Peters recently caught up with YA writer, Muhammad Khan to not only congratulate him on his debut novel, I Am Thunder, but to also explore the inspirations and themes behind his writing. From his favourite writing spots, to his go-to novel as a child, here’s what Muhammad had to say.
Peters: Congratulations on the publication of your debut novel. It’s a remarkably realistic portrayal of growing up/coming of age in modern Britain. In the early chapters of the book, your portrayal of the interactions between students in school classrooms is very authentic. What did you enjoy most about teaching mathematics in a South London school? What did you enjoy least? Do you envisage returning to teaching at a later stage in your career?
Muhammad Khan: Thank you so much! I absolutely loved teaching maths and hope to return to it at some stage. My favourite thing, other than working with teenagers – who are the coolest people on the planet, would be challenging negative perceptions of maths. Maths is so relevant to our daily lives so you can’t dispute its importance. But can it be fun? Absolutely! The thing I enjoyed least was doing copious amounts of data crunching and paperwork. I wanted to invest my time in making lessons interesting for my students and to get the best learning out of them. The results always spoke for themselves.
P: In the note from the author at the beginning of the book, you say that “Muzna’s teenage experience is something each and every one of us can relate to, whatever our background”. What would you say are the most challenging parts of being a young person growing up in the UK at the moment? What are the best parts of modern teenagers’ lives?
MK: Social media. It’s both the best and the worst part of being a teenager, in my opinion. Young people live in the Age of the Selfie. They are constantly comparing themselves to celebrities and YouTubers and friends. Filters and airbrushing have given us a skewed perspective of what ‘average’ is and there’s this huge pressure to conform to a particular beauty standard. I think it’s had a damaging impact on young people’s self-esteem. The rise of the far right and extremism are also concerns for young people. It confuses them to see adults behaving so toxically over things like race, religion and gender. That being said, they are generally more politically informed and engaged than ever before, which is brilliant. The last election saw huge numbers of passionate young people coming out to vote. It’s an example of social media being used positively. I also think it has enabled teenagers to make friends from other schools and to pursue interests that maybe their immediate friendship group may not be supportive of.
P: Why did you choose this particular title for the book?
MK: My editor Lucy helped me with the title. It’s a quote from the book. It symbolises Muzna’s journey of self-discovery as she goes from shy wallflower to force of nature. It also links in nicely with her name which in Urdu roughly translates to ‘raincloud’. Sometimes people assume the hijab is oppressive. For Muzna it is her armour and gives her the strength to be her truest self.
P: Why did you make “I am Thunder” end in the way that it does? Was the ending of the story always planned to be this way?
MK: I wanted it to carry a positive message about redemption without pretending the world is a perfect place. Young people make mistakes, there have to be avenues and routes back to the right path. I also wanted to portray a Muslim teen romance – something I hadn’t come across in YA fiction before. The ending went through a multitude of changes. It’s my first book so I was always willing to listen to people with more knowledge than myself.
P: Where do you write best? At which time of day/night are you most productive?
MK: Unfortunately the only place I have to write is my bedroom! I find writing early in the morning sets the right tone for the rest of the day. Sometimes, if I’m working on a scene that is just too exciting to leave, I’ll work into the night. That’s how I wrote the third act of I Am Thunder. I couldn’t stop because I had to know how it was going to turn out for Muzna.
P: What type of book do you enjoy reading as an adult? What was your favourite book when you were a young child? A teenager?
MK: I have diverse tastes but contemporary, horror, and fantasy tick most of my boxes. When I was a young child, my favourite book was The Worst Witch. Jill Murphy created an utterly relatable protagonist in Mildred Hubble and an environment that was both terrifying and thrilling. As a teenager my favourite book was Rice Without Rain by Minfong Ho. I’ve returned to it many times since. There is an unflinching honesty in the writing that really resonated with me. It was the first time I’d seen an Asian teenager in fiction and it made me realise that people like me could be in books. I can safely say that I Am Thunder would not have existed without Rice Without Rain.
Interested in exploring I Am Thunder with your reading group? Get online to pre-order your copy today.