"I will never not feel lucky to be able to do something I love, & to show my children that if you love something, you can make something happen from it"
This week we sit down to chat with author Huma Qureshi about her enviable career
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In last week’s newsletter I wrote about how diversifying a freelance career can be, in many ways, very rewarding. I think there’s something so freeing about being able to carve out the career you want for yourself, while having the power to change its course in a way that suits your life - especially when you have children.
It’s one of the reasons why I admire this week’s interview guest, Huma Qureshi. A seasoned freelance parent, Huma’s career has taken her from a full-time staffer in a newsroom, to freelance journalist, to respected author. Her latest book, How We Met: A Memoir of Love and Other Misadventures is an absolute joy and I devoured it under the covers during an exhausting week when my son just wasn’t sleeping well. I found her words such a tonic and also incredibly inspiring.
How We Met, for those of you that haven’t read it, is a memoir of Huma’s life, beginning with a childhood spent trying to reconcile school life in Walsall with the expectations of her Pakistani parents, and how the events of later years - and her falling in love with a non-Muslim - were shaped by both of these experiences. It’s the kind of book that I’ll loan out to friends with a firm request to return it once they’ve finished so I can read it again.
I spoke to Huma earlier last week to find out more about her enviable career, how she’s found lockdown and what it’s been like to release a book during a global pandemic.
I hope you enjoy!
Until next time.
THE INTERVIEW: HUMA QURESHI, AUTHOR
CAT: First of all, how long have you been freelance and how did your experience of freelance life change when you became a mother? Did it change the topics you wrote about or which projects you took on?
HUMA: I technically became a freelance journalist around 2010, I think, but before that I was a staff writer at The Observer and had been there for about five years before I went freelance. If I'm honest, I stopped thinking of myself as a freelance journalist a few years ago, because I sort of fell out of love with what it was taking out of me, and now am in a fortunate enough position to only write the pieces I'm asked to do in relation with my second book, How We Met. I'm also now writing my fourth book, a novel which comes out in 2023. My third book, a collection of short stories called Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love, comes out in November so I feel like I can finally call myself an author instead of being a freelance journalist.
I initially became freelance (which was before I had children or even had thought about kids), because I was starting to feel like maybe the newsroom wasn't the best place for me and I wanted a chance to do my own thing. I was able to take a decent redundancy package which enabled me to get going. Back then, I enjoyed the freedom of being able to pitch to different sections and publications, which sometimes I was not always able or encouraged to do as staff, and write the pieces I was actually interested in.
I'm also quite introverted and a real homebird, so I actually preferred being away from an office and the sort of social pressures I sometimes felt to go places I didn't really want to go. It meant I got to experiment with print and broadcast and say yes to opportunities that being a staffer wouldn't have allowed - I somehow ended up with a weekly radio slot on the BBC Asian Network for a while. I had a pretty packed freelance life! My eldest was born in 2013, so I had already been freelance for a few years by that time, but by then my love and enthusiasm for journalism was starting to wane and I was getting itchy feet anyway.
After he was born, I became a lot pickier about what sort of pieces I wanted to write, and for what sorts of publications, and decided I'd much rather write books, which had always been my dream. I wrote my first book, In Spite of Oceans in 2014. But there came a point when, as a freelancer, I was trying to make dinner for my two kids who were maybe three and two, whilst pregnant with the third, and trying to take various calls between an editor and a sub-editor and I realised that really, I was so tired of it and of still feeling under pressure as a freelancer and not a staffer. That was the point I really re-evaluated what I wanted to achieve with my writing.
CAT: What do you love most about being a freelance parent?
HUMA: I think what I really love is working for myself, and I view writing books as my work now.
“I will never not feel lucky to be able to do something I love, and to be able to show my children that if you love something, you can make something happen from it. Even though it might feel so unlikely”.
I have to say, I didn't really feel that freelance journalism worked for me as a parent if I am honest. To work for the sort of sections I was writing for, I needed to be in the game all the time, and I simply couldn't keep up with the competition. I didn't have any childcare at the beginning so I was literally working around naps, and I also had my older two children very close together. I know freelance journalism works beautifully for many parents, but it didn't really work for me. I still felt like I was a little bit expected to do work to fit to someone else's schedule and that just wasn't possible when my kids were young and contributed to my desire to write books instead.
CAT: How have you been finding this recent lockdown alongside work, homeschooling and the release of your book?
HUMA: This lockdown has been especially hard and it was not easy that it coincided with a book launch, arguably the busiest time of my year! We're grateful that our youngest child's nursery has stayed open, but we still have our seven and five year old who obviously still need help navigating lessons and staying focused. Their school has been amazing with a brilliant timetable and lots of live lessons for interaction, but the only way we can make it work as a family is to split up our time - my husband is self-employed (a software engineer) and so he oversees the children's lessons in the mornings and then I take over in the afternoons. The nature of his work means he doesn't necessarily need complete silence to enter into what he's doing whereas I really need that while I'm writing my novel. I feel very very grateful that we're able to be flexible with our work in this way and I wish all working parents had support.
CAT: Your new book How We Met is such a joy. I enjoyed it so much. How did you find the courage to write such a personal memoir and how long was it an idea in your head before you put pen to paper?
HUMA: Thank you so much. I knew I wanted to write a book for a good few years, but it didn't become apparent to me what it was going to be until a couple of years ago when I realised this was the story I had to tell, because it was the story I never had. I wrote it for my younger self, because I had searched for myself in stories for so long, and I desperately needed that when I was growing up. Once I got clear on the subject matter and the focus, then the actual writing of the book was done fairly quickly - I wrote the first draft between Christmas 2019 and February 2020.
CAT: In your book, you talk about how becoming a freelance journalist was a departure from the traditional career path your parents expected of you. How did you find the courage to make the leap and how long did you think about doing it before doing it? Did you know many freelancers at the time?
HUMA: I think my parents would have been slightly concerned if I had just decided I was going to be freelance from scratch, and I don't think that's something I would ever have considered for myself anyway. They were actually always very encouraging of my career and seemed to always trust in me that I'd make the right choices, which was pretty awesome. I think what I refer to in the book was more the circumstances - I was worried that the timing of taking my job on The Observer and then moving to London, when my father was very sick in hospital was not right for us as a family. But my mother was nothing but encouraging. When I did eventually go freelance, I do remember talking it through with my mother, but she understood my frustrations and encouraged me again to find my own way.
CAT: Your book has been very well received. How does it feel for so many people to be reading your words right now?
HUMA: It feels incredibly surreal and I'm also deeply moved. Every day I receive messages from people reading my book and telling me how much it means to them, or that it spoke to them, or just that finally something made sense to them. I hadn't expected this. A 17-year-old messaged me after her mother had given her a copy and she told me how much it moved her, to finally find someone who knew what she was going through. That message meant the most to me.
CAT: Have there been any downsides to writing it or unexpected challenges?
HUMA: I have no regrets in writing it. I felt a little weird when The Daily Mail said they wanted to run an extract - I just wasn't sure how I felt about it. In the end, I agreed to it, because ultimately what matters is people finding out about my book, but I felt a little vulnerable about it. It felt weird, seeing my story in a paper that I normally stay away from because of the way it represents people of my background, but surprisingly the reaction was actually not even that bad!
CAT: I think the main thread throughout your story is that of courage. Almost all of your life choices have needed so much of it. Do you see yourself as a courageous person?
HUMA: That's kind of you to say, but I guess I don't really see it in myself, not day to day. I often talk myself out of things because I feel like I shouldn't, or maybe I'm not right for it, or maybe I don't deserve to do it. I try to do it less and less though. And I guess if I step back and look at things objectively, then yeah, maybe I've been a little bit brave. What I wanted to capture in the book was to remember that when it mattered, I was able to find my voice and say what I needed to say.
CAT: What would your advice be for other budding writers sitting on an idea for a book or thinking about going freelance? Where’s the best place to start?
HUMA: For anyone who wants to go freelance, I would say work on that thick skin. Rejections are hard and frequent but they are normal. Still, it's hard not to let them get to you on a bad day and you need to know when to step away. For book writing, I would say, depending on what it is (fiction/non-fiction) - is to start writing, don't lose focus and don't let yourself get distracted by what you think your book "should" be - just give it a chance to breathe and in time you'll discover it for yourself.
Read more about Huma Qureshi here.
How We Met: A Memoir of Love and Other Misadventures, is out January 28th, 2021: Stylist, Best non-fiction 2021, The Bookseller, Editor's Choice
Things We Do Not Tell The People We Love, out November 2021.
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