Aya Khalil: Salam Alaikum, S.K. Ali! I am so excited to be interviewing you again for Kidlitincolor.com. I just finished reading Love from Mecca to Medina and I needed a few days to process it all! Wow, what an amazing book. First thing's first, can you tell us how long it took for you to write it and any challenges along the way?
S.K. Ali: Walaikummusalam! Excited to be back at Kidlitincolor.com! Brewing this book took a year but the writing itself took a few months, with two intense months of marathon writing (see below why this is my process!) The challenges were juggling the expectations of writing a romance in which the couple were already in love at the start of the book, as well as the sacred nature of their journey. That was a hard feat!
AK: I personally have been to Mecca and Medina twice, and I love all of the descriptions in the book. If I'm not mistaken, I believe you also went recently? Were you writing the novel at the same time? How was your experience there while writing it, or writing it after you came back.
SK Ali: Actually, my most recent trip to Mecca and Medina was a while back in 2015. But I have a trove of cumulative memories from having visited periodically over the years since I was a child; I relied on these while writing, as well as the efforts of kind people who recorded their trips and uploaded them onto YouTube. This visual research was especially important to make notes on more recent developments at the holy sites. I didn’t want to get things wrong so I verified and cross-referenced my memories with current video evidence from other pilgrims. Watching such precious, personal vlogs revived the feelings of awe I felt during my own visits in years past and, I feel, contributed to infusing Love from Mecca to Medina with vivid emotional and visual descriptions. So, thank you YouTubers!
AK: I love the many layers in the book; the struggles Zeynab faces in college: trying to do it all as a college student but also facing microaggressions and struggles in her love life. I love that she's not the "perfect Muslim" and actually didn't really want to go to Umra at first, and even when she did, she didn’t really enjoy it at first. That really resonated with me personally because we're not perfect humans (lol!) and sometimes book reviewers will point that out. Can you tell me why you think it's important to have Muslim characters with flaws?
SK Ali: I love that you loved that! I choose to write characters struggling because when you’re committed to ideals/ways-of-living that vary from the greater society around you, struggling on a grand scale is part of the equation. In any kind of fiction, it’s unrealistic to write characters who get it right all the time or who don’t need to grow; actually, that would be a pretty bad book, lol. In terms of Muslim characters, especially Muslim characters who are trying to be committed to their faith, it’s important to communicate the struggle as it is. It brings in all the elements of good storytelling: conflict, tension and finding something and someone to root for. It’s just honest and compelling art to record our – often lowly – humanness.
AK: I am interested to know, as I'm sure many readers, what your process is like in writing your novels. Do you have everything planned out? Do you use mood boards, sticky notes? Please tell us how you geniusly write these novels, including Love from Mecca to Medina.
SK Ali: I’m a reformed Pantser – and that capital “P” is there for a reason! (My reformation came due to multiple DEADLINES – all caps! – happening simultaneously soon after my debut novel.) This new reformed-me must know all the major beats in a story, almost every character’s arcs, themes, framing elements, etc. before I start writing. I find doing all of that work upfront (that is what I meant when I said Love from Mecca to Medina brewed for a year) makes the writing process quicker and tidier. I absolutely love free-writing scenes and letting my creativity take the characters places but now I allow that freedom within little assigned descriptors that aid in the completion of the plans I have for the story. Some people find the story after they cough up a messy draft, honing in while writing multiple drafts, whereas I find the story in the midst of messy notes and doodles (I use storyboarding to work out beats and important scenes) and images I gather. This allows me to deliver a pretty clean manuscript with most (not all, of course) of the kinks worked out beforehand (in the planning stages) on time. This is how I’ve written all my novels, except for Saints and Misfits.
AK: What's next for you? Any more books following Zeynab? How about Janna? I love that Janna made an appearance in this book and the role she played, and the ending (ahh!)
SK Ali: Zayneb’s and Janna’s stories came to a conclusion in Love from Mecca to Medina – I spent a lot of time planning that season finale in the epilogue! As for what’s next: I’m switching gears and in the process of finishing a speculative fic duology, as well as a humorous historical fiction YA novel I’m co-writing AND an adult rom-com. (But, I’m not going to lie, Adam, Zayneb and Janna’s books are always going to be my favorite children!)
AK: Would you like to add anything else about you or your book?
SK Ali: Just something that I get asked often: what order should we read your novels? To get the full, immersive experience in this universe I’ve created for these characters (which fans call the “Zaydam” universe, to which Janna interjects with, “ahem, it’s the ‘Janna-Zaydam’ universe” because her story was first!): Saints and Misfits, Love from A to Z, Misfit in Love, The Eid Gift(a free novelette available at Rivetedlit.com) and then Love from Mecca to Medina. I hope you get a chance to read them all!
AK: Where can readers find you and purchase Love From Mecca to Medina?
SK Ali: They can find me at my website, skalibooks.com, on Instagram and TikTok at @skalibooks and on Twitter at @sajidahwrites. Love from Mecca to Medina can be purchased here: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Love-from-Mecca-to-Medina/S-K-Ali/9781665916073