Kevin Peter of Moterwriter.com caught up with writer Shelah L. Maul to talk a little about her book Hausa Blues. You can find the original interview here: http://moterwriter.com/author-
Kevin Peter: For all the curious readers, explain to us in brief, what does your writing process look like?
Shelah L. Maul: I suppose my writing process changes shape depending on what it is I’m writing. For example, writing for my blog on www.theopenjar.com, I often feel hit with an insight that lingers for days and sometimes weeks. The blog usually writes itself in my mind and heart before I even begin to type the first word. It feels somewhat like an itch or an urge to write that will often nag at me until I finally commit to sitting down with my laptop. At that point of surrender, the words usually spill out rather quickly, often with the sense that I’m watching someone else write, effortlessly.
The writing process for Hausa Blues was entirely different, primarily due to the fact that I needed to quiet my own mind and heart so that I could accurately facilitate the expression of Zenab’s voice. The process of writing Hausa Blues began with a once a week meeting with Zenab over the period of about two months. We recorded over 20 hours of conversation. It was when I listened to the recordings again and transcribed the stories she shared that I began to get a sense for her voice. As you might imagine, conversations don’t always follow a linear progression so after these conversations were transcribed onto paper, Zenab lent herself to answering numerous questions and explaining in more detail various aspects of her story.
It was a very natural process. Even though we didn’t know each other very well when we began this journey together, it always felt like we were long-time friends. “Did I ever tell you about what happened to Abibah?” she asked. “You wouldn’t believe my wedding day,” she said, laughing. I felt honored that she welcomed into her inner world, not only as an author, but as a friend. After I transcribed the seemingly disconnected stories Zenab shared, I began to see with more clarity how they all fit together, how events in her childhood connected to turning points in her life. At that point, I began to give organization to the story. At first pass, the narrative jumped around a quite a bit, but after a multitude of revisions, we discovered a more flowing, linear narrative.
KP: Any vices or habits that you can’t seem to do without while writing?
SM: I seem to write best while cozied up on my family room couch wrapped in a blanket while I cradle my laptop and a mug of green tea. It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of July and 100 degrees outside. If I’m writing, that’s how you’ll find me.
KP: What do you think is the best way to influence others, through your actions and your deeds, or through your words?
SM: That’s an interesting question to ask a writer! J I’ve never been one to view myself as a leader or someone particularly influential. Truthfully, it’s not a role I’ve ever found appealing. Maybe I’ve sensed (rightly or wrongly) that I might have needed to give up some authenticity in effort to project the sort of model that others would find worth emulating. With that said, I am most influenced by people who embrace authenticity in every aspect of their lives. I’m not so much impressed with how perfectly others may manage to portray outward success or beauty, but have felt moved when people are brave enough to embrace the messiness of growth, cooperating in a process of transformation. Actions are powerful, but our thoughts breathe life into our actions. So the real power behind influencing others (for better or worse), I believe, originates in our hearts. From our hearts flow our thoughts and intentions which ultimately guide our words and behavior. It all matters. What we say. What we do. It’s all significant.
KP:What inspired you to write Hausa Blues?
SM: I believe inspiration happens when a variety of influences and experiences converge at a precise moment where we see something new emerging. I could say Zenab inspired me to write Hausa Blues and that would be the truth. She is a remarkable woman, embodying a degree of resilience that is invigorating. But I could also say I was inspired by the many authors who have forged a clear path for powerful storytelling. That would also be the truth. Then there’s also the spark within, a seed planted in one’s heart that longs to be nurtured to life. Where it comes from? How it becomes planted? That is part of the great mystery. To put it simply, many factors converged and I felt carried along, as if the book had chosen me and simply asked that I submit to it.
KP: What are you hoping readers will take away from your book?
SM: It’s interesting that stories meet us all in different ways, depending on who we are and what circumstances might have influenced us. I don’t have an intended goal for what particular message will come through for every person that reads Hausa Blues. That was the freeing part of simply telling someone else’s story. I didn’t need to formulate or conspire to portray a deeper message. Many deeper messages are there though because life is full of deep messages. Just as in life, those who look closely will take away more than those who are along the ride for pure entertainment.
KP: The struggles women face… it is a universal story, isn’t it? Comments.
SM: I agree. Hausa Blues is such a universal story, a truth I felt strongly as I wrote it. My outward life circumstances are so different from Zenab’s, but yet her internal struggles felt at the same time so familiar. It’s her story, but at some point in writing it I began to view it as if it were my story. Not to say that I changed any details or put my thoughts into the story, but I didn’t need to put myself into the story to see myself through her life.
KP: Could you please tell us about how and when you first met Zenab?
SM: I met Zenab at work. I’m a speech/language pathologist to children with multiple disabilities. At the time she was working as a full-time medical aid to one of the students I serviced throughout the 2011-2012 school year. Truthfully we didn’t talk that much that entire school year. It wasn’t until we ate lunch one day towards the end of the school year that I began to learn more about her. During that first conversation I remember telling her that she should write a book. She replied that everyone tells her that, but she didn’t feel her English was up to proficiency. After that conversation I felt a strange inclination to write her story, but I nurtured it for several weeks before really acknowledging that I needed to do something about it. Afterall, I didn’t even know if she would trust me with the task.
I didn’t approach Zenab directly at first. Instead, I shared with the classroom teacher, Joyce, the compelling desire I had to write her book. It was actually Joyce and Kathy (the classroom teachers) who told Zenab about the nudge I felt to write her story. They later reported back to me that she thought it was a great idea. The first interaction after we both knew we were going to write the book together had all the awkwardness of a junior high crush. You know, after your friends report that he likes you and have told him that you like him and then you’re both excited, but speechless. I think it went something like, “OK so I guess we should plan a time and place to meet over the summer.” We didn’t have a model to follow, no plan other than for her to start sharing and for me to begin listening.
KP: How easy or difficult was it for Zenab to open up her life to you?
SM: Zenab is incredibly open about her life. Any questions I may have had about how carefully I would need to tip-toe around touchy subjects had entirely evaporated after our first conversation. She didn’t flinch at anything I asked, a strength I believe she found in viewing her journey through the lens of humor. You know the saying, “laugh or cry?” Well, Zenab has chosen to laugh. Despite the heavy topics explored in Hausa Blues, you might be surprised to hear that we spent a great deal of time laughing over the absurdity of some of the things that transpired in her life. In many ways her life story seems stranger than fiction and she herself marvels at it. There were moments where my jaw involuntarily dropped open as she talked, and seeing my disbelief, she would burst into laughter.
In addition to her sense of humor, one of the many traits I found so refreshing about Zenab is that despite everything she’s been through, she doesn’t carry a burden of shame. She just tells her story without the self-conscious discomfort one might expect, with a disposition I would describe as almost objective if that’s at all possible. In fact, at times while I was writing, I found myself wanting to convey more emotion than she demonstrated. I wanted to capture all the things I felt. But I had to pull myself back and just let the words be hers. I realized that she isn’t sensitized to the same things that I am, particularly violence and women’s roles. “It’s just life. They didn’t know,” she would say with a wistful smile. “They were doing what their mothers taught them. And what their fathers taught them. They just didn’t know,” she said as she shrugged her shoulders with complete acceptance.
KP: What have been the most surprising things you found out about yourself and Zenab while writing this book?
SM: How similar we are! Zenab and I are both very intuitive, introspective people. We are observers of life with a penchant for perfectionism. We are both strong-willed, idealistic, and at times stubborn, but yet we’re also both very eager and motivated to please and serve others. Our personalities are similar to such a degree that I feel a strong kindred connection with her.
KP: What was Zenab’s reaction like when you showed her the first copy of the book?
SM: In April of 2014 I sent her the first complete manuscript of the book. She called me shortly after to let me know she cried as she read it. In addition to tears, she expressed her belief that I have a gift. It was possibly the most emotive I had seen her throughout the entire process.
My #1 goal was to ensure that Hausa Blues was true to Zenab’s voice. It was her approval I was working for. Her emotional reaction made my heart swell with the knowledge that I had succeeded. No matter what happens, the book is a success because she stands proudly with it.
KP: Are you working on anything new right now?
SM: At this moment, I am still working to see Hausa Blues find itself in the nurturing hands of a traditional publisher. However, when time and space open again, there are several remarkable true stories that have recently emerged through people I know. I’m excited to embark upon that next project, but I’m still deciding whether I would pick one story for my next book or write a selection of short stories with a common thread.
KP: Reading anything at the moment?
SM: Sure am! I’m reading The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd for my book club meeting this Sunday. It’s a beautifully complex story that is full of wisdom, insight and grace as it explores relational dynamics between mothers and daughters, two sisters, men and women, and slaves and their owners. I’m enjoying it immensely!
KP: What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing/publishing process?
SM: My favorite aspect of the writing process is finding that place where time stands still and I’m plugged in to the flow. It feels blissful. The most challenging part is marketing, but I’m learning more every day and becoming more comfortable in that role.
KP: Any writing advice you have for other aspiring authors?
SM: I think my only advice would be to stay connected to the impulse that made you want to write in the first place. There are so many distractions that can derail even the best writer (e.g. worrying what other people think, expectations, etc.). I think writer’s block happens when we lose our connection with the flow that inspired us first to write. As long as we realize we’re facilitators of something being expressed through us (as opposed to believing all insight and creativity is a product of the intellect), the process works smoothly!
KP: And lastly, thank you for parting with your valuable time Shelah L. Maul and all the very best for your book.
SM: Thank you for spending time with me and your interest in Hausa Blues! It’s an honor to share this journey. Best to you as well.
Where to buy: Hausa Blues is currently seeking representation by a traditional publisher. As soon as it finds its place, I will be sure to update you and everyone else about where you might find a copy!