How a decades-old conversation and Benazir Bhutto inspired Kamila Shamsie's new novel
Kamila Shamsie's career has been a slow — and then very fast — burn. The author released her first book back in 1998, but it was her 2017 hit Home Fire, about a family torn apart as their son leaves to follow in his Jihadist father's footsteps, that took her career to the next level. The novel was longlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Women's Prize for Fiction.
"It felt amazing to see the book really landing, especially in America," Shamsie tells EW. "Especially because of the moment in which it came out into the world: when things had turned on their heads politically. To hear quite urgent conversations happening around the book, and to see the booking being part of the relationship between citizens and their government, felt very significant."
Now Shamsie is back with another novel following characters across Karachi and London with Best of Friends (out Sept. 27). This time she focuses on a friendship: Zahra and Maryam grew up together in Pakistan and are now living out successful lives in the U.K. as people from their past resurface to remind of their differences and test the strength of their relationship. Below, the author reveals the cover and speaks about the book's creation for the first time.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You're releasing Best of Friends on the heels of a career-changing novel in Home Fire. Did you notice that change tangibly, or did it affect how you approached the book?
KAMILA SHAMSIE: I've been asking myself that. [Home Fire] did better than any previous book had, and I did wonder what it would feel like to start the next thing and whether I would feel a pressure to have the next one do as well. But in the end, honestly, for me writing is so intimate. You have to go very deep within yourself to find the story that matters, and when you actually sit down to do it, it just becomes very intimately about you and the book and writing the best version of it that you can. Where it changes I think is at this stage, when you start to approach publication. You suddenly become aware that there's a greater amount of stuff happening around publication that hasn't happened before. I never have expectations around the books, but there's a different kind of machinery that gets going.
How did the idea for the new book get its start?
It's so hard to know when an idea bubbles up, because in one way I could look back to a conversation with my sister, we were maybe in our late 20s, and she said, "You know, it's interesting, the friends you make in adult life are your friends because you have something in common, but your childhood friends are your friends because they've always been your friends." And that really stuck with me. That line just lodged in my head — but the novel began to take shape after I really was done and dusted mostly with touring for Home Fire. I tend to finish a book and just feel completely depleted, and it's a while before my brain opens up again.
Did your inspiration start with the characters themselves?
It started with the friendship between the two women, and because I decided on writing about a childhood friendship, I knew that childhood would be in Karachi. And I think I probably knew quite early on that it would take place around 1988, which was a quite crucial year. It was when Benazir Bhutto came to power, and I was a young woman at that time and it really stirred something in me. So I wanted to make use of that.
So you wrote the book during lockdown. Did you struggle to find your footing creatively? Or was the book a great escape to pour yourself into?
I started writing in late 2019, and I promised myself that 2020 was going to be the year that I pretty much shut myself away and wrote a book. [Laughs] So it got written in different places. I was in L.A. and writing a bit there, then I was in London, and then for quite a bit of the winter of 2021 I was in Karachi. I think if I hadn't started something it would've been hard to focus, because for me beginnings are actually the bit where you need the most focus and concentration and you have to shut out the world. Because I had already started writing and I already was sort of in that world, it made it easy and it was a total refuge.
Can you tell us what you love about the cover of Best of Friends?
So I know there are some writers who get very involved, and my sense has always been, I know how to write a book, and I know visuals I like, but I don't have the brain for thinking up what the visuals should be. So I sort of sit there and wait for something to arrive and then say, "Well, hallelujah." I love that there's this real freshness and color in it but there's also this looping, entwined shape in a curious kind of way.
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