Author Spotlight: Aminah Mae Safi talks Not the Girls You're Looking For
Today I'm thrilled to be hosting the amazing Aminah Mae Safi on the blog! Aminah Mae is a Muslim-American writer who explores art, fiction, feminism, and film. She’s the winner of the We Need Diverse Books short story contest, and holds a BA from the University of Southern California in Art History, and an MA from the University of Chicago. Her debut novel, NOT THE GIRLS YOU'RE LOOKING FOR, came out yesterday from Feiwel & Friends along with a starred review from Publishers Weekly calling it "a refreshing perspective on conformity and the path to self-actualization."
And if you happen to be a fellow writer, get your pen out because Aminah Mae drops some serious #writetip wisdom in this interview (and you're going to want to jot it all down)!
And now, here's my chat with Aminah Mae!
Hi, Aminah Mae! Welcome and congrats on your debut, Not the Girls You’re Looking For. Could you start by telling us a little about the story and what inspired it?
Hello Megan! And thank you so much, it’s lovely to be here! Not The Girls You’re Looking For is my love of mean girls, messy friendships, and bad decisions. It follows Lulu Saad and her three best friends during their junior year at a Texas prep school. Mostly it deals with the ways we screw up and hurt the people we love most around us— and how we come out the other side of that hurt.
I kept thinking about how the last ten minutes of Mean Girls— where the poison is being sucked out, so to speak— is the most interesting to me. It’s the moment where they have to push past all the damage they’ve done to each other and to themselves. I wanted more time with those last ten minutes. I also wanted to write a story where girls had the space to screw up and also had the space to figure out what to do with themselves, beyond those mistakes.
Girls especially are taught that one mistake will haunt their lives forever and define them forever and I wanted a story that acknowledged that we do that to girls, but also provided a path beyond that narrative.
Also, there’s kissing. Because I love kissing books. Write what you love, folks.
In a world where so many books revolve around romantic relationships, I was really drawn to the starred review by Publishers Weekly that called your book ‘a candid perspective on female friendships that are full of conflict, love, and angst.’ What are your tips for writers looking to place more emphasis on the complexities of friendships in their novels?
Don’t be afraid. If you want complexity in friendship, you’re going to have to let your characters do their best and do their worst. It’s terrifying to let go of that control in some ways. To show the world, hell, to even show yourself that your characters aren’t perfect.
But they aren’t and that’s what makes them interesting. Especially when you’re writing young women, let them be human and messy. As creators, we frequently sacrifice our female characters (particularly our teen girl characters) on the altar of likability. Don’t do that. Likeability is a trap. Make characters a reader can identify with, that a reader can understand. But if you want to be candid as a writer, then you have to let go of everyone loving the character the way you do.
Also, much like friendships in real life, friendships on the page take time. It won’t be right the first time, or even the second. Just let the way your characters interact build as you write and build as you edit. You’ll get there in the end.
What has been your most rewarding experience as an author so far?
Having people read my work and understand what I was going for. There’s something immensely gratifying about setting out to tell a kind of story and then have readers pick up on that. I’d rather you get what I was trying to do and dislike it than totally miss the point. Having people understand the core of the story has been so rewarding, on so many levels.
So many readers remark on the masterful use of humor in Not the Girls You’re Looking For. What makes humor authentic for you?
Part of it is that I tell jokes that I find funny. You’ll hear that a lot from writers— we write jokes for ourselves and our own friends first. Our editors come in and tell us when we’ve gone too far. Or when the joke isn’t landing. So write jokes you find funny. And let someone else tell you when the joke is taking away from the story, or you’re trying to make fetch happen.
For me, humor is also about subversion. Subverting ideas about gender, subverting cultural norms. Taking what was expected and turning that thing on its head. Most comedy is about setting up a pattern, and then breaking that pattern at the right moment so that there’s an element of delight and surprise for the audience or reader.
I also came from a family of people who would rather laugh than cry, so I think I’m always seeing the funny side to dark things. My personal joke is that the family crest should read We Laugh To Keep From Crying. And so I think there’s an inherent darkness to humor that you have to acknowledge. Humor is cathartic on that level for me.
What are you reading, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
How much time have you got? Why is YA so good? Why do I read four books at once?
I’m currently reading Morgan Matson’s Save the Date which is on the surface about a girl whose sibling is having a wedding where everything is going wrong. But really, it’s digging into the choices we make about our future, about pushing forward out of safety and into the discomfort of the unknown. Also, it’s really funny.
Always Never Yours just came out by Emily Wibberly and Austin Siegemund-Broka. It’s a feminist Shakespeare retelling, which is my personal catnip, and it did not disappoint. Megan is such a heroine after my own heart.
Maurene Goo’s The Way You Make Me Feel really did make me feel so many things— it’s a father-daughter story and an enemies-to-best-friends story. There’s also a super slow burning, sexy romance that I just adored. Maurene is also hilarious, so if you love humor in your books, definitely check her out.
I’m reading Nisha Sharma’s My So-Called Bollywood Life— which is full of Bollywood film references and has this amazing heroine who’s got A Plan for her life that just starts going terribly awry. It’s much more of a classic romance and so far it’s been giving me Only You vibes (which, if you haven’t seen that movie, please go watch it now, it’s one of the most bananas romantic comedies of the 90s, and I mean that in the best way).
And I just stared Sarah Enni’s book that comes out next February called Tell Me Everything. It’s Amelie for the digital age. Sarah’s got a masterful sense of voice and you understand Ivy from the second she starts narrating her story. That’s also a book about friendship (I’m a sucker for a book about friendship).
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writer something new, so what did writing Not the Girls You’re Looking For teach you?
Patience. I’m still learning that lesson. But I kept going back to the manuscript on Not the Girls You’re Looking For and reworking it. A lot. It was also my first book and I think first books always teach you about patience, about persevering through the slog of queries and edits and revisions and queries again. I had to wait a long time to see this book go out into the world, but I’m so glad I was patient and didn’t quit.
And finally, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your publishing career?
Be kind. You don’t have to like everyone, you don’t owe anyone your time or any piece of yourself you’re unwilling to give, and you can still be kind to people. It’s just a much better mental state to be in over the long run.
Other people’s paths are not your own. There are things you will have to work so hard for that may come easily to others. And that’s okay. And there are things you didn’t even realize came easily to you that others have worked super hard for. So much in writing-- and in any creative path-- is out of your hands. You don’t determine the market, you don’t determine what will sell, you don’t determine who goes out and buys your book. Part of acknowledging that luck is a big part of success is figuring out how not begrudge that luck when it lands on other people. Your career is yours. Their career is theirs. Spend more energy on your own than on what other people have that you don’t.
Sending out all the thanks to Aminah Mae for taking the time to tell us more about NOT THE GIRLS YOU'RE LOOKING FOR, about subverting expectations in humor, and tips on how to write real, complex friendships. Be sure to add her debut to you Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy RIGHT NOW from retail sites such as Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Or you can always request it at your library, or local independent bookstore!
And, as always,