I love interviewing debut authors on this blog. I think talking with first-time authors can help illuminate paths to publications for people who are writing their books and trying to find agents and get published. Today's spotlight is with author Jennifer Zobair, author of the June 2013 debut PAINTED HANDS (Thomas Dunne Books).
Jennifer Zobair grew up in Iowa and attended Smith College and Georgetown Law School. She has practiced corporate and immigration law and as a convert to Islam, has been a strong advocate for Muslim women's rights. Jennifer lives with her husband and three children outside of Boston. Roopa Farooki, author of The Flying Man, said of the novel: “A debut with an original and refreshing premise–Jennifer Zobair’s PAINTED HANDS is about high-flying Bostonian women who struggle with their demanding careers, relationships, friendships and families, and who also happen to be Muslim. A positive portrait of modern Muslim women, prominent in their professions and at large within their communities, written with affection and detail.”
What is the book’s genre/category?
Contemporary women’s fiction.
Please describe what the story/book is about.
It’s about young, successful Muslim women in Boston, and the difficult choices they face when relationships with unlikely men shatter their friendship, and the current political climate threatens their careers.
Where do you write from?
I live in the Boston area. I write in our living room at a big, beautiful desk my husband gave me to celebrate my book deal.
Briefly, what led up to this book?
I spent about a year writing short stories before I began Painted Hands. I have a real affection for short fiction, but my stories tended to span months or years. Eventually, I realized that what I really wanted to do was write a novel.
What was the time frame for writing this book?
I started the book in the fall of 2009 and had a solid draft by Thanksgiving of 2010. I only wrote when my three children were at school, which meant not at all during summer vacation. I’ve since gotten a little better about that.
How did you find your agent (and who is your agent)?
I found my agent, Kent D. Wolf [of Lippincott Massie McQuilkin], through querying. I was looking for agents who were interested in multicultural and/or book club women’s fiction, and Kent responded to my email in less than an hour, requesting the full. When he called to offer representation, I knew almost immediately that he was the perfect agent for this novel.
What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?
That this is even happening is an incredible surprise. You sit in your living room thinking you should probably go use that law degree you spent so much money on, and instead you take a leap of faith and write a novel you’re not sure anyone will ever see. In that sense, the biggest surprises were when Kent offered representation, and spoke about the issues in the novel so respectfully and knowledgably, and when the wonderful Toni Plummer from Thomas Dunne Books offered to acquire it and called it beautiful.
Looking back, what did you do right that helped you break in?
I revised the manuscript many times and sought feedback from people I trust, both writers and non-writers. I worked just as hard on my query letter. But I also think I benefited from the subject matter. One of the main storylines explores whether an outspoken, fiercely independent Muslim woman and a rising star in the neocon movement can find common ground or even fall in love. It’s fairly timely.
And then I think I just got lucky. I queried the right agent. I took his advice on revisions and trusted him to find the right editor, which he did with Toni. Not only is she a talented editor, but she’s also an author of multicultural fiction herself with her beautiful short story collection The Bolero of Andi Rowe.
On that note, what would you have done differently if you could do it again?
I would have sent my very first query letter to Kent.
Did you have a platform in place? On this topic, what are you doing to build a platform and gain readership?
I had a website (www.jenniferzobair.com), a connected blog, and a twitter account (@jazobair) when I started querying. Those are still the places I focus my attention.
Best piece(s) of advice for writers trying to break in?
Write the story you are passionate about, not what you think is trendy. You’re going to live with your manuscript for a long time, you’re going to have to revise and revisit and rethink, and you’d better love it and be committed to it. Trust your gut, but also listen to people who know more than you do. I benefited enormously from a query critique that was part of an agent’s webinar. She suggested what seemed like subtle tweaks, but as soon as I made them, I started getting requests.
Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
I wore hot pink to my wedding. We had a traditional South Asian Muslim ceremony, and I wore a gharara made by my mother-in-law. (Ironically, my South Asian husband wore a tux.)
I’m working on another novel. And my vegan Indian fusion cooking.
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