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Zoulfa Katouh: On Characters Coming Alive

Author Zoulfa Katouh discusses the process of writing her debut novel, As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow.

Zoulfa Katouh is a Syrian Canadian based in Switzerland. She is currently pursuing her master's in Drug Sciences and finds Studio Ghibli inspiration in the mountains, lakes, and stars surrounding her. When she's not talking to herself in the woodland forest, she's drinking iced coffee, baking aesthetic cookies and cakes, and telling everyone who would listen about how BTS paved the way.

Her dream is to get Kim Namjoon to read one of her books. If that happens, she will expire on the spot. As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow is her debut novel. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram, or on her website zoulfakatouh.com.

Zoulfa Katouh: On Characters Coming Alive

Zoulfa Katouh

In this post, Zoulfa discusses the process of writing her debut novel, As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow, how it went from a NaNoWriMo draft to a finished piece many edits later, and more!

Name: Zoulfa Katouh
Literary agent: Alexandra Levick of Writers House
Book title: As Long As the Lemon Trees Grow
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release date: September 13, 2022
Genre/category: YA Speculative Contemporary
Elevator pitch for the book: A story about a girl trying to find a way out of Syria before her pregnant best friend gives birth while trying to survive bombs falling and her hallucinations that seem a bit too real.

Zoulfa Katouh: On Characters Coming Alive

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What prompted you to write this book?

Living in Switzerland, I realized people in Europe and the West don’t really know what’s going on Syria. I wanted to write about what’s happening in a story-like way, and so the idea came to me to write a young adult novel about a Syrian girl and the reasons why one becomes a refugee.

Leaving your home and traveling somewhere foreign, not knowing if you’ll make it is not an easy choice to make. On top of that, most of the stories out there regarding Syria aren’t written by Syrians. I thought it was about time to have one from a Syrian voice.

How long did it take to go from idea to publication? And did the idea change during the process?

I started writing it NaNoWriMo of 2017 and finished it in August 2018. Then began the long journey of editing and editing and more editing!

I participated in DVpit where I found my agent. She gave me a Revise and Resubmit which I worked on in Author Mentor Match. I signed with Allie in August of 2019, and we edited even more (surprise!) until December 2020. I went on sub in February 2021 and sold it within four days!

The book went through so many changes. I rewrote it three times. This isn’t the book I first wrote. It’s not the one I edited in Author Mentor Match. It’s not the one I signed with Allie. And it’s not the one I sold.

It has now reached its final form which is a cultivation of all the great input I got. But throughout it all, the core message and the core story stayed the same.

Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?

I’m still surprised when I hear people want to read my book. It’s never something I take for granted and it really makes all those years of rejections and endless editing worth it. I hope I would have written a story that they’d find pieces of themselves in.

Zoulfa Katouh: On Characters Coming Alive

Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?

The way my characters aren’t just made up of words but are now flesh and bone. They feel like real people and not ones sprung from my imagination. I do love that. I didn’t expect it to be like that—that I’d think about them all the time, thinking of small one-shots to write so I can get to know them more.

What do you hope readers will get out of your book?

That hope and life will always go on despite the pain. I want them to see Syria the way us Syrians see it. Not a desolate place, but one that changed the world once.

If you could share one piece of advice with other writers, what would it be?

Write extra stories for your characters. You get to know them more this way. They become fleshed out, and your readers will thank you for the extra food!

Build Your Novel Scene by Scene

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