me. How the recent political climate in the world is shifted, how you’ve shifted your thinking about that, knowing that you grew up in a place that was very political, and very politically volatile when you were, you know, of the same age as these young girls at this time.
Kamila Shamsie 9:22
Shortly after 2016, after Brexit happened, someone in London said to me, so how are things politically in Pakistan? Are things getting better? And I said, No, no, they aren’t getting better in Pakistan, but they’re getting worse everywhere else. The gap has narrowed. Right? It does, it feels it feels very grim. Because it always used to be the case that however bad things were where you were situated, you could look to other places and see what hope look like and see these moments of change and periods of transformation. And it feels right now as though we are living in an era of populist politics in so many parts of the world. And that is happening at this worst moment where, you know, the summer somehow particularly the climate emergency. Um, you know, as you say, I’ve been in California to this extraordinary heatwave. Before that we had an extraordinary record breaking temperatures in London. And of course, I’m from Pakistan. And at the moment, the floods there, I can’t actually get my mind around it. 33 million people are displaced right now. Because 33 million, and it’s not making headlines everywhere.
Traci Thomas 10:32
Yeah, I mean,so we have, so we have the worst leadership at the worst time, ever, everywhere? And do you? Like, did you? Did you ever think you would see things like, did you like, did you have a sense that this was coming? Obviously not the offhanded comment about Roe. But like, did you have a sense of the shifting the shifts in other places, you know, outside of pucks, like, were you able, because in the book, one of the characters sort of like has this great. There’s an article written about her. And she has this great sort of speech, where she’s talking about what she saw in Pakistan, and what she’s experiencing in London, and how there’s this slide towards authoritarianism. And I’m wondering if like, as you were living through the lead up to 2016, and all of these major changes, were you thinking in that way too, or was this as shocking to you as it was to so many other people?
Kamila Shamsie 11:27
It was, it was horrifying, it wasn’t shocking. And part of the reason is, I think what was shocking to me was was post 911, seeing the number of governments in the world, that very quickly moved to rollback civil liberties in the name of, of security. And that is such a classic dictatorship move. And as soon as that happened, I thought I grew up with this, I grew up with this idea that there is you can either have security, or you can have civil liberties, but you cannot have both. And I knew the nonsense of it. And it was, it was very, it has been very scary to watch that. So I sort of feel that sort of from 2001 Onward, I’ve been singing in America, of course, which is a country have spent a lot of time in either at university or teaching and then up close in Britain. And, you know, and the way, particularly certain kinds of rules are clearly made or geared around Muslim citizens. And you still think it’s very frightening when you start doing that and making some citizens less citizen than other. Right. So I’ve been seeing scary things coming for a long time. But having said that, it’s still you know, I still have a sense of shock looking around. Because, you know, if you grew up in the 80s, and 90s, as I did, you really had a sense that, that the arc of history was moving towards the better. You know, I was a teenager when democracy came to Pakistan when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison when when the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War ended, you just really did feel okay. It’s, it’s all moving now, inexorably in a better direction.
Traci Thomas 13:09
Yeah. And then falls apart again.
Kamila Shamsie 13:13
It falls apart, which means it’s primed for, you know, some kind of very dramatic change that that I’m not seeing yet. But I know is ahead.
Traci Thomas 13:23
Yes. The the, the rebound, the rebuild. You talked about scary, and I, we have to talk about girl fear, girl fear in your book. Can you explain to people what it is, I guess since you wrote it, you can explain it.
Kamila Shamsie 13:37
I tell you, the moment that I really became sort of deeply aware of how there is this thing inside me I’ve lived with all my life. And it was in the most unusual settings. It was on the deck of a ship in Antarctica. You weren’t expecting that Tracy? Not at all. I had been sent to write a travel piece and I was on the, on the ship in Antarctica. And one day I walked out onto the deck at around midnight. It was midnight, in the middle of summer in Antarctica, which means the sun just bounces beneath the horizon for five seconds and bounces right off again. But even so, you know, it does get darker. You know, it’s it’s darker, and I’m standing alone on the deck of the ship. And most people who’d been on that ship were actually on ice that they’d gone to spend the night on the continent so they could say I have slept in Antarctica. I’m a brown woman from Pakistan. I’m not doing that. I’m not sleeping on the ice overnight. So I was on a ship and there were very few people on that ship and I knew all of them because we’d been together for a while now. And I was standing on my own. And I suddenly realize I’m on my own outdoors in the dark. And I have no antenna up for danger and It felt extraordinary and overwhelming. I’m someone Tracy, I live in London, I go around, I’m not a nervous human being, I go off at night on my own, I’m walking from, you know, the bus stop to my house or whatever, you know, at midnight. But I’m always aware, I’m always looking out. I’m aware of footsteps. I’m aware of shadows. And it was only that moment in Antarctica that I briefly understood what it might mean, to not have that enter antenna up, and not have that sense of fear that we don’t even think about as women, because it is so deep inside us and has been for so long. And I try to remember when did it start? When did I learn this fear? And I couldn’t remember a time I didn’t have it. And so the idea of gulfview is precisely that, that that sense of threat and vulnerability, that all the women I know, have had their whole lives and that feeling that, you know, when I talk to people this book, I often say there’s this moment where these two young women are in a car ride. And it’s really fun and exciting. And then suddenly, in one moment, something shifts, and it feels terrifying. And Tracy, every woman I’ve spoken to has said, oh, yeah, I know that movement.
Traci Thomas 16:17
Yes. 1,000%. I mean, just reading, you label it girl fear. I was I was literally like, oh my gosh, there’s a word for this thing that I know. And you and I both share that we are, you know, brown, black, brown women. And I think that that probably adds to it considerably. You know, being in a place, like America or a place like England. I don’t even have a question about growth here. Besides having to explain it. I just it was so incredibly powerful to read it to thank you for writing it and naming it because it’s like this thing that’s go for going on for this one character sort of. She’s like, figuring it out. And then all of a sudden, it’s like this thing that has become central to her being right. Like she’s always aware of it. And I can relate to that. Because I am an anxious person. And I too, I hear a footstep I hear a knock. I’m like what’s happening? Some some things. So I feel like now I need to go to Antarctica so that I can experience what it’s like to be like a straight white dude, just like on a boat, because that’s what it sounds like you had that feeling?
Kamila Shamsie 17:28
Very much. And you know, when you say you are an anxious person, maybe you’re just more honest about or with yourself by that? Because the truth is, you know, I walked through, I live quite near a couple of parks in London, and I love walking to them. As soon as it gets dark, there is no way I’m entering that bark. And I don’t think of that as an act of anxiety. But I just look at the park. And I think no, that’s a shortcut to home, but I’m not stepping one foot in it. But I don’t label that anxiety. Fear is so deep inside me, I just think, well, this is just normal,
Traci Thomas 18:01
right? I’m just being safe or whatever. Yeah, I have that for sure. But I definitely also am like, get my heart rate, like, I get nervous. Um, but you know, when you were writing this book, I mean, there’s so much about like home and like I mentioned earlier home and belonging and who gets to say who has to go all of that sort of stuff, in the small level on the big level? What was it about sort of this dichotomy between belonging and being kicked out? That was interesting to you?
Kamila Shamsie 18:30
I think so often, I wanted to tell a story in which actually, it’s kind of a gray area. Because you have these stories in which people absolutely want to move, you know, and it’s about how do I get off of this one place and go to another place. And then you have the other stories of people who really didn’t want to go and are forced to go. And I think for love people, actually, the truth is somewhere in between that there are reasons you want to say the reasons you want to go. Or even if you know, when you want to go when you’re told you must go it’s a source of sadness, but then you make a home somewhere else. And I sort of wanted to depict not a kind of binary case of you’re so delighted to have left the place behind or you’re always tormented by the place you’ve left behind, but actually the truth of what it is to be somewhere and have another place in your consciousness. And particularly in the book, I think one of the things I wanted to do, and I hope I did was talk about how important it is when you have left one home and move to another how important it is to have some kind of connective tissue and in this case, it is that friendship, right. You know, these two girls who grew up in Karachi together and then ended up in London together. One of the reasons, you know, they’re so important to each other is that they hold the memory of each other’s childhood and all its reference points, you know, and one of them does, you know, when she’s thinking about the significance of that friendship. She thinks about that. fact that she knows that when one of her parents does die in Pakistan, this friend of hers will be the first person in London, to be with her and to fly back home. With, right. And so the sense of you, you can have two homes, but there will always be a part of you. That is living in another place as well.
Traci Thomas 20:27
Yeah, I want to shift kind of aggressively hard. I want to talk about writing a little bit. As I mentioned, we read a home fire, it’s an adaptation of a Greek classic. This book best of friends is written from whole cloth, as they say, You created it, how do you approach writing when you’re adapting something? Or how did you versus creating something? And what was the easiest and hardest parts of I guess both are what what was like, you know, came easy when you were adapting versus, you know, you know, what I’m getting at? I know.
Kamila Shamsie 21:02
So, so hope five was the only one of my novels that, you know, I started off with any sense of what this was going to be. Because as you say, it was adapted from Greek classics. So this question of taking the Greek classics and seeing, you know what I could do with it in a contemporary sense, but it meant that I had my characters, I had the bones and the theme of the plot. And it was the quickest book I’ve ever written. Wow, you know, it was done in a matter of few months, because I didn’t have to do that constant searching and figuring out. And this shouldn’t reflect on anyone’s reading of the book. But for me, the writing of it, it meant because I wasn’t getting constantly stuck. And because I wasn’t getting in, I wasn’t living in a state of terror and panic about what is happening next. I actually enjoyed it less the writing. Interesting, because there’s something about that high wire act of, I don’t know where this is going, I may be taking the wrong turn. I mean, it can be horrible. So it didn’t have the same horrible moments, either universal friends, there’s a lot in the first draft that I simply had to cut out, because it wasn’t working. But then when you feel it, it’s sort of coming together from nothing, you know, so it says you have that whole cloth. And now you’ve stitched some extraordinary, I don’t know, jacket out, you know? And yeah, they’re all those cut off bits on the floor. Fine. But by the end that shaping up is and thinking how would I guess McLaws to this, I really enjoy that. But it I do take a lot of wrong turns usually. Because so much of my usual writing process, and the process with best of friends was was making it up as you go along. And of course, as you know, because you read it the novel, it starts with, you know, it starts in the 80s. And then it jumps forward 30 years. Well, that’s the final version. Right in my first draft actually did a lot of writing of those 30 years before realizing, oh, I need to do this for myself as a writer, but the reader doesn’t need it. So so there were a lot of words that got written. And even as I was writing, I was thinking, this is not going to work, but I need to do it.
Traci Thomas 23:23
Right. Because you needed to know who they were and what they’d been through. Yeah, but how did you how do you then decide like, Okay, this goes, How do you? What is there like a voice in your head? That’s just like, Kamala, this is bad. Or like, are you? Is it your with your editor? Like, how are you like, these 30 years in between trash, put it in the trash.
Kamila Shamsie 23:46
There’s just this feeling of wrongness you okay. And sometimes, you know, and you have to listen closely, because some of the feeling of wrongness is saying, Yeah, this is an early draft. There’s a lot that’s not quite working in here. But you just fix it, but there’s an other feeling of wrongness, which is just like, No. And the thing was, as I was working on those 30 years, I kept finding myself, literally visually doing a flash forward to this moment, interested in present day. And I just saw, you know, one of the characters sitting on a park bench with one booted leg cross over the other, waiting for the other friends to come along. And I kept wanting to write that and I don’t have to write all this other stuff to get there. And I think that, you know, as soon as I start to think that I just have to get through this to get to that image, and that is the image that starts the second section of the book.
Traci Thomas 24:44
Right. So you always so some part of you always knew, some of you.
Kamila Shamsie 24:48
Yes, but of course, some of us also in denial. So I did actually need my editor say but really the stories in the first and last bit, right and I was like Yeah, absolutely.
Traci Thomas 24:59
But So find me. Okay, I want to go back one more time to homebuyer and then I’ll leave it alone. You right homebuyer huge success when the Women’s Prize people love it. How do you sit down to write the next thing you’ve had this happen before you’ve had previous books that have been successful won prizes? You’re I mean, you’re so beloved by readers and other writers and everything. So I guess it’s not just a homebuyer question, but how do you sit down to write the next thing and not feel stuck? Or pressure? Or do you feel stuck and feel pressure from the thing before?
Kamila Shamsie 25:33
You know, Tracy, I’m really, very deeply and honestly grateful that the success of home fire happened with my seventh novel and novel my first because by the time it happened, you know, I’m not like that, that battle hardened veteran now. And I know that when that happens to a book, you’re really, really lucky, you know, and then, and it’s, no, I’m not saying, Oh, it was a bad book, I’m just saying, I know how many elements go into, I know how many wonderful books are published every year, and a lot of them fade away. Or don’t get that kind of attention, only a handful of books in a year will get only one book will win the Women’s Prize. And so I was able to say, Well, that was really wonderful. And it means the fortunate thing for the next novel is it’ll give it a head of steam, because there’ll be people who will have read home fire, and maybe will be waiting for my next novel, or will be interested in my next novel. So that’s a gift. Yeah. But the other thing I noticed from the number of books I’ve written is, when you actually sit down to write, you know, whether it’s your first or your third or your fifth or eighth novel. And if it’s coming off huge success, or really the opposite. You’re still sitting down with, or, in my case, a handful of images, some vague themes, a little sense of direction, and a blank screen. And once you actually get into the writing, the questions are the same. How do I turn this into a novel? How do I move the character from this room to the next room? Who are these people, and you just enter that headspace of writing? Right? And everything else really just has to fall away? I mean, the only way I can write is if everything else in the world, including the next novel, or whatever expectations other people have falls away. And my only question is, how do I make this the best novel? I know how to make it.
Traci Thomas 27:28
I love that. Okay, we’re going to take a quick break, and we’ll be right back. Okay, we’re back. I want to ask you a quick question about something you touched on before. Is there anything that is not in best of friends that you wish was?
Kamila Shamsie 27:44
I mean, I’m sure yes.
Traci Thomas 27:49
Not everybody says, yeah, so I, you know, I always like to ask,
Kamila Shamsie 27:53
well, you know, there was there was a lot of writing I did in between, as I said, which I deleted. And there’s some things in there that I regret. So, you know, so the, for instance, I think the thing I most misses, again, we won’t give away too much, but the relationship that that Maryam ends up in actually had quite a lot about how that came to be. Okay, and what that meant for Miriam’s relationship with Zara that Sunday, there’s this other person who is our primary interest in her life. And I did, I did actually really enjoy the writing of that and was, you know, and there are ways in which I wish I could have had that in there, but But my hope would be that, that when you come to that relationship, you get an inkling of what comes before or emotionally what it meant.
Traci Thomas 28:42
Yeah, I mean, I love that relationship. It’s very makes me I’m like smiling right now just talking about it. So I think you nailed it. You also talked about everything has to fall away. So let me ask you, how do you write how many hours a day? How often is there music? Are you at home? Are you out in the world? Are there snacks and beverages? Are there candles? Rituals, like set the scene for us? How do you like to write?
Kamila Shamsie 29:05
I mean, all this snacks and beverages for all things in life. snacks and beverages
Traci Thomas 29:11
are my kind of people you’re my kind of people. Yeah,
Kamila Shamsie 29:14
that when I’m starting, there are long periods when I’m not starting. Okay, this I need to do this, I need to do this, I need to this and then I don’t and then I feel just sort of so exhausted by not writing and knowing I need to write that I sit down and and when I do it, it does become it’s five days a week. So I take weekends off Mondays to Fridays in the morning, wake up, have my cup of tea or coffee, read the newspapers and then go and sit at my desk. And I’m not a tremendously early riser. So I’m not gonna pretend this is happening at 6am or even 7am. Okay. But then I sit at my desk and usually four or five hours at a desk is as much as I do. or can do, sometimes will be much less particularly early stages which are hard. You There are days where nothing is happening. And there’s no point sitting at your desk, no books, I found it actually really useful to get up and walk. I mean, that physical act of movement can actually move the brain. Yeah. So in the early stages, I’m much more lenient with myself and I say, Okay, today only did an hour, and nothing is happening. But the deeper I get the novel, the more I just stick that four or five hours a day. And again, when I’m starting, I might just manage 100 words a day. And then the later I’m, the further I’m into it, the more I have a sort of handle on what I’m doing, it’ll go up to 500 600 words, and then write in the final draft, which is the bit I love. I mean, writing a final draft is like, swimming in the most familiar sea. You know, at that point, it just everything seems to fall in place. And at that point, I can go through you know, I have done 1000 1200 words a day, which is impossible at the beginning stage.
Traci Thomas 30:58
Interesting. Can you say more about the snacks and beverages of which you partake?
Kamila Shamsie 31:03
Yes, the snacks and beverages? So, if I’m in Karachi, then the day started, see, okay, what kind of tea? So it’s, it’s very strong. I guess, English Breakfast is the closest equivalent, you call it? It’s very strong tea with a lot of milk. Okay. Sounds like yeah, it just because the milk is different. The water is different. It doesn’t taste the same anywhere. Okay. Okay. So in London, I start with a stovetop espresso maker, okay, you know, and make myself coffee. And then I’ll sit down, and usually have another cup of tea or coffee, and then maybe just be like, I don’t know. The snacks come later in the day, the least the day goes, the more you know, kind of snacking you’re getting and then you might start with saying, you know, I’d have a bit of fruit. And then it may escalate to well, maybe a piece of chocolate is what my brain needs. Now. You know, at some point lunch happens and I try to delay lunch, because lunch puts me into a food coma. Yeah, so sometimes I won’t actually have lunch till about 230 or three when I finished my writing day.
Traci Thomas 32:08
Same, same same. I like to try to prolong push lunch back. I have two small children though. And they dinner at 5:30pm. So I try to eat with them. So sometimes I tried to just have like a snack lunch like early like a big bowl of yogurt with like fruit and granola and lots of honey. And then by like two I’m like, Okay, now I can really snack. Break out the goldfish. Okay. What about, you know, you mentioned you’ve written this is your eighth eighth book, right eighth book. And your first book came out almost 25 years ago. And I’m wondering, you know, you’ve been you’re like a veteran, you said hardened veteran of the publishing world? What changes? Have you seen in publishing that excite you? What about ones that feel a little disappointing?
Kamila Shamsie 32:52
Let’s get let’s start with disappointment.
Traci Thomas 32:53
Yeah, love disappointment.
Kamila Shamsie 32:56
You know, when, when my first book was published, my then agent who became and has remained my editor in the UK, extraordinary woman called Alexandra Pringle publishing legend. She said, look, the first novel, you know, it may not sell millions of copies and forget millions 1000s Or make enterprises. She said, that’s okay. You are a writer who I believe in you will come good. You know, and it may take to your second third, fourth novel. In fact, it took until my fifth novel burned shadows before I had a novel that, you know, was sort of getting serious attention in England, and there was not a moment where I felt, well, I’m not republish anymore. I really believe Okay, here’s a publishing house that believes in me and thinks eventually, you know, it’ll pay off to, to invest in someone you see that very rarely. Now. I think now, it’s right. As I’ve told, you know, if the first book isn’t a success, then let’s find the next exciting debut writer. Yeah. And if the second book isn’t a success, forget it, you’re done. Which is so short sighted. You know, because writers take I mean, I took time, working on my craft and learning things and gaining in confidence. And you, you have to, I think, for a really robust publishing industry, you have to give people that time and space, you know, don’t give them massive advances. I think that, you know, it’s very wrongheaded to give someone a massive advance and then expect them to pay it off. I got very small advances for my first few novels, you know, mainly earn my living from teaching. So that has been a sadness also, I think the editorial positions have less power marketing has more, which is not necessarily ideal. You know, and sometimes you hear people say things like, well, we don’t know how to market this book. Well, it’s your job to figure it out. Yes, it’s your job is to think of it as a challenge. When I start a novel, I have no idea how to write it, I figure it out. If something is quality work? You figure it out?
Traci Thomas 35:01
Yeah. Because the audience exists.
Kamila Shamsie 35:05
Audience exists, you know, the audience exists for for every interesting good writing, find it figure it out. Yeah, it doesn’t fit the template or the previous books you’ve done, create a new template. Right. Right. So that is what is I think dispiriting. What is exciting? I think there. I think a gap got created. And a lot of exciting independent publishers now are taking on and producing really exciting work. Yeah. And there is there’s a lot of lip service to diversity in a way, that’s annoying. But there’s also in addition to that, and and in America, much more than England, I think you are seeing some deep down structural changes in the kinds of books that are being put out there in the kinds of voices that are being heard in the kinds of people that are entering publishing the publishing industry, and that is terrific.
Traci Thomas 36:02
Yeah, yeah, I think that’s, I mean, definitely exciting, makes my life easier because I get to read books I actually want to read. I want to go back to the novel, I want to go back to 2016, Brexit, Trump, etc. When did you actually start working on this novel? And then how did the book change? Or did it change with the ways that politics were unfolding in real time?
Kamila Shamsie 36:33
So, you know, in 2016, these conversations about, you know, old friendships, fracturing, sort of, you know, made a light bulb go off in my, in my head, but it didn’t really fall into a novel for a while after, because home fire came out in 2017, I’d finished I’d finished writing home fire by the time August, Brexit, Trump stuff was happening. But it came off, and then you’re on the road, and you’re, you know, all that. So it was probably in early 2019, that I really sort of thing by the novel, and late 2019, before I really started writing it. And then of course, this thing happened in March 2020. Oh, yeah. I’m this little air. Yeah, well, 2020 was going to be the year in which I said no to all public engagements, cut down on travel, and chained myself to my desk and wrote, so it’s
Traci Thomas 37:23
your fault. It’s your brought on COVID?
Kamila Shamsie 37:25
I did, basically I said, I need the world to shape itself to do my particular demands. No, I mean, you know, I’m so lucky that what I do in my life really meant that sitting on my own, at a desk felt normal. And that became a space of normal when nothing else was, you know, and all that. I mean, all the people who had to the frontline people who had to go out and do their jobs, I mean, God bless them and how they managed it, I don’t know. I mean, because they had to in many cases. So I was, I was quite lucky in I was very lucky in the job I was doing, and also the fact that I could escape to 1988. But what was really interesting was that the second half of the novel, there’s, there’s a part in it, where, you know, one character ends up being a political donor, a donor to a political party. And this is a story that actually kind of hit the news in Britain, as I was working on it, late draft, that it suddenly became revealed that there is this club and people who pay 250,000 pounds to the Conservative Party get to be a member of this club, and they have meetings, regular meetings with the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, and it became a new huge news story. And I’m like, Oh, well, that’s interesting, because I’ve been writing about all that. And of course, there were whispers about it in the press before. So it’s not like I invented it, but it’s that weird thing where, where what you’re writing, you know, becomes a much larger new story and the points where you thought, am I am I making this slightly absurd? Am I exaggerating it? And then the actual story hits me realize, oh, no, if anything, I underplayed it.
Traci Thomas 39:07
Yeah. I feel like I always I always think about that, when I’m reading a book. And I’m like, This is so right now. I’m like, so that means they wrote it two years ago, and then it sat and edits and this or that, and I’m like, so they were really thinking I had of what’s happening, but when you’re reading it, you just feel like, Oh, my God, they knew.
Kamila Shamsie 39:29
But also last time, it said, when things are smaller stories, and you think this should be a much bigger story, I mean, I mean, it’s a really work if we stopped to think about political donations. They are such a thing. And actually in America, they’ve been going on so much longer. So the fact that, you know, you could have a Democratic senator hold up the energy bill because he wanted certain changes written into them. We know we’re talking about it, and we know that he is the largest recipient of donations from the energy industry. Really? It’s so weird.
Traci Thomas 40:02
Yeah, well, it’s fucked up as what it is. Yeah. Yeah. It’s horrible.
Kamila Shamsie 40:07
It’s horrible. But it’s kind of almost accepted that it’s commented on. But no one is saying, How is this still a functioning democracy?
Traci Thomas 40:14
Right? Well, is it different? I don’t I don’t know about political donations in Britain. But is it dude, is this a new thing? They’re these political donations.
Kamila Shamsie 40:24
It’s a new thing, too. It’s not new thing, but it’s accelerated. I see and the kind of money that is coming in, and the fact that these clubs, you know, specific clubs are being set up with a very specific sort of pay, you know, you give this much money. And this is what you will get in return in terms of government access, and once a month, you will meet the Prime Minister and have this conversation and it’s, you know, the kind of structure that’s been created around it is new.
Traci Thomas 40:51
Ours is more lawless, right. Like, it’s just like secret, giving tons of money. And then like secret access, and like a different way. I guess speaking of politics in Britain, I mean, I’m talking to the week that this will air in October, but this is the week that the Queen died. And there you’re getting a new prime minister, what do you do have any predictions you want to lay out on here, since you predicted Roe, and you predicted these donations, and you predicted COVID, I feel like you’re sort of giving magic over there.
Kamila Shamsie 41:19
I mean, I’m really terrified by the new government, you know, let’s trust. I was not a fan of Boris Johnson, I thought I would celebrate the day he left. And then you have someone come in who, you know, it seems to be even more ideologically of the right. And you know, that, as you know, from this book, one of my particular concern is the way migrants and refugees are treated in Britain, and the current government is sending signals that it’s going to be so Hardline, and you know, again, this may not be a story that’s come to America, but the previous government had said, you know, when people come to apply for asylum in the UK, before even considering their case, we will put them on a flight and send them to Rwanda. And they will be considered there. So essentially saying, we don’t want to have to have any responsibility for any refugees from anywhere in the world. And of course, this is also happening, you know, the fact I mentioned earlier, 33 million Pakistanis displaced by by floods, you know, thinking climate refugees, you know, that is going to be the next huge wave of refugees, we need a global humanitarian approach to that. I do not see Britain being anywhere in that conversation. And that is a really sad thing. You know,
Traci Thomas 42:35
yeah. I mean, that is, it is such a huge part of of the book, you know, because, as you mentioned, our two main characters, they go from Karachi to London to their migrant. Then there’s other characters that unfold to who appear and different people’s partners and all of these things. When you’re writing about issues that are so like, of the moment, do you ever worry that like, I don’t want to say that sometimes it’s really hard for me to discuss certain things that are unfolding, because I’m worried that what I’m putting out into the world won’t stand the test of time. Do you ever worry about that, when you’re writing a book that is like so full of so many, sort of inspired by current events? Or like, you know, I guess kind of that you’re going to put it out in a book and it’s not going to work in a five year? Like, is that something that you ever think about?
Kamila Shamsie 43:25
You know, weirdly, I think I would worry about that more if I was writing an essay today that was going to be published next week. Okay. But a novel, my however much novels may deal with things that are happening now, my feeling about her novel is it has to stand the test of time. So, you know, today, it may be the relevant news story of the day, but there have there has to be enough in it and the way it’s told, which has to be about story and character and relationship and human beings. And that needs to work in five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years. Also, I write books that, you know, if I’m wrapping up Britain, I’m not just thinking I want a British audience to read this. The news headlines, you know, I needed an audience in Pakistan and America and India and China or wherever else, yeah, to also read it. And the wonderful thing about the novel is, it has so many ways in so there are the novels you read. And you recognize things that are familiar. And you read them with that view. And then there are the novels you enter and it’s all unfamiliar. But that becomes its particular way in and delight. So I always write novels that I hope will work, both for people who are intimate with the world. And that could mean people living through a particular moment or it could mean people living in a particular country or demographic, but it should also work for those who don’t know it, but find enough of interest
Traci Thomas 45:00
I love that you said that because one of the things that I experienced when reading best of friends was sort of both of those things, right? Like I really connected with girl, feral girl Girl fear, I felt like this is this is me, she’s talking to me, I’m here. But a lot of the stuff about the 1980s. In Pakistan, I just didn’t know, the books are taking place in 1988. I was born in 1986. So it wasn’t like stuff that I would have known, I would have had to, you know, research and I was doing a lot of googling. And I really actually liked that, because I felt like it really brought me into the world even more, because then I you know, I love nonfiction. So I was like reading these like pieces. And like, you know, I was like really filling up with both this fictional world and stories about the political figures and the people that came up. And so for you saying that, like, it’s both for people who already have a way in and people who are sort of looking for a way and I felt like that really merged for me, and both both kinds of people in me at once. So that was really fun. And I haven’t had that in a while and a novel to be honest.
Kamila Shamsie 45:58
Good. You are my ideal reader.
Traci Thomas 46:01
Yay. Thank you, my dream. Okay. For people who love best of friends, what are some books that you might recommend to them that are in conversation with best friends?
Kamila Shamsie 46:14
You know, the first thing I would recommend to them is not a book but it just because I’ve just seen this but but the new league of their own team. Oh, because there is a female friendship at the heart of that maxim, tansy and I was watching that and thinking, Yes, you know, you you see these women as adults, and you know, they’ve been friends forever. Okay, so your watch that, of course, has no getting away from Elena Ferrante. You know, the Neapolitan quartet. And it’s my relationship that to those books is, is really, to me interesting one, maybe not interesting to anyone else, because I read them, and I absolutely loved them. And one thing that I loved was actually, that it’s not just about these two friends, but it is about the world they grew up in. And I also had a resistance. And the resistance was, there are too many stories of childhood friends who are girls whose friendship really gets absolutely riven by sexual jealousy, you know, this guy comes along, and it throws everything into disarray, that they can’t really recover from and, and there’s, you know, so much envy in there all the time. And I thought, and of course, that does happen, but I also wanted to write against that in some way. But but they’re brilliant books. And you know, I’d say they have to be anyone’s first port of call in terms of childhood girl friendship.
Traci Thomas 47:36
I have never read them. Oh, go read them. Should I? I don’t know. I feel like I feel like I’m not gonna like that. I’ve sort of-
Kamila Shamsie 47:43
No, no, you will. You will. They’re fantastic. She’s a fantastic writer, and they’re fabulous, fabulous books.
Traci Thomas 47:48
Okay. Last question for you. I’m going to spare you the question of what comes next, because this book isn’t even out yet. So I’ll give you a break. But just know it was on the list, but I’m gonna take it off. So here’s the last one, if you can have one person dead or alive, read this book, who would you want it to be?
Kamila Shamsie 48:10
My best childhood friend, you know, who is in fact a boy. And he, I gave him a proof of the book and his wife read it immediately. And he said, Well, I’m with worth my way to Jennifer Egan, which of course is brilliant. And then that terrified me because I said the Jennifer Egan is so brilliant. Don’t come to me after but I’m waiting for him. To read it. Yeah.
Traci Thomas 48:33
That’s so funny. I love that so much. Well, thank you so much for being here. Everyone at home, you can get a copy of best of friends wherever you get your books and it’s out in the world now. It’s very lovely. It’s a it’s a great investigation of so many topics that we talked about today. And then once you read it, you can also read the seven other novels that Kamala Shamsi has written. They’re there for you, Kamala, thank you so much for being here.
Kamila Shamsie 48:58
Thank you very much, Traci. It’s been a pleasure.
Traci Thomas 49:00
And everyone else we will see you in the stacks.
Alright, y’all, that does it for us this week. Thank you so much for listening. And thank you again to Kamala Ramzi for joining us and to Glory Plata for helping to make this possible. Don’t forget Anthony Christian Ocampo. We’ll be back next week on October 26th To discuss this month’s book club pick Fairest by Meredith Talusan. If you love the show and want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks and join the Stacks Pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the Stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. And if you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify, be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stats follow us on social media at stackspod on Instagram and at the stackspod underscore on Twitter and check out our website at The Stacks podcast.com. This episode of the stocks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin McCreight. And our theme music is from Tagirijus. The Stacks is created and produced by me, Traci Thomas.
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