S.K. Ali burst onto the YA scene with Saints and Misfits, a Morris Award finalist I loved so much that as soon as I finished it, I mailed it across the country to a friend I knew would feel the same way. Now Ali’s managed to up her game with brand-new romance Love From A to Z set in Qatar (!!), where a meet-cute on an airplane turns into a beautiful faith-based romance between Zayneb, who’s a spectacular blend of passionate, outspoken, determined, consistent, and traditional, and Adam, who’s loving, loyal, devoted, and dead set on making the most of life after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, even if it means keeping that diagnosis a secret from his family. Here to talk about her new book and her career at large is S.K. Ali!
There are so many things I want to discuss with you, but first and foremost is your incredible new release, Love From A to Z. What do you most want to share about it with interested readers?
I want readers to know that it’s a giant meet-cute that never stops meet-cuting. There’s a lot of serendipity in it that mirrors real life—well, at least for me. Is it fair for me to say that a lot of people seem jaded nowadays about the role of fate in terms of finding love? I know for my life and the love lives of friends, truth has been stranger than fiction in the tale of how they found their partners. So, readers, prepare to be wooed by the truth of the sudden entry of beautiful love into the lives of Adam and Zayneb.
One of the coolest and most unique thing about the book is that it’s set in Doha, Qatar, a city I hadn’t seen in YA before. How does Doha inform the story you chose to tell, and what about it were you most excited to describe?
Doha is a city in the process of evolution, led by a grand vision. There’s an honoring of history and Muslim artistic heritage as well as a keenness to be a sparklingly modern city. This creates a lot of interesting juxtapositions. And this is what I like describing—the young, the old, and the fusion. Kind of like how the characters in Love from A to Z are!
Another thing that’s so great about Love From A to Z is that it’s such a specifically Muslim romance, and it highlights what I find most impressive and beautiful about your work: this fearless, confident quality to how you put your world on the page. What drives you most when you’re opening yourself up in your work? And are you pushing through fears, or does it feel to you like just telling the story as it needs to be told?
I felt like I was writing authentically. Good art is authentic (that’s my belief!) and comes from a place of openness (another belief of mine!). I wrote this book fearlessly—almost as if I didn’t care if it would “make it” or not. So yes, there’s a lot of vulnerability laid bare on the page, along with the confidence. But that is where I hope readers meet me. In that space where we see each other as we are.
Clearly I’m not the only one who thought your debut, Saints and Misfits, was fantastic; it was a finalist for a Morris Award, which is incredible. What was it like to get that call, and how did it affect working on the Terror of the Sophomore Novel?
I’m sad to report that I was at a car repair shop for a regular maintenance visit when I heard the news. In my giddiness, I immediately said yes to many repairs I wouldn’t have normally agreed to. So they were as happy as I was at my Morris honor!
In terms of writing my second novel in the shadow of the Morris, I saw it as a vote of confidence in my abilities (which is very hard for me to believe on my own intrinsically as I have a lot of self-doubt), and so I let myself feel that aspect.
Though this was a hard-won decision—to view the Morris in this way—as Love from A to Z was my third manuscript after Saints and Misfits. Because, truth be told, I did write another one in between which, yes, was undertaken with a fear of not producing something after my debut.
I don’t think we can talk about your books without addressing those incredible covers, and the fact that both of them have incredibly stylin’ Hijabi models. How did you feel seeing those covers, and what has response to them been like?
I love this question! Thanks so much for remarking on the depiction of Muslim characters on my covers. I’ve loved both my covers and am so grateful that Simon and Schuster undertook them, under the guidance of the phenomenal Zareen Jaffery (my cherished editor), with such responsibility and panache—that’s the only word for it! And I kind of expected something beyond amazing when I heard that Lucy Ruth Cummins, the art director in charge of Jenny Han’s covers, was doing Love from A to Z. And yay, look at the result! Again and again, the cover for Love from A to Z has been described as “iconic” and I couldn’t agree more.
I want to add one more thing: when publishers take this much care with covers of books featuring marginalized characters, it sends a strong message to the rest of the publishing industry. I hope more publishers follow suit!
Marginalized religious representation is something we’re really seeing grow in YA these last couple of years. What did you feel the landscape was like when you were first trying to sell your work, and how would you like it see it grow further?
I was fortunate in that I connected with my editor, Zareen, right away in terms of her vision for my first book. So I had a positive experience from the very beginning.
I would love to see more teens with religious identities getting to roam their own books! Judging from the number of readers of various backgrounds who tell me my books were the only times they’ve seen themselves in literature, this is a huge gap! We definitely need more faith-exploring books; the reality is that many readers go through this process at various points in their lives, including in the teen years.
I love to talk to and highlight sophomores in particular on the B&N Teen Blog, and especially to ask this: as a sophomore, what advice do you have for debuts?
Try to do what I didn’t do enough: don’t think everything rests on you. Do your part, but also see that you’re one part of the whole machine. Don’t take on too much personal stress to try to be the best, most shiniest debut ever.
Another thing: work on relationship building. With everyone from the many people at your publisher to book community people like bloggers and reviewers to readers. Be grateful and polite and treat everyone (truly, everyone!) as important as they really are.
What books are you currently loving? And what are you most looking forward to?
I’m sad to admit that I’m in between a reading season. But the last ones I enjoyed greatly were The Candle and the Flame, by Nafiza Azad, and First Comes Marriage, by Huda Al-Marashi. I’m really looking forward to reading We Hunt the Flame, by Hafsah Faizal, and The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson. Yes, ALL Muslim Shelf Space books!