I had the very good fortune of meeting Neema Shah on an authors’ group I belong to on Facebook.
When she mentioned her debut novel Kololo Hill, I was immediately intrigued, and very excited to be sent a digital copy to read.
The book did not disappoint – in fact, I was blown away.
I couldn’t believe that Neema is a debut author; her voice is assured, her prose lyrical and there’s a fantastic sense of suspense in the novel – I can’t wait for everyone to read it!
The great thing is that Neema is also a lovely person – a kind, gentle, encouraging presence on Twitter. Follow her on social media, read her book, tell everyone about it.
Here is my interview with Neema, I hope you enjoy it…
Have you ever visited South Africa? If you have, tell us about your favourite places here, if not, where would you like to go?
I’ve visited South Africa a few times, twice with work and once with family. I loved it, especially Cape Town which for me is one of the most beautifully situated cities in the world – mountains to one side, sea to the other. Of course, visiting Robben Island had a profound effect on me and I remember my visit vividly. I’d like to go back and see more of the country though, particularly Johannesburg, Durban and Kruger National Park. (You need to come visit us in Joburg!)
Tell us something interesting about yourself that few people are aware of.
Although I have a typical English accent, English is actually a second language. I only spoke Gujarati at home until I was four and began school.
Did you study creative writing? If so, tell us how your course helped you. If not, how did you wind up writing?
I took a short online course five years ago and that reignited my love for creative writing after many years away from the page. The course tutor was wonderful and very supportive. I left the course feeling that perhaps I might be able to give writing a serious go and began to write steadily each week until I had a first draft of Kololo Hill.
What is the book about?
The novel is set during the 1972 Ugandan Asian expulsion by President Idi Amin, when 80,000 people were given only 90 days to leave everything behind. For Asha and Pran, married a matter of months, it means abandoning the family business that Pran has worked so hard to save.
For his mother, Jaya, it means saying goodbye to the house that has been her home for decades. But violence is escalating in Kampala, and people are disappearing.
The novel explores whether they’ll make it to safety to the UK and all the while, a terrible secret about the expulsion hangs over them and threatens to tear the family apart.
What inspired you to write this book?
My grandparents left India for Kenya and Tanzania during the 1940s. I consider Kenya, where some of my Mum’s family still live, my second home, rather than India. Our Gujarati culture and language are infused with Swahili elements. There were many Asian migrants to East Africa throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, as a result of British colonial rule. And yet there are very few novels telling the stories of people like my family, nor the horrific treatment of the Ugandan Asians in 1972. I wanted to bring this time to life for a wider readership who knew little to nothing about this period of history.
Who do you think this book will appeal to?
If you’re interested in books with historical settings and a focus on the personal stories behind them, I think you might like Kololo Hill. Similar books that spring to mind include The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. My novel sheds light on British immigrant stories so for that reason I’d also compare it to Small Island by Andrea Levy, which was a huge inspiration for my writing.
Tell us about your journey to getting published. Talk us through both your lowest point (when you’ve been ugly crying on the bathroom floor) and your highest point (cracking open the prosecco).
I can’t deny it, I’ve been pretty lucky with my route to publishing. This is the first novel I’ve written and I was fortunate to get some competition listings including the Bath Novel Award, the First Novel Prize and The Literary Consultancy Pen Factor Live. This, along with signing with my agent Jenny Savill and my publisher Picador have of course been moments where I definitely did break open the prosecco.
However, I also sent out submission letters to a lot of agents and received my fair share of rejections. That never gets easier! The most challenging thing for me has been publishing during a pandemic. It’s harder to stand out without the ability to attend literary events and engage with readers. Many books from 2020 were also postponed to 2021 so it’s a very busy time to be published.
Talk us through your writing process. Do you write thousands of words a day, 200 words a day? How does it all come together for you? Do you have A PLAN?
Like a lot of writers, I write alongside a full time job, in my case marketing. I used my 50 minute commutes on the London Underground to write Kololo Hill, straight into my smartphone. I gave myself a target of 500 words a day (by which time, my thumbs would be sore from typing)! I edited at the weekends. I’m not the sort of person to have goals written down but yes, I did break the word count down into weekly and monthly targets in my head. Without milestones I wouldn’t have completed the draft.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on book 2 at the moment and will be busy promoting Kololo Hill this year.
Advice to aspiring writers (you may not say ‘go and work in a bank’).
Keep going. It’s easy to see all the success stories and compare yourself to others but there’s not a single author out there who hasn’t received a rejection or a bad review.
Focus on what you want to achieve and keep going. Also, I wouldn’t be where I am without the support of lots of wonderful writer friends who’ve given me helpful feedback, cheered me on during the great moments and commiserated with me during the low moments.
Building a network of writers is one of the best things you can do for your writing career.
I’m an introvert but social media has been a godsend for this as you can be present as you want – I’ve gone on to meet many of my writing friends in real life (pre Covid) as a result!
Gosh where to start! I particularly loved upcoming debuts including the incredibly moving Boys Don’t Cry by Fiona Scarlett, the nailbiting When They Find Her by Lia Middleton and Fragile Monsters by Catherine Menon is just stunning. I recently finished the wonderful The Girl and The Goddess by Nikita Gill and The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn. I’m currently listening to Shuggy Bains by Douglas Stewart on audiobook.
How are you keeping sane during the #lockdown? Have you managed to write anything or read during this time?
I seem to have a strange ability to write no matter what and I count myself extremely lucky. Perhaps I can compartmentalise and escape into writing. I don’t have dependents to look after either, which means I’m fortunate to have more mental energy than some who must be dealing with lots more challenges than I am. And of course I have more writing time as I’m not commuting at the moment.
I think everyone has to go easy on themselves, we are living in extraordinary times and it would be more worrying if everything carried on as if nothing had changed! We should all just do what we can. The feeling of guilt is just another way of using up valuable energy which could be focused on looking after ourselves.
Thank you so much for taking part in #FridayReads, may Kololo Hill fly off the shelves!
Kololo Hill is only being released in hard copy in April in SA, BUT you can pre-order it now plus it is available online if you can’t wait. The book is quite beautiful, so I suggest you buy a copy for yourself and one for a friend. Happy reading! xxx