Holy wow, how fast is this year flying by? Can you believe it’s June already? I can’t, but I’ve been looking forward to having Jennifer Zobair visit, and here she is!
Jennifer Zobair grew up in Iowa and graduated from Smith College and Georgetown Law School. She has practiced corporate and immigration law in New York and Michigan, and has been a strong advocate for Muslim women’s rights. She is married to a fellow Georgetown Law graduate who happens to be Pakistani-American, which means she knows her cumin from her coriander and that the dry cleaner is lying when he says he can remove that big blob of henna from your favorite white pants. She lives with her husband and three children in the Boston area.
drey: Let’s begin with a quick introduction: Tell us in about ten sentences, who is Jennifer Zobair?
JZ: In an email to Rick Reilly, former columnist for Sports Illustrated, I once described myself as “a mother, writer, attorney, vegetarian, Muslim, feminist, girly girl, non-sports magazine reader.” It was in response to a column he’d written about adoption — my oldest son is adopted — and I wanted him to know that people outside of his target audience read and were moved. So I guess I’m also that — the kind of person who writes to total strangers when something touches her profoundly.
I’m a really proud graduate of Smith College. Not just because it’s a great school, but because of the women’s empowerment that goes on every single day there. I take it with me. I carry it and cherish it.
I’m also a graduate of Georgetown Law School, as is my husband, which means the quality of our arguments is somewhere around top 13 or 14, if the U.S. News and World Report rankings are to be believed.
The most important thing I am in all of that is a mother, and that’s what gives me the most joy. Writing is a close second.
drey: When did you first realize you were meant to be a writer?
ZA: I think it was in fifth grade. I had this unconventional teacher — the kind who took us outside for recess even when the principal forbade it because it was too cold — who created a writing lab in an empty classroom. We workshopped stories and she printed a “literary journal” of our work. It was clear she believed in me as a young writer, and after that I just always had the feeling that this was something I wanted to do and could do.
drey: How did that initial realization progress to publishing Painted Hands?
ZA: It took a while. I’d gone to law school and practiced law in New York and Michigan, and then taken time off from work to be home with my kids when they were little. But it was always with me, this idea that I wanted to write fiction. Near the end of my first pregnancy I had issues with low blood pressure and had to take a medical leave from work before my due date. After I knew that the baby and I were okay, my first thought was, “I have some time to write!” When my youngest son went to school, I was supposed to return to the practice of law. Instead, I put him on the bus that first day and started writing.
drey: Tell us about Painted Hands.
ZA: Painted Hands is a novel about smart, successful, career-oriented Muslim women in Boston, and the difficult choices they face when relationships with unlikely men shatter their friendship, and the current political climate threatens their careers.
I knew I wanted to write about the kind of Muslim women I know personally but who are not often portrayed in the media. The actual idea for the novel came from this image I had of a Muslim feminist and a right-wing politico finding themselves attracted to one another despite their philosophical differences. I was curious if they could find love, and I wanted to explore it.
drey: What do you hope your readers walk away with after reading Painted Hands?
ZA: First and foremost, I hope they enjoy it, that it’s a good story. But I also hope it sheds some light on what it’s like to be a Muslim woman in this country, especially for people who may not personally know any Muslim women.
drey: What words of advice would you offer aspiring authors? What do you wish you’d known before you embarked on this journey?
ZA: The best advice I can give is to listen to your gut and to really follow your own inner compass. Don’t worry about trends. This may seem easy for me to say, but I’m the one who wrote a novel about Muslim feminists. It isn’t exactly well-trod ground.
And then I’d say listen to people who have more experience than you do, who might know things you need to know. Reach out and make connections. And if someone takes time to help you, be properly and abundantly grateful.
In terms of actual writing advice, be really careful about overwriting. This is the most common mistake I see when people ask me to read something for them — overwrought, tortured prose. I think they are probably trying to be literary, but literary does not mean “florid.” Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the best literary writers out there, and her prose is full of perfect detail while still being crisp and clean. For a great example of more lyrical writing, look at Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Her prose is gorgeous and poetic and still very, very readable.
What I wish I’d known before embarking on this journey is how long things take in publishing. Waiting for my contract was torture. If I’d known it was normal for it to take so long, I would have relaxed more along the way. I think.
drey: How do you recharge your writing batteries?
ZA: Almost always by reading. Sometimes it’s something new, but if I really need a sure fix, I return to books that inspire me — usually their language or voice. Here, I think of Elegies for the Brokenhearted by Christie Hodgen or the aforementioned The God of Small Things. Or Annie Proulx’s short story, “Brokeback Mountain.” But sometimes it’s a movie. After watching something like “Once” or “Silver Linings Playbook” I can’t wait to get back to whatever I’m working on.
drey: Smackdown: Your favorite characters face off in the ring. Who are they, who wins, and why?
ZA: My favorite characters are Celie from The Color Purple and Ennis del Mar from “Brokeback Mountain.” This is going to bore you to tears, I’m sure, but I can’t have them fight. They’ve both weathered so much. Celie has come through more intact, and I imagine her sitting with Ennis on the porch offering quiet comfort.
drey: What’s up next for you?
ZA: I’m working on a novel about family secrets and the pain of conditional love, and how, if we’re lucky, we can find our way home again.
And a quick Proust-lite to finish up:
- What is your idea of earthly happiness?
Being loved by my children.
- What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
People who live the kind of lives where they think putting other people down will make them feel good about themselves.
- Who is/are your favorite hero/heroine(s) in fiction?
Celie in The Color Purple, Ennis del Mar from “Brokeback Mountain”.
- What is/are your favorite hero/heroine(s) in real life?
My grandparents. They did the right thing, nearly always as far as I can tell.
- What sound do you love?
- What sound do you hate?
Crickets. Especially in the house, when you can’t find them.
- The quality you admire most in a man?
That he’s an unabashed feminist, that he’s eager to own that.
- The quality you admire most in a woman?
The kind of compassion and confidence that allows her to support and love others.
- If not a writer, you would be a …
A practicing lawyer. But probably not a very happy one.
- What is your favorite swear word?
Are my kids going to see this? Because then the answer is “none.”
Thank you so much for visiting us this month, Jennifer!
That’s not all – Jennifer has a signed copy of her debut novel Painted Hands for you! This one’s open to US and Canada residents. To enter, fill out the form below before June 28th. Good luck!