"I’m trying to use any self-doubt in a practical way"
Fascinating writer and editor, Sara Nisha Adams, published her debut novel The Reading List in June 2021, which has captivated the literary world.
Partly inspired by her own grandfather, the incredibly moving tale focuses on a widower and an anxious teenager, who find themselves connecting through the power of books.
The talented 26-year-old who is based in London, UK, manages to wonderfully depict the hardships of life whilst emphasising the relief that a good friendship can provide.
Highlighting other compelling themes such as mental health, loneliness and family, the novel is a dynamic tool that can entice anyone to become a bookworm.
In addition, Sara’s inclusion of South Asian characters and culture is surprising yet extremely original. It offers readers a fresh perspective into modern life and highlights the diverse reality we live in.
As well as enjoying her tremendous success as an author, Sara also has an impressive background in publishing.
Being the Editorial Director for fiction at Hodder Studio, a UK-based publishing powerhouse, Sara has also shone in her roles for Headline and Harvill Secker.
This vast experience has moulded Sara into a very perceptive, conscious and well-rounded writer and all these elements sparkle through The Reading List.
In an exclusive interview, DESIblitz spoke with Sara about the motivation behind The Reading List, her love for writing and the significance of reading.
How did your love for writing begin?
I have been writing for as long as I can remember.
I used to carry a little diary with me as a child, and I’d write a blow-by-blow account of my day when I went on trips with my parents.
Having found some of them recently, they’re really not as riveting as I thought they were when I was writing them, and when my younger twin cousins were born, I would write them stories too.
I also used to leave out a whole ‘novel’ (which was more like 5 or 6 scrawled pages) for Father Christmas on Christmas Eve.
“I loved any and every opportunity to write.”
From letters to my friends and family, to journals, to short stories and half-formed novels too.
But my love of writing definitely comes, first and foremost, from my love of books and reading. Other writers inspired me, stories inspired me, because they were limitless.
How do you make time for writing, what’s your process?
For a long time, after I started my job in publishing, I didn’t make time for my writing – and found myself getting more and more frustrated with myself for saying I ‘wanted to be a writer’ who never wrote.
One day, my partner said to me, ‘if you want to write, you should make time for it’ and even though I’d been telling myself for years to do the same, it was only then that I finally decided to do it.
So, I woke up an hour earlier than I usually would to write before work – I’d had the idea for a novel plotted out, and I’d already begun it, so it was the perfect place to start.
I would wake up at about 6 am, make myself a cup of coffee and stare out of the window drinking it for 15 minutes, while I thought about the day, about what I might write, and then I’d begin writing for an hour.
It was so peaceful – though some days were much harder than others. But every morning, I felt this sense of achievement before 8 am.
I wish I could say I will do that for every book, but for my second novel, I booked time off work to do some intense writing for a week here and there.
Combined with a few early starts or late nights writing throughout the rest of the year.
The getting up early plan wasn’t quite so enticing during the pandemic, when there’s no commute separating my writing time from my working time.
My process mainly consists of trying to write the first draft as freely and quickly as possible, followed by lots of reshaping and reworking afterwards!
Which authors or novels have inspired you and why?
Pretty much every novel I read inspires me in some way.
I learn more about writing from other writers and stories than I do from books about writing, though they can be really useful about the process too.
“White Teeth by Zadie Smith was one of the most inspiring books for me.”
Because of the way she uses description and dialogue, and fills her novels with interesting characters, full of life.
I also love the way she brings a place to life through the people who populate it, through characters readers come to love.
I also really admire Ali Smith and Arundhati Roy – both writers have a way of writing such engaging prose to read, it’s very playful in places.
Those writers made me think about rhythm. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to write prose as brilliant as theirs, but I’m prepared to try, over and over again, to do better.
That’s why brilliant writers and great stories are so important – because they can inspire us to do better and try harder with our own.
How does it feel to publish your first book?
It’s surreal. This has been my dream forever, and when I began in the publishing industry I realised how hard it was to achieve.
I thought I’d be amazed at just the fact of being published, but I’ve been particularly blown away by seeing people fall in love with the book and the characters, in the way I’ve fallen in love with other writers’ books and characters.
This weekend, I got to see my book in bookshops – in the bookshops I’ve spent hours browsing and buying in!
It feels completely unbelievable that it has actually happened.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had such a supportive group of family and friends who helped me keep going – and an agent and publisher who have believed in the book.
Publishing is a team effort – and this book wouldn’t have been published at all without so many people, who put so much hard work into it.
What was the motivation behind ‘The Reading List’?
I wanted to write a book about libraries, and about books!
As a huge reader, they’ve always been two of my favourite things – and it is heart-breaking to hear about library funding cuts and closures.
Libraries helped turn me into a reader in the first place. Whenever I talk to other book lovers, it’s clear that libraries played a fundamental part in their love of reading too.
“I wanted to capture the idea that reading is not only a solitary activity, as it is also about connection.”
As a shy child, I always hid behind a book, but I have lots of happy memories of my dada asking me about the book I was reading, knowing that they were the way into my world.
I could talk about books for hours, and sometimes, books helped me talk about myself too – so they have always been a way to help me find ways to connect with others.
Books can help us feel less lonely, sometimes, and libraries bring people together – I wanted this to be at the very heart of the novel.
What themes do you cover in the book and why?
In the novel, I cover lots of themes – most prominently, mental health, family, grief, loneliness, and of course, books.
These are themes I think I’ve been writing about for years – they’ve all helped shape who I am, and what I am passionate about.
I wanted to write a novel that captured all of these topics, with an overall narrative and lasting message of hope too.
I’ve looked back at previous novels I’ve written, all of which have covered these topics, because I think they play a big part in so many people’s lives – including mine – so it made sense that they would affect my characters too.
I also think these themes can help bring people together too.
In the sense that when we open up about grief, loneliness, and our mental health, we find points of similarity with our peers, and with strangers too.
While they can feel lonely and isolating, talking about them can help show us all that we aren’t so alone after all.
Explain the significance of incorporating South Asian culture in the book?
My mother is Indian and my cultural heritage has been very important to my identity.
Though it’s fictional, the characters and the story all feel personal to me in many ways, and I knew I wanted to reflect my culture in the book too – but where the culture itself, and the culture of the characters, wasn’t the story itself, but a part of their lives.
I rarely saw British Asian characters in books when I was growing up, and especially British Asian characters from Kenya represented in commercial fiction.
I hope that other people, and other budding writers too, might read the book and feel that they can write about their experiences, and write characters like the people they know and love.
It wasn’t until I read White Teeth by Zadie Smith, which is also set in North West London, that I felt I could do that – for years I’d been writing characters who didn’t really look like me, who weren’t mixed-race or South Asian.
There are so many brilliant British Asian writers writing all sorts of wonderful stories in different genres – and I know that they will all inspire budding writers to write what they want to write, and importantly, what they want to read.
If The Reading List is one of those novels for someone, that would mean the world.
How has the reaction been to the novel?
The reaction has been amazing – I’ve had so many responses from friends, family, colleagues and readers who have fallen in love with the characters, who have found hope and comfort within the pages.
My twin cousins have been reading it this weekend, and discussing it with each other too, and they haven’t read fiction for a while.
“It’s set where they have grown up and they said they’ve been really relating to it, which is all I hoped for.”
When one of my cousins said he might want to read more fiction after finishing The Reading List, that was the best feeling.
I hope this is a book for book lovers, but I also really hope it can be for readers who are looking to fall in love with reading again.
It has been a dream hearing such positive reviews from some of my favourite authors. I don’t think I could ever have imagined it.
I know not everyone loves every book, so I will always understand if someone doesn’t enjoy mine.
Reading is such a subjective thing, but when I hear that even one person has connected with the characters, or someone has felt seen in the storyline, it brings me so much joy.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it.
What do you hope readers take away from ‘The Reading List’?
I’d love readers to be inspired to read more (maybe even to read the books on the list too!).
The book is so much about what we get from reading, how it can be a comfort, how it can teach us things too, so I hope it could be the beginning of a long love of reading for anyone who is just getting into reading fiction.
I hope it could provide people comfort and companionship when they need it too.
Mukesh and Aleisha find company within the books they read, so I hope readers might find companionship with them.
What does the book represent and symbolise to you personally?
This book represents to me the fact that I can keep going, I can keep writing, even when it feels like I’m getting nowhere.
This book also feels like a culmination of all the people I love, and all the things I’ve loved over the years too – so it’s a very personal book for me.
I’m so glad I wrote it, I’m so glad the idea came to me when it did because if it hadn’t, I might never have actually finished a novel and my dream might never have come true.
The book is dedicated to my parents and my grandparents, who have all played such a vital role in my love of books, and in my writing too – so, this book is all for them.
I’m currently editing my second novel, and I keep looking over at a copy of The Reading List while I’m stuck or losing focus, just to remind myself that I’ve done it before, and if I put my mind to it, I can do it again.
Have you faced any challenges as an author/writer?
I think my biggest challenges have been my own self-doubt and my brilliant ability to procrastinate.
I know that some writers say that procrastination is part of the process, and I’m sure some of my procrastination is helpful, but I do take it to another level.
I’ll find myself worrying for hours, when I could halve my worries by just starting work earlier!
“Similarly, I’ve had so much self-doubt throughout the whole process.”
Worrying I’m not good enough, worrying no one will understand the book, that no one will like it or get it in the way I intend, and it takes me a long time to put that to the back of my mind.
But, now I’m trying to use any self-doubt in a practical way – taking what’s usefully critical from it and discarding the rest.
But it’s a process – and I’m still learning how to manage it all. I probably always will be.
What are your ambitions within writing, do you have any future projects you are working on?
I’d love to keep writing – it’s definitely something I adore to do, and it doesn’t feel like a chore.
My second novel is similarly about community and finding friendship in unexpected places, with a new setting and a new cast of characters, and I’d really love to keep writing books in this vein.
While I’m great at procrastinating, and I do sometimes struggle with that self-doubt, when it’s just me and the book, I can really settle into it – and often enjoy it.
It feels like a way to keep myself company, to keep my mind occupied.
I love living with other characters in my mind, putting them in situations I know, and situations I don’t too.
What would you say to other budding authors/writers?
Keep going, first of all, and remember your first book might not be THE ONE, but there will be THE ONE there somewhere.
I had so many first novels I thought were ‘the one’ but they’re currently unfinished, never to see the light of day again.
It took me many years to find this ONE where everything I’ve been writing about for years finally fitted together into a story!
Secondly, try to turn off your inner critic while you’re writing.
Speaking from experience, it’s so hard to be creative if you allow yourself to criticise every line or paragraph you write.
There’s a whole stage of the process for that bit, so let yourself write freely.
Once you’ve got words on the page, you can shape them and improve them, or cut them and start again. Every bit of the process is vital – and has its own time and place.
Capturing the importance of friendship and the magic of books, The Reading List is an awe-inspiring novel that manages to enchant the reader through each chapter.
Sara’s portrayal of mourning, family, and mental wellbeing is emotional but creatively uplifting.
With substantial praise from publications such as Kirkus and Publisher Weekly, it is not hard to see how prominent The Reading List has already become.
Excitingly, Sara is determined to carry on this success as she works on her second novel which will undoubtedly leave authors, readers, and fans eagerly awaiting.
If her second novel embodies the sentiment, passion, and imaginativeness that The Reading List possesses, then Sara will continue to thrive and flourish.
Check out Sara’s incredible debut novel here.