Author Alia Malek on Writing and Publishing //
Author of A Country Called Amreeka, Alia Malek tells FEN about the importance of art, the power of writing and how she left a career in law to become one of our community’s freshest authors.
ON CHOOSING A PATH
In college, I always had a double major: International Relations and Writing. To go to Johns Hopkins-School of Advanced International Studies, I had to drop the writing to a minor. My wisdom as a 19-year-old said, “Well, I want to be one of those people that’s doing something, not one of those people that’s writing about people doing something.” It wasn’t until about 10 years later that I realized, writing is doing something. It’s actually very powerful.
FROM ATTORNEY TO AUTHOR
While I was at the Department of Justice (DOJ), after 9/11, some crazy policies started to happen (not that it isn’t without historical precedent, we know that the United States interned its Japanese-American population during World War II), but I had to ask, “How? Why is this happening?” I felt it was because Arab-Americans were so invisible in the American consciousness. Arabs had been so dehumanized.
I left the DOJ and went to Lebanon to work as a lawyer, and while doing so I got asked by Rami Khouri of The Daily Star there to write a column and that turned into several columns. I was really amazed when I started to see my columns get reprinted all over the Internet, from things like the Guardian Online to these crazy Iraqi dating sites that would also put up my pieces. That’s when I started to realize that writing is doing something.
I continued to work as a lawyer until 2005, when I finally applied to Columbia University’s Journalism School with the idea that I wanted to know how to become a real writer. When I got to Columbia, no one had written the sort of book I thought somebody would inevitably write after 9/11, or they hadn’t gotten a book deal or something. So I decided to do it and that’s how I made the transition. I went in knowing that I wanted to take a book class and develop a proposal for this book.
PUTTING THE BOOK TOGETHER
Finding the cast was the most important thing and one of the hardest things. Thank god our community is connected and organized and there are key players in key cities. I could rely on other people’s knowledge of other people.
I knew a lot of people from my generation and certain milieus, but I didn’t know how to find people who went all the way back to Alabama in the 1940s. Also, convincing Arab-Americans to be really open, I hadn’t been published yet–getting people to commit to the amount of time that i needed from them was difficult and people are skeptical and suspicious of having to open up about their lives.
I was really lucky because I sold the book for enough that I could work on it full time. It’s really hard to have a day job then write a book in between the hours that you can steal. You have to learn to be self-disciplined. You have to learn how to spend a lot of time by yourself when you’re in the writing process. It was hard, because in our community even though I had established myself as a lawyer, when you tell people that you don’t have a job and that you’re writing a book, it’s a foreign concept to them: to have been paid to write a book.
THE PUBLISHING PROCESS
Nonfiction is different from fiction. The way it starts with fiction is you send the first three chapters of a fiction book to an agent and if they like it then you send them more, usually the whole book. With nonfiction you have to get an agent to agree to look at your book proposal, which you do by telling an agent what the book is about briefly and why that agent would be good for your book, usually based on their having sold something similar in style or substance. Once the agent agrees, you submit the proposal to them and they either agree or decline to represent you.
There are two principal parts to a book proposal. First is the overview essay, which is a detailed examination of what the themes are in your book, why the book is timely and needs to be written, what your credentials are for writing it and what the market is for it, and then most importantly how the book is going to written, who are the cast, the characters and what’s going to happen. With a nonfiction proposal, people are not seeing the book, so you need to answer a lot of their questions up front. The second part of the book proposal is the submission of at least one sample chapter that lets the agent and then editors see how you’re going to write the book. Once the agent agrees to take you on, you sign with them and it usually means that they will get 15 percent of your domestic sales. That agent then–since they know who the editors are at the [publishing] houses, and what editors will be interested in it–they send it out to the editors and from there, the editors make bids.
ON BOOK PROMOTION
You want to think that if something is really good it just rises to the top, but it doesn’t. You can hire a publicist but most of the promotion falls on the writer. I find it awkward but you have to do it.