Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Submit, submit, submit. Repeat. -Amra Pajalić
Amra Pajalić is an award-winning author, an editor and teacher. Her memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me will be published by Transit Lounge in May . Memoir extracts have been published in Meet Me at the Intersection (Fremantle Press, 2018) and Rebellious Daughters (Venture Press, 2016). Her debut novel The Good Daughter (Text Publishing, 2009) won the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature’s Civic Choice Award and she is co-editor of the anthology Growing up Muslim in Australia (Allen and Unwin, 2019) that was shortlisted for the 2015 Children’s Book Council awards. She works as a high school teacher and is completing a PhD in Creative Writing at La Trobe University. To find out more about Amra, visit her website at www.amrapajalic.com
Why do you write? I write because writing is a compulsion. When I am writing the birds are singing, the days are bright, I feel light and floaty. When I’m not writing life is grey and so am I. It is my outlet and my saviour. I always feel like I’ve got my characters with me, keeping me company and I’m never alone or lonely.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? I am a high school teacher by day and write at 6 am and on school holidays, so if I wasn’t a writer I’d be doing exactly the same thing and loving it. I’m very lucky that I love my day job and working with young people.
What was your toughest obstacle to becoming published? The fact that I felt like there weren’t any books that represented my background and story made me feel inadequate. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in reading a book about a girl from the Western suburbs of Melbourne, about being Bosnian and from a Muslim background, and about having a mother who suffered from Bi Polar.
How involved have you been in the development of your book? Did you have input into the cover? I have been so happy with the development of the book and the covers that were proposed. There wasn’t really any cover I didn’t like. In fact I liked too many of them and struggled to decide. In the end I used my students as my market research team and showed them the covers and asked them which one I should go with. They picked the one that I had initially thought was the one, then I got confused by asking too many people. So in the end I have my students to thank, and of course the amazing cover designer at Transit Lounge.
What’s the best aspect of your writing life? When the words flow and I feel like my characters and world are coming to life.
—the worst? All the time spent throwing words down like stones on a road until the flow starts.
What would you do differently if you were starting out now as a writer? I wouldn’t have spent years attempting to work on a sequel to my debut novel, as opposed to forging a new path and trusting that I had new stories and characters to write about.
What do you wish you’d been told before you set out to become an author? Write what your heart feels, not what you think will lead to commercial success. You can’t control what will happen once or if your book is published. All you can do is focus on writing the story that means the most to you so you don’t regret the time you spent writing.
What’s the best advice you were ever given? First comes the draft, then comes the craft. Which basically equates to get something down so you can polish it into something readable.
What’s your top tip for aspiring authors? Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Submit, submit, submit. Repeat.
How important is social media to you as an author? This is a really interesting question. We spend so much time on social media and so it feels important, and I know that I have bought and read a lot of books because of social media, but then I also sometimes wonder if it IS a good use of my time, and whether time spent equates to books sold. That’s why I only post on social media things that I feel I want to share. I don’t want to think about it as curating myself or selling myself.
Do you experience ‘writer’s block’ and if so, how do you overcome it? Usually writer’s block for me is fatigue and an inability to create. I don’t usually have any time when I don’t have ideas – because I work full time my struggle is to find time to write so ideas are always percolating. When I’m feeling fatigued and spent I take a time out and read books back to back. This gets me back to why I write in the first place – my love of stories and the escapism and joy they bring.
How do you deal with rejection? With difficulty. It is very hard to be graceful in the face of rejection – which is why it’s important to avoid social media at these times. I usually have to retreat from life, figuratively lick my wounds, get my gumption back and submit again. The most important thing about rejection is being able to rebound back. My memoir was rejected by five publishers. I took a few months off, revised it again, conducted research about where to submit and submitted to another five publishers. I received immediate interest from the next five, and as soon as I got an offer I withdrew from the rest. I call this the scatter-gun approach. You keep shooting until it hits a target.
In three words, how would you describe your writing? Raw, gritty, confessional.
If you had the chance to spend an hour with any writer of your choice, living or dead, who would it be and what would you most like them to tell you about living a writing life? I would love to meet Sylvia Plath. She is a poet and the author of The Bell Jar, one of the books I read as a young teenager that resonated so much with me as it was inspired by her own bouts of clinical depression until her suicide at age 30. I would like to ask her about which events in the book were autobiographical.
When she is four years old Amra Pajalić realises that her mother is different. Fatima is loving but sometimes hears strange voices that tell her to do bizarre things. She is frequently sent to hospital and Amra and her brother are passed around to family friends and foster homes, and for a time live with their grandparents in Bosnia.
At 16 Amra ends up in the school counsellor’s office for wagging school. She finally learns the name for the malady that has dogged her mother and affected her own life: bipolar disorder. Amra becomes her mother’s confidante and learns the extraordinary story of her life: when she was 15 years old Fatima visited family friends only to find herself in an arranged marriage. At 16 she was a migrant, a mother, and mental patient.
Surprisingly funny, Things Nobody Knows But Me is a tender portrait of family and migration, beautifully told. It captures a wonderful sense of bi-cultural place and life as it weaves between St Albans in suburban Australia and Bosanska Gradiška in Bosnia. Ultimately it is the heartrending story of a mother and daughter bond fractured and forged by illness and experience. Fatima emerges as a remarkable but wounded woman who learns that her daughter really loves her.
‘Brave, compassionate, searingly honest and funny, this is a memoir in a voice like no other. Amra Pajalić’s love letter to her mother is a book that grabs at your heart and doesn’t let go until the final page.’ ALICE PUNG