Neema Shah talks to us about her experience with Jericho Writers and her debut novel ‘Kololo Hill’.
We were first introduced to Neema Shah on our Self-Edit Your Novel Course, and then at the Festival of Writing in 2017, where she was longlisted for two out of our three competitions that year. Her work was noticed by agents who were keen to read more, and now we can’t wait for the release of her debut novel ‘Kololo Hill’ (18 February 2021), the first in a two-book deal with Picador. We chatted to Neema about how she got her agent, balancing writing with other commitments and telling underrepresented stories.
JW: Hi Neema, lovely to talk to you! Could you start by telling us about your background as a writer? When did you know you wanted to be an author?
N: I actually started off doing a law degree and then went into marketing as a career. I only decided to take up a short creative writing course because my work offered us the chance to do an extra-curricular thing – and I was just hooked. I remembered how much I loved writing as a child, and now I just can’t imagine my life without it.
JW: It’s really strange how life can work out like that! Your debut novel, Kololo Hill, is coming out in February 2021 with Picador – where did it begin? Did you start with a particular character, or maybe a concept?
N: I grew up reading lots of fiction about other places and times, but I found that although there was fiction about the British-Asian experience and the Indian experience, there was nothing about people like my family. I also knew a bit about the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin in the 1970’s – I was always astounded that people could be sent out of their country in just three months. Those two things were really interesting to me, and that’s really what sparked my story. I wanted to explore different viewpoints, because people like my family aren’t necessarily that well represented in fiction.
JW: How did you discover Jericho Writers?
N: I found out about both the Festival of Writing and the Self-Edit Your Novel course back when Jericho Writers was called the Writers’ Workshop, and I used both in my early stages of writing. I had heard really good things about the Self-Edit course – all of which turned out to be absolutely right. Not only did I meet Debi Alper and Emma Darwin but I also met a really great writing friend, Daniel Aubrey, who continues to beta read for me. There are so many great things that come out of the Self-Edit course and I just love it. I’ve recommended it to so many people since.
Off the back of that, I decided to go to the Festival of Writing. That was such an incredible, intense day with lots of workshops – I also did the agent one-to-ones. There were three competitions that year – I came runner up in ‘Best Opening Chapter’ and was longlisted for ‘Pitch Perfect’. I’ve used those on my submission letters since and they’re really well-recognised!
I’ve had loads to do with Jericho Writers and you‘ve been a really key part of my journey.
JW: Do you have any tips for writers working on their first draft?
N: I really feel that a lot of writing is psychological. We spend so much of our time having doubts (which are natural), and you have to push those aside. In an early draft, it really is ‘just keep writing.‘. I’ve been thinking a lot about psychology through my day job in marketing, and the idea of the rational and emotional sides of the brain. When you’re writing, you want to ignore the rational side (which is telling you it’s awful) and access the emotional side. I know there are some writers who will write the first paragraph and edit it straight away, but I find it easiest to write a draft without looking back at all.
Keep on going past the next few drafts and accept that to get a novel finished it can sometimes be boring. It’s just keeping going that’s really important. You also have to have space away from your draft, because you’re far too close to it when you’ve just read over it.
JW: Can you tell us about your journey to finding an agent?
N: I did lots of research – I even made an Excel spreadsheet because I knew I was going to contact quite a few agents and would need to keep track of it all. I also went to events where agents were talking and read blogs so I could get a sense of what agents were like. I made a shortlist and starting by submitting to about 10-12 agents. I was lucky because some of the agents had been on competitions I’d been listed in, including the Festival of Writing, who had said they wanted to read more when it was ready.
I had a lot of rejections, but quite a few manuscript requests, which was brilliant. I ended up with two great agents offering to represent me and I was really spoilt for choice.
JW: I also wanted to ask about your gorgeous book cover – what do you think of it? I noticed that it’s modern Batik print – was that an idea that came from you?
N: I love it so much! It wasn’t the first version – the designer had come up with a few concepts based on fabrics and she wanted them to be related to the story. If you look closely on the cover you notice that as well as the Batik print, which is common to Uganda and India, there’s also an imprint of an Indian passport. There are so many little details working together which you might only see on a second look. I was blown away because I love looking at covers but I never considered how much thought and conscious choice goes into it.
JW: How are the challenges you’re facing as a published author now different to challenges you might have faced in the past?
N: When I first started out, I didn’t know any writers at all. Doing the courses definitely helped, as I’ve kept in touch with quite a few people I met there. Twitter was also great for finding other writers, particularly ones to beta read for. There’s a massive writing community there, and the #bookstagram community is also huge.
I do think the publishing industry is getting much better for underrepresented writers (I’m an example of that), but I did have few experiences that I was quite taken aback by. There’s still a way to go, but it is better than it was even five years ago.
I also find there is a slight lack of transparency about what it’s like to be an author. Advances are all different and the way you’re treated in terms of marketing can be very different. Picador are brilliant and they’ve been really transparent with me, but from my understanding that’s not always the case. So, I think finding communities or people going through similar experiences is such a big help, and that’s a piece of advice I would give whatever stage you’re at with your writing.
At the one-to-ones with Jericho Writers, I got really detailed feedback on my opening chapters and my covering letter – that kind of thing can be quite hard to come by and looking for those resources can be really helpful.
N: The funny thing is that I wrote ‘Kololo Hill’ on my commute, on my smartphone! So, just making use of what would otherwise be dead time really helps. I’m lucky enough to have a good work/life balance as my job is quite flexible. That said, it’s only now that I’m promoting ‘Kololo Hill’ and starting book two and working a day job that it’s starting to feel like a bit much, so I am trying to get better at organising myself. It’s so important to save energy for your creativity – just being creative takes a lot out of you! I try to write early in the mornings before other things get in the way.
“There is a slight lack of transparency about what it’s like to be an author… Finding communities or people going through similar experiences is a big help, and that’s a piece of advice I would give whatever stage you’re at with your writing.”
JW: You mentioned that you’re a big fan of books on the writing process. Are there any other books, perhaps works of fiction, that particularly shaped your writing?
N: One of my favourite books is ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy (based on the Windrush generation, which definitely inspired me). My other favourite books aren’t necessarily the kind of thing that I write about but are things I’d love to write more of – ‘Fingersmith‘ by Sarah Waters is amazing – it has an amazing twist and I’d love to write a book with a proper twist because it’s so hard to do.
For ‘Kololo Hill’ I used a lot of blogs, online photography and a couple of TV shows. I also went on a research trip to Uganda. In terms of first-person experience there wasn’t that much available in writing though. That’s another reason why it was important to me to make sure that story was told, even if in fiction.
JW: Are you reading anything good right now?
N: I’ve been getting into audiobooks, and I’m listening to ‘Elevator Pitch’ by Linwood Barclay. I’m reading a proof I was given of ‘The Smallest Man’ by Frances Quinn, which comes out in January, and I also just finished ‘If I Can’t Have You’ by Charlotte Levin, which is a really good debut from 2020.
From Jenny Savill, Neema’s Agent (Andrew Nurnberg Associates)
JW: Hi Jenny. What drew you to Neema’s work, and in what ways was it a strong submission?
JS: Where do I start?! Her manuscript had a strong opening. The action was firmly rooted in a terrific sense of place and time – a place and a time that I knew a little about from TV as a child but had never really understood. Seeing the 1972 expulsion through the lives of one particular family and their friends was such a brilliant lens through which to show a massive political and social upheaval. That coupled with distinctive, flawed characters whose story I felt compelled to follow, and whose lives continued in my imagination long after the last full stop, made for an impressive submission.
I do love a novel that illuminates a life or lives in a way that does away with preconceptions or conventions. I love to be surprised by characters and by the turn of events in a story. ‘Kololo Hill’ does this beautifully.
As an agent, Jenny is always keen to find new voices in 7+, Middle Grade and Young Adult writing. Jenny also represents authors writing for adults. She is on the look-out for writers of literary fiction, commercial and literary women’s fiction, well-written thrillers and psychological suspense, historical fiction (the whole gamut – including alternate histories), memoir and narrative non-fiction. She welcomes originality, depth, and the ability to move and surprise in submissions.
If you’re interested in submitting your own work to Jenny or other agents, AgentMatch is a great tool to refine your search and develop your perfect shortlist. Find out more here.
If you can’t wait until 18 February to read some of Neema’s work, take a look at her website here for more insightful writing tips.
More about Neema Shah here.
About Neema Shah
Neema Shah is an author, blogger and marketer. Her debut novel ‘Kololo Hill’ will be published by Picador on 18th February 2021. She came runner-up in the ‘Best Opening Chapter’ and was longlisted in the ‘Pitch Perfect’ competition at the Festival of Writing in 2017. She has also been shortlisted for the DGA First Novel Prize and Bath Novel Award, both in 2018.