“Writing is ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration.” Zibby is joined by bestselling novelist Monica Ali to discuss her first book in ten years, Love Marriage. Monica shares how this book initially started as two separate stories that she ultimately intertwined, as well as the amount of research she conducted to make the medical elements of this novel seem as realistic as possible. The two also talk about how this story is all about sex (albeit in a non-Fifty Shades of Grey way), why Monica has a lot of sympathy for the book’s sometimes annoying mother-in-law, and what it has been like for Monica to write the TV adaption of this project..


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Monica. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest novel, Love Marriage.

Monica Ali: Thank you for inviting me. I’m looking forward to it.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I read Brick Lane, as many people have. I couldn’t wait for this book when I saw it was coming out. You did such a great job, as you always do, of immediately getting me into the character’s head and a setting. I felt like I was in the backseat with the cartons of food all over me, sweating, going to the in-laws’ house right away. You’re just so good at it. I just wanted to say that.

Monica: Thank you. The towers of Tupperware.

Zibby: Yes, the towers of Tupperware. Would you mind explaining for listeners what Love Marriage is about?

Monica: It is the story of Yasmin Ghorami, who is twenty-six years old. She’s a junior doctor at a big London hospital. She is engaged to be married to Joe, fellow doctor. He’s handsome. He’s charming. He’s also rich. He’s very kind and sensitive. He’s seemingly perfect, but then he does the unthinkable and cheats on Yasmin. Then Yasmin does something which shocks herself even more, which is that she goes off and engages in revenge sex. Yasmin is someone who’s always been a follower of the rules. She’s a good and dutiful daughter. She’s a good girl. She’s a good person. She’s got a very strong moral compass. This secret, because she doesn’t reveal this to her fiancé, is eating her up. It’s torturing her. Little does she know that Joe is actually nurturing an even bigger secret of his own, which perhaps we’ll get on to talking about a little bit later on. Basically, at the start of the book, Yasmin is pretty sorted. She’s got this anxiety around the two families meeting for the first time. Nevertheless, her life’s pretty sorted. Then a series of things happen which means that everything kind of implodes and explodes all at the same time.

Zibby: Amazing. Joe’s mother, to me, she sounded like the Erica Jong, Fear of Flying type of mom, a feminist who is always up for discussing everything, and shocking and just changing all the norms around sex, basically. Poor Yasmin’s mom is so — you paint the picture of how sex is just not something discussed at all at home. You have this one image of her dropping the other in-law’s/mom’s book into the trash can because it’s so racy, which I just loved. By the way, you also have the great character for the brother. I loved the way you wrote his dialogue and how every other word was “yeah.” He has he own little secret going off on the side too. I feel like you have so many. How do you keep all the secrets straight? How did you even come up with this family and the plot of it? Where did this particular story come from for you?

Monica: Actually, I started off, I was writing two separate stories. One of them was about Yasmin. The other was about Harriet, who’s Joe’s mother, Harriet Sangster, you just mentioned. She is this famous feminist icon, intellectual, academic. She’s written this memoir about all her lovers, all the men and all the women. It’s the book that Ma, Yasmin’s mother, dropped into the trash. I wasn’t sure that either story was going to end up being the novel that I was going to write. Then I had this flashbulb going off in my head. I thought, what if I put them together? Writing is ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration. This was part of the one percent. As soon as I thought that, I knew that was the book that I had to write. I knew it was also going to be a lot of fun to write because Harriet is kind of larger than life. I had my fun with her, but I’m also very, very fond of Harriet. At a surface level, I guess it would be possible to read her, or misread her in my opinion, as just an example of white privilege. She sort of does this integration by steamroller. That’s the kind of good liberal that she is. She’s also got her problems. She’s thinking about aging. She’s worrying about losing relevance. She’s a single parent of an only child. Her son’s about to leave home. She’s struggling with loneliness. She’s also got all her demons in her background with her own family and upbringing. I’ve got a lot of time for Harriet. Harriet’s got a good heart as well, as well as being really annoying sometimes.

Zibby: She was so into the idea of Joe marrying an Indian woman that she wanted them dressed in traditional saris at the first meeting and was disappointed that they were actually just going to wear a pretty dress. The mom would wear a dress or a suit or whatever.

Monica: She’s wants a nikah, which is a traditional Muslim ceremony. Joe and Yasmin had just been planning to have a really small do with a registry office, not a religious ceremony. Harriet’s so keen to prove that she’s not an Islamophobe and to out some of her Islamophobe friends that she starts interfering. She’s an Indian mother-in-law. Yasmin was dreading this coming together of the families, but she was dreading it, actually, it turns out, for all the wrong reasons because there isn’t this clash of cultures. In the beginning, you build up this expectation. It’s going to be two very different cultures. Actually, the very opposite happens. Harriet just embraces the Ghoramis, and that turns into Yasmin’s worst nightmare.

Zibby: Careful what you wish for. I also loved Yasmin’s relationship with her father. You have such clear picture. I feel like I see all these people in my head, which is probably why this is about to be a TV show, which I want to hear more about as well. He just quietly calls her over, and they play the game. They’re both in the medical field. She’s trying to be a doctor. Playing the game of “guess this diagnosis” and how he calms her down in her most worrisome moments, it’s really a lovely little depiction of a father and daughter. Tell me about that relationship.

Monica: I did an event at the British Library last week for the Jaipur Literary Festival. Actually, it’s the biggest literary festival in the world. It takes place in Jaipur every year, but now there’s an offshoot in London. It was really interesting there because lots of people with Indian heritage and background were there, and everyone was commenting on how it’s usually the son who is the favored one and who has that relationship with the father. Yasmin actually takes that position in the Ghorami household. It’s partly because Arif, the younger brother, is a bit of a rebel. He’s the black sheep of the family. He’s got a degree in sociology, for god’s sake, which is of no use to humankind, according to his father. Yasmin kind of resents that she has to live up to all of the expectations. At the same time, she’s eager to live up to all those expectations. She has this very intricate relationship with her dad where in one moment, she resents it, and the other moment, she’s so proud of everything that he’s achieved and everything that she is also achieving. The game that you refer to actually comes from the New England Journal of Medicine. They have cases challenges. You have to identify. You have to make the diagnosis from the collection of symptoms and, often, photographs as well. That’s his favorite father-daughter activity she gets roped into.

Zibby: It sounded like the way you were writing about all the medical stuff and all the scenes that take place in hospitals and everything that you had your own medical degree, which it doesn’t look like you do from your bio. Tell me about how you immersed yourself in this world. Was this just finding information on Google? How did you craft such a believable medical background with the correct terminology and all the stuff?

Monica: I like doing research. I feel like I’m fully qualified now as a doctor. I think I could set up a clinic.

Zibby: I would see you. I’ll be your first patient.

Monica: I did do an awful lot of research. Some of that was popular nonfiction books by doctors and nurses because that’s been really quite a thing over the last, say, ten years, certainly in the UK. Also, everybody here has experience of the NHS, the National Health Service, whether that’s personally or through friends. Yasmin works in a geriatric ward. My maternal grandmother was ninety-six when she died. She was in and out of hospital. Then a lot of subscriptions to medical journals and interviewing doctors, spending some research time in hospitals. I still get emails from subscription departments of journals like the New England Journal saying, come back and resubscribe. I’m like, no, I’m done with all that. The challenge with research, though, is always that you don’t let it dictate or dominate, but you do the research to give you enough confidence that you can — you have to get basic facts right. I’ve got doctor friends who were kind enough to check all the medical facts. The important thing is to get the atmosphere, the dynamics of the hierarchy within the hospital, all of that. That’s what is, in a way, more tricky. That’s what I feel proud of because I’ve had doctors who’ve been readers or, in a couple of places, interviewers who’ve said, how did you get all that? Where did you get that from? That’s been really gratifying, actually.

Zibby: I feel like it’s similar to historical fiction where you have to know everything that’s happening. I feel like you can always tell when a fact gets thrown in just so the author knows that you know that they know. Do you know what I mean? You’re like, that’s really irrelevant. Okay, great. It’s like a student just raising their hand out of context.

Monica: In the olden days, as my children would call them, there was something impressive about the acquisition of facts. You had to go to the library. You had to spend some time looking things up. Now facts are cheap. Information is very, very easily available. You started off by saying Google. Information is freely available, but there’s an art to using the information.

Zibby: Yes, very true. How do you feel about infidelity? This courses through the novel.

Monica: I don’t think anyone’s ever put it to me quite like that before. Sex is the backbone of the novel. In narrative terms, that is undoubtedly true. It’s a novel about love and marriage. That’s the title. Every major turning point hinges on sex in one way or another, whether that’s infidelity, as you say, or revenge sex or sexual addiction or sexual violence or questions around sexual identity. Sex is how the protagonists, Yasmin and Joe, grapple with their identities or mature into those identities. As you said, this is a book about secrets and lies and guilt and shame. Sex is most often what fuels that. It’s also about the converse, about exploring one’s boundaries, about play, about identifying your own desires. Again, sex fuels that. The question that I’m trying to get around is when you said, how do you feel about infidelity? It just sort of stumped me. I think it’s complicated. I guess that’s why I’m a novelist, because I don’t have easy answers to anything, really. Infidelity equals bad in big capital letters. That’s generally how we think about infidelity.

In Joe’s case, it’s way more complicated than that because he’s struggling with his sex addiction. In Yasmin’s case, yes, she is eaten up by this affair that she has, and yet it allows her to really — she’s someone who’s been repressing large parts of herself. Her organizing principles have been around what other people have expected of her or what society has expected of her or what her father expects of her. It was really crucial to write — there’s only a couple of sex scenes in the book. Although there’s lots of issues around sex, it’s not a Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s two sex scenes. Those were really, really key to her character development, to who she is as a person, who she wants to be, who she is as a woman, how she can be in this world. What place does she have in this world? It’s not about the sex itself. It’s about what is released or explored through the sex, including having sex on her period, which is haram. It’s forbidden in Islam. This question of the messiness or the embarrassment that she might feel because it’s the first time that she’s slept with this man, it also carries a really antiquate — it brings a lot more to it about questioning how she is going to live her life and by whose rules. I don’t know if that answers your question. I feel like I’m skirting around it. It’s complicated.

Zibby: You just let that sink in for the rest of the day today. You can email me an answer.

Monica: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: First, what is the status of this becoming a TV show? Where are you? Are you adapting it yourself? Where are we in the process of that?

Monica: I am adapting it myself. It’s exciting. There was an eight-way auction for the TV rights, which was so much fun. It’s in development with the BBC. I am writing the screenplays. It’s been ten years since my last book came out. During part of that time, what I was doing was trying to write for TV. I worked with a number of production companies. I learned a lot. I was teaching myself how to write TV scripts. Nothing ever made it to the screen, but I really, really enjoyed it. I love the collaborative process. So different from the solitariness of writing a novel. I sort of view that as my apprenticeship. Now it’s not been wasted because now I get to spend more time with Yasmin and Joe. It was also a much longer book in first draft. Some things had to be cut for length, but TV is a very story-hungry medium, as I’m sure that you know. It eats up story so fast. For instance, I had more of the Sandor storyline. Sandor is Joe’s therapist. I can now bring back those parts of the story. I’m just loving doing it.

Zibby: I love how you said it wasn’t wasted. In writing, it’s not a straight line. You write all this stuff. You delete it. You write this whole novel. You don’t sell it. You try this. You try that. It feels like it’s a waste, but without all those things, you can never get to the next point anyway. I feel like people just have to be like, in writing, there is no such thing as wasted words, right?

Monica: Yeah, but it can feel like that. I thought I was going to feel like that when I had — when I was writing this book, it came out in a very, very different way than previous novels in which I had written pretty tight first drafts because I edit a lot as I go along and because I felt much more in control of the structure. With this book, it just didn’t work like that. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. I ended up with 240,000 words.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Monica: So that we don’t put people off, it’s nowhere near that long now. Nobody panic.

Zibby: Normal size. It’s not too long.

Monica: It’s a normal-size book. I thought it was going to be very painful to do all the cuts. Then when it came to it, it was not at all. I kind of relished doing it quite aggressively and cutting off the fat and seeing that the structure was there underneath. I keep learning. As you say, you just keep learning. What I learned from that is that it’s not about my process and how my process has to work. It’s about what each book needs as a process. The book kind of dictates the process.

Zibby: I read that you were a huge book lover — no surprise — as a child and escaped into books all the time to get out of your own family and the tense situations there. I completely relate, as I know many people listening, I’m sure, do as well, as we all love books so much. Tell me how reading is helping you these days as you go through your wonderfully successful career and all of that. Are you still turning to books? Is it something that keeps you grounded? What is your relationship to reading like these days?

Monica: It’s hard to replicate that reading experience of, particularly, adolescent reading where you totally disappear into the text. I think that’s why I write, because I do feel something similar in terms of an experience. I disappear. The day disappears. Everything disappears. I’m just inside it. I’m always reading with my critical, analytical brain switched on. It’s hard to get rid of that. Then a book will come along and blow me away. I recently discovered Natalia Ginzburg. I don’t know how I’ve got to this age without having read her before. I started with Family Lexicon, which is an autobiographical novel. I just thought, oh, my god, this is life-changing. I just could not put it down. Still, that experience is waiting. I’m always ravenous for it.

Zibby: I totally understand. I have a memoir coming out very soon. In it, I pay homage to all the books of the past and how each book gets me through a different part of my life. They’re intricately interwoven.

Monica: Oh, how exciting. When is it coming out? What’s it called?

Zibby: It’s called Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature. I will send you a copy. I’m trying to reach everybody who’s been on my podcast to send them a copy to say thanks. Coming soon. I owe so much to books for getting me through so much and taking me so many places. Speaking of, what book are you writing now?

Monica: I’m working on the screenplay, so I don’t have another book in progress. I’m writing a short story for a Virago collection. Virago’s my publisher in the UK. They are marking their fiftieth anniversary next year. They’re putting together a collection of original short stories. I’m writing something for that. I’m working on an idea for a stage play as well.

Zibby: I shouldn’t have assumed book. I don’t know. I guess it was just wishful thinking that there would be another book coming along, but I’m sure at some point.

Monica: Give me another ten years.

Zibby: All right, I’ll hang in there. Last question. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Monica: Read. There’s three things you’re going to do: read, read, and then read. I teach creative writing from time to time. It never ceases to amaze me when there’s an aspiring writer who doesn’t actually read that much. I think you can’t hope to be a serious writer without being, first, a serious reader. You don’t need to pay money to go on an MFA. You don’t need to pay money to go on an evening course. If you can afford it and it benefits you, then that’s great. Really, all you need — I grew up in a house without books. We didn’t have money for books, but I had a library card. That’s free. I don’t know whether it’s still free in the States. I hope it is. If you could get yourself a library card, you have the key to everything that you need to learn to be a writer. You can do that through reading. The other essential ingredient is curiosity. Fiction just doesn’t look inwards. It’s not all about navel-gazing. You have to be curious about the world, about other people, about events big and small, about how a baby can startle itself awake, about what’s going on in society, whether that’s at a local level or an international level. You just have to have a thirst for finding out.

Zibby: I love that, a thirst for finding out. It’s perfect. Monica, thank you so much. Sorry I threw you so much with my other question, but I enjoyed the reaction so much. I could just sit here and watch you squirm. That was awesome.

Monica: I should’ve asked you how you feel about infidelity.

Zibby: But you didn’t, so there you go. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Hope to stay in touch.

Monica: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks a lot. Buh-bye.



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