Would I Lie to You?
by Aliya Alfi-Afzal
(Grand Central Publishing, February 2022)
Would I Lie to You?, centers on Faiza, who, after a childhood bullying and poverty, finally fits in with the well-heeled families in her neighborhood. But when her husband Tom loses his job in finance, she lies to maintain the façade of financial wealth and is forced to raise $100,000 in a few weeks. Author Aliya Ali-Afzal shares her journey to writing a book that is both a page-turner and a portrait of a relationship under pressure.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you?
ALIYA: My journey started when I won a place on a competitive novel writing course in London. I didn’t know any writers personally before that and being surrounded by other writers felt like coming home. This group of 15 writers took their work seriously, made time for it in their lives, and were all focussed on publication. It made me think, probably for the first time in my life, that maybe my writing was I could also pursue, as something more than just a hobby. I had found my tribe!
“My writing group was also a support group that kept me motivated through difficult times…”
Doing the course and continuing to meet up and share work after it ended has been the best sort of apprenticeship for me. We still meet up every fortnight. It was a safe space to share my work and get constructive feedback from talented writers who I respected. It was also helpful to read their works in progress and analyse what was working or not, when I gave them my feedback. My writing group was also a support group that kept me motivated through difficult times when the writing was not going well, or when the inevitable rejections rolled in. We are also there to celebrate each other’s successes!
I didn’t really have a mentor, but I have made some wonderful connections with more established published writers on social media, and they have been generous in sharing their experience and helped me realise the everyone gets stuck sometimes in the middle of a first draft and doubts if they will ever get their ideas down on paper the way they want. They have also shared the private career lows before their seemingly overnight bestseller status, which is what readers see. When you hear those writers who you admire, have also experienced the same fears and frustrations you are experiencing as a newbie, it is reassuring!
As a new writer, I also wanted to explore my creative process and dig a little deeper into my writing style, so I joined an MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of London. It was an opportunity to not only write, but also to read widely, analyze texts and critical theory. The combination of creative writing and analysis was stimulating and has helped me be a little braver in my writing.
AUTHORLINK: You worked as a headhunter and career coach. Are there any skills from that work that have helped you in writing?
ALIYA: Yes, I absolutely used these skills for my writing career, although not in the writing itself, but in the querying process, which is in fact not unlike making job applications. A cover letter to an agent is not dissimilar to those I helped my clients to write for job applications! Both letters need some preliminary research to find the best match for what you are offering and then must be tailored to the agent’s/ company’s ‘wish list’ for candidates. In both cases, you must articulate why you would be a good fit and also what appeals to you about that particular agent.
“… I also wanted to find agents who were looking for own-voice narratives …”
I researched agents the way I advise clients to research target companies when applying for jobs. So, I looked for agents I admired, who were looking for the sort of book that I was writing, and also followed them on social media and did research online, to get an idea of their perspective, approach to working with authors, and what their clients said about them. In my case, I also wanted to find agents who were looking for own-voice narratives, as I am British-South Asian.
AUTHORLINK: How did the idea for Would I Lie to You? come to you?
ALIYA: There were many inspirations for this story, but the initial spark also came from my work as career coach. I often worked with people who had their dream jobs, but then were let go. As our sessions are confidential, they would also open up to me about the practical and emotional aspects of job loss, such as financial worries. I was shocked to find out that in most cases, I was the only person my clients were telling about their financial difficulties and the emotional fallout of job loss, such as a loss of confidence and identity. They weren’t telling their partners, or their friends, or parents or siblings. It struck me then that this must be such a huge weight to carry alone.
I was also fascinated by the fact that in an otherwise oversharing society these days, where we post much of our life on social media and few topics are off-limits, money is still such taboo, even though it affects so many aspects of our lives. We shy away from discussing it and are embarrassed if we have less than our friends or sometimes even if we have more. There is so much emotion attached to it and yet we never discuss it.
There were also some of my own personal experiences that fed into the story. My husband and I have polar opposite approaches to money! He is ‘the saver’ and I must admit that I am ‘the spender’ and have always been bad with money. I started to think what would happen if a financial crisis hit a couple like that and these different approaches, which may have been manageable under normal circumstances, might blow an otherwise good relationship apart?
AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have on keeping the stakes high in a story? How did you do this in your book?
ALIYA: Writing a tense, page-turning book was always my goal because those are the sort of books I love to read. My favourite feedback about WOULD I LIE TO YOU is when people say they didn’t sleep till 2 am or kept reading while they brushed their teeth or had to buy the audiobook as well, so they could find out what happens next when they left the house and couldn’t carry on reading! I think they feel like this because the stakes are high in the book and remain that way throughout, for Faiza, the lead protagonist.
“First, I had to establish why the stakes were so high.”
First, I had to establish why the stakes were so high. Faiza could lose her marriage which is of course a sad thing to happen, yet not uncommon. But for Faiza and Tom, it would be devastating because Tom is the love of her life and they have a very happy marriage and family life, which is all about to be destroyed, through a mistake she has made. There is fear, guilt, panic, worry, and huge regret. So, the stakes must be the most important thing in your protagonist’s life.
To maintain this tension and keep these stakes high, I had to make sure that Faiza is unable to achieve what she wants throughout the book. Make life as hard as possible for your protagonist, have additional, unexpected difficulties, as well as the ones the protagonist already dreads and anticipates. All the while, also let the readers get closer and closer to the protagonist, to see their emotions, experience their dread, and understand what they stand to lose by describing either the eventual goal or the current life they stand to lose. A reader should want what the protagonist also wants, more than anything else, as they read the book!
AUTHORLINK: What authors and stories influenced your writing?
ALIYA: I read widely and eclectically, and love women’s fiction, domestic noir, romance, crime, and psychological thrillers. Readers have described WOULD I LIE TO YOU as women’s fiction with elements of domestic thrillers, and this is definitely influenced by the wide range of authors I read. I love books that mix it up, for example, Big Little Lies by Lianne Moriarty, which my book has been compared to.
Some of the themes in WOULD I LIE TO YOU were also partly inspired by a short story I read by the Russian author Gogol, called THE OVERCOAT. This was written in the 1800s but the themes of being judged on appearances and trying to fit into a group and societal pressures, are still relevant for my novel published in 2022!
AUTHORLINK: Talk about writing about the complexities of marriage and money.
ALIYA: The greatest challenge was that people have strong views on both these topics and will often be quite judgmental about aspects of other people’s marriages and money management!
I was very keen to write honestly about the challenges in Faiza’s and Tom’s marriage while still showing it to be one that was a relationship worth saving with a lot of love between them. I was always aware that this would not be easy. Sometimes we see marriages as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but I wanted to explore the nuances in a long, happy relationship, without the reader making snap judgments.
Similarly, money is often such an emotive subject. A person’s approach to money- whether it’s being very careful with it or spending too much, being fearful of losing it or prioritising it in life above family or friendships- is often linked in our minds to how we view other aspects of their personality. We may assume they are mean, not generous, frivolous, reckless, greedy, and insecure.
My challenge in WOULD I LIE TO YOU, was to show the fault line in Faiza’s and Tom’s marriage, while also making the readers see how precious and good their relationship was, and also show Faiza’s financial infidelity and recklessness, while showing that she was still a good person.
The fact that readers have said they rooted for Faiza despite what she did, and that they just wanted things to be OK between Faiza and Tom, was an incredible feeling for me as a writer. As I was writing this starkly honest study of money and marriage with all its flaws, and a flawed protagonist, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to pull it off!
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to develop and shape Would I Lie to You??
ALIYA: The idea for the novel had been in my mind for a long time. I wanted to explore how people react when something happens that is beyond their control. For example, in WOULD I LIE TO YOU, Tom’s job loss suddenly destabilizes Tom and Faiza’s world. I also wanted to explore how something like that could rock an otherwise solid relationship.
It took me around two and a half years to write the novel but five years to complete it, because in the middle of writing my book, I stopped for three years- more of that in the answers below!
I had a very clear idea of the couple and the story, but the details and plot evolved organically and changed as I wrote it. I started with just Tom and Faiza and then their families, friends, and the whole community evolved around them, as the plotlines also became more complex. However, the first line of the book and the last line were the first things I wrote and have stayed the same. Not one word changed through several rounds of revisions. I always knew how the story would start and how it would end.
AUTHORLINK: What are the greatest challenges when writing the novel and how did you overcome them?
ALIYA: My biggest challenge was allowing myself ‘permission’ to write the novel in the first place!
I only started writing in my mid-40s, as a mother of three, working full time and as my elderly mother’s carer. It was a full life with no space for this new venture! I knew that it was very hard to get published and I started to question if I should be taking time away from my other responsibilities for something that may just be a pipe dream? Who was I to think that I could suddenly be a writer? The guilt was enormous and led je to give up writing for 3 years. I was spending time on something that wasn’t paying me, was taking me away from the people I loved and with no guarantee of success. I wasn’t only battling my own doubts either. Other people often dismissed my writing as ‘a hobby’ and questioned the effort I was putting into it, and I was also called ‘just another housewife writing a novel’.
So, I gave up writing. But the problem was that I couldn’t stop thinking about my story and I was miserable when I wasn’t writing. In the end what really made me complete the novel was allowing myself to honour my writing and making space for it in my life. I had to stop worrying about whether my book would ever get published and realise that it was enough to do it just because it made me happy, 3that I was creating a piece of art, producing something out of nothing and fulfilling a passion. This mind-set was very important. It helped to silence my guilt and other people’s doubts and was the key factor in completing my novel.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
ALIYA: I did my first round of revisions with my agent, whose has an editorial approach is when she signs up clients. This was very lucky for me because she has incredible instincts, and I also trusted her judgement. We were very much in agreement on the changes she proposed, so it all felt natural and yet I had her impeccable insights into what makes a book work. We did this before submitting to publishers.
I then did 3 rounds of edits with my editor after I got my book deal. First, I had to cut around 12k words and secondly, I had to remove one of Faiza’s friends from the book and so, a whole plot line that threaded through the novel. This seemed like a daunting task. The good thing was that I have an excellent editor who judgement I trusted, and I also agreed with her reasons for the changes- there were too many major characters, which may have ended up confusing readers and these revisions would also help with the other problem of a 3too long word count.
Although when I started to cut this friend out, I had no idea how I would do it, I found that just going through each chapter and removing her as a 6starting point, was not as hard as I had anticipated.
For word count, I realised that some chapters could be condensed into one or two sentences, if I applied my system of asking: does this chapter move the plot forwards, or does it reveal new information about the characters? I had to be brutally honest- even if I loved the writing in a chapter, unless it moved the story forwards or revealed something integral to the plot, it had to be cut!
The other changes we made were to move some chapters so that we could maintain the action and pace of the story. So, I would perhaps move a chapter with a big cliff hanger a little earlier in the story, to keep the momentum up.
My editor told me that she didn’t want me to make any changes to the main characters, which was unusual fir her, but she felt they were already perfect, which was lovely to hear as a debut author.
My advice would be to approach the edits quite systematically and almost as a checklist.
I agreed with 95% of my editor’s suggestions but there were two points where I disagreed. She wanted to remove two key scenes, but I felt that they were integral to the story. I explained why I wanted to keep them- I had to put my case forward- and she agreed in the end. If you feel strongly about an element of the revisions, then do speak up. At the end of the day, this is your story and your book, so you must also be happy with the changes.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers?
ALIYA: Just focus on writing your book!
“The truth is that no one really knows which hooks will get agents, which will get published…”
Don’t think about agents or whether it will get published or worry if it is food enough, as you are writing it. These thoughts are counterproductive and can in fact stop the creative process. The truth is that no one really knows which hooks will get agents, which will get published, and which will become bestsellers. None of that is in your control. All you can do is write. I wrote a book that I am proud to have my name on and this is what your focus should be until you finish your manuscript. Only after that, should you start thinking about agents and panicking about getting a book deal!
I would also recommend joining a writing group. The feedback from my group, who are all talented writers and whose opinions I trust, helped me improve my manuscript as I wrote and edited it. The group was a safe space to get honest yet constructive feedback and also much needed moral support for when things were going wrong in the writing or the querying processes. It also helps you stay on track if you need to submit your work regularly.
AUTHORLINK:Discuss what you are working on now.
ALIYA: I signed a two-book deal, so I have a deadline to submit my next book, THE BIG DAY, in a few weeks.
The book is about a young woman called Zara who lives in London and is planning her big fat Pakistani wedding to Dan, something her single mother has dreamt of since Zara was a baby. Zara’s Granny is also planning her own big day- a fabulous funeral with goody bags and the best lamb biryani in town!
But Zara is afraid of the future, wondering if she can have a happy marriage when she has never seen one growing- up, and Granny is looking back on her life, wondering if she really achieved much in her 83 years? So, they both focus on planning their ‘parties’ rather than think about their worries. They visit florists and food tastings together, and also start to learn more about each other, after growing apart since Zara left for university When Zara hears about all the ups and downs in Granny’s long life and her courage, she starts to feel a little braver about her own future too. Similarly, when Granny sees how impressed Zara is by her life, she starts to remember who she was as a young woman- a trailblazer, with a zest for life, and she starts to make peace with her past. When Zara stumbles across a devastating family secret in Granny’s papers, her world collapses. She is not sure if she even wants to get married any morel or have anything more to do with her family.
I wanted to explore generational trauma and whether we can ever break free to discover a new future, despite our past. It’s again a high stake, high suspense family story which is also, I hope, uplifting and thought-provoking.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aliya Ali-Afzal lives in London and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her writing has been longlisted for The Bath Novel Award, The Mslexia Novel Competition, The Mo Prize Hachette UK, and The Primadonna Prize. Aliya has a degree in Russian and German from the University of London. She has always lived in London, since moving there from Pakistan as a young child. Aliya worked as a head-hunter and then retrained as an Executive MBA career coach.000
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