Q&A with Hanover Primary, London. (April 2020)

On you: 

What kinds of books did you read growing up? Do you think this has influenced your writing?


I grew up in a small village where there was no library, not even at school, so I read anything I could lay my hands on. If I didn’t have any books, I would read the cooking instructions on the back of food packets. It drove my mum crazy because I would watch over her shoulder while she was cooking and say, “that’s not how it tells you to do it on the packet…”


         Sometimes I used to win book prizes at school and these were mostly retellings of classics. My favourites were Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Peter Pan, Around the World in 80 Tales and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. They were all set in exotic locations and involved dangerous journeys, and that’s why most of my books are set in faraway places.


When did you decide to become an author? Did you have many jobs before becoming an author?


I always liked writing stories and poems and I decided to become an author when I was in Year 5. Everyone thought I was mad because I had to move to England to find out if I actually had the talent for it. Luckily, it worked out.


Is whittling a hobby of yours?


I used to carve wooden heads for my puppets when I was little but they weren’t very good. I was much better at fretwork, which is cutting shapes out of plywood with a special saw. It had very thin blades that snapped easily but I was very careful.


If you could do any other job in the world, what would you do?


That’s an easy one. I’d be a primary school teacher or a librarian. My happiest memories are from my school days and even now when I visit schools, I love being in the classroom. I especially love looking at the displays on the walls. 


At what age did you start writing? At what point in your life did you work out that writing is what you wanted to do?


I don’t remember ever not writing. I used to write on anything I could find, including toilet paper. In Year 5, I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and it blew my mind. The idea that you could open something as ordinary as a wardrobe and find yourself in a different, magical, world changed my life. That’s when I decided stories were going to be my future.


What or who inspired you to become an author?


I’d say the author who inspired me to take the plunge and try and become a writer was C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia books. But I was also very close to my gran, who could neither write nor read but was a fantastic storyteller. She used to tell me, ‘if you want to be an author then you have to try and become one or you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering if you should have tried.” Grandma Nabiha in The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad is based on her.


What did you want to be when you were a child?

An author or, failing that, a teacher.


What types of books do you enjoy reading? Who is your favourite author?

I like and make it a point of reading all kinds of books but my favourite are ones set in faraway countries. I don’t really have favourite authors but I like most of the books that Rosemary Sutcliffe wrote. She’s mostly forgotten now but I still enjoy reading her books set in Roman Britain. And I read the whole Narnia series every year. It’s my annual Christmas treat.



On the writing process:

Where do you get your ideas from?


I usually get ideas from visiting interesting places and watching people.


I love visiting




Can you tell us about the process of writing a novel? Where do you start writing a novel? How long does it take to get a novel published from the time that you think of the idea for a book?


What advice would you give to someone who would like to become a writer?

Write, write, write. The more you write the better you get at it. You don’t have to write entire stories all the time. Keep a diary, but not just a list of things you’ve done. Choose one thing that happened on a certain day and write how it made you feel, how it made the other people involved feel. Write the same thing from different perspectives. And read. A lot. A lot of lot. You can’t be a writer unless you read. When you read, your brain subconsciously absorbs the writing process.


Where do you like to write your stories the most?

I live in Scarborough so I do most of my writing in coffee shops on the seafront. If it’s too cold, I take a blanket with me. It used to raise eyebrows when I first started doing it but now everyone in town knows who I am and just smile.


Where do you get the names for your characters?

I spend a LOT of time choosing names for my characters. Before I start writing, I make character sketches and the first thing I do is choose a name. It has to sound right when other characters in the story use it, so I make up snippets of conversation which I read out in different voices. I went through nine names before I settled on Jabir and eight before I chose Yasmina.


How do you think of ways to start your books? I really struggle to start stories. 


A very good question. I usually start by describing the scene and the character in the first chapter. I go into great detail so I can see the place clearly in my mind. But that’s just for me. Then I edit it out and start with a piece of action. In The Golden Horsemen I described the river at night and Jabir asleep on his boat. I removed this and started with Jabir reeling in his fishing net and finding it empty. One of the best beginnings to start a story is having the main character take a decision that will change their life.


What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received as a writer?


It was a piece of advice given to me by Michael Rosen. Never give up.


What do you think is most important for writing a good story? 


For me, the most important elements of a story are

a)   a character that readers will emphatise with. Readers need to be able to put themselves in the shoes of your main character.

b)   A plot that keeps the reader guessing.


How do you stop having writer's block? 


I very rarely get writer’s block but when I do, I tend to read somebody else’s work. For me, that has to be in a different genre from what I’m working on. Somehow reading tends to unclog my brain. It’s also very important to take breaks from writing to refresh your mind.



On The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad specifically?

How long did it take you to write The Golden Horsemen of Baghdad?


It took three months to do the actual writing but I’d spent a year on and off thinking about the story, doing the research and writing the synopsis.


Why did you choose to set your story in Baghdad? Do you have a connection to it?


I grew up on the island of Malta, which is half way between Europe and the Arab/Muslim world. So my influences are from the two different worlds. I’d always been aware of Bahgdad having been a centre for learning and over the years collected a lot of information about it.


Are the events/characters in the Golden Horsemen based on real people/events? Does Jabir share any [personality traits with you?


Harun Al-Rashid is the only real-life character in the story. The rest are made up, although they are true to their historical period. Jabir is based on me. As a child, I felt that I did not fit in at school or in my village and I always felt sad that my gifts (writing, cooking etc) were not appreciated. I was always trying to prove myself. My books are all about people trying to do the same. My Ancient Greek Mysteries feature a slave called Thrax and a scribe called Nico trying to find their place in Ancient Greek society. My stone age series is about a boy who’s afraid of the sight of blood but wants to become a shaman.


Grandma Nabiha is based on my own granny. She is seen as a powerful and wise leader. The landlord is based on a horrible bully from my primary school who grew up to be a crook.


What inspired you to write this book?

I found it frustrating that no one seemed to know about the glory of ancient Baghdad and the golden Islamic age. Not even the vab drivers, mostly Muslim, who ferry me to schools around Leeds and Bradford. I was talking to a cab driver about it a couple of years ago and he said, “I never knew that.” I thought, right, I’m going to write a book about it.


Who is your favourite character in this story? 

I have to say it’s Grandma Nabiha. I like the way she is meant to be very old but is still stronger than any other person in the book. In a way, she is a metaphor for Baghdad itself. Everyone thinks of it as an inhospitable city in a war zone but look beyond the wrinkles and the crumbling buildings, and there is a strong backbone that will survive.


Will you write any more stories based around Jabir and Baghdad?


Yes, if the book sells well enough (and it looks like it’s doing so) I have a sequel planned about the journey to Charlemagne’s court. It will be a much longer book.


Did you illustrate The Golden Horsemen yourself?


The cover for the book was illustrated by the brilliant Freya Hartas who illustrated all my books for Bloomsbury. I help her to make sure she gets the historical details right.


Did you write The Golden Horsemen for someone specific?


Good question. I did write the book with a special person in mind. He was in Year 6 at the time I was thinking of doing the story. His father is from Afghanistan although this boy is from Bradford. He always felt at the time that his gifts were not appreciated by his friends. I wanted to let him know through my story that ALL gifts, even if they are something as simple as whittling little toys, will come in useful one day.



On future projects:

Have you got any more books coming? If so, can you tell us what they are about?


I am currently working on the third book in a series of four adventure stories based in the Neolithic age. The first two, The Stolen Spear and The Whispering Stones are out already. I’m doing the sixth and final draft of The Mysterious Island as we speak and I have to deliver the final story, The Bird-Skull Amulet by the end of October. Then I might write a follow-up to The Golden Horsemen called The Emperor’s Elephant.




How do you think diversity in children's books will change in the next few years?


I think, and hope, that many more authors from diverse backgrounds will get published. It’s already happening with fantastic authors like Bali Rai, Sarwat Chadda, Onjali J. Raulf and Savita Kalhan and I think it will get better and better.


         I found it very difficult to get my first books published because it’s obvious from my name that I come from a different culture. It wasn’t until The Orchard Book of First Greek Myths was a big hit in many countries that publishers accepted I could sell as many copies as a local author. I think there’s still an imbalance. Chain stores like Waterstones and WH Smith still largely regard diverse books as ‘niche’ but it’s literally getting better by the day.


I really liked learning about Baghdad at this time through reading your book. Do you think more people should know about the Golden Age Of Islam?


Yes, I think it’s a great shame that so few people know how important Baghdad and the Muslim culture in general were instrumental in preserving the knowledge of the ancient world and propelling the world into the modern age.