Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-born Australian writer, social advocate and mechanical engineer.
Her 2015 Tedx Talk, 'What does my headscarf mean to you?' has been viewed more than 2 million times. In 2016 she released her memoir Yassmin's Story, and was named the Queensland Young Person of the Year. In 2019 she released her first work of fiction, the young adult novel You Must Be Layla.
Her writing appears in The Guardian and Teen Vogue, as well as a number of anthologies and journals.
ASTRID: Yassmin is Sudanese born Australian writer, social advocate and mechanical engineer. Her 2015 TED Talk 'What does my headscarf mean to you?' has been viewed more than two million times. Yassmin was named the Queensland Young Person of the Year, and in 2016 she published her debut memoir 'Yassmin's Story'. Her writing appears in The Guardian and Teen Vogue, as well as numerous anthologies and journals, and 'You Must Be Layla', her first book of fiction, has just been released. Yassmin, welcome to The Garret.
YASSMIN: Thanks for having me.
ASTRID: Congratulations on the launch of 'You Must Be Layla'.
YASSMIN: Thank you. I would, I would sort of I usually would do like a 'woo woo' but my voice is a bit husky, so I don't know that I'd be able to handle that. But imagine I did.
ASTRID: No worries. Now, we're going to talk a lot about 'You Must Be Layla', but first I'd like to start with your 2015 TEDx Talk 'What does my headscarf mean to you?'.
ASTRID: Firstly, it's been viewed more than two million times, so congratulations. That's pretty darn impressive.
YASSMIN: It's all right.
ASTRID: What does that mean to you?
YASSMIN: What does my headscarf mean to me?
ASTRID: What does being viewed two million times mean to you?
YASSMIN: That's so interesting. I've never really thought about it. I guess it's an acknowledgement perhaps that it's something people are interested in, and also it's cool because the talk... I had the opportunity to do it very much on my own terms, and so it was this kind of opportunity to talk about... to enter the conversation with this question of 'what does my headscarf mean to you?', but actually show that it's more so much more than about that, because I don't really talk about the headscarf very much at all in the talk, which I think people get a little surprised by when they click on it they're like, 'Oh we're going to find out you know the perspective of the hijab from a Muslim woman'. And it's actually about unconscious bias. It's about how we make all these sorts of assumptions based on what we think a headscarf means, and trying to kind of open up this question of - or broaden people's horizons about - well maybe our first impressions of people are things that should be challenged, and maybe this idea that you know you need to dress like this in order to be respected or in order to be taken seriously or in order to whatever whatever. Perhaps that's the wrong way to frame it.
ASTRID: I was very impressed with the speech that I teach writing at RMIT University, and speech writing, and I'd like you to tell me about how you wrote the talk.
YASSMIN: Oh, I don't think anyone has ever asked me this. It's funny because it kind of happened by accident. Like most of my most my best writing I think kind of happens without a lot of pre thought or what I would say thought that happens in the background, and it sort of comes out in one hit. So, I had actually been planning to write a talk about something completely different, something to do with like schools and youth or something I know very little about. And on my way to meet the organiser of the event I had actually gone, like left the house in the morning and had a different outfit on, gone home, changed and then left the house again and had the same bus driver pick me up. And the same bus driver looked at me different based on my outfit. And so I got really annoyed, and there were a couple of other things that happened that day on the way to meet this person. And when I met her, I was like 'Look, I've got this great idea for this story for this talk, b ut let me just vent for a moment about how literally I wore the same scarf but I wrapped it in different ways and people treated me differently'. And I ranted for a little bit. She was like, 'That's the talk, like that's you know, there you go'. And I was like 'Oh no, that's... I mean I don't think anyone's going to be that interested'. And she was like, 'No, you're the best person to write about it'.
And so I went home that evening and I think I just wrote it all in one hit. It was essentially - and I'm quite fortunate, I did debating in high school - and I had a debating teacher who always said, 'Start every talk, start every speech, anytime you get up in front of a group of people, start with a story'. Right because in high school debating everyone sort of gets up and they're like, 'Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen blah blah', and you fall asleep immediately. And my thing was always I start with an anecdote, and the anecdote is always a series of questions. And that's kind of how it happened.
ASTRID: It's gorgeous. How did you memorise it? And how did you practice it? Because your delivery is fantastic.
YASSMIN: This is so great. I never get asked about it. So, I'm lucky I think because I can memorise things quickly. I just repeat it over and over and over. So I think it takes me about seven full repetitions of a speech to memorise it. And there will always be something... there might be like one or two paragraphs that I have trouble with. So they'll be the ones that kind of flow and you like, 'That is nailed', but then there'll be one... You know it'll be a sentence that you keep forgetting. And then you... like I'll use some sort of memory trick to try to remember you know what that sentence is about, because kind of once you kind of get that hook it allows you to flow into the paragraph.
But generally, I really like... I really like doing speeches. And I really like using words to kind of create emotion in a room, and to take people on a journey. And actually I think I... I do that in my physical writing as well. Well that's what I at least I try to do, is do that storytelling kind of like you take... you know you go high emotionally then you go low and then you do all this... and you pause and you this and you this and all that stuff is really powerful.
ASTRID: So, it's a great title of the TED Talk, but also you have a bit of a visual appeal as well. So you actually undress twice, changing outfits on stage. Now that's really memorable. How did you come up with that idea?
YASSMIN: So that literally came out of... when I was... when I was having that conversation with the organiser, I was like, 'Wouldn't it be interesting... I was like what if I walked around in my abaya - which is kind of a long black outfit that typically Emirati or Saudi women wear, and I would wear to mosque - and then I walked around and my rig clothes. You know people treat me differently. She was like, 'Why don't you?' She actually she was like, 'Would you wear all of them onstage?' And I was like, well I could you know take it off and it would be quite a visual thing. But that might be a bit too dramatic. I remember thinking, 'Oh that might be a bit much'. Like it might be a bit... for some reason I thought it might be disrespectful or rude or just too jarring. She was like there's nothing more powerful because and this is the thing that I've kind of learnt since then you know you can tell people things but if you can show them at the same time then then it's something that they don't forget, because I walk out and they do have - the people sitting in the audience have that perception of me. Right? And so not only do you then unpack this idea of unconscious bias but they're going through those emotions right then and there. So they can't kind of be like, o'Oh that's a thing that doesn't apply to me'.
ASTRID You create an experience for them.
ASTRID: So for those writers out there who are brilliant with words but maybe not so great at presenting them, what advice do you have for them?
YASSMIN: Oh I think we put them in different categories. I think we put telling stories on stage and telling stories on the page as very different things, but I think they're so similar Right? I learnt storytelling onstage and then I became like a physical author or book writer. But I think it's the same technique. So perhaps make that mental shift that it's actually not a completely different thing, and then think about the way that you use words. I guess think about as like taking it from 2D to 3D right. You're kind of... you're giving it a little extra depth. You're giving it... There are all these other elements that you can now play with. Right? You can play with silence, you can play with volume, you can play with in a tone. And, and you yourself, your body your mouth, you'r the instrument. Right? And and that's really quite exciting.
And then obviously the practical stuff of you know practice where you can. You know, take the opportunity when you can. Don't be afraid to experiment on stage because nobody has any idea what's written on your page, right? They're not... they don't have the book in front of them, right, and they're not sort of saying, 'Oh well she she made a mistake there'. I think audiences are much more forgiving I think than we like to give them credit for sometimes, especially I think book audiences are really really lovely. So yeah give it a shot and have fun.
ASTRID: That is great advice. I hope you realise that all of that is going straight into RMIT teaching class.
ASTRID: Tell me about your motivation for writing 'You Must Be Layla'.
YASSMIN: So, it's funny because I don't think I ever was going to be a fiction writer. I loved reading fiction growing up, but never thought I was imaginative enough really to come up with a brand new story all on my own, especially because the kind of books that I read were about, you know fantasy, and you know magical worlds, and I don't think... I didn't believe that I had the capacity. But when I had a conversation with my publishers after my first book, because they'd seen me interact with schoolchildren and they were like, 'You love talking to schoolchildren and they love they love talking to you. Why don't you... would you consider ever writing a book aimed at them? And I thought well I never thought about this before but let's give it a shot, right?
Like I'm someone that likes to give things like one go at least. And and the reason I decided to give it a shot ultimately was because I'm really passionate about this idea of representation. I'm really passionate about this idea that what you... I mean, there is the kind of first level which is you can't be what you can't see, or it's very difficult to be what you can't see. But also, the fact that as young people, as people from marginalised communities growing up in the mainstream or in the norm or in a society that doesn't necessarily reflect their experience, not only do you not feel seen...
It's not as basic as not being seen, but it's kind of like you have no value in this society, you are completely invisible, like your story, your individuality, your culture, all of that has no worth. It's not as if we dismiss it. It's not as if we disparage it. We just simply don't acknowledge its existence. And that I think has a very deep impact on people from those communities, because they then inherently don't have a sense of - and I think this was something that affected me growing up - you don't necessarily have an inherent sense of value in the society you grow up in. You kind of feel like, 'Well, the other stories are more important. The other stories are more objective'. You find yourself fitting yourself into the stories of other people and the lens of other people. So learning to centre your perspective, learning to value the world that you come from I think is incredibly powerful.
ASTRID: I love your description of representation. As a girl who grew up white in Australia and a heavy reader, I love the diversity of books that I now see, because I even felt as a kid that I didn't see myself in the stories in Australia - and I'm white.
ASTRID: That gives me an inherent privilege in that context. I also think that the much greater range of representation we have now is really important - not just for the communities that are now being represented - but for everybody else because otherwise we're reinforcing that bias over and over again. And that's got to stop.
YASSMIN: Yeah, and I think I... so I've been on tour for a little while with the book, and when I was asked a question that I thought... that I hadn't really clocked but I thought was poignant, which was around that exact point, is that this book, 'Yes, you might have written it for you know your young Muslim girl or your young girl of colour... Actually, it has a huge impact on those people who are from those communities, because they now then find out about a world they didn't know anything about'. And that's really, really beautiful, but also really important if we're going to build a cohesive society, right?
I think we live in a world where we don't necessarily know much about so many communities. One of the awesome things that I've had the pleasure of doing recently is reading a lot of books written by First Nations authors, right? And I'm like, 'Oh wow, all this Indigenous history in our country that I just knew nothing about that I now am like hearing and learning about through... through novels'. It's fantastic, right. And I didn't have access to that. And it's not... I mean, yes you can kind of go out and ask people and so on. But stories and books are such a lovely way of entering that space always.
ASTRID: Now tell me how autobiographical is 'You Must Be Layla'.
YASSMIN: I think Layla the character definitely has seeds of similarity with Mmy own... She is someone... So obviously there's a kind of like classic identifiers right? She's Sudanese. She's Muslim. She's all these sorts of things. She's a young girl.
ASTRID: She's good at building things.
YASSMIN: She's good at building things. She asks a lot of questions. She's very curious and very adventurous. But I think there's probably parts of her that were about me imagining what I would have liked to be at that age, or you know, she was possibly a little funnier than I was at that age, or possibly a little braver and more courageous. And I think it was funny because you asked me about writing fiction... It wasn't until about halfway through the book I was like, 'Oh I can make anything up here! She can be whatever I want'. And so that's when I really start playing with different themes and so on. And so I think her character is inspired by but not... not a total direct reflection of myself.
ASTRID: So the book is aimed at kind of upper primary school early high school. How did you work to get the tone right for that age bracket?
YASSMIN: It's really interesting. I think it does help that I've got the sense of humour of a 10 year old, right? It definitely definitely helps. But also I ended up having conversations with young kids about it, or you know, students and children around that age... kind of understanding what their life was like and what they talked about when they thought about. And it was really interesting because some of those things are exactly the same as you know when I was growing up and somewhat completely different, because I didn't have, you know, iPhones and the Internet in the same way and so on.
And also I read a lot of stuff in that age group to kind of try to understand what the tone would be like... watched a little bit of TV that was aimed around that. So just tried to get myself in the headspace. That was helpful for that kind of age group. Yeah.
ASTRID: So Layla is fierce and slightly flawed. In no way is she a perfect heroine. She's definitely layered, and although she has the best intentions she continues to make quite a few social faux pas. Did you intend her to be a role model or relatable?
YASSMIN: No, I don't think I did. And I think this is something that maybe I subconsciously... it happens subconsciously but is important to me in hindsight, which is I think - particularly for sort of Muslim characters that I've read or seen or I think that many of us have intended to write - because you're working against stereotypes that exist in the world that are very strong, you want to create a perfect character. And so they tend to be perfect Muslims, they tend to be you know all like they tend to be quite good people without flaws, or even if they are going through difficult things they're always kind of good. They're good people, good Muslims, good whatever.
But that's... That wasn't my life. Right? And that's not the life of lots of Muslim kids I know. And I think I remember when I read those characters growing up, I will... I always felt like I fell short of that, right? I fell short of even the examples that were provided for me. Right? The very few. But I was like, 'Well, I'm not I'm not that perfect. So you know , I guess I'm not even as good as that as the characters'.
And I think also it's an element of providing a sense of realism and normalising you know a Muslim character, normalising a young character of colour, because I think if we're so focused with being the perfect representations of our group, that takes away your agency as an individual, that takes away the space for you to grow. And to to have her be someone who's still figuring things out I think hopefully gives permission to the people reading it to be like, 'Oh it's okay if I you know stuff things up'. But also for others to be like, 'Oh it's okay if they're not perfect, they're still worthy'. Right, there's still, you know, doing like in the same as all of us.
ASTRID: School can be hard for anyone at any age and Layla, of course, you know kind of starting point is she changes schools. So she's you know going into year eight, different school, you know the only one wearing a headscarf, she meets boys and girls and you know it's that tension over new school which everyone experienced. But aside from that, you tackle quite a few significant themes - growing up Muslim in Australia, migrant experience, the idea of looking and feeling different - not just through Layla but other characters as well. So the character of Ethan comes out as gay throughout the novel, you know first crushes and sexuality, and there was just one little paragraph in there about you know girls monitoring their eating habits. There's so much in there that I think kids will pick up depending on what they're all thinking or feeling. How meaningful is it for you to get all of that out there?
YASSMIN: Yeah, it's interesting because I don't think I ever consciously thought, 'Oh I want to get every issue out there' Right? I think what I thought was, 'What's it like to be a teenager, you know, in the world today. What was it like for me? What's it like for teenagers now?' And all of these issues exist at the same time. Right, like I think part of... there was a part of me that was like maybe we focus on only one thing. You know, maybe it's kind of like we tackle this particular challenge, and you just leave all the other things. But the reality is - and this is kind of the idea of intersectionality, right - we don't leave any of it out of our identities at the door. We don't leave... We don't live in a world where you only deal with an eating you know eating habits, or you only deal with sexuality, or you only deal with this or this or this. It's kind of all happening around you, and they will those issues will affect you will not affect you like depending on the day I think. Right?
Like I remember being quite a strong, you know, like I was a confident young woman, but of course every once in a while I was like, 'Yeah well maybe I should change the way I eat', even though that wasn't like a huge thing for me. Or you know having a conversation with the guy that I went to school with years later who came out who was like, 'Well I was never going to do that at school because of X Y Z'. All these things were happening at the same time and they exist. And I think sometimes we think that young people don't have the capacity to have conversations about all of these issues at once, but actually they are and where underestimating their capacity to deal with them, because that's the life of a teenager.
ASTRID: Tell me about the theme of anger and forgiveness in the book.
YASSMIN: So that I think was one that came through quite strongly, and also possibly without me realising at the time reflected my own kind of personal journey at the time that I was writing the book. I think if I was to write that start writing the book now I think I'd probably be... the themes I would look at would be quite different, because I'm in a different headspace. So it's fascinating what kind of comes out even in fiction.
So Layla's character ends up having a fight and you know suffers consequences because of it, and is very angry about it but is not quite sure how to deal with that anger. And obviously her family's also Sudanese and Muslim, and they also have their own experiences of dealing with challenges in their own ways, of dealing with those individually.
ASTRID: Because in the background to Layla's story of course we have her older brother, who was obviously male, closer to the end of his school life, and dealing with a whole host of other challenges including racism in the workforce.
YASSMIN: Yeah. And Ozzy, the name of that character, has a different attitude towards all of that with Layla. So even towards the other book where Layla was like, 'Okay I understand this this concept of forgiveness a little more, and you know maybe this space for it in my life', and her brother sort of pushes back and is like, 'Well actually you know that's great for them right, if you forgive them, but my life is not easier if I forgive them necessarily. They're not going to give me a job'. And I left that open because I think that again reflects the ... like I had those conversations in my household, where one family member would be happy to forgive and be generous and the other would be like, 'Well actually no, they will hurt us and they don't deserve forgiveness'. And I don't I don't think I necessarily know the answer to it all. I think the way that Layla deals with it is perhaps closer to how I ended up. And I think having the capacity to forgive and to be generous is something that I think is very powerful. I don't think we should ever expect from people, because I think it is possibly the hardest thing one can ever do, really genuinely forgive somebody that is - or people - that have caused them a lot of deep hurt and harm. But I mean they're very real and universal concepts that will affect a 13 year old as much as a 30 year old.
ASTRID: Definitely. What is the most meaningful compliment or feedback you've received from a reader so far?
YASSMIN: I think that. So I've had quite a few sort of mums actually, send me photos of girls, their daughters, with the book kind of saying, you know, that that they can't put the book down. And so that in general I think is something that that means quite a lot, because I had no idea what the reception would be like. But I think a reader recently said to me - and bear in mind this book has been out for like a week and a half, so I'm only just kind of getting this feedback - but someone was like, 'I have just never'... I guess the reason why I wrote it, they were like, 'I've never seen myself reflected, and to see myself reflected it' - was an older reader as well, you know - 'iit makes me want to cry'. And to think that's something you've created has that impact I think is very very humbling.
ASTRID: It can only be humbling.
ASTRID: So Penguin published your first memoir, and it has now published 'You Must Be Layla'. Is part of like a three book deal or something?
YASSMIN: Oh, not at the moment but I'm working on it, I'm working on it! I think hopefully if the book does well, you know, there'll be more opportunities for sure. I've definitely, I've definitely enjoyed the experience of writing fiction and I'm definitely open to more, which is really cool.
ASTRID: So from your experience as a writer - and you and you write non-fiction of all lengths - what have you taken from your professional life as a non-fiction writer into this world of fiction?
YASSMIN: Mmm. I think.. so I think that in the world of non-fiction you have to kind of stick to truths, right? You have to be quite serious about the way that you approach the world and what happens and so on and so on. And I think that even though fiction is making things up, as it were, there is also the importance to stick to the truth of that world, right? So you can't - for me anyway - because I'm not writing fantastical novels, they're kind of based in reality, I think it was important for me to find the truth of this, of the world that I was writing in and stick to that, if that makes sense. So the truth of the character, or the truth of the family dynamic, and I tried to stick to that as much as possible. And if there is something that happens that's a little... that takes a little leap of faith you have to earn that, right? You have to do the storytelling work so that that is not a surprise in a way that is too jarring, because I think when I when I first started I was like, 'Oh yes there'll be a magical forest and there'll be this and there'll be this'. And it's like well actually, you know fiction means you can make things up but it doesn't mean it like doesn't make any sense. So, I think the discipline of that was definitely something that I brought from the non-fiction space.
ASTRID: How long did it take you to write 'You Must Be Layla' and how many drafts did you do?
YASSMIN: Oh the drafts.
ASTRID: Your face changed.
YASSMIN: So, the first draft actually probably took me a little over a month. Right. So I kind of... it was it was January and I have a habit of never hitting deadlines. And so I was like, 'I'm going to hit this deadline, you know, it's going to happen'. So it was... And I was in the UK, so it was like, you know the sun goes out at 3:00 p.m., very dark. So I did that first draft, sort of 40 to 50 thousand words in about a month, and the edit, the first edit came back and that was the big like, 'Oh wow there's quite a lot of restructuring work to do'. And that was the point where my publisher was like, 'Maybe you should write a character map or something, to help us all understand who these characters are'. Fair enough. So the next kind of stage - which was the big restructure stage - took a couple of months.
ASTRID: And was that with the help of your editor at that stage?
YASSMIN: At that stage, no. So the first kind of restructure there was lots of notes from the editor that I kind of just worked off. And then, and then I waited for the sort of next version. And it probably after that... the tweaks, kind of maybe like three versions went back and forth there. And also I guess another... It's sort of like towards the latter end of the process, like I go to another friend to read like with fresh eyes and got a little bit of feedback around, 'Okay, this makes sense. This doesn't feel real. How about you sort of tweak these sort of small things'. So from my go to woe it was about a year.
ASTRID: Thank you for explaining that, Yassmin. I find a lot of new writers and writers who've just completed their first manuscript are very emotionally attached to it, and are horrified by the idea that anything would change, let alone anyone else suggest that it could be changed. I think it's really valuable to kind of... expose the wor
YASSMIN: Yeah. The first draft is so far from what ends up getting published, quite often, like my first draft for my memoir was like, argh. And like I think it is like it is an achievement to get all your words down, like you know your first hundred thousand, your first fifty thousand, whatever. Like that's is an achievement not to be undermined. But it's only the first step, right? And that is something I find very different from my non-fiction work, because I think generally with my non-fiction work I've got a pretty good idea of what's going to happen, right? And because it's it is about a thing in the world that is real, right, it's not as if too many facts are going to change or you're going to change a character or you're going to introduce a character, like nothing like that. Whereas in the fiction world, definitely,, you know it's that saying right you've got to be able to kill your darlings.
ASTRID: Yeah. Maybe not kill them keep them but keep them in a different document.
YASSMIN: There's a word document with everything that I've cut out, like saved, just in case. Yeah, yeah.
ASTRID: So when you're going through the process of writing and rewriting and editing, were you thinking about kind of an ideal reader or your end audience?
YASSMIN: I don't think I specifically had an individual in mind, but I definitely I guess had maybe my 13 year old self, maybe, or my maybe 11 to 12 year old self. I think that was maybe the character, the person, that I was writing for. Or even like a cousin or something like that. So like I had a vague idea, but it wasn't like... I think sometimes you can... like you have a very clear idea of who the person is that you're writing for. I don't think it was that specific for me. Because also what I found was that, you know, I have friends in the UK who are in their 20s who loved me reading the story out to them, right.
YASSMIN: It was really interesting. And it's really, it's also really again really humbling because I think like... One of my friends, Natalie, loves Layla. She's like, 'I can't wait for you know Layla to see the world and everyone to meet her'. And it's just so... it's lovely to know that she can have such an impact even on you know a woman in her 30s.
ASTRID: What was the hardest bit the most challenging part of writing, you know, YA for young teens.
YASSMIN: I think getting the balance between... Not writing in a way that's condescending but then not writing kind of too far above... Like exploring themes that were too intense or that weren't relatable, like going to a place that was a little bit removed from their experience, so like kind of remaining centered on the experience and the relevance to this particular audience. So, I think that was a little bit of a challenge because also my typical reader has always been you know someone who's a little older, and typically interested in exploring like quite complex themes. And so distilling... I think it's still important to talk about these complex themes to younger readers, but being able to distill that down into maybe simpler storylines or simpler concepts but still with the richness and the depth I think that they deserve. It was a little bit of a challenge, and so I hope I got that right. But yeah, we'll see.
ASTRID: That was actually a perfect segue way into my next question, Yassmin. I wanted to kind of explore with you what can't you stay in YA?
YASSMIN: So I think because my readers are not necessarily like full... like this is the sort of younger end of YA, I think that you know there are some themes... and there are the obvious themes of like talking about drug use and explicit sex and all these sorts of things that I think are perhaps suitable, more suitable for older readers. I think also... I don't know whether you can't, but for me personally I don't necessarily want to ruin the world for those readers, right? I want them to come out with a sense of optimism. I want them to be hopeful. I want them to still feel empowered. I didn't want to write a story where, you know what, Layla gets expelled, goes home goes home and is really sad.
ASTRID: No, she has things to do.
YASSMIN: Exactly, right? Like I didn't want to write a story that had no happy ending. I think as we get older, sometimes you read stories and novels that are like tragedies and it's just about everyone, you know, and it's all really traumatic and there's a space for that. But do we need 10 year olds to be reading those stories? I personally don't want to be writing those. And so I guess you know for me, I can't write stories that are going to take away the light and the like, real sense of idealism that young people at that age have.
ASTRID: So how do you know when your story is done? when it's right?
YASSMIN: Mmm. Interesting. I think perhaps when it feels real. And that's kind of nebulous, but at some point, you know, when you're going through the story it feels like this is a story that's happened to a friend of mine that I can tell, right? I was like, 'Oh yeah this thing happened', you know, but like it's a thing that you are telling someone at a dinner party or something like that. When it's got that kind of sense of fluidity and believability perhaps, that for me is when that is. But also, and this is maybe the like the writer that, I don't know, if it's the most helpful advice or anything like that, but at some point you also are exhausted by the story. Right? You've read it so many times. Like I remember on my final proofread I was like, 'I am so done with reading this story'.
ASTRID: And now you have to talk about it.
YASSMIN: It's good there was like a few months break in between, because I was like 'Oh my God'. And like at that point, when you're like, 'I am not actually not interested in changing things, I'm done'. I think that's also a nice place to draw the line. You do not want to resent the book.
ASTRID: No not at all. Now we've been discussing 'You Must B',e Layla but you write all lengths in all different places. This week you have a piece about F1 racing in The Guardian newspaper. What is your favourite length to write? Like what makes you happy?
YASSMIN: That's really interesting. I think... the easiest length for me is about 800 or 900 words, right? I think a nice length is 1,500 to 2,000, because I think that gives me the space - in non-fiction anyway - it gives me the space to prosecute an idea, right, without having to like exhaust myself with theses and backing up and blah blah. I think it's a nice amount of words to make a really interesting point with it, but but the person doesn't have to like split their reading time, you know, they can kind of read it all in one hit. In the space of fiction I like a... you know, a two and a half thousand word kind of short story is nice as well.
It's funny when I wrote my first book I remember thinking at the beginning, 'Oh it's going to be just like writing a long essay'. And it's nothing like writing a long essay. And so I don't know why I thought that that was the case. But that sort of essay length is is quite fun. And funnily enough, it does take me like, it sometimes takes me quite a long time to do, because you know you do that kind of percolating in your mind, right? You do that, 'What's going to happen to this'. I find like the five to ten thousand word quite hard, right because it's like quite a long amount and so there's you know you've got to do research or whatever, but also not long enough for you to have like a lot of space. So it's like you know we're talking about speech writing earlier, it's like a five minute speech or like a seven minute speech is actually really hard, like a two or three minute easy! A 15, a 45 minute, great. I love a 45 minute speech. But like seven minutes? Like what do I do with seven minutes? That's the like, you know five to 10 thousand word limit for me.
ASTRID: So when you think of your shorter pieces, what would be... where do you want to get published? What would be like that one place that you want to see your name?
YASSMIN: I think it ..would be cool. It would be cool... I would like to it would be cool to write in The Atlantic. I think I think The Atlantic doesn't really cool things. I would also... I've had one thing come out in The Times, but I think it'd be nice to have like a a longer sort of piece in The New York Times, which would be pretty cool. I also... I don't know. There's... I mean this is a bit of an unusual one, but like I really like the writing style of The Economist. It's entirely different, this is very it's very different space but there's something about like that tone and the... I mean i t's more like journalism perhaps than than writing per se but I really like reading it, and say you always like, 'It would be so cool if my name was in'.
ASTRID: Oh totally. Journalism is writing, and also The Economist, it just sounds so authoritative.
YASSMIN: Right. I think it's quite, it's... 'We know what we're doing. We know what's up'. And you're like, 'Oh yes, of course he must be right, I know you didn't predict the GFC.. but whatever'.
ASTRID: I'm going to move us from the GFC to reading fantasy, which you mentioned very early. I also read a great deal of fantasy as a kid, and I saw that you read Brandon Sanderson.
YASSMIN: Yes. Oh my God.
ASTRID: Yes I know. Which works by Brandon Sanderson?
YASSMIN: I mean... I will say that I'm terrible at remembering names, but 'The Way of Kings', that trilogy, I've read multiple times. It's I mean they're massive books...
ASTRID: You know, they're the first three to ten part series?
YASSMIN: No I did not. Oh my God.
ASTRID: Brace yourself.
YASSMIN: That's so classic fantasy, though. Like fantasy is like, you know what, let's start this story and then just spend a hundred thousand pages telling it. And I saw this tweet the other day, there's an account called like 'brooding YA love interest' or whatever. And it's like, you know Guy 1 is, like you know, he's really nice to you, you've known him since you were children. Guy 2 is brooding, silent. You know, it'll take you three books to find out which one you pick, right? And it's like that's just like classic fantasy, YA. I love it.
You know it's really funny. Like talking to people in the fiction space. So many have read fantasy, and like fantasies played such a huge role in the shaping of of so many writers' lives. I'm just... I just find that really fascinating, and I wonder what about fantasy has kind of led to that. Is it because it's one of the genres that takes you out of the world you're in? And you know, if you're a writer you like that escapism? Perhaps, it certainly was for me.
ASTRID: I think it's the escapism, but also the world-building and writing craft in good fantasy...
YASSMIN: Is amazing.
ASTRID: It it's truly exceptional.
YASSMIN: And I think that you know when I when I say that I never imagined I'd be a fiction writer because I was comparing myself to like, you know, Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss and like Pratchett. Like, 'The Name of the Wind', also one of my favorite books of all time.
ASTRID: They are making that movie...
ASTRID: Or maybe like a Netflix TV show.
YASSMIN: I hope they do a good job, ecause I would be like devastated if they butchered it. But I'll just... maybe you know what I'll do. I'll enjoy them separately.
ASTRID: Completely. Yassmin we are so off track and I want to keep talking to you about fantasy, which I might do when I turn the mic off. But thank you so much for coming on The Garret.
YASSMIN: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.