Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2008
Storybook days of my life
By Imran Ahmad
For The Bali Times
August 29, 2008
LIKE MOST PEOPLE, I have been through many emotional and spiritual states in life: innocence, curiosity, insecurity, fear, absolute certainty, stagnation, transformation, enlightenment (I hope). In my case, the story of this journey had been writing itself in my head for decades. There was always the voice of the narrator inside me, writing about each significant event as it happened. So even though I had no idea where the path was going to go, I always knew that I had to write about it one day.
That day came during the Christmas holiday of 2004. I suddenly felt compelled to do that which I had been intending for many years. I opened my laptop computer and I started to write. After half an hour, I stopped to read over what I had written. I thought to myself, “It’s not bad,” and I carried on.
I had put this off for so long, not wanting to get committed to the huge burden of writing a book. I had imagined that it would be hard work, but I was completely wrong. Since everything was already written inside my head, all I had to do was to type it as fast as I could. I had been so concerned with how far away the end goal of a finished book was that I never imagined what a joy the journey would be.
Two months later (whilst still working full time), I had a manuscript with a beginning, a middle and an end. Many friends in the UK, US and Australia read the emailed manuscript and they all said it was great. (What are friends for?)
I had imagined that writing the book would be difficult, and getting it published would be easy. In fact, the reverse was true.
For months I tried to get an agent or publisher, but no one was interested. I kept on trying and with each passing week I wrote some more and polished the manuscript. But still, no one was interested in the story of a Muslim boy growing up in Britain who doesn’t become a terrorist or Islamist. Finally, after six months, I gave up chasing agents and decided to self-publish, using an American company owned by Amazon. When, in September 2005, I held the first copy of my book in my hand, I thought that I had finally arrived—a published writer! But I had no idea how worthless a self-published book is considered to be. My tireless marketing campaign of sending a couple of hundred books out to the media yielded nothing in the way of reviews or exposure.
But I did get a lucky break. (I believe now that if you just keep on trying, you must get some good luck eventually.) The head buyer of Waterstone’s (the UK’s biggest bookstore chain) said he really liked the content of the book, but that the cover was “awful” and the book looked self-published. He said it deserved proper publication and he would send it to a literary agency.
Two days later, literary agent Charlie Viney called me and he was breathless with excitement; he loved it! I became his client, and I shut down the self-published book. Charlie gave me some advice on shaping the book, and I did a rewrite over the Christmas holiday.
By April, we had a choice of publishers. I went with the one whose editor liked Unimagined just as it was, writing in an email: “Seldom have I enjoyed a manuscript so much.” Publication was set for March 2007, but an advance proof was sent out to selected reviewers in the summer of 2006. At Christmas, I was delighted to read in the Guardian that Sue Townsend had chosen Unimagined as her choice in Books of the Year—and it wasn’t even published yet.
There were many more wonderful synchronicities and many kind people helped me in the journey with Unimagined. Catherine Lockerbie—the director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival—read Unimagined, “loved it so much” and invited me to have an event at her festival. I had a wonderful time in Edinburgh, and decided that those particular days were the very best in my life. Sarah LeFanu of the Bath Literary Festival attended, and invited me to her festival. Also in Edinburgh, by chance I met Wendy Were—director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival—and told her excitedly about what a great book I had written. She looked politely bored (this happens to her all the time), but I managed to get her address and sent her a copy.
To get some exposure in Australia, I airmailed a copy to the “Literary Editor” (whoever that was) of the Sydney Morning Herald, and just hoped for the best. About two months later, a Google search revealed a wonderful review of Unimagined by Bruce Elder in the paper.
At Christmas 2007, Unimagined was among the UK Independent’s “Best Books of 2007,” with Ann Widdecombe—a member of parliament with a reputation for grumpiness, who I never imagined would read my book—writing that it was “my favorite book of 2007.” At the same time, the Sydney Morning Herald listed Unimagined in “The pick of the literary crop 2007.”
Finally, in February, Wendy Were wrote that she had read Unimagined and invited me to the Sydney Writers’ Festival (in May). In Sydney, I had the most wonderful time, and decided that these were actually the best days of my life (even better than Edinburgh). I met Janet De Neefe of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, and gave her a signed copy of Unimagined. My events went really well—better than anyone imagined. After the festival, I met the CEO of Murdoch Books, who told me that her team loved Unimagined, and she would like to buy the Australian rights (which she subsequently did, producing an Australian edition with a fabulous foreword by Bruce Elder).
When I left Sydney, and returned to a gray, dreary, rain-swept London, and my corporate day job (which I still have to do, because writing hasn’t made me a penny of profit), I was so depressed. But then something wonderful happened—Janet De Neefe invited me to her festival, on the wonderful, peaceful, spiritual island of Bali.
I am so looking forward to this—what a magical festival it promises to be. Tri Hita Karana. It’s a wonderful concept that’s very close to my heart—for all are One and all separation is an illusion. When we are all at peace within, our beloved Earth will be at peace without and our collective journey back to God will finally be concluded.
And I think: I wonder if these will be the best days of my life.
Imran Ahmad was born in Pakistan, grew up in London and has enjoyed a global business career. A trustee of British Muslims for Secular Democracy, he will be appearing at the 2008 Ubud Writers & Readers Festival from October 14-19, 2008. More details at www.ubudwritersfestival.com
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Bali Times of August 29, 2008