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  • Helen Lederer

Waking up your snoozing novel is our gain

Helen Led here: I adore your list of angsty events - this is what true comedy is made off - being funny about your unfortunate reaction to Soy Latte is genius and we love you all the more for it.

Zahra Barri, on the 2020 Unpublished Novel Shortlist with The Bird in the River

When did you first hear about the CWIP Prize and was your entry specifically written for it or were you working on it already?

I started writing my book about a month before I heard about CWIP which was great because it gave me something to work towards. I originally entered in 2019 and didn’t make the cut. I tried not to get too disheartened and I am VERY used to rejection so kept writing just for my own pleasure. I entered again the following year with A LOT of revisions to the first submission.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

I’ve been writing comedy since I was a kid. I’ve always loved making people laugh. I started doing stand-up comedy in 2011 which involves me constantly flexing my writing muscles.

I got encouraged by the late Mick Taylor of Comedy Café Management to write a blog. So cheers Mick! Before that I was writing one liners and jokes for twitter. My blog helped me take my comedy from short form to a longer written format. I sort of became addicted to writing blogs. I’d be writing every day, any free moment I had.

At one point I realised that I’d probably written the equivalent of a novel just in blogs and that’s when I started to seriously think about writing one.

Have you ever started a novel and then abandoned it?

The Bird in the River is the only novel I have written. I wouldn’t say I have abandoned it, but about 25,000 words in, let’s just say I put it to bed for a few months. Just for a little snooze. It was very tired. I was very tired. (OK. It was about a year).

Did you write poetry as an angsty teenager?

Of course! I still do! Lockdown has inspired a few recently, in fact.

I love me a bit of angsty poetry. My mum has a whole folder of my ‘poetry’ that I wrote while travelling round Peru when I was 19. I suffered from huge epileptic fits from the altitude, got electrocuted in a hostel and went into anaphylactic shock from drinking a soy latte. So there was a lot to get angsty about.

Can you describe what your novel’s about in two sentences?

Woman feels pressure to be in a relationship by family, friends and society so she gets a robot boyfriend to ‘keep up appearances’. She thinks her problems are solved but things start to happen which make her see that she is not being honest with herself and is carrying a lot of hidden trauma.

What made you write your book? Where did the idea or impulse behind it come from?

I was getting frustrated at how people don’t think you are ‘complete’ until you are in a relationship. I am also very interested in hidden trauma and the idea of being in denial. I wanted to write a book about being honest with not just your friends and family but yourself.

Zahra's optimal writing space © Zahra's boyfriend

Did you set out to write a funny book? Where does the humour come from in your book?

I don’t think I could have made the novel serious even if I tried. Did you not hear me? It’s about a woman with a robot boyfriend.

The humour in my book flashes from silly and farcical to dark and shocking. I love writing about taboo subjects and making them funny. I like the balance of silly comedy and blue comedy. After all my novel is about robot boyfriends and sexual assault so it’s what you would expect I guess!

Can you read funny books when you’re writing your own? Who do you enjoy reading?

I mostly read really dark books like, Lullaby by Leila Slimani and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh‎. I recently read Hadley Freeman’s magnificent memoir, House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a 20th Century Jewish Family which I could not put down.

Saying that though, I have really enjoyed the hilarious Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth which is just loads of wanking. What’s not to like? Speaking of filth my all-time favourite writer is Charles Bukowski who is incredibly filthy and funny.

Have you ever read anyone else’s bad review and felt slightly chuffed? (Lying is permissible in this answer.)

I love reading a review of something or someone I thought was rubbish and a reviewer who I respect also thought it was rubbish. I guess what I’m trying to say is I give myself points for having a Guardian opinion.

Can you tell us about your writing routine – are you a planner or a pantster?

My only method is just: ‘Bash it out’. I try not to think too much and just get into it. When I’m really in the zone, I can’t type fast enough and I find my characters are doing things I didn’t expect them to do and saying things I didn’t expect them to say and taking the story into a surprising new direction.

I have a rough plan as my starting point but I don’t feel the need to stick to it. In fact, I think it’s better if the novel surprises you. In short my method is: ‘Don’t think, just bash it out’ which sounds like the summation of Portnoy’s Complaint!

Where do you write?

On my sofa with my feet up and my laptop on my lap. No desk. Laptops are meant for laps. Wine in the evening. Tea in the day. Ok. Sometimes wine in the day.

You can’t find the right words to make a sentence chime: do you (a) swear? (b) cry? or (c) eat? - if (c), what item of food?

Go for a walk, have a wine, watch Normal People, make a sourdough starter, do a handstand, have a bath. It’ll come to you when you’re not thinking about it. Let your subconscious do the work.

What difference has being shortlisted for the CWIP prize made to you? What would you say to anyone thinking of entering next year?

I never told anyone that I was writing a novel because I thought they would laugh at me and think I was deluded. Getting shortlisted for the CWIP has given me the validation that what I’m doing I should continue with.

Although I have a severe case of imposter syndrome being shortlisted. I keep thinking there’s been some sort of admin error and they’re going to send a really awkward email to me taking it back.

My advice to anyone thinking of entering is: ‘Don’t think about it, just bash it out!*’ What have you got to lose?

*(Disclaimer: I don’t mean have a wank).

Me again – the ‘bash it out’ philosophy does it for me in particular - along with the disclaimer. The word disclaimer is in itself a joy!

Zahra Barri is a writer and stand-up comedian who loves addressing taboo subjects. Her jokes have been on Radio 4, Radio 4 Extra, Radio 2, BBC Asian Network and BBC Period Dramas online.

She’s half-Egyptian and half-Irish, living between Saudi Arabia and Bracknell. Attending both Muslim schools and Catholic schools, she is now atheist.

"A buzzy fluffball of comedy unafraid to take risks " - Mumble Comedy

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