Kelly Ann Jacobson’s first published novel, Cairo in White, available today here, is the story of sexuality and awakening, told through two coming of age stories – that of Zhara, a young woman growing up in 1970s Egypt, and that of her daughter, Aisha, who is raised in the United States but returns to Cairo seeking answers.  I was able to talk to Kelly about the writing and publishing of Cairo in White.

Cairo in White is your first published novel.  What did you learn about yourself as a writer through the process of writing, editing, and bringing to publication Cairo in White?

Before I wrote the most recent draft of Cairo in White, I hated editing. If a project didn’t work or if it had been too long since I worked on it, I just gave up. But Cairo in White meant more to me than any other project I’d ever written—after all, I’d been working on it for six years—and so one day last spring I just decided to print the whole thing, open a blank word document, and start again. That was the summer I learned that if I’m passionate about something and if it has become a part of me, not just something I cast off when I’m done writing it, I am capable of more discipline than I ever thought possible. I will just keep writing it and rewriting it and editing it until it works.

What were the challenges in writing this novel?

As I mentioned above, the editing process was by far the hardest part of this novel specifically. A lot of my short stories, poems, and novels come out fully formed, so this novel put a wrench in my normal process (or lack thereof). I also had a lot of trouble learning how to switch between Zahra and Aisha’s voices, especially since the first draft of Cairo was in first person. One of my professors, Hache Carrillo, basically straight up told me both of my characters sounded like Kelly Jacobson, and he was right. After I tried one more semester to perfect the first person POVs in the hopes that I wouldn’t have to rework the whole novel, I finally gave in and switched the novel into third person. It is really hard to mentally change between times and places every time you start a new chapter, and switching into a new first person voice on top of all that is next to impossible.

What was your writing schedule?

I think every writer has a peak time when they write the best, when their mind clears and the words flow easily, and mine is right after I wake up. I’m the only person downstairs, so I have complete silence; I can brew myself a cup of coffee and fall into my imaginary world, even if only for fifteen minutes before I go to work. I try to follow this routine every morning, and eventually these small snippets of 500 words add up to a book. I wish that I could write at night, since that’s when I have a lot more free time, but unfortunately I usually end up just staring at my computer screen rereading the better sections I wrote during the morning or giving up and editing instead.

The only exception is if I’m really into a certain character or world, like the fantasy world of my YA novelette Dreamweaver Road, because at that point I can write pretty much anywhere, anytime. I can write on my phone while standing on the metro, I can write on the bus, I can write right before bed…you name it, I’m writing. That’s why it only took me ten days to write the first draft of the novelette. It consumed my entire life. Or, as another example, I once wrote a poem while walking from Farragut West to Dupont Circle. But in terms of the daily grind, it’s a little bit every morning.

Describe the process of finding an agent and publisher.

I actually don’t have an agent. I found both of my publishers online with help from sites like Duotrope, and I sent them a query letter that described my project like everyone else and waited for them to either reject me or send me a contract. I tried to find an editor in 2010 with the original draft of the novel, and though I got a lot of positive responses and one big name agent who read the thing in every form it took, the novel just wasn’t quite there. When I tried again with the new draft in 2013, almost no one even responded to my query, or if they did respond, they said they weren’t taking on new fiction. I think the change really speaks to e-book publishing and how much it has affected the print world. Though I had way more publications and credentials in 2013, including a MA in Fiction from Hopkins, agents just weren’t willing to take a chance on me anymore.

What advice do you have for people writing their first novel?

My biggest advice to people who want to write a novel is just write it. Don’t worry about plot arcs or themes or symbols or anything else, just get it onto paper. I think people look at well-written books and then they look at their first drafts and think “there’s no way I can create something like that,” and maybe they’re right. I have that thought every time I read a really great novel, and I have a book being published! You won’t know until you try. You can move chapters around after you write them, you can change the gender of your main character later on, you can add symbols and themes and setting descriptions until your fingers get numb, but if you don’t have the actual book written, you can’t do anything. I can barely get through the first few paragraphs of some of my first novels without wanting to kill myself because they’re so bad, but I rewrite them and rework them and they become something else. Absolute worst case you end up with a novel that never sees the light of day, but what an accomplishment to have spent your time creating something totally original that entertained you for a while.

 

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