1. Can you tell us a bit about your most recent novel?
Cairo in White starts in Cairo in 1986, as Egyptian teen Zahra tries to sneak into her lover’s house and ends up having to make a choice between telling her parents the truth about her female lover or marrying her lover’s brother. The novel then continues as a split narrative between Zahra and her American daughter, Aisha, who visits her grandparents in Egypt for the first time years later. Zahra and Aisha’s lives unfold together as they both grapple with their religious beliefs, social pressures, love, and the search for a place to call home amidst the feminist movement and the Arab Spring.
2. When did you decide you wanted to pursue writing as more than a hobby?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in kindergarten and first learned how to write. After I graduated from George Washington University (Women’s Studies major, English and Creative Writing minors) I was at a crossroads: should I go to a Master’s program in Women’s Studies, or in Writing? I picked Writing, but obviously my Women’s Studies degree often informs my work all the time.
3. Can you give us a brief rundown of your writing process?
I usually begin my novels only knowing the beginning and the end (or sometimes just one or the other). Everything else in the middle is a pleasant surprise. Sometimes I only have one image, a character or a place; for example, my YA novel, Dreamweaver Road, all began with a Pinterest article I read about using pasta strainers as planters. Then I just follow that image or character or location until I find the storyline. I write quickly, but only for a short amount of time every day. I never edit until I’ve finished the entire manuscript, and usually I decide that a piece is either almost done after the first draft or in need of a full rewrite. There’s usually no middle ground.
4. What’s the hardest part of the writing process for you and how do you make it easier for yourself?
I definitely find editing to be the hardest part of writing. I get bored! It’s hard to get perspective on my own writing, so if I think a piece needs a lot of work, I have to print it out and start from scratch. I often let something sit in a drawer for a while before I go back and edit it, since time and work on a new project can bring a new perspective to an old piece.
5. You’ve published several things: short stories, non-fiction, poems and of course, novels. What’s your favorite and why?
Fiction is definitely my first true love. I actually really like writing novellas the best, my novella Three on the Bank is coming out this summer from Storylandia! and the pace and length just came so easily to me. But writing is writing, and I enjoy all of it for different reasons. If I’m in an emotional place I just can’t describe in fiction, I often write a poem about it; if I want to use my own experience to help others going through the same thing, I write nonfiction.
6. Do you ever find it difficult to move from one project to the next? If so, how do you make changing projects easier?
I actually don’t find it hard to move from one project to the next. I have the opposite problem: once I’ve “moved on” from a project, it’s dead to me. I don’t naturally want to revise it or even reread it, I just want to forget about it, but that’s not really the way the publishing world works.
7. You graduated from an MA program in fiction last December. What’s the most important thing you learned from that experience?
I absolutely loved my MA program. I think the most important thing I learned was that writing is a craft, not just an art. I’ve always loved writing and been good at it, but in terms of crafting my sentences and the structures of my novels, I had a lot to learn when I first entered the program.
8. For your novels, why did you choose an ebook publisher over a traditional publisher?
Honestly, with the way print publications are going, it is insanely hard to get a book into the traditional print market. Initially, about six years ago when I wrote the first draft of Cairo, I had a lot of traditional agents interested in my novel, but “interested” in ways that would have required changing a lot about the novel. The writing itself also needed a lot of work (see my answer to question seven). Six years later, even after finishing an MA program and publishing a in a lot of magazines, it was almost impossible to get an agent to even consider my work. Times are definitely changing. At Musa Publishing, they loved my work from the get-go, and they weren’t out to rewrite it into a different book. Musa gives their authors a lot of input into their cover, editing process, and marketing strategy, but they still do a great editing job and turn out a beautiful product.
9. If you could give an aspiring writer only one piece of advice, what would it be?
I always say my biggest advice is to write every day. It’s not about getting the volume on paper, it’s about keeping your mind focused on writing at all times. That way, when you do have time to sit down and write, the words flow right from your brain to the page instead of feeling unnatural. Keep a journal, or just try to get a few lines down—I even have an “idea notebook” where all I do is paste newspaper clippings, pictures, and other objects into the notebook, which requires almost no effort but is a great resource when I’m out of ideas.
10. What are you working on now that readers can look forward to?
Currently I’m working on a young adult (or what they’re calling “new adult” now) book about a girl who drops out of college and moves to Italy. I’ve only written the first few chapters, so I’m not sure if it’ll be a novella or a novel yet, but I’m just enjoying writing the Italian setting and getting to know my new characters.
Kelly Ann Jacobson is the author of the literary fiction novel Cairo in White. Kelly recently received her MA in Fiction from The Johns Hopkins University, and she is the Poetry Editor for Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine. Her work, including her published poems, fiction, and nonfiction, can be found at www.kellyannjacobson.com.
Have more questions for Kelly? Feel free to ask them in the comments section below.