Zibby is joined by author Gina Sorell to talk about her second novel, The Wise Women, which was named a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. The two discuss how listening to Zibby’s podcast helped her feel more connected to her writing during the pandemic, why she made the shift from acting to writing, and the ways in which her experience with this book differs from her first. Gina also shares how she hopes readers will connect with all of the book’s protagonists and whether or not she’ll continue on with them in the future.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Syed. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Bad Muslim Discount and everything else about your life.

Syed M. Masood: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Zibby: Heads up to readers, you will encounter a very interesting opening with lots of blood spurting everywhere and animal sacrifice. Who knows what you’re getting into? Tell us — actually, I’ll tell you that later. Tell listeners what your book is about and what inspired it for you.

Syed: The Bad Muslim Discount is a story about two different young people — it starts when they’re very young when they’re kids and goes into their thirties — and their journeys from various part of the Muslim world to the United States, basically, the process of becoming American. It charts two very different journeys because I wanted to show the different ways that people come here and the different lives that people do live even if they’re sometimes treated as a monolith. The book is really about the idea of belonging. It’s the question of, what happens when you feel like you belong to a country that doesn’t want you or at least some elements in the country don’t want you? What happens if you belong to a religion that doesn’t want you or there are people in the religion who don’t want you? What happens if you belong to a family that doesn’t want you? That really was the driving question behind the book.

Zibby: Interesting. Where do you not feel like you belonged? Which pieces resonated for you?

Syed: It started, quite frankly, with the 2016 election, not to get political. There was this question about, who’s American? Who’s American enough? A lot of questions were raised about Muslims. Can Muslims be patriotic? All these questions were being raised. I had never considered the fact that you couldn’t be American. In fact, one of the stranger things about our world is wherever you are, you’re a little bit American because Americana is so pervasive. I’ve always felt that it’s all over the world. I don’t want to use this word, but we’ve culturally colonized parts of the world. Because of that, there’s a part of everyone that recognizes certain things like McDonald’s or Coke or Star Wars or what have you. They’re everywhere. It was very strange to me to be suddenly faced with this question of, “Hey, are you American?” because of your religion. The book was, in part, a response to that, just exploring the idea for myself. At this point, I had no illusions that I’d be published, but that happened.

Zibby: Was it really a surprise that the book was picked up? Tell me about the journey of that.

Syed: I’ve wanted to be an author since I was a kid. The industry from the outside is so obscure. It’s really hard to see and figure out what things are. It seems like a pipe dream. Sometimes people think about authors like — now that I have authors friends, it’s like, okay, they’re just people. It almost seems like an impossibility. At least, it did to me. I never thought I’d actually be publishing it. My wife was the one was who was very encouraging. She was like, “You’re really good. You should write.” The thing was, the reason her opinion held more weight than usual was because our courtship was almost entirely by emails. We had an arranged marriage. We didn’t get to meet and talk more than four or five times. We just exchanged these long emails. There’s probably a novel in there somewhere. We had these long letters we wrote to each other. I was like, she’s seen enough of my writing to know if I’m good or not. She really pushed me to write it. Then once the book was done, it just so happened to get finished two days before a contest which is no longer online. There was a contest called Pitch Wars which was happening. I was like, you know what? I haven’t even edited this yet. It hasn’t been proofread. I’m going to get rejected anyway, so I might as well just submit it. I did, and the rest is history.

Zibby: Wait, finish the rest. This is amazing.

Syed: I got picked by these two amazing mentors. What used to happen with Pitch Wars was you would get these mentors. They would work with you for about six months helping you refine your book.

Zibby: Were they editors or agents? Who were they?

Syed: Just other writers. Basically, what happens is, they guide you through the process. Then there’s an agent showcase. All these manuscripts — I don’t know how many there are. I want to say there were at least sixty, seventy. I’m not sure. Don’t quote me on that. I have no idea how many.

Zibby: We’re not quoting. Nobody listen to that.

Syed: Nobody’s listening. Seriously, I don’t remember exactly how many there were, but there were a lot. All these authors have the benefit of the experience of people who’ve done it before. They take you through the journey. At the end, there’s a pitch. The pitch is part of a showcase for agents to come and say, hey, I like your pitch. Can you send me the book? I ended up getting a couple people interested. They read it. Then I got an agent. Then we went on sub. There was lots of rejection. I ended up writing my YA novel, More Than Just a Pretty Face. That sold first. That became my debut, but I had written Bad Muslim before. It was my first novel. It was quite an experience. I had not expected it to get published. It just so happened that it worked, so here we are.

Zibby: Let’s go back to the arranged marriage for a second. What happened when you met? How did that work? You become good friends, basically, with your wife in this epistolary way. Then is everything good?

Syed: Everything’s great. We have two kids. It’s been ten years now.

Zibby: Wow, that’s so great.

Syed: It’s a different way of doing things. You can still say no. You don’t get unchaperoned meetings. You get to meet them, and the entire family is there. It’s like a very chaperoned date. It’s a little weird. You do it often enough that you get used to it, I guess, as much as anyone can get used to something like that. It’s always an awkward encounter. You meet a couple of times. Then you either call or text. We were more literary, so we wrote to each other. It was almost Victorian in that way. We went through this. I think we knew each other for about six, seven months before we got engaged. That was a long time ago. It is a different way of doing things. It’s like a dating app, except it’s run by your mom. Instead of algorithm, we have aunties in the community who are running it. That’s all it is.

Zibby: I think my mom would probably do a good job running a dating app.

Syed: It’s one of those things where when you’re young, it’s very frightening because you feel like almost no one understands you when you’re young, but especially your parents. As we grow older, we come to value their wisdom and perspective more. Now I see the benefits of it. There were times in my life when I was younger where I was terrified. It worked out, so no complaints.

Zibby: What kind of work were you doing before you were writing?

Syed: I was an attorney.

Zibby: You were an attorney.

Syed: I did worker’s compensation insurance defense, which is as boring as it sounds.

Zibby: Do you still do that at all?

Syed: I got laid off last Friday.

Zibby: Oh, no. I’m sorry.

Syed: It’s all right.

Zibby: You know what? Maybe it’s a blessing. Now you can write more. You can start your own dating app.

Syed: I don’t think that’s in my future. Hopefully, I can focus on the writing. Honestly, it got to be a lot. There were times, especially when I was working on Bad Muslim and Pretty Face at the same time, the edits for one would finish, and the next one was due. It just got very intense. There were times for about six to eight months, I was sleeping three hours a day. I gained forty pounds. It was a whole thing. I made it through that. I think maybe it’s time to focus more on the writing or pick up a job that’s less demanding. Billable hours and attorneys, it’s famous for a reason.

Zibby: Maybe you could just write a whole book about lack of sleep and weight gain. I feel like people haven’t been bashed over the head with that enough. Not that you can solve that problem so easily, but maybe it would make people feel better that that’s why it was happening. It’s not my fault that I had all those cookies yesterday. It was the sleep.

Syed: Honestly, it becomes about consuming lots of coffee and consuming lots of carbs just to stay awake. I have mine here. In fact, when Bad Muslim came out, my wife did a — she insisted on doing this. I would have six mugs of coffee on my desk. She lined them up next to the book. She took a picture for Instagram because that’s what it was. It was just coffee. People were like, when do you find the time to do this? I’m like, you got to make time somewhere. You have your kids. You have work. Then the only place left was sleep, much to the chagrin of my — one of my best friends, he’s a physician. He lost his mind. He was like, “What are you doing?” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that, like we talked about, I didn’t think I would ever get.

Zibby: I still believe you can catch up. Once a month, I sleep a lot. I feel like that offsets the lack of sleep the rest of the time.

Syed: They call it a sleep debt. I’ve read some books about it because my friend made me. It’s actually really interesting, the psychology of sleep. Some of the sleep neuroses are really interesting too, if you’re ever interested.

Zibby: I am interested, actually. Interesting. We’ll see if my theory holds up. What books are you working on now?

Syed: Right now, I’m kicking around some ideas. They’re really in the infancy stages. My problem usually is finding the voice of the character. I will keep revising the concept. I’m less interested in the concept, usually, than the character. Then the main thing is finding the voice of the character and then making the character likeable enough that people will want to stick with them for three hundred pages. Right now, I’m trying to figure this character out. I’m not there yet. I’ve been pitching to my agents. I’ve been pitching to my editors. We’ll see how it goes. I throw a lot of stuff away. I do a lot of writing that doesn’t see the light of day. If Bad Muslim was 350 pages, there is three hundred pages that never saw the light of day.

Zibby: That was Really Bad Muslim.

Syed: That was really, really bad. Saadia Faruqui, who’s wonderful, she does children’s books, she says it’s a very inefficient way of writing. She’s absolutely right, but it’s the only thing that works for me. Until I figure the voice out, I will keep writing the opening scene. I’ll keep redoing it. Right now, I’m working on this guy who’s supposed to be a screenwriter. I can’t get his voice quite right. Now I’m like, is he really a screenwriter? If he’s a screenwriter, how successful is he? Just tinkering with the story to make the voice work, and we’ll figure out the concept from there.

Zibby: I think the intersection of efficiency and creativity is not exactly — it’s an inverse relationship. You cannot be efficiently creative. Part of it is always excess words or writing too much and winnowing it down. I think it’s a rare author who will write down the exact words that get used. You have to throw stuff down and winnow it away like a sculptor a little bit, whether it’s at the beginning or the middle or the end or all along. It’s almost impossible to just put down the perfect things.

Syed: I do envy people, though, who use outlines, for example. There was a thing a while back where on Instagram or something, not that I’m on social media a lot, but people were posting their outlines. I was like, I should post a picture of a blank page because that’s what I use. I just don’t. What that allows me to do is have characters like Hafeez Bhatti, who’s a landlord in Bad Muslim. He was supposed to be a minor character with no real voice or real role. He was there for comic relief for one scene. Then because I had no outline and no idea what was going to happen, he sort of took over and became a pretty significant character in the book. I’m not sure if that would’ve happened if I had an outline. I also find if I have an outline, I’ve told the story to myself, and I’m less interested in it. There are people who are very disciplined about, this is my outline. This is the rising action. This is the climax, and so I’m going to build around that. I envy that because I think that must be pretty great to know where you’re going before you start.

Zibby: I’m with you, though. I feel like if I figure everything out ahead of time, that I’m just putting words down. Part of the writing is the fun of discovery. I actually just interviewed a woman earlier today. She wrote a novel called The Caretakers, which was really, really good. It’s from all these different points of view. I was telling her about my favorite point of view. She was like, “Oh, I almost didn’t even include that person.” That was the last character she added. If she had stuck to it — then this became a huge character, the one she put in last. You just never know.

Syed: Bad Muslim was written from one point of view. Then later, I added in the other point of view. Where about page 175 is now, that was page one.

Zibby: Wow, that’s interesting.

Syed: It was rewritten multiple times. It was one of those books that I really wanted to make happen, and so I worked really hard on it. It was one of those where we went for sub, and then we got what’s called an R&R. For people who are in the industry, it’s revise and resubmit and all that kind of stuff.

Zibby: I am kind of in the industry, and I’ve never heard that before. Okay, R&R, now I know.

Syed: The idea was, hey, you would need a bare canvas. They said, “You’re telling a big story. You want a bare canvas. You go back further.” I remember it was these three months where I sort of went radio silent. I was just writing and then eventually got an email from my agent saying, “What are you doing?” I’m like, “I’m working on this thing.” She was like, “Can I see it, please?” I was like, “Okay.” Then she wrote back. She was like, “Oh, this is good.” I’m like, “Awesome.” This was a difficult novel because it was written and rewritten and then rewritten. Once it was done, I was very proud of it.

Zibby: That’s great. Actually, what I referenced in the very beginning or what I said I was going to talk about later, a friend of friend’s husband had a very similar scene to the opening scene in your book, except he was trapped in a garage in New Jersey. His dad put him in there and was like, you have to do this.

Syed: Wow. That’s intense.

Zibby: I know. It’s forever changed the way I think of this person. Ultimately, he couldn’t do it. He didn’t do it.

Syed: When I was in college, my dad — just for anyone who’s listening —

Zibby: — I know, I was like, should I give this away?

Syed: It’s the first scene.

Zibby: I know, but you never know. Go ahead.

Syed: What we’re talking about is, there’s an animal sacrifice that happens on the eve that happens after Hajj for Muslims. The idea is to commemorate the almost-sacrifice of Abraham, of his eldest son. Muslims sacrifice goats or cows or sometimes camels. The meat is given away often to the needy. It’s a festival of sacrifice, is literally the translation. I had done this before when I was young as a kid. Then decades passed because we moved here. You can’t just go get a goat and sacrifice it here. That’s not how this works. My father decided when I was in college that we would go to a farm. In this farm, we would be — I really shouldn’t be telling this story for public consumption. Anyway, here it is. It’s all right. It’s a little embarrassing. My father decides that we’re going to go to this farm. We’re going to sacrifice this goat, and I will be the one to do it. I was like, well, I’ve done it before, so I can do it again, even though it was a decade ago. I go up there. I realize I really don’t want to do this at this point in my life. There’s the goat. They’re bringing the goat over. They have the goat down. The knife’s in my hand. I’m like, okay, just close your eyes. Just close your eyes. Just do it. It’ll be over. I close my eyes. I reach for the knife. I think I’m done. I open my eyes. The goat’s just staring at me. I’m staring at the goat. The goat’s still alive. Everything’s fine. I’m like, what’s going on? I was holding the knife backwards. The actual sharp part wasn’t touching the goat. The farmer got really annoyed with me. He yanked this knife from me and just did it himself. The rest of the way home — it was fifty minutes from my house. The rest of the way home, my dad was giving me this lecture. It was like I was the downfall of the Muslim civilization because I couldn’t kill this goat. It was a whole thing.

Zibby: What you put in the book, I found very interesting. It’s not just the sacrifice of the animal. It’s what you sacrifice yourself by learning what it’s like to hurt the animal. It’s supposed to teach you to value life and not take anybody else’s life for granted. Granted, it’s a very extreme way of teaching this, but now I understand the rationale, at least, of the teaching.

Syed: Whenever I eat meat, there’s this part of me that knows where it came from. There’s a disconnect, I feel like, especially with modern people where we go to the grocery store. It’s packaged for you. You’re just cooking it. There’s this disconnect between where the food came from and your consumption of it. It forms this link. I do appreciate having that link. It’s just, I was in college, and I wasn’t there mentally. I was just told the day of that, you’re going to do this. I remember this one time — this was in Pakistan when I was a kid. They were going to sacrifice a cow. The cow got loose and started running through the streets. All these people with knives were chasing this cow. I’m like, see, this is the kind of stuff that ends up on CNN. This is what makes us look bad. One of the lines in the beginning of the book is, “Islam has a marketing problem.” That’s sort of where it comes from, this idea that really strange things happen on that particular holiday. It is, obviously, a very serious and solemn thing. There are, like you said, important lessons to be learned that I have found valuable in my life. It’s a difficult thing. It’s supposed to be a difficult thing.

Zibby: Very interesting. Wow. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I appreciate this fun discussion. I will be looking for a new app from you sometime soon or some sort of treatise on sleep. Thank you very much.

Syed: Thank you. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.



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