Happy International Woman’s Day to our KWL community! We wanted to celebrate by releasing a bonus episode this week – we hope you enjoy it! We spoke with author Anat Deracine about her novel, Driving by Starlight, her experience growing up in Saudi Arabia and why writing about female friendship is so important to her.
Happy International Woman’s Day to our KWL community! We wanted to celebrate by releasing a bonus episode this week – we hope you enjoy it!
We spoke with author Anat Deracine about her novel, Driving by Starlight, her experience growing up in Saudi Arabia and why writing about female friendship is so important to her.
- Anat talks about being a women in the tech industry, and building relationships with other women in a world where women are often assumed to be in competition.
- We talked about her novel, Driving by Starlight. She explains her writing process, and the process of working with an editor, as well as the experiences of writing in different media (essays, graphic novels, prose)
- And lots more!
Anat Deracine is the pseudonym of a professional wanderer, whose passports include stamps from Iraq, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey. She grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where she watched scud missiles fall from the sky during the Gulf War. She studied engineering and philosophy at Cornell University, and political science at Oxford University. Today, she lives in San Francisco but travels to discover new cultures and perspectives.
Transcription provided by Speechpad
Joni: Hey listeners! We wanted to take a moment to wish you a Happy International Women’s Day from all of us at Kobo Writing Life, and let you know that we are releasing an extra bonus episode this week. Our interview with Anat Deracine was fantastic and we thought it was really appropriate for International Women’s Day. Enjoy.
Rachel: Hey writers, you’re listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast,” where we bring you insights and inspiration for growing your self-publishing business. We’re your hosts. I’m Rachel, author engagement coordinator at Kobo Writing Life.
Joni: And I’m Joni, author engagement specialist at Kobo Writing Life. On today’s episode, we’re talking to Anat Deracine, which is the pseudonym of the author of “Driving by Starlight,” a YA novel set in Saudi Arabia. She works full-time in tech, but she’s also a writer. She writes not just fiction, but also a lot of essays. She has a novella out which we will link to, and she also writes webcomics.
Rachel: We had a great conversation with Anat. We talked a lot about her novel, “Driving by Starlight,” how it was inspired by her childhood in Saudi Arabia, and the female friendships that are woven throughout the book, and how they’re inspired by people in her real life. We also talked a lot about craft and about how her writing process changes based on the medium she’s writing in. And we had a really interesting conversation about receiving edits, and rewriting your work, and how to take feedback and make it work for you. It’s a great conversation and we hope you enjoy.
Joni: Okay. We’re here today with Anat Deracine. Am I saying that right?
Anat: Yes. Anat Deracine.
Joni: Awesome. Author of “Driving by Starlight.” Thank you so much for joining us.
Anat: Pleasure to be here. Nice to see you both.
Joni: Can you start by telling our listeners a little bit about who you are and about your book?
Anat: Sure. I’m a writer. I am currently based in London, but I have lived all over the world. I grew up in Saudi Arabia. That’s where I lived for 10 years, and it’s where my book is based. And since then I’ve been in Canada, in the U.S, in London, and I’ve also traveled around the world to all over the Middle East for…you know, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and you know, it’s been a long and interesting journey.
Rachel: And how did your book, “Driving by Starlight” come about? What made you feel like you had to tell the story?
Anat: So when I was growing up in Saudi Arabia, there were a lot of things that were not exactly pleasant about being a girl in Saudi Arabia. And I wasn’t aware of all of them. Right? As a 14-year-old or a 13-year-old, if somebody tells you you can’t drive, you’re just like, “Well, did I really wanna be doing that?” So you don’t really miss out on some of the things that maybe the adult women in the country are feeling. But I still knew there was a difference because I did travel outside the country and did know that other countries were not like that. And so I had a lot of challenges, but also a lot of things went my way. And in talking about the things that went my way, I was allowed to dress like a boy and pass for one, and that gave me a lot of freedom. I could play a lot of sports, walk down the street, do a lot of things that even some of my girl classmates couldn’t do.
And also I had some really good friends among the women there, people whom I’m still friends with today. And one of the things that really stuck with me was this experience of being pitted against the other girls for every little thing. It’s like, there’s a contest, there’s a race, who got first place in, you know, whatever exam. But in spite of all that, we were really supportive of each other. We were a team, you know. And sometimes it was a little bit childish, like it was the girls against the boys, like, at least the girls are better than the boys. But that was a very sustaining thing for me, my friends that I had. And that was what inspired me.
And the book is dedicated to some of my friends from Saudi Arabia, because they know what we’ve been through. They’ve been through it with me, and I wanted to share the story and the message of hope that even when things are really bad, when it’s very tempting to fall into this pit of being, you know, in a competition with the other people who are in the same situation, rather than trying to climb all over each other and find a window out of hell, and that’s a phrase from the book, why don’t we work together and find a door, and all of us can get free. So that was kind of the message that I wanted to convey.
Joni: I feel like Rachel and I were talking about this before, that one of my favorite things in this book is the way that you write about female friendship, and it’s such a huge part of this book, and the relationships between not just the girls, but the adult woman in their lives. And it’s something that I find very, very powerful. Was this, it kind of sounds like it was, was this something that was very much based on people in your life?
Anat: It was. And not only in childhood. In fact, I work as a technologist, so there’s a lot of stories, in fact, one that I’ve written myself, about what it’s like to be a woman in the tech industry. And it’s a very similar situation. There’s a lot of competition for what is perceived as very few opportunities and very few places for women in leadership roles. And it’s very tempting for women and minorities to step all over each other, trying to get the few opportunities that are currently open, but that’s not really a healthy way of existing, and it’s not sustaining in the long-term. And even in the tech industry, my ability to reach out and build these female friendships and never get into a contest with, you know, others who are experiencing the same kinds of things, that I think has also led to me being successful in my career.
So it’s something that has, like, stayed with me throughout my years, and why, even though it had been years since I left Saudi Arabia, I felt like I needed to tell that message because it’s not just about Saudi Arabia, it’s about any kind of situation where you are pitted against people. And that’s a very deliberate act that you can work away from by forming the right kinds of friendships.
Joni: Do you see any of this in the writing world? Because I feel like what you’re saying about tech is very, very familiar. And I wonder if you see… Because we kind of talk a little bit about how that doesn’t exist so much among writers, because there’s not just one book. Like, anyone who reads is reading many, many books. How do you find that, the author community?
Anat: I think I find the author community very sustaining. And I have a critique group that is extremely supportive, I work with other writers. And I think, again, there’s this false narrative that there can only be one, you know, like, the one brown person who can win this award or whatever it is. And I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s so much room. And like, it takes, what, three years, five years, between a first draft and getting published? And you’re gonna read that book in three hours. So there’s room for a lot of books that people can read very quickly. So I’m not…I don’t see as much of that competition because I’ve made it a point to carve out the kinds of groups that are more supportive.
Rachel: You mentioned it takes like three to five years to go from first draft to published book. What was your publishing journey like for this book?
Anat: It was long. And again, I do have a career as a technologist, and in technology, everything moves really quickly. You launch something and it’s live the next day. And so even just orienting myself to what felt like geological time in publishing, it just boggled my mind. And the way that it actually happened was the book had been, kind of, fermenting in my mind for many years, and I just was not writing it down because I felt like I wasn’t ready. Like I’m not a good enough writer yet, or I should, you know, get some short stories under my belt, make my name, then I can write a novel. And eventually, I was just like, “Wait a minute. Whose permission am I waiting for? At least let me write the novel. Maybe people won’t like it, maybe it won’t get published or anything, but if I don’t have a novel, then I’m making all of these hypothetical statements about whether or not I’m good enough.”
And so I took about five weeks off of work and wrote the entire first draft in five weeks. And my writing process was to go and find a beach in Bali and write it. So I just sat on a beach in Bali…
Rachel: It sounds grueling, just absolutely grueling.
Anat: I mean, I was writing for six to eight hours a day and taking breaks for massages, but it was still a wonderful, very pleasant first draft. But I’d set a deadline for myself and I was just like, “If I can’t write the first draft in five weeks, then I’m not serious about this. And I am serious about this. This is who I am. I’ve been writing my entire life. I want to at least get the first draft done.” And so since then, I kept milestones for myself. I said, “I’m gonna give this six months to, again, ferment, and in the meantime, I’ll edit, I’ll edit, and I’ll learn about querying, learn about publishing, and all of this kind of stuff.” And six months later, I started querying, and I found an agent through the Writer’s Digest Conference that comes to various cities at different points, usually in New York.
So I found an agent and the agent took a few months to read the first draft. And of course, her summary was, “Great potential, needs extensive rewrites.” In fact, her summary of all the things that needed to change, the summary was seven pages long. And in addition to that seven-page summary, there were some red lines. There were so many red marks and comments that she had to use both sides of this page. And it was double-spaced. Right? And so both sides of the manuscript were just completely written with marks. So I learned a lot about craft. I rewrote the entire novel and sent it to her when it was ready. She went and did another passive edit, I did another passive edit, we sent it to publishers. Now, the way that publishing works is there are only particular windows when publishers read. So you can’t just like send it and then hope that they get back to you immediately. You have to hit those windows and then it takes a few months.
So, we hit one of the windows, a few months later, all of them came back and said no. But it was very, very useful feedback. You do get some really good feedback at that stage where all of them said no for basically the same reason. And it was something that I hadn’t thought about, which is when you have a genre, a genre has certain expectations. And if you have like a murder mystery, there has to be a murderer. If you have a romance, it has to end in a happily ever after. And with young adult, there is an expectation that your ending is not bleak and despairing, but rather is more hopeful. And my ending was a little sadder the first time around, and I’m not gonna spoil what the ending was, but it is no longer this sad ending that nobody wanted.
And I had a real choice to make. So my agent asked me, “How tied are you to this ending?” And that was when I went back to what is the story that I’m trying to tell? And the story was not the plot. The plot may have had that ending, but the story is one of female friendships. And so as long as I could preserve the story I was telling, it could have a different ending. And so I rewrote the entire story to have a different ending, because you can’t just change the ending and tack it on. So I rewrote the whole thing, and I also changed it from third person to first person. That was also another change that again is an expectation, very common in the YA genre, that stories are written in first person. We sent it out and it was accepted. And from that point, it was still two years before it came out.
Joni: Yeah. Child publishing takes such a long time. It’s crazy. Leena is such a great character. Like she’s, I don’t know, she’s really, really strong, and powerful, and she’s, like, a little bit rebellious. She’s razor smart. Is she at all like you were? Were you that kind of teenager?
Anat: So the thing they tell you is to build strong characters, find aspects of yourself and exaggerate them. And so there are aspects of myself in Leena that are extremely exaggerated but not entirely too far away from the truth. And there are other aspects of myself in a lot of the other characters, including Daria. And there’s a reason why Leena and Daria have this very strange relationship, it’s because, you know, Leena is seeing kind of a version of herself that she might have been in a different context, and that’s very, very troubling and very jarring for her. And in many ways, that’s reconciling some of the challenge that I personally, you know, would have had, which is I do have the, this is me, the product of my upbringing, and this is me if I had had a different upbringing, right, and trying to reconcile that.
Rachel: One thing that I found really incredible about the book, as somebody who doesn’t know a lot about Saudi Arabia, is you do such a great job balancing, explaining what life is like in Saudi Arabia, without it feeling like you’re just barfing a bunch of exposition on your readers. Did you find that challenging? How did you manage to balance that?
Anat: So, it’s interesting that you say that, because honestly, that’s one of my weaker points as a writer because I started off as an essayist. And as an essayist, you kind of, wanna just sit there and describe the landscape for hours on end. And so you have these passages of…you know, about the desert, about the sky, and about, you know, the world. And I was very attached to them. And the thing that I use, there’s a couple of techniques. One writing mentor gave me the phrase, “Blend, don’t block.” And so “Blend, don’t block,” is basically don’t just have blocks of exposition, blocks of paragraphs explaining description and whatnot, but blend it into the action of the character, blend it into the scene, into how they’re thinking at the moment. And so that was, I think, very useful.
And then the second thing that I used more in edits than anything else is, using the character’s viewpoint as a filter. If the character doesn’t see it, doesn’t think it at that moment, then you don’t have it there, no matter how nice it is. And so in one of the books that I’m working on right now, not in “Driving by Starlight,” there was this moment where this character experiences something very traumatic, and then I had this, like, long paragraph about, like, how she’s seeing this scene and all of this around her, and sent it to the critique group, and the critique group was like, “I don’t think she’d be looking at the landscape at that point.” So, you know…and they were right. And so that’s, kind of, another helpful tip.
Joni: So you’ve written a lot of essays, you’ve also written a comic book as well as fiction. How do you find it jumping between mediums like that? Is it challenging to switch from one type of writing to the other?
Anat: It is challenging, but only the first time. Once you start to do it, you just get into a different mindset. But also what you learn from each of these mediums informs the others. So, I’ll give a very simple example. In, you know, in webcomics, and in cartoons, and in animation, there is a kind of scene that happens all the time that is the bane of an animator’s existence, and it is called two heads talking. So it is a scene where two people are talking, and there’s a vast majority of scenes that are just that. And they’re extremely hard to animate because what are you gonna do? You’re just gonna have the same two people like this the whole time in front of each other and nothing changes. How do you animate and not make it boring? And for me, once I realized how much goes into shifting the position of each character, how they face, where, you know, what they’re looking at, what their expression is, every panel has to be different, even though it is just two heads talking.
And learning from that made my scenes in my novel that are two heads talking, be more rich because then I could bring some of that emotion, and that expression, and the gestures, and the physicality of these two people. And it wasn’t just dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, which I was doing before.
Rachel: And how does your writing process change from medium to medium? Because I assume you’re not flying to Bali for five weeks every time you’re doing a first draft, as magical as that would be.
Anat: Yeah. So, my writing process is it is different based on what medium that I’m working in. Short stories and essays, I maybe spend a couple of hours to do a first draft, and then let them soak for a weekend, edit them, and then they’re okay. With the webcomic, I have a partner. And so it was a very tight feedback loop where I write in a screenplay format. I write the dialogue, and the scenes, and the cues of what’s gonna happen in the scene, I send it to her, she gives me feedback and just says like, “This line doesn’t feel right,” or, “You’ve said this before,” or, “We forgot this plot hole.” You know, she’s just checking my work. And once we have this screenplay version done, I write something like 10 to 15 episodes at a time. And they’re very short episodes because it’s mostly in comic form, right, so it’s not a lot of writing in terms of sheer word count.
And so I’ll write 10 to 15 episodes, and then it takes 6 months to produce that. So I’m not working on my writing while we’re producing the webcomic because that’s just…you know, we have a team of artists from around the world, all of them are women, and we basically send them first the storyboarding, then to character art, then to background and coloring, and then do the final cuts. So that’s a production experience, which it uses a different part of my brain, so I’m not trying to write while producing.
Joni: That’s really interesting. I don’t know anything about writing comic books, and I hadn’t even thought about the dialogue issue, but yeah, very interesting. I wanted to ask you, there’s a scene in the book where one of the characters says something along the lines of, “When everything is forbidden, like you might as well do it all. You’re gonna get in trouble either way, so why not go big and really break the rules?” And I thought that was really interesting. Is there a certain freedom to the kind of restrictions that the girls are experiencing in the book where they’re like, “Well, we can’t do anything, so why not do everything?”
Anat: Yeah. It’s funny that you pick up on that because, yes, that is a very strange thing because in many ways, growing up with that level of repression and people telling you things you can and cannot do and things that are right and wrong, means that you develop this sort of internal sense of, “Okay, half the things they’re telling me are nonsense.” And you know, whether it’s, like, when they’re telling you like women can’t cross the street or women can’t drive, or if they’re telling you that, like, people who are not of this religion or of this sect of this religion are evil and wicked, you tend to discount all of these kind of normative statements and you’re just like, “Oh, you’re just trying to control me.” And like, you know, the control is so repressive that you start to, like, not believe it anymore and it doesn’t…you don’t hold onto it, right, you don’t internalize it as much.
And that has two effects. On the one hand, yes, it does free me up and it did free me up to basically say, “Okay, in the privacy of my own mind, in my own imagination, everything is possible. I can write any story that I want to write. I can do anything that I want to do, and at least in…you know, as long as I’m not gonna get into trouble, like I’m gonna just do whatever I feel like doing.” And so there were never any questions in my mind about what I could or could not do. And that has stood me in good stead in my career, right, because there’s different messages that get internalized in the West, right, like you can’t dress this way, you can’t do this kind of job, you’re not smart enough for that, or all of this kind of stuff.
And I was just like, “Oh, this sounds very similar to the messages that I heard and ignored back then because they weren’t true then, they’re not true now.” And so that was, I think, very helpful because I could just do whatever I wanted. I could be a technologist and a writer. I could do, you know, whatever I felt like doing in college. I could travel around the world alone. These were things that just felt open to me that maybe didn’t feel as open to other people because they had sort of, like, believed the rules. The other thing is also, it makes you more liberal in your mindset because when, now, if people tell you like, “Oh, these kinds of people are evil,” you’re like, “Really?” This… So I would say that, you know, I’ve definitely become very open-minded in just sort of my politics, because I know that most of this is just control and power, and not really…not real.
Rachel: One thing I kind of wanted to ask you, and I know I’m not the only person who picked up on this because I did some research online and other people saw this as well, but I read almost a little bit of a queer relationship between Leena and Mishail, at least a crush. Was this intentional or was this just something that we all picked up on, projecting maybe?
Anat: It was absolutely intentional. It was absolutely intentional, and I in fact even did validate it on Twitter. So…
Rachel: I missed that.
Anat: Yes, it is intentional. There’s two things about it that are intentional. One is not using the words in the vocabulary that someone from the West might use to describe that kind of situation or that kind of friendship, because those wouldn’t apply in that situation. That is not how Leena would think of herself. She would not use those terms to identify herself. The other thing that was also intentional was there is a genre expectation in YA that romance must be there. And one of the comments that I got the first time on my book when it was rejected by everybody was, where’s the romance? And I was just like, “Oh, you want me to add a heterosexual romance? Well, let me see how I can subvert that trope.” So…
Joni: I saw that somebody had asked you if you thought that young girls in Saudi Arabia would be able to read your book. And you said we were all reading all the banned books all the time. What was your favorite book to read that was not allowed when you were a teen?
Anat: It’s interesting. Right? Because when I was growing up, the rules were far more restrictive than they are now. They are a little bit different now. But when I was growing up, I mean, like, I had arrived in the country just after bras stopped being banned. And so, you know, like it was not really permissive back then. But the way in which censorship was done was very heavy-handed and not really well thought out. For instance, all of our textbooks would have black marker marking out any sort of human anatomy or any, you know, words that might suggest sex. But again, that meant that you could get in a book like “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” but that’s okay because it’s very subtle and not really explicit, and nobody’s, like, reading it closely enough to know what it even says.
And so there’s definitely a sense in which all the books that I enjoyed were, kind of, meant for adults. Right? Like I was reading things like, you know, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and E. M. Forster, and Somerset Maugham and, you know, just a lot of, like, classics, I would say, but also reading way above my level because, in some ways, like, if I was trying to read at my level…there was a book that was banned but somebody managed to smuggle in called “Sixth Grade Secrets,” which had like, you know, one scene where a boy kisses a girl, and it was just, like, absolutely, you know, “Oh my god, what is this? What is… Like, did they actually do this kind of thing? What is wrong with Americans?” And so, you know, those books were rare, but we also had lots of like Archie Comics smuggled in, and…yeah, so, yeah, so it was a mix, I would say.
Rachel: Were you team Betty or team Veronica?
Anat: Oh, Veronica all the way.
Rachel: Really? Interesting. I was team Betty, but I think it was just because I’m blonde and I’m simple.
Anat: I mean, I just could not sign with the good girl. You know, something’s wrong. Why is she so good?
Rachel: What do you hope that readers take away from your book after they read “Driving by Starlight?”
Anat: The first thing, again, and going back to that, it’s what I call the story why, which is why I wrote the story, and it is the most important thing to me and, kind of, sustained me through the many years that it took to get it out there, was that message of hope, which is when you are boxed into a corner or imprisoned in a situation where other people are also in that situation, and it’s very tempting to sort of like crawl over them to get out, you may actually be better off learning how to make friends and find a solution that works for everyone. It might be a way that you can actually go further than you could ever get on your own. And that’s the key message of the book that I hope people get. But beyond that, I think there’s another message which is that it is very common, especially in YA, for protagonists to think that the only meaningful solution is martyrdom or violence, right, and you just have to, like, be the lone person going up against the system, and you either die trying, or you burn down the existing structures.
And I’m not a fan of martyrs. I’m not a fan of trying to do something in a way that is going to put yourself at such risk, especially if there is an alternative. There isn’t always. You know, I would have definitely acknowledged that. But in the occasion where there is a compromise, an alternative, a workaround that you might be able to see if you work together, I would actually go with that, and try to find a way to sort of work around the system, and then get the power to change it, as opposed to crash into the system, die, burn out, and then everybody else just moves on.
Joni: Yeah, I like that one of your characters, Fuli, was like, yeah, look, “The Hunger Games.” Like, that shouldn’t be how we solve things by doing collective suicide on… Yeah.
Anat: Yeah, I mean, I’m actually very particular about that, because that’s a challenge with Western storytelling. Western storytelling is very hero’s journey. The individual hero must go and do all of this stuff and then ends up alone. Right? Like they have to solve the problem alone. And that is not a very productive way of thinking about systemic change. And if the hero is going it alone, they are inherently doomed to fail because the system was made to break them. And so if you’re in a system that was designed to keep down people like you… And you can’t use outrage, because if you’re trying to say, like, “Why isn’t anybody outraged on my behalf?” it’s like, well, this is what the system was trying to do, it is explicitly trying to weed you out. And so, the more you get angry and the more you, kind of, push against it head on as opposed to sideways, the system is winning because all that you have to do to win that war of attrition is nothing.
Joni: Do you hear from a lot of your readers? Because one of the things about YA, I think, is that everyone reads it. Like a lot of adults love YA, as well as teenagers. Who’s reading that you’ve heard from?
Anat: Oh, I wish I heard from more readers. I mean, I don’t really. I only hear what people say on Goodreads. Occasionally somebody will, like, send me a message on Twitter, but I don’t really know who’s reading my books.
Anat: So, I mean, I would love to hear from readers.
Joni: Get in touch, guys. And what can readers expect from you next? What are you working on?
Anat: Oh. I’m working on so many things. We’ll see which one pans out, because there’s… Again, I wanna point out, publishing is slow and it’s also not very certain. Right? So just because one book gets published doesn’t mean people automatically publish everything you write. You still have to go through submissions, you still have to go through edits, and not everything will get published. So I think, you know, I have one book that I’m trying to get published, it’s in submissions, and another one that I’m working on right now. The one that I’m working on right now, I think is related and in a similar genre, but not the same genre, but it is speculative fiction about a young woman who has very explosive anger, and when…like she’s among a set of people that have telepathic connections to each other. It’s a community of people who are all telepathic. But she is more angry than a lot of other people, and doesn’t really know how to control her temper. So she’s a little bit of an outcast, that only makes her more angry.
And when she gets really angry, the people near her will die. And so she is trying to manage and control her temper. That is essentially the story, but, like, the plot is set in an alternate modern-day Southeast Asia. It’s sort of like the Bhutan region, but it’s not Bhutan. But that’s kind of where it’s set, where it’s like a community… I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book “Lost Horizon,” where like, there’s like a…it’s like where the term Shangri-La comes from. But like the premise is an isolated mountain community that has not been in touch with civilization for a long time, suddenly comes into touch with civilization, except that this community has the ability to communicate telepathically, and one of them can kill. So that’s kind of what I’m working on.
Rachel: That sounds really interesting. Before we started recording, we were talking about pandemic, not being able to travel. Because travel is such a huge part of your life, I was curious if the pandemic affected your writing at all. Did you have any challenges or were you like, “Oh, perfect, time to write?”
Anat: Honestly, it was more of the latter. It was, “Oh, perfect, time to write.” It definitely helped more than it hurt. That said, I think it changed my writing habits. So I do have a full-time job in tech, and for a long time, I would struggle with switching, you know, context switching between the two, not just how do I get the time to write, but how do I get the headspace and the creative space to switch from work to writing. And it took me many years to build up certain habits that all of a sudden went out the window. So, one of the habits was if I want to write, then I go to a different place than where I work. And so, once work and writing both became things I did at home, that kind of threw that habit out of the window. And I still had to figure out, okay, maybe I, like, write here in this part of the house and I work in this part of the house, or something that creates the right mental space for me.
Other things that changed that were for the better were having a critique group that met online because I think that also was very helpful, because I think sometimes with in-person critique groups, it’s a lot harder almost because you’re sitting at, like, a large table, you don’t hear everybody, there’s like some socializing, it’s hard to, kind of, herd cats. But some of the practices of online meetings mean that you actually have better conversations where people raise their hands and there’s an order, you need a structure. And I think that actually was more helpful for a lot of things for me.
Joni: That reminds me, I wanted to ask you earlier and then I got sidetracked. When you wrote “Driving by Starlight,” you worked in tech, you went to Bali to write. Was there an in-between? Like, were you writing or did you just go, like, “I’m gonna write a book,” and then figure out how to write a book as you went?
Anat: I threatened to quit my job.
Anat: And my boss was just like, “Well, instead of quitting, why don’t you just take a leave of absence of five weeks and then come back afterwards?” And I was like, “That actually sounds like a more reasonable plan.” But I just took time off of work and decided that this was something that I was gonna give myself. Right? It was like a one-off. And I had been taking writing classes before that. So I would do part-time writing classes. I still do them. I’m doing one right now. And the writing classes help with accountability where you’re at least staying with the craft on a weekly basis, you’re engaging with other people, you’re engaging with reading material, learning a little bit more, even if it’s not always like the best creative thing you’ve ever written. Even if you write a paragraph, it’s still better than nothing. And it’s one paragraph more than you had a week ago. And so that I think helped me a lot where I try to always be in something that will hold me accountable, so I’m writing something every week.
Joni: Did you meet your critique group at writing classes? How did that come together?
Anat: I just searched for them. So you can search online for critique groups and then join them, see how they work out for you. I had tried that before in the past. It is a little hit or miss, like, some work out and some don’t work out. I think one of the things that I would say about critique groups is, it is not always necessary to have a critique group of great writers. You want a critique group of great readers and people who can actually edit, as opposed to what I think happens a lot, right, where a lot of writers I think came to me after I got published and said, “Oh, like, I wanna know what you think of my writing,” and I’m like, “I’m not that…I’m not like that much different than I was, like, before I got published.” Right? Like it’s not this, like, magical marker of quality.
And I may not be as good an editor or a critiquer as I am a writer. That’s a different skill. You’re better served by making sure that you’re working with somebody who knows how to critique well. And it’s also something that if you’re not careful, you can be in a critique group that becomes an echo chamber where it’s just everybody saying how much they love your work and that doesn’t help you grow.
Joni: Do critique groups typically have writers who are writing in similar genres or no?
Anat: No. I think people who write in all kinds of genres and the one that I’m in, and I think some genres do have their own critique groups, right? Like if you…like, science fiction writers tend to have, like, a science fiction writers critique group, and that I think is helpful because then you have…and in addition to people who are telling you how to do your craft, you have people who understand the genre, and know the tropes of the genre, and can tell you, “You know what, there have been, like, 17 different books that in the last year that opened with guy on a planet, alone, whatever. Right? Like, you know, you wanna try something different here. It’s something like that. So it’s helpful to have people who know your genre, but not every critique group is genre-specific.
Rachel: Okay. That makes sense. Do you read a lot in the genre in which you’re writing while you’re writing? Like, did you read a lot of YA while writing, “Driving by Starlight?”
Anat: Yes. Not only did I read a lot in the genre, I did a few funky exercises that maybe would be fun to share, which is I went to the bookstore, and read the back cover and the first two pages of every book in the YA shelf. So, you know, I didn’t read all the rest of them, but I was just, like, reading the back cover and the first two pages of every book in the YA shelf. Like, what is the genre about? How does it begin? What are the tropes? Right? And so this is how I know things. Like, if you are writing YA, the parents have to be dead or dysfunctional by the end of chapter one. And so, you know, you can learn a lot of useful things if you try to assimilate patterns in that way. And I’m currently doing something very similar, so I try to do my reading almost targeted to the thing that I’m either trying to accomplish or trying to learn.
So it’s not so much about reading within my genre, but it is reading the kind of thing that I’m trying to do. And so there are elements of suspense that I want to be getting better at. Like, I just wanna be better at suspense. And that’s a very, very difficult thing. Right? In fact, that is the number one thing if you’re trying to do webcomics, it’s pacing, pacing, pacing. If you think of all crime novels, thrillers, it’s all about pacing and suspense, and how do you maintain the tension and drag the reader on, like, without them being able to put the book down. And so how do you learn how to do suspense? Well, the fastest way is to read as many crime, and thriller, and mystery books as you possibly can.
And yes, they’re gonna be very repetitive, but the whole point is to learn the patterns, like, what do they do? How do they structure their sentences? And there are some very simple things that I have already learned, and this has only been, like, in the last three weeks, things like varying the length of your paragraphs, varying the length of your sentences, using smaller words, using active verbs, right? Like, rather than, like, you know, “The tree was really beautiful,” it’s like, “The tree swayed in the wind.” Right? There’s like a difference between descriptive, you know, adjectives and passive verbs and, like, stillness verbs and dynamic verbs. And so learning all of these techniques, it’s more how fast can you process a large volume of information to synthesize patterns? So…
Rachel: How much do you read? Because it does sound like you read quite a bit, but you also have a full-time job and write. I’m just trying to figure out how many hours you have in your day.
Anat: I mean, I read for maybe an hour a day, I write for maybe an hour a day. I’m just better, not great, better at making sure that that hour is focused. Because I think a lot of the time people think it’s about time. How much time do I get? But one hour of focused work is a lot better than five hours of, like, looking around Wikipedia, thinking about what you’re going to write.
Joni: That makes sense. I definitely feel like…we’ve heard from a lot of writers that the pandemic…that was one of the effects of the constant scrolling of like, “Oh, the world is falling apart. Like how can I focus?”
Joni: Yeah. So you mentioned with this book, you went through some pretty intensive edits. And I wonder, how was that for you? Did you find that your editor, that everything that you did was making the book better, or were there things that you pushed back or that you…that were important to you to keep in the book, and that you sort of had to make compromises on or disagreed with?
Anat: Editing is always a collaborative process. I think there’s a few things here. I mean, it’s a… Like I could probably, like, talk to you for hours about editing and how to think about editing. When my agent first gave me the feedback on my first draft, she actually called me on the phone because she was worried that I might be freaking out or I might be upset, like, you know, and she said that apparently, that’s very normal, right? Like a lot of authors, this is their baby, they’ve been working on it forever, and you know, getting a ton of feedback on it, and saying this needs an extensive rewrite, it’s gonna hurt them, right, and it’s gonna make them feel despondent for a long time. Whereas there were two things on my case, one was, I’d only spent five weeks on it. The other was, I had come from technology where there is a culture of review and peer feedback, and that is normal.
And so I was very, very used to people just coming back with like, “Hey, all of these seven things need to change.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay. Let me think about whether or not that makes sense.” Right? So I don’t take it personally. I don’t, you know, feel like it’s an attack on my abilities. It’s like, “Oh, somebody’s giving me feedback. Let me understand the feedback.” And so, that is a big factor, right, where you don’t feel despondent when you get feedback, you feel grateful, and you feel more engaged and more enthusiastic because somebody’s taking your work seriously enough to give you that detailed feedback. That’s huge. That’s like, you know, that’s the dream of a writer. And so I kind of looked through the feedback, and I would say that a lot of it was genre expectations. Genre expectations was something that I kind of, like, fought against for a while. Like I was like, “My book is, like, not a YA book. My book, it defies all these genres and all of these kind of things.”
And my agent was very clear, “Look, you can write a story, but a book is a product. A book has to go sit on a shelf next to other books like it. So where do I put your book on the shelf, and how does a publisher know how to market your book?” And to me, that just clicked something in my brain because that’s what I do in the tech world, is I sell products, and products need to be thought of differently. They are consumer items, they are not artistic creations. And so I had to sort of think about it, right? And there’s a few things. One is, a lot of feedback comes to you at the level of the solution. Why don’t you kill this character? Or why don’t you take these two things and move them here? Or why don’t you remove this chapter?
It’s important to work with an editor to understand why they’re giving you that solution. Is it that this character is boring, or is it that this chapter feels dull and is cutting the tension? Why are they telling you to do the thing? And good editors will give you their reasoning. And so being able to understand the problem means that maybe you’ll come up with a different solution. And so that actually happened to me with my edits, right, and not with my agents, but with my publishers. The publishers, part of the feedback that they gave me was, “I love the writing. I love the pros, but I’m not able to really feel what Leena is going through,” or, “I love this story but it’s not grabbing me as much as I hoped it would,” or like, “It’s not as intimate as I thought it would be.” And this would…these are all, like, very vague pieces of feedback, but I had to go back and think, what are they trying to tell me?
And what they were trying to tell me, which none of them articulated was, “I can’t get into Leena’s head. And she’s just so different from my experience that I can’t guess how she’s thinking about the situation she’s in.” And so I had to decide, “Oh wait, if I switch to first person, that gets at this feedback.” Right? And so I had to make the decision of, like, “Oh, okay. You know, what is the problem that they’re surfacing? How do I want to solve that problem? Do I want to solve that problem? And then how do I do it?” I’ve definitely got feedback that I’ve ignored, and so feedback I’ve ignored has usually come of the variety of, like, you know, usually are trying to make some things more comprehensible to a Western audience. And that’s where I have to sort of really navigate this fine line of, like, I do want my book to be accessible to a broad audience, but I don’t want to turn the character into somebody she’s not. And so it was very important to me that Leena be religious, that she actually believe in God and be a faithful, practicing Muslim because that was a line that I wasn’t going to shift just to make her more accessible.
Joni: Yeah. That’s really interesting. I feel like for one thing, it is the ultimate gift to an author to be able to take critique without taking it personally. I think that is something that just makes your life so much easier and, you know, can make the book so much better. But I still sometimes struggle with the… Like, your publisher and your agent were absolutely right, like, we need to put the book in a product area that sells. But at the same time, like, are we going…like I do sort of feel like publishing should allow a little bit more like, you know what, this doesn’t quite fit and that’s okay. Like it doesn’t need to fit all of these genre expectations. And I think that’s something that maybe will change.
Anat: Yeah. I mean, I don’t hold out hope, but I do believe it should. That said, I think this is where there are going to be limits to what traditional publishing will do related to like independent publishing or self-publishing. I definitely don’t think there should be any stigma anymore for anybody who’s going to the self-publishing route. Right? Like I think that’s not only a valid way of getting books out to an audience. Just given where publishing is, it is occasionally the only way that certain books can find their audience. And I have nothing but respect for the self-published authors who have to do all their own marketing, all their own audience building, and all their promotion. It’s just very, very difficult. And so I think of, like, okay, what are stories…like there are stories that I’ve written that I don’t think will ever sell.
In fact, one of them that I put on medium because it was the wrong length. It’s some 20,000 words. Twenty thousand words is a novella, nobody publishes really novellas, and it’s not a novel, but what was I gonna do with it? So I put it online and it ended up going viral and actually being very, very successful, but it reached the audience that I was trying to reach. And so I’m very much of the opinion that stories should be sent to their audiences, and I don’t know that having faith in traditional publishing is the best way forward for that. I think it’s more about thinking about how do you build the right communities? How do you build an audience for the stories you wanna tell? Who are your readers, and how do you ensure that you have the ability to reach your readers directly with or without a publisher? Because even a traditional publisher is gonna ask you, what’s your platform? How many people are you able to reach? And if you don’t have an answer to that, it is very difficult to get published.
Joni: That is a great answer. Okay. I’m conscious of taking up too much of your time. We’d love to finish off with some questions about what you like to read. Do you have a favorite book of all time? Just to start with the easy one.
Anat: Oh, favorite books of all time. I mean, I have a shelf of favorite books of all time. I think like the books that I would say I go back to, you know, year after year and I’m like, yep, still got it, you know, there’s a few, and it’s a wide range, right? Like I would go with, you know, Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” was one of my, not only formative stories in terms of like, “Oh, I wanna do this,” but also in terms of the Gothic horror genre, which like, “Driving by Starlight” is Gothic horror. It’s just in a different country. So it is, you know, a woman trapped in a very strange environment, right, and, you know, encountering men who she may or may not be able to trust. Right? It is essentially a Gothic horror. So I learned a lot from books like that.
I love the classics, all the classics essentially, but like, of course, like “Wuthering Heights” and like I love Albert Camus, which I know is sort of like more recent classics. But I also read a lot of E. M. Forster, Somerset Maugham. And in terms of like…I would say that I read a lot of everything. So I read a lot of, like, just Perry Mason law stories and all the Sherlock Holmes. And I think, you know, I will read anything that has a good story, and I’m not locked into any genre. And I read in different genres, I write in different genres, and TV, I watch all kinds of genres as well. So like, I think gimme a good story and I will read it. Like, I love everything from, you know, Arundhati Roy, “The God of Small Things,” Booker Prize-winning, kind of, literature, all the way down to like, give me a good, like, Sherlock Holmes mystery or, you know, some catchy crime fiction. Like I will just like go through that.
Rachel: I feel like you and I have a very similar case in just give me anything as long as the story is good. I feel like you, kind of, answered this one already, but is there a book that made you want to write? Was it “Rebecca” or were there other books as well?
Anat: The books that made me want to write were Enid Blyton’s stories about like, you know, “Mallory Towers” and like girls in boarding schools, right, because like that felt so close to my experience that I was like, “Hey, I can do this. This feels like a thing that I could do.” Right? Like, I didn’t quite feel like I could do “Rebecca.” Right? Like, I mean, it just felt, like, so overwhelming, like this is, like, real authors doing, like, something that I’m not ever gonna be able to do. But, like, writing a story about, like, the girls in my school, I can write a story about the girls in my school. So I sort of, like, made a distinction, I think, in my head of, like, what I felt was beyond me and would always be beyond me. And then the things that I was like, “Oh, I could do this.”
But I think as I got older, there were some books that I think made me feel like, “Okay, I want to do this.” Right? Like, whether or not I can, this is what I want to do. And like I mentioned, you know, “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy, I think that came out in, like, 1999 and it was pretty formative, because I read it and I was like, “What she does with the language is magnificent. She makes English sound like a different language, and I want to be able to do that.” Like I can taste the things she talks about. And so for me, that I think was when I was just like, “Okay, not only do I want to write and tell the stories of my world, I want to move people with language, and I want to do something that is new and exciting and powerful.”
Joni: And what book are you looking forward to reading next?
Anat: Ah, so I am actually in the middle of two books simultaneously, and one of them is “Emma” by Jane Austen, which I apparently have never read. And the other is it’s a… Let me find it. I think it’s called “The Good Girls.” I like tend to read the book and then if it’s really compelling, I just forget what the title was. I think it’s “The Good Girls” by Sonia Faleiro, which is a true crime story.
Joni: Awesome. We will share those links for sure. And where can readers find you online?
Anat: Everywhere, finally. I have been very bad about being online, but I am getting better. So I have Twitter, @anat_deracine, and I have a website, anatderacine.com, that links out to all of my social media. I’m on Instagram. I also have a newsletter on Substack, and I will soon be on TikTok, although I’m not on TikTok yet.
Joni: Rachel and I are deeply obsessed with TikTok.
Anat: Yeah, we’re not on it.
Rachel: We just spend too much time on it.
Anat: Yeah. I’m trying to…I’m publishing weekly videos on craft and writing craft, on both Instagram and TikTok. So that’s the goal.
Joni: Oh, that’s really great. Okay. We will definitely share those.
Joni: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for doing this. This has been really, really interesting. We really…
Joni: Thank you so much.
Anat: Well, you know, very welcome. If you need anything from me, let me know.
Rachel: Thank you for listening to the “Kobo Writing Life Podcast.” If you’re interested in picking up Anat’s book, “Driving by Starlight,” we’ll include a link in our show notes and we’ll also include links to her other work. If you are enjoying this podcast, please be sure to rate, review and subscribe. And if you’re looking for more tips on growing your self-publishing business, you can find us at kobowritinglife.com. And be sure to follow us on socials. We are @KoboWritingLife on Facebook and Twitter, and @kobo.writing.life on Instagram.
Joni: This episode was produced by Rachel Warden and Joni Di Placido. Editing is by Kelly Robotham. Our theme music is composed by Tear Jerker, and big thanks to Anat Deracine for being our guest today. If you’re ready to start your self-publishing journey, sign up for free at kobo.com/writinglife. Until next time, happy writing.