An interview by Vinita Kinra
Zeenat Mahal is the author of three romance novellas and a romantic short story. All of her books have been in the Amazon top 10 bestseller lists, with her latest She Loves Me He Loves Me Not opening at number 2. It has remained in the top ten till date, since its release in February this year. Zeenat’s books have been reviewed by international review sites like Dear Author, The Lemon Review and SAWWC. Her books have also been featured in international online webzines like Writer’sZine, Readomania, Running Out of Ink, Kitaab, and BraveBird Publishing LLC. Other media coverage includes interviews and reviews with BBC Asia, The Daily Times, Sunday Observer Sri Lanka and several well-known blogs like Pebbles in still Waters, Reader’s Muse, Constant Quiller, LitFest, and online book clubs. Sunday Observer Sri Lanka also serialized a novel by Zeenat Mahal, called Mehrunnissa, which is set in colonial India.
Zeenat has an MFA in creative writing from London, and an MPhil in English Literature from Lahore. She lives in Lahore with her husband and three sons. Zeenat is currently working on a new novel.
Vinita Kinra: Welcome to Global Asian Times, Zeenat! Tell us about yourself.
Zeenat Mahal: Thank you for having me, Vinita. I’m from Pakistan, and Zeenat Mahal is my pseudonym. I have always written mainstream fiction, that’s why I went to pursue an MFA. However, just as I went for my degree, I got to know of Indireads, a small e-publisher that wanted to promote South Asian romance writing. The idea intrigued me, and I had this epiphany that all those ‘other’ stories I’d been spinning in my head was romantic fiction, and it was time to test my mettle as a romance writer. The story I sent was titled Haveli, and it became a bestseller when Indireads e-published it in 2012.
Vinita Kinra: In what way does your native city of Lahore influence your writings?
Zeenat Mahal: My consciousness is seeped in Lahore; and though at times I can, and do, silence it, elude it even, it is always there in some subtle way. My ambivalent relationship with Lahore is something I’ve learnt to live with as a writer. There are parts of Lahore I love, that I’m proud of, that I guard jealously from interpretations and representations because I’m possessive about them, and then there are parts and history of the city that I’m ashamed to claim, but realize that I have to, because it’s a writer’s burden and I am, first and foremost, a writer.
Vinita Kinra: Tell us about your latest book and your penchant for romance novels.
Zeenat Mahal: I used to read romance to unwind, and when I write romance, I do it for the same reason. It’s not all of who I am as a writer or as a reader, but it is a big part of me, and I enjoy romance as a genre.
My latest book She Loves Me He Loves Me Not is a twist on Beauty and The Beast, and it’s psychologically deeper than the others I’ve written. I also write romance novels because there is a stereotype out there that smart women don’t write or read romances. I hate labels of any kind and it gets my back up, so I guess I’m here to prove something, too.
Vinita Kinra: What sparked off the idea for your book?
Zeenat Mahal: I wanted to re-imagine fairytales in the South Asian context. I thought of beauty and the beast first because we are so enamored with physical beauty. I had always been curious about what Beast felt and how we, as readers, never really think about that because we are only concerned about Beauty’s ordeal. And I thought that there must be something bestial in beauty to recognize something to love in beast.
Vinita Kinra: Of all the books you’ve written so far, which is your personal favourite and why?
Zeenat Mahal: I can’t really say which one, but I do like the enhanced anniversary editions of Haveli and The Contract that my publisher is re-launching on Eid this year. They are enhanced versions of the first editions, with more detail and more of everything that my readers liked about them.
Vinita Kinra: Do you portray the conflicts between the romantic culture of your native Pakistan and UK?
Zeenat Mahal: So far all of my books are set in Pakistan, but because my heroines are not passive weaklings, I guess expat South Asians find a lot to relate with there, since the cultural schizophrenia is very much in play.
Vinita Kinra: Did you have a support group like family, friends or colleagues who believed in your passion for romantic fiction?
Zeenat Mahal: I am very lucky to have fellow romance writers and my many fabulous readers who love my work and cheer me on. They are the best support group a gal could ask for.
Vinita Kinra: If you were asked to give just one golden tip to aspiring writers, what would that be?
Zeenat Mahal: Write the first draft knowing that it is only that: a first draft. Then read what you’ve written top to bottom, adding details, colour, taste, sound, as you read it. Start again the next day, top to bottom. Stop wherever you feel the scene needs fleshing out, dialogue can be added for depth, humour and insight.
Vinita Kinra: Help us explore your world of romance with a brief excerpt from your latest book.
Zeenat Mahal: The clear February sky was crowded with kites, and the rooftops with enthusiastic boys and girls. Most of them were attired in yellow, and had to shout to be heard over the blaring music. Zoella, however, registered all of that as a faraway din.
She barely noticed the colorful kites and everyone else, focusing only on the delicious-looking Fardeen. The music, shouting and laughter did not distract her from her goal one bit. Her concentration did not waver. Her eyes were firmly fixed on Fardeen.
With bated breath, she waited for the miraculous moment when angels would trumpet their silver bugles, flowers would bloom in deserts and Fardeen Malik’s eyes would finally meet hers. The realization that the love of his life, Zoella Khan, though unsophisticated and sans riches, had been right under his nose all this time would hit him like a bolt of lightning. Overcome with passion, he’d fall to his knees and declare, enraptured…