It's Only a Dream Until You Do It: Zoulfa Katouh
At some point, every author has faced the dilemma of explaining your publishing goals to someone who isn't familiar with publishing. As soon as the question leaves the lips of the asker, your spine straightens, your fingers curl, and your brain fires off a million answers. None of which seem concise enough to make it all make sense: the waiting, revising, the rejection...and the hardest of all--explaining the money (especially since everyone tends to think you'll get Stephen King type of pay). But eventually, you ramble off some sort of answer. It's clear from the faltering smile and glazed-over facial expression that the other person is probably thinking: Damn, that's some kind of dream. And in explaining this, even you begin to realize what it is--a dream. A dream that you want so badly but often times wonder when--if ever- it will come true. How much more? What else must you give? What else can you do? How much longer must you wait? The questions swirl around your mind, feeding the doubt and fueling the panic.
But then, one day it just happens.
It's no longer a dream. It's reality.
Read on for author Zoulfa Katouh's manifestation of As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow.
1. Welp, the first question for these sort of things usually is the ‘how did you get your agent’ question, but YOUR debut, As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow, was recently announced for publication in 2022! So, please tell us all about your journey to that point (querying, going on submission, publication offer).
Ah what a journey that was! It’s easy to write it in words but boy living through it made me learn what patience really means.
I wrote Lemon Trees in Nano of 2017 and finished it the following August. I participated in DvPit 2018 and scored a good amount of agent interest, one of them being my agent (spoiler!). Long story short after many rejections from other agents, Allie gave me a revise and resubmit which I was able to work on with Author Mentor Match with my wonderful mentor, Joan F. Smith. I signed with Allie in August 2019. We spent the next seventeen (17)—yes, seventeen—months editing Lemon Trees until she was Very Pretty. Beautiful even.
I went on sub in February 2021 and got my preempt offer from Little, Brown after six days. To say I was shook would be an understatement. And to be honest, it still hasn’t hit me fully yet. I accepted the preempt and sold Lemon Trees in a six-figure deal and yes, I am still yelling.
2. There has been much discourse about the importance of finding an agent who will not just sell your work but is also a fit for your work. How did you know this was true for Allie? What advice would you give to querying writers, specifically marginalized writers, in regards to this?
Ah yes that’s a great question.
I knew Allie was the one when she replied to my query with the most heartfelt e-mail ever. I had never seen such enthusiasm from any agent in my querying journey. It made me tear up. Because you have to know, there’s no book like my book. A young adult story with Syrian Muslim teens being told from the heart of Syria written by a Syrian? I thought it would be difficult for me to make people see how important it is. It was a burning fire in my chest to be able to publish it so the world can know and read my people’s stories.
When Allie sent me the revise and resubmit, my mouth dropped from how detailed it was. I think it was seven pages on Word? I had never seen nor heard anything like this before. I knew she was all in. She completely understood the heart of it, and it motivated me to give it my all as well.
For me, it was a feeling in my heart. I could read it in her words and the way she spoke with me during The Call. I call it a gut feeling backed with all the proof she was showing. Never once did I feel I have to compromise who I am in order to fit a narrative that would be watered down for people who aren’t Muslim or Arab for example. She saw my characters and stories more than the pain they have. More than the trauma. And that meant everything.
So my advice is listen to your gut feeling. Red flags will always nudge your soul. It will feel like a twinge in your stomach or an “ummm? I do not enjoy this”. Don’t be sidetracked with the joy of having an offer to see the signs. An agent can be great with superb yelp reviews and clients gushing nonstop about them, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right one for you. And that’s okay.
3. As Long as The Lemon Trees Grow is categorized as Young Adult . Did you always plan to write in that genre? If so, what draws you to it?
I’ve always been drawn to young adult and I wanted Lemon Trees to be about teens for teens. What’s happening in Syria is affecting the younger generation to a huge degree. I wanted teens to read about teens just like them who have dreams and ambitions and wants and people they love. It’s Generation Z and Millennials who will be making the decisions in the future. I wanted to reach them at a young age when they’re curious to know more about the world—to change it for the better.
I wanted young Muslim readers to see themselves in stories. They deserve to read their stories and they deserve to be seen. There aren’t many young adult books featuring Muslim teens. I can count them on one hand. It’s time for more.
4. Regarding the previous question, since the pandemic there has been some call for joy-filled, lollipop-ish stories that make people see unicorns and rainbows. Your novel is set amid the Syrian revolution. For writers who might fear that their stories aren’t “happy enough” for agents and editors, what advice would you give to them about writing the more “serious” stories? Why do you think stories like yours should coexist alongside rom-coms and goof-troop adventure trilogies?
I would love to be able to write go-happy-none-issue stories but this is not our reality. My reality is me fighting daily for the right to be who I am. Disregarding that would be an insult to me and to everyone else who goes through that fight. That being said, no marginalized author should ever feel pressured to write an issue book because that is not our only reality either. We are not to be stuffed in a box with a label. Yes, we have sad stories but we also have happy stories. Lemon Trees may be a sad story but this is not going to be the tone for the rest of the books I have in mind. For me, I feel it’s my duty to have written Lemon Trees. This is one way I can help my country and people. I believe marginalized authors should write whatever their heart tells them to write. You’re not put on this earth to be an activist but if you want to write issue books then no one is allowed to tell you “there’s enough gloom in this world i.e. pandemic, so no thanks”.
We need a balance between the sad and happy. Both are equally important. And if one outweighs the other, then it creates chaos. I want my anxieties and fears to be validated in the books I read, but I also want that breath of fresh air with stories falling under the make-you-feel-good category.
5. Unfortunately, publishing has a history of favoring white authors, therefore, making books about diverse people written by authors who shared those identities hard to find. Growing up (and even now) are there any Arab or Muslim authors whose works inspired you? How do you hope people will view Syria and its people after reading your novel?
I had no books by Arab nor Muslim authors growing up. There were no Muslim books and none that spoke of my reality or my friends’. There were none featuring unapologetic hijabi Muslims who were successful in their lives with halal love and Muslim beliefs and traditions. A theme that reflects my own life. The first book I heard of which touched on that subject was LOVE FROM A TO Z by S.K Ali. It was published in 2019. I was 24 years old and had already written Lemon Trees and was working on it with Allie. You can just imagine how much publishing lacks representation in that matter. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world and just a couple of young adult books that represent them. And only one featuring a halal love story and a character who loves her hijab. Much to think about really.
To write Lemon Trees, I became my own inspiration. I wrote a halal love story, a protagonist who has a loving relationship with her parents and older brother, who is proud of who she is, who is a hijabi, who is a pharmacist, who laughs and loves and lives with all she’s got. I wrote the first Syrian young adult protagonist in a contemporary. And I know she’s going to be the first of many others young Muslim authors will be writing.
6. Do you know when you’re at risk of burnout? What’s your form of self-care?
Burn-out hits me quickly and without warning. It usually happens after I’m glued to my chair for days editing for hours and hours. My self-care comes in the form of BTS, journaling and walking in the nearby woodland forest beside my apartment building. I also write cute scenes between my main character and love interest. Those actually help a lot because they’re fun, there’s no pressure and it gives me an insight into their personalities which helps in writing the story.
Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!
7. Lemons, Lemons, Lemons everywhere. Give us your top three lemon-based foods or beverages,
Sprite, of course! Lemon tarts and iced tea lemon flavored.
8. Unpopular book or writing opinion?
I guess I’m not a fan of the friends to lovers unless there’s a boatload of angst in there. Also I don’t think all books should have a happy ending. If a book’s ending is bittersweet and true to the story, it should be written like that.
9. It’s your debut day and your publisher is treating you to a manicure. Choose your design:
Oh my goodness! I would pick the design of B but with the nail style of C! I know I’d poke someone’s eye out by accident if they were as sharp as the ones in B!
Zoulfa Katouh is a Syrian Canadian living in Switzerland. She is currently doing her master's in Drug Sciences and finds Studio Ghibli inspiration in the mountains, lakes, and stars surrounding her. In her books, you will find strong girls, soft boys, magic, and where Muslims are the heroes of their stories. When she's not talking to herself in the woodland forest, she's telling everyone who would listen about how BTS paved the way and journaling. Her dream is to get Kim Namjoon to read one of her books. If that happens, she will expire on the spot.