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Novel Experience Transcripts - S1 Ep4 Neema Shah

Novel Experience is a weekly podcast for writers and readers where authors chat candidly about writing and books. Full of writing advice, reading recommendations and reflections on the experiences that lead authors, to through and beyond publication.


Series 1 Episode 4: author Neema Shah (KOLOLO HILL) chats to author and podcast host Kate Sawyer (THE STRANDING, THIS FAMILY) about the experiences writing around her full-time job, basing her debut novel on her family history and how her background in marketing impacted her publication experience.


Scroll down for the transcript of this episode or listen to the full episode and subscribe to NOVEL EXPERIENCE for weekly episodes HERE



Kate Sawyer [00:00:51] My guest today is Neema Shah. Neema's debut novel KOLOLO HILL was published by Picador in early 2021. It is the story of a family that have no choice but to flee their home in Kampala, Uganda and make a new home in the UK. It is based on the situation that thousands of Ugandan Asians were faced with in 1972, when Idi Amin issued a decree that they all had to leave the country within 90 days. It is a compulsively readable, emotionally acute portrayal of the meaning of home and what it takes to start again. I'm really looking forward to speaking to Neema today. I have lots of questions to ask her about her debut, but also her writing, her experience of being published, and how or if her marketing career intersects with being an author. Hi.


Neema Shah [00:01:50] Hi. How are you?


Kate Sawyer [00:01:51] Thanks so much for being on Novel Experience.


Neema Shah [00:01:54] Yeah, I'm really looking forward to chatting.


Kate Sawyer [00:01:57] I’ve been saying this at the beginning of all the podcasts, but it has been very strange getting to know people through social media and not meeting and sometimes not even knowing people's voices.


Neema Shah [00:02:11] I think, yes, that's true.


Kate Sawyer [00:02:14] I think I did know your voice, though, because you did some absolutely brilliant videos when your hardback came out, all the marketing stuff you did. But we'll get to that and as I mentioned in the intro, that's obviously what you do as well as write brilliant books. So my first question always on this podcast is: have you always written or when did you start writing?


Neema Shah [00:02:40] Yeah, it's so strange. And obviously I know every writer says this but I wrote lots when I was little in school and obviously I did but do that, and I'd actually forgotten that I wrote at school as well. It was only recently that my mum dug out some old books that I've written and it's really, really bad stories I’d written as a child. I'm sure there's lots of those, but I had almost entirely forgotten that I even had that interest out of school. I always found English interesting and loved reading, but actually hadn't realised how much of a buzz for writing I had when I was little. But then and I studied English lit to a level, but after that I went off and did other things. I went to uni and didn't write at all, carried on reading but didn't write at all and didn't think I could particularly. Write is very strange. And it was only when I was seven and I did a short course which was which was something the work basically gave us £100 each. It was called me money and you could put it towards any sort of extracurricular thing, but we didn't. Yeah. And so we were doing things like tennis and lottery and not lottery pottery, even possibly the lottery. I mean, that could be a good way to, to do some extracurricular I guess. But yeah, I, I mainly did the writing creative writing course thinking it would help me with my marketing career and copywriting and editing. But actually as soon as I started doing it in the first story I wrote, ah, it felt like being on a drug. Not that I've done that many drugs in my life, but basically it was just an adrenaline rush and I'd forgotten just how amazing it could feel. I'm not sure I necessarily was writing particularly good stuff, but the fact that of just writing was was such a buzz and I've forgotten. So off the back of that course, I started writing regularly and thinking about what became local, essentially. But yeah, I had a thought gap of almost 20 years of writing, I guess.


Kate Sawyer [00:04:36] Wow. And so at university, did you what did you study?


Neema Shah [00:04:40] I ended up studying law and not really knowing what I wanted to do. I don't know why I decided to study law, but it was so weird. Even that first week I was thinking I really shouldn't be here studying law. I should change to English literature. But when you're 18, you don't necessarily have that confidence to do something different. And so I didn't. So it's really weird how one way or another, though, I've ended up back in the English literature field, I guess.


Kate Sawyer [00:05:07] Yeah, I think I sort of wanted to study English literature as well, but I felt the need to study something vocational, even though what I ended up studying was Acting, as I felt as though that was the way to get into a career.


Neema Shah [00:05:22] Yeah, yeah. I think also, for me, I was trying to do the sort of, you know, my parents are very supportive. But yeah, but there is this sort of traditional sort of Asian thing of like, oh, you know, you should do a degree that has some sort of a meaning that, you know, you it's essentially vocational in this situation. So I think it was just that and I didn't really know myself and yeah, I probably would have made some different choices, but I agree that there probably is an element of that as well. It's like you feel that you need to be doing something that will ultimately lead to a more direct profession, I guess.


Kate Sawyer [00:05:59] Yeah. And it's interesting what you say about not feeling that you could try, I was talking to Laura Kay last week and she said it just seemed like an impossible sort of job. Even if it was something that you hold deep in your heart that you'd quite like to do. Yeah, I didn't feel as though I was sort of allowed to do it, that I maybe didn't know how to do it, even though I'd always I always wrote.


Neema Shah [00:06:27] I know that's interesting. Well, the weird thing for me is it’s not even I mean, it was that. Yeah, like, you know, I didn't know anyone who was a professional writer necessarily, when I was growing up. But for me it was I, I didn't think I could particularly write in the first place. So I think there's that too. It just wouldn't have occurred to me because, you know, the books that I was reading, it just seemed so outside of my reach to ever be like that. So, so yeah, I think there's also overcoming that.


Kate Sawyer [00:06:59] Yeah. And it has to do with so many things, but your expectations of what a job looks like. But yeah, school tells you what your family tells you, what your friends do as well. It's all of these things. But so then, so you did this course alongside your career. You work in marketing, is that right?


Neema Shah [00:07:22] So yeah, that's right. I changed from law to…well, pretty much straightaway I realised I was never going to be a lawyer. It was like literally that first week I probably knew, but it there were parts of it that were really interesting. I wouldn't say little bit and obviously it probably taught me some good. It was of of basic right thing. So that was what I took from, I guess. But I knew that I wanted to do something a bit more creative and, you know, did the usual sort of looking at what sort careers talks were on at uni and advertising found it quite interesting. I always used to love watching TV ads and you know, grew up obviously during that classic phase of TV advertising, in the eighties and nineties, and so just thought that would be interesting. And you know, it uses your analytical brain, but also a creative brain. So I ended up just getting some work experience and then ended up working for various companies in TV, in the TV industry. And yeah, I've been marketing for over 20 years.


Kate Sawyer [00:08:23] So then you did this course. What was the crunch point that made you start writing your first novel? Was it the idea for KOLOLO HILL always the one? Or were you circling different ideas?


Neema Shah [00:08:39] Yeah, it's an interesting question. So, you know - as anyone who's done any of these sort of short creative writing courses knows - there's usually your set tasks and sometimes the tasks were sort of relevant things I wanted to write about. And other times it was just something completely random. Yeah, there were just some really random ones. They were probably not much use in everyday life but were quite interesting to write about. But I had pretty much straight away on that course, had an idea - that I thought was always interesting - that there was never, as far as I could tell, any novels written about my family background, which is East African Asians and the whole Idi Amin thing as well was really interesting to me. I didn't know much about it, but it almost terrified me. Living as an immigrant in a country and knowing that someone in power can say within a few months that you have to leave. I suppose it was the connection between that and the fact that it happened in East Africa, which is where my parents are from, that that really sort of compelled me and the fact that there were no books written about it. So I thought, well, I don't know if I'm going to be able to write a novel, but I'm just going to start using some of these tasks in the course to write short stories about particular characters. I don't know if they're going to end up in the book, I don't know where it’s leading, but I'm just going to set them in Uganda and I'll see where it goes. And it sort of started like that and I did a couple of other courses over about a year, I think, and then I started having a few short stories or pieces that I could then think about potentially weaving into an actual novel.


Kate Sawyer [00:10:15] The book must have been quite heavily researched. Well, I know that your family comes from Africa. But they're not from Uganda, is that right? So it's not your direct family history.


Neema Shah [00:10:34] Yeah. So my parents, my family. Yes. From Kenya and Tanzania. But we do have extended family who are from Uganda. But the weird thing is I only found that out because no one really talked about it after I started writing it. It was quite far down the line and people started saying, Oh, Neema is writing a book, and then it's about this. And so that was really a bit strange that it happened that way. And I think sometimes these things happen where, you know, families just don't really talk about things. Either it’s painful or they don't think it is particularly compelling or remarkable. So, I think it was that. But that said, in terms of research, I suppose there's two aspects. There's the history and what actually happened as far as the expulsion goes. And then there's the culture of living in East Africa. And whilst Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda are obviously different countries and they have their differences, there are a lot of similarities in terms of that culture and in terms of Asians who live there. So I could tap into that. And, you know, Kenya is essentially my second home and we used to go quite a lot. And I could talk about the food and the language and the lifestyle. I could talk about a lot of those things through my direct experiences, but also my parents and my grandparents experiences. But yeah, the expulsion side was much more challenging because there are some sort of, you know, documentaries and books around that stuff, but it's not a particularly well known period of history. It's not like World War Two. So it was a bit challenging, but I found some really great resources. One was from the archives of the University of London. They'd done hours and hours of first hand interviews with people that had been in the expulsion. Which was actually even more of a benefit than me going to speak to one or two people because it was…I think there are now 20, 30 different people that were interviewed with different experiences and obviously that gives you a much more multilayered understanding of what happened as a first level. So I used the lecture document, BBC documentaries and things like that, which you can often find on YouTube and just reading what I could really. These articles were obviously really helpful as well and just trying to piece it together with all of those things to bring it to life. And then the weird thing is, I did go to Uganda. I hadn't ever been to Uganda until I was to drawn to it with the book because I didn't know if I was going to be able to write the novel. I didn't know if anyone was ever going to take me on. And it didn't feel like a real thing until then. And I thought, don't spend all this money going to Uganda if I'm actually not ever going to do anything with this book.


Kate Sawyer [00:13:09] But you did go see Uganda.


Neema Shah [00:13:10] I did. I did go. And Malawi. The thing is, because I'd written two drafts at this point…which were quite, by that point, a little bit more polished. Yeah, it was a bit like the book came alive around me is the only way I can explain. It was a bit like I'd been there in a previous life or something because, you know, I'd done stuff like I'd gone on to Google Maps and Street View and all of that stuff and obviously seen lots of pictures and all of that. So, in some ways it had come alive, but it was really helpful to go there, both to speak to some individuals that were actually obviously in Uganda, but also certain things that you just don't pick up on. Despite me having been to Kenya many times, for example, there was a line early in the book about the mosquitoes glowing gold like embers, which was something that I saw in Uganda, but I would never necessarily have picked up before on my trips. Yeah, so things like that.


Kate Sawyer [00:14:05] I have the same thing with THE STRANDING because I haven't been to New Zealand. I lived with New Zealanders for a lot of my twenties and had a couple of Kiwi boyfriends. But I lived in Sydney and in London and so anybody that is expecting a low down of New Zealand lifestyle is not going to get that. The portion in New Zealand is after the end of civilization. So in a way, travelling to New Zealand wasn't required for the book. It was more about knowing the people. But I am really keen to visit the places that I've looked at on Google Maps. There's one walk that my main character does and that was an actual walk to the ocean. So I would love to do that. Walk that.


Neema Shah [00:15:00] Wow. Yeah. Okay. I'm so surprised actually to hear that! I hadn't realised that. I've read it and I loved that, but I had assumed that you'd live there. Honestly, you've done an amazing job. I think one of the things I should point out for anyone who's listening and maybe writing: I think I think sometimes there'll be a tendency to think like you need to have fully researched everything you're going to write about before you start writing. And actually that is probably how I would like to work, it’s how my mind normally works. And I just realised that that wasn't going to be possible. And it can just be procrastination or an avoidance technique, almost. And just realising that, you know, the book's probably going to change over the many drafts and you might just have to start, give it a go, see what you've got, and then fill in the gaps. And I found that really helpful because it just meant I didn't waste loads and loads, loads of time on research. I mean, I wasted a lot of time on research, but not as much as I might otherwise have!


Kate Sawyer [00:16:08] I agree. And also with the whale element in THE STRANDING. I didn't research before I wrote it. I used stuff from my memory. When I wrote the first… maybe…three drafts and then after that I did some deep research into whales. And it was really heartening because a lot of what I'd written already was right, but it also gave some extra texture. I could, you know, if I was talking about the size of whales, I could just be meaningful…specific, I suppose. But had I done all of that research before, I think I would have written a book that was mostly about, you know, the anatomical elements of whales rather than the story I did. So I think there’s a balance, isn't there, between making sure that you’re interrogating your work to make sure the details are real, but also allowing yourself some imagination and also forward flow with your writing?


Neema Shah [00:17:06] Yes, absolutely. I think that’s really good advice.


Kate Sawyer [00:17:09] But it's not just set in Kampala because I was also really compelled by the stuff in the UK when when the family first arrived, they're in the army barracks and I mean I could feel the cold of it. It's the seventies isn't it?


Neema Shah [00:17:30] In 1972, yeah.


Kate Sawyer [00:17:30] The clothes are really well described and the cold in comparison to the heat in Africa. So when they move into a house that's really evocative. So how is it that parts of your research come about? Was that the source material?


Neema Shah [00:17:45] There were some things about that. Yes. Basically, a lot of the refugees, you know, they have to the British government had to find places for them to live until they could settle them properly. And yet most of them were housed in army barracks, which in itself is pretty much do you think about it? You know, they had just been terrorised by a domain army. And then they find themselves in sort of military surroundings. But, yes, that was very much for my imagination. I don't think I've ever even set foot inside an army barracks, but I was trying to just use the snippets of things that I read or I heard in interviews about what that might be like and just try to imagine it for myself. I think yeah, I think I mean, I was born in the late seventies, so I don't have that direct knowledge. But, you know, obviously growing up in the eighties, some of that stuff is still applicable. So like you said, the outside toilet. Actually, when we first lived in Wood Green, when I was born, it was a terraced house and there were a few of my parents, but also my dad's brothers, we all lived in one house together. And there was an outdoor toilet as well as an indoor one. But obviously the outside toilet did get used because there were so many of us in the house. So things like that. I think I reference spiders in the outside toilet; that is definitely etched into my memory from being five, six years old.


Kate Sawyer [00:19:08] It's really evocative of both these places and also how it doesn't feel like home anymore, but also growing to be a home and how the characters are more attached to different places. I really enjoyed that because it's seeing it through different lenses. I always enjoy multiple perspective stuff.


Neema Shah [00:19:32] Yeah, yeah. And that was it. I was exploring what home means to different people. And weirdly, you know, I wrote this as Brexit was going on the rise of Trump and populism. And so I suppose undoubtedly, as with most writing, you know, there are aspects of me exploring what home means to me and doing that through the different characters and the different aspects of that for different people.


Kate Sawyer [00:19:59] Yeah. I mean, I've been thinking about your book over the last few weeks as well with the situation in Ukraine because of course when I read it I thought about displaced people because there are always refugees in this world. Yeah, I think your book is - although it's about a very specific time - like all good historical fiction.(Which sounds quite scary because I know it's set in the seventies and I'm pretty freaked out when I say it! But the fact is this is in history as much as the nineties are now in history!) I think when you do portray a time in the past and it still has a relevance to today reminding us about human experience repeating itself.


Neema Shah [00:20:42] Yeah, absolutely.


Kate Sawyer [00:20:44] And as a bit of a warning too, I think.


Neema Shah [00:20:47] Yeah, it absolutely feels like that. And I have the same reactions to Ukraine and how we don't seem to learn. You know, before Ukraine and Syria. Yeah, I think just before my book came out. So yeah it's, it's really saddening really. But I suppose that yeah, it obviously is also why it's important to tell these different stories and make sure that people are aware of the real emotional impact, hopefully in some small way, a book helps to do that.


Kate Sawyer [00:21:17] Yeah. And also how this country has changed because of all sorts of immigration. I think that's also an important story that I don’t feel aware enough: the different ways that people have made their home in the UK.


Neema Shah [00:21:36] Same, as lots of stories like that, that I'm not aware of as well. But yeah, I definitely wanted to make it clear that this is part of British history as much as anything.


Kate Sawyer [00:21:48] So when you were writing the novel, you've already mentioned that there were three drafts, which I'm sure there would have been more after that.


Neema Shah [00:21:56] Oh, definitely no, there were three. But by the time I went to Uganda, yes, it was about three.


Kate Sawyer [00:22:01] Three. Okay. So do you know how long the process of writing the novel was from when you started the novel to when you started to submit it to agents?


Neema Shah [00:22:13] Yeah. I would say, you know, I have a few short stories, as I said, but I think in terms of actually properly, fully writing the novel and writing a fair few drafts and then submitting to agents, that period is probably about 18 months and then it took about another ten months of that to get published. Then obviously I worked on it for a bit then, so I would say…from start to finish…I probably spent about four years and obviously with some sort of break because I was either waiting to hear from agents or was waiting to hear from publishers or whatever it might have been. So four years in total, but yeah, not necessarily always working on it during that time. And I think having gaps, gaps or spaces away from the book were really helpful to me as well.


Kate Sawyer [00:23:03] I still think that the process…from going from not having any awareness of your desire to write, to being published, you know, five years. Six years. Extraordinary, really.


Neema Shah [00:23:18] It is to me as well! I didn't know I was a writer for all those years. And then once I started writing, it felt like I didn't feel like anything had ever been missing. But it felt then that something had filtered into place. It was really weird, but it's just the way it works is strange.


Kate Sawyer [00:23:37] And so you're published by Picador, did you enjoy the editing process after working on it so long on your own? I mean, both with your agent and with your publishers?


Neema Shah [00:23:51] Yes, I never felt that precious about that side of things. So I didn't mind. I mean, it's obviously daunting when you've got professionals looking at your work and assessing it. But, I know lots of people want to be published, but I think that that drive to be published just made me sort of think, well, this is just a necessary part of what you're going to have to go through. And I always welcomed other perspectives. It was really interesting. And I still find this when you hear from readers, it's really interesting hearing other people's perspectives on your own work because it's not always what you think it's going to be. And I'm being so open to that. And yeah, I think, you know, I have really great feedback with my agent and my editor, but particularly my editor, she was just a dream. But sometimes she seemed to know my characters better than I did, and that's really what you want. And then I just, you know, she would say things like, I'm just not sure they would quite like that at that moment. I'm like: “Yes, so right.” So things like that where you just get a lot of perspective. I think you become so close to your own work that it's so important to have both editors agents. But also, you know, I really value better readers who did look at my work before I sent it to agents and that was really helpful to me as well. And so yeah, all of those things.


Kate Sawyer [00:25:21] I just want to talk about the fact that - the book is about this difficult situation, horrible situation that this family goes through, but it has got a lot of light in it as well. Like it's quite romantic in parts, but also it's got a really hopeful element to it, just a real human hopefulness to it. So I just want to say that because it's not just about war and displacement, is it?


Neema Shah [00:25:58] It's not, I think. Thank you. Yeah. And absolutely. That was really important to me, not least because I wouldn't really like to read a novel that was just bleak. And I think the light and shade also contrast with the light. And you actually feel both those things more deeply? I think. So that was really important to me. But yeah, despite it being very difficult themes for me, I feel that there were a lot of positives to my parents coming to the UK and me having the opportunities I’ve had and also for for other generations, particularly for the women. And that's something I really wanted to draw upon in the book is Asha, who is recently married, is younger, and then Jay and the matriarch. Their lives are obviously fundamentally changed by what happens by coming to the UK, but actually in many ways their lives open up and I wanted to explore that. My mum's life would have been very different in Kenya. And again, she came from a relatively liberal family. She worked before she was married and stuff like that, but it would have been a very different life. And I wanted to look at that and also how by emigrating somewhere else you almost weave new cultures into your own history. And, and that's very much how it is for us British. I am, to some extent, East African even though I've never been there and I am to some extent Indian, even if it’s not the same as being Indian, even though I was born here. And I think that that makes my life richer.


Kate Sawyer [00:27:26] It's very evident in the book as well that the characters blossom and take on new things or allow themselves to let go of things. I suppose that's part of what it is, isn't it?


Neema Shah [00:27:39] Yes, exactly.


Kate Sawyer [00:27:40] But I don't want to get too into it, because I don’t want to give spoilers.


Neema Shah [00:27:43] Thank you!


Kate Sawyer [00:27:44] So do you have a particular space that you write in?


Neema Shah [00:27:48] So this is interesting. So yeah, because I wrote my first novel whilst I was working - and I'm still work full time - but yes, I wrote that here when I was working. I did it on my commute. So I'm on my way into work on the tube or on the train. I just wrote a lot of it into my phone because the thing about the London Underground in rush hour, you really don't want people looking over your shoulder, which is absolutely what would happen. So I figured a phone was better than even an iPad or something because then no-one could read it and say I'm terrible. So, so yeah, I wrote a lot of it into my phone and I learned and decided quite quickly not to be focused on having a place to write because I didn't have much time. And so, you know, I wrote that on my feet, but also, yes, sometimes at home, sometimes in the library, sometimes in the park or wherever, but just wrote wherever I could and tried not to have rituals around it. Because when you're working full time and you have all the things going on, you don't want another sort of layer that stops you from writing.


Kate Sawyer [00:29:02] And do you plan? I mean, you mentioned already the stories that you sort of wove into it. But do you have a plan?


Neema Shah [00:29:12] Not much of a plan. I really didn't know… obviously this was the first novel I'd ever attempted to write and I really didn't know what I was doing, just writing stuff. And I realised, after the first draft, that there wasn't really a proper structure or some of the characters weren't quite right. So I read more books, one of which I recommend to anyone who's interested in plotting structure, which is INTO THE WOODS by Joh Yorke. And also more recently, I read THE SCIENCE OF STORYTELLING by WILLIAM STORR, both of which I think are really good on character arcs and stuff. But I didn't really have much of a plan and actually writing book two, I started with much more of a plan and a structure, but even then I do try to outline with pages. And pages are probably, you know, just a few notes about what I think the story should be.


Kate Sawyer [00:30:02] I'm definitely going to read INTO THE WOODS because that's more about plot, isn’t it?


Neema Shah [00:30:08] There is also, you know, how plot and characters interact and how a character should be changed by the end and the structure. And it's really I mean, it's a lot more about screenwriting. And it's really interesting to just consider things like The Godfather and Romeo and Juliet and lots of other well-known stories and why they work.


Kate Sawyer [00:30:31] Yeah, I am really interested in that side of things. I've already mentioned on the podcast that I find rules to break them, but I am interested in looking at how other people work. Well, obviously from this podcast, I'm really interested in how other people work because I feel that that inspires me. It's really helpful - not to compare yourself - but to consider your own process, I suppose, by examining other people's.


Neema Shah [00:31:00] That’s so interesting, it's a really good point actually.


Kate Sawyer [00:31:03] And so we've mentioned a few times that your day job is in marketing, and I'm just really interested because I know from seeing online you've hosted courses in marketing for authors, and so I'm just interested whether you think your experience of your professional life in marketing has helped you navigate your book publication?


Neema Shah [00:31:29] Yeah, definitely. Obviously, yes, that knowledge is helpful…don't get me wrong, book marketing is very different to TV marketing. And I learned tons about, you know, how you work with booksellers and bookshops and all of that. But there are some fundamentals, which is what I'm trying to teach on the online course. These are the basic building blocks of what makes a marketing plan, for example, and things like that. So all of that stuff was really helpful. But also a big focus of my day job is brand marketing and I'm conscious…I know that for a lot of non-marketers, anyway, those sorts of words like ‘brand marketing’ and building yourself as a ‘brand’, it sounds a bit…And I also know that, you know, a lot of people, myself included, to be honest, just want to write. You don't necessarily want to spend that much time doing the book promotion. But one of the things I try to do and what I've learned to do for myself is just make it enjoyable and the things that I enjoy doing. For example, partly obviously how we met was like being on social media and just connecting with different types of people and just having a chat, you know, chat about all sorts of random things on Twitter, which have nothing to do with books but have made great friends through it, you know, talking about food and biscuits or mangoes! Yeah, lots of random things! I try to show that if you can teach yourself and you don't have to be polished always. In fact, if you are always self-promoting that can be quite gruelling, both for yourself and for the people following you. And so all of that, I think I was trying to sort of help with it, just make it a bit more enjoyable and also looking at how to make it so that you're not having to spend hours and hours doing your marketing. So looking at what's working, it's effective looking at measurement tools for what might work or not. But most of all, making it fast. Those are the things that I hope that I've been able to sort of show people. And I think there's also a lot of marketing jargon. And I tried to help people through that because I can understand what you hear so many times, especially when you first meet your publisher, and it can be a bit bewildering. Sometimes they do their best to explain stuff, but even for me, like sometimes I'll assume that people know certain words and we just forget because using things to talk about those things yourself.


Kate Sawyer [00:34:01] Yeah, I suppose the stats - I just don't really understand at all. I know that you can see how far reaching your tweets are or my Instagram post is..but that's some that's a level that I haven't sort of dug down to.


Neema Shah [00:34:17] Yeah. I have to say, I am not a massive fan of number crunching myself and I don't necessarily do lots and lots of stuff on Google Analytics with my website or stuff like that. But there are some fundamentals that anyone can just take away, which is if that tweet or post has got lots of likes and seems to have lots of what we call engagement replies, then you're probably wanting to do more of that sort of stuff. And that's a very basic level. That is enough. We don't need to necessarily be, but if there are people that want more detail, then that is available and might help you as well.


Kate Sawyer [00:34:51] So you've mentioned your second book. What, if anything, can you tell us about what is coming next?


Neema Shah [00:34:59] Yeah. So I actually want to write about the British Asian experience and explore different aspects of that in history. And that's what I intend to do with my books. But yeah, I'm working on book two. It's set in World War Two and as well as the London Blitz. It also has the backdrop of India and the movement for Indian independence. So that's pretty much all I can tell you at the moment.


Kate Sawyer [00:35:28] Sounds amazing! Moving from writing on to reading. You mentioned already that you've always been a reader, but do you still read a lot now? I mean, if you're writing around a full time job, you can't have that much time to be reading.


Neema Shah [00:35:43] Well it's tricky, isn't it? Yeah, I find audiobooks really helpful because I think, yeah, just when you're like washing up or whatever, it's really helpful. So yes, I do get a chance to read both through audiobooks. But also, yeah, I still try to read a little bit. So when you're writing historical fiction, there's also the reading that comes from research. I think it's so important to keep reading. I think it can be inspiring in terms of what you're writing, but also just give you different perspectives.


Kate Sawyer [00:36:22] Yeah, I find it quite reassuring as well that stories can be told in so many different ways. There's so many stories out there. You're not going to tell the same story in the same way as anyone else. And that's always reassuring.


Neema Shah [00:36:38] Yes, exactly. No, I agree. I agree. That's what makes reading so brilliant.


Kate Sawyer [00:36:42] I asked you if there were three books that you would be willing to share with us or recommend to listeners. So the first one was something that you'd recommend to fans of KOLOLO HILL.


Neema Shah [00:36:56] Yeah, so although it's not set in Africa, I think in terms of the themes and the characters, there's some interesting connections. So I was going to recommend Catherine Menon's FRAGILE MONSTERS, which is set in Malaysia, sort of around - well, it's actually between, I think, the 1940s and then the 1980s. It's really interesting and has some really interesting female characters at the centre of it. It has this massive historical backdrop as well, which is really interesting. So yeah, that would be a book. I would recommend you talk a little bit about the immigrant experience as well.


Kate Sawyer [00:37:35] Yeah, I really, really enjoyed that. Catherine, is a mathematician and so there is this mathematical thread running through these really intelligent women at the heart of the story. Yeah, I really enjoyed that.


Neema Shah [00:37:52] Yes, that's great.


Kate Sawyer [00:37:54] And then, so something you've loved for years.


Neema Shah [00:37:57] Yeah, I have to say that my favourite book is probably Sarah Waters' THE FINGER SMITH.


Kate Sawyer I've never read it.


Neema Shah Okay, you must. I really. Then you can thank me later because it had a bit I don't know, it had a bit of a resurgence on Twitter. There are lots of authors talking about how they recently read it and people discovering the tweets for the first time as well.


Kate Sawyer [00:38:20] I know. I didn't watch the TV show either.


Neema Shah [00:38:26] Yeah. And I definitely would read it. I haven't watched the TV show, but I think it's definitely good to read the book because the way that the twist comes about, well, there's a couple, but there's the first twist in particular, is just extraordinary. And I'm just so envious of the way it is written. Everything. It’s just brilliant.


Kate Sawyer [00:38:46] So then something that you've read recently or is coming soon, if you've read something that's about to be published or recently published.


Neema Shah [00:38:55] Yeah, this was recently published. Anita Frank has written a novel called THE RETURN. It's a second book and is set in World War Two, actually, but it kind of moves between the pre-war and then post. And it's a love story, but it's also just got again, it's got quite a few subtle twists. It's not sort of thriller based twists, but just really nicely written and very moving and evocative. So I really enjoyed that.


Kate Sawyer [00:39:30] You say this is her second novel?


Neema Shah [00:39:32] Yes. And actually, I love the first one is called THE LOST ONES, which is a ghost story. It's one of the first ghost stories I've read. I seem to suddenly be able to read certain ghost stories where I couldn't before. Don't know if I'm finally over my wuss stage or what, but I can read stuff like that now.


Kate Sawyer [00:39:50] I really, I, I'm definitely not. I was like, I really struggled watching Yellow Jackets. And then afterwards I found myself - a 41 year old woman - running up the stairs in case something got me. I mean, what's wrong with me? So maybe that won’t be for me.


Neema Shah [00:40:07] Maybe not you! [laughter]


Kate Sawyer [00:40:10] Nemma Thank you so much for making the time to speak to me on Novel Experience today. I've really enjoyed our chat.


Neema Shah [00:40:18] Thank you. I really enjoyed it too. It's just flown by actually, and it's been just nice chatting. Obviously we’re fellow debuts and we know each other through social media but we haven't had a chance to really talk about it. But it's really nice.


Kate Sawyer [00:40:32] Yeah. I'm really hoping that when the second books come around for the debut cohort of 2021, that maybe we'll start meeting each other in person.


Neema Shah [00:40:45] That’d be great. That would be really amazing.


Kate Sawyer [00:40:48] How I wonder how tall people are! And also I like to say we haven't even necessarily heard each other's voices. But yeah, I look forward to meeting you in person saying I feel like we have lots more to talk about.


Neema Shah [00:40:59] Yes, definitely! Thank you.


KOLOLO HILL by Neema Shah is published by Picador.


I hope you enjoyed this transcript of NOVEL EXPERIENCE Series 1 Episode 4 with Neema Shah


To listen to this and all other episodes of the podcast, please visit: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/novel-experience/id1615429783


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