Sarah Ayoub

Filmed and edited by David Todd

Duration: 11:25

Sarah Ayoub chats with PRC Team Member Claire Catacouzinos about her inspiration, her writing, and representing young voices in literature.

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Transcript – Sarah Ayoub

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Hi, everyone. My name is Claire Catacouzinos, and I'm from the Premier's Reading Challenge. And today, we're behind the scenes at the Sidney's Writers' Festival at Parramatta. And the great news is we've got Sarah Ayoub here with us today. Hey, Sarah.


CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Now Sarah has published two YA novels-- 'Hate is Such a Strong Word' and 'The Yearbook Committee.' And the great news is that 'Hate Is Such A Strong Word' is going live in term 2 for the Premier's Reading Challenge book list. So it's fantastic news.

SARAH AYOUB: I'm very excited.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Sarah, what influenced you to write 'Hate Is Such A Strong Word?'

SARAH AYOUB: It wasn't something that I'd planned on doing. It was just a side project for me to make sense of my identity and who I was. I never had any aspirations to be an author. I actually hated creative writing at school.


SARAH AYOUB: So 'Hate Is Such A Strong Word' was actually the first creative writing piece that wasn't for school. And I started writing it probably when I was around 19 or just before I turned 19.

And it was just because I was surrounded by so many misconceptions about what it was like to be Lebanese, to be Middle Eastern in Australia. And there were so many stereotypes parts about my community. And were really just associated with crime.

And that was a really hard thing to grapple with. Because I felt like I had to justify my identity to everyone that I met. Like I'm Lebanese, but I don't know any drug dealers. Or I'm Lebanese, but I don't condone this. And that was really hard. That's not something that a young person-- and if you think about people even younger than me-- have to put up with.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: So going with complex identities, both of your books speaks about-- We've got at Czech-Jordanian character. We've got Sarah, who is Lebanese-Australian. We've also got great character, Italian characters in the 'Yearbook Committee.' What influenced you to write in the YA genre itself?

SARAH AYOUB: I guess because I was writing about teenagers. I just found teenagers to be so open. And I find that it's only when we're a bit older that we start to close ourselves off to the world. But teenagers are like sponges. And they really are open, in terms of the fact that they empathise with a lot of people.

They're willing to learn. They're understanding, and, I guess, they change the world. So when I'm writing about something that's going to challenge someone's thinking, they're the first people I think of.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: That's really good. So going with that, we've got 'Hate Is Such A Strong Word' that is written from the first person narration of Sophie. And then 'The Yearbook Committee's' got five different main characters in it.

What influenced you to write from those different perspectives, but also the structure of the book itself and experimenting with that different type of storytelling?

SARAH AYOUB: Maybe because I'm a moron. I don't know. It was really hard going from writing from the perspective of one character and then writing from the perspective of five, including two males.

Because I really had to make sure that the voices were distinct, and that the characters were able to stand on their own, and that they were fleshed out in a way where they were multi-dimensional and just not the kid from a single-parent family with a depressed mother. They had to have their own traits and their own qualities that made them unique individuals. I guess I just wanted a challenge.

I wanted to write teenagers that were reflective of the world that I lived in. They weren't the people that I interacted with, the teenagers that I knew, that I met, that I have worked with, that I have mentored. They're not just one-dimensional people.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: So you do a lot of Sidney's Writers Workshops as well in high school. What do you teach the kids-- character profiles? Because that would have helped you write 'The Yearbook Committee,' as well as 'Hate Is Such A Strong Word.' Is there any other suggestions that you can give to budding young writers out there?

SARAH AYOUB: Yeah. I always say to get their inspiration from the real world. And that's not necessarily to base a character on a person they know. But when they want to create characters that are real, then they have to look beyond the person.

Sometimes their objects and possessions say a lot about who they are, what they wear, what kind of keyring their keys hang off.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: You love symbolism.

SARAH AYOUB: Yeah. Because that's so much about a person. When I was in high school, some people just had a really plain folder. Some people had their pencils in this case where everything was meticulously arranged.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Yes, some of the white-out as well written on the pencil case.

SARAH AYOUB: Some people had everything matching, like that kikki.K, Smiggle, kind of stuff. I had all my stuff in a large Homer Simpson folder. I think someone's possessions say a lot about who they are, the way that they engage in conversation, their background. There are so many different things that can help you build a character.

But there are other things as well, like dialogue. Dialogue is so important. If you met me for the first time at a party, you might notice that I laugh at myself a lot. I laugh at my own jokes. I make fun of myself.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Don't worry. I do that too.

SARAH AYOUB: Whereas some people are a lot more poised, and they're a lot more eloquent. When I'm on social media, my husband always says, you share too much about yourself, whereas he's very closed off. So everyone is different.

So think about how people engage in conversations. That helps you build a character, in terms of their dialogue. So many different themes goes into writing. But I think if you have good characters, and your conversations flow in a way that is realistic, then that really helps.

Just to think about even what takes place when people are having a conversation. I always tell my students that when people are talking in the playground or in the schoolyard, they're not just standing face-to-face with each other, just staring at each other. Inevitably, someone is pulling their lunchbox out of their school bag, or tying their shoelace, or fixing their sock.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: You've got to act.


CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: You've got to have gestures, and the actions, and behaviour around it.

SARAH AYOUB: Yes, so all of that really makes the story more realistic. And this isn't something that I knew when I started out. And I always make sure that my students know that. This is something that has come with practise.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: So did you study creative writing before?

SARAH AYOUB: I've never studied creative writing.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Never studied creative writing, but then you wrote 'Hate Is Such A Strong Word.' How long did it take you to get that book published?

SARAH AYOUB: I wrote it on and off for many years. So I'd write maybe 3,000 words in a weekend, and then leave it for eight months. And then I'd come back and write a little bit more. And I wrote 10 chapters, and then I showed it to an agent. Because I was like, I didn't want to pursue it if she didn't see there was anything there.


SARAH AYOUB: Yeah. I didn't want to keep writing. I had other things going on in my life. I was a student and so on. I wrote the 10 chapters, and she said, I'm interested.

So I finished writing it, and I sent her the first draft. And it was like someone who had never done creative writing. Because there was a lot of telling not showing.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Ah, yes, the good ole telling not showing technique.

SARAH AYOUB: Exactly. And that's a big part of what we cover in the workshops. So I ended up doing an extra two draughts before she even thought it was ready. And part of it was to wrestle the characters away from me. I had to make them their own person.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: That's a good rewriting stage as well.

SARAH AYOUB: Yeah. Editing for some people might seem really overwhelming--


SARAH AYOUB: And scary. But the thing is, when you do it, you realise how much better it makes your work. So it's so daunting, even as a professional writer, when you get an email back from your editor, and there's all this feedback. It's just something that is--

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: You have to do it.

SARAH AYOUB: --part and parcel with the job.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: I always say, if it's something that's really impacted you-- especially when it's a book that you really want to get out there-- and there's a lot of editing to do, give yourself a 24-hour lockdown And then move forward and have that plan A, B, and C ready to go to tackle that manuscript.

SARAH AYOUB: Yeah. And if you need more than 24 hours, there's nothing wrong with that.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Exactly. It might take a week, maybe even two weeks. But as long as you let your ideas sit there and incubate, you can then tackle it with a good editor's pen, as we like to say.


CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: So I have another question for you from Rebecca Tolkes from Bourke Street Public School. So she wants to know, you create such believable characters and story lines Would you ever consider writing for middle grade students or even a picture book?

SARAH AYOUB: I actually would love to write a picture book, because I have children, and I want to give a book to my daughter-- my daughter does love to read-- and say, this was written by mommy. I don't think she'll believe me. But it's something that I would love to do. But I don't think I'm quite creative enough to get there yet.

I'm not going to say no. Because I don't believe in ever saying never.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: You never know what's out there.

SARAH AYOUB: Exactly. You never know what's going to inspire you. But for the time being, there are no plans to write children's or middle grade. But I hope that, one day, I might develop an imagination that will enable that.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: So then, what's next? Are there any other writing projects that you're doing that are going to be published soon?

SARAH AYOUB: I'm actually working on an academic project at the moment. I'm at uni. I'm a PhD student.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Fantastic. Congratulations.

SARAH AYOUB: Thank you. And I have taken my passion for diverse voices in young adult literature. And I'm writing about the way that Australian young adult fiction challenges the stereotypes that we have of girls from migrant cultures. So that, as you can imagine, is taking up a lot of my time.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Very understandable, because it needs to be written. It needs to be out there as well.

SARAH AYOUB: But part of that thesis will involve a creative writing project. You might see that sometime in the next couple of years manifest in a novel.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: Beautiful. So we'll be looking forward to that. We're keeping our eye out for that as well. So, Sarah, it was wonderful interviewing today and sharing your experience.

SARAH AYOUB: Thank you.

CLAIRE CATACOUZINOS: And everybody else, happy reading for the Premier's Reading Challenge. Thank you.

SARAH AYOUB: Thank you.

End of transcript