Diverse Voices: Syed M. Masood

I couldn’t be more proud to introduce NOVL’s first ever Diverse Voices! Diverse Voices is an interview series designed to help NOVLers connect with authors of diverse backgrounds and experiences. Our first interview is with Syed M. Masood, author of More Than Just a Pretty Face. Syed grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and now lives with his wife and children in Sacramento, California, where he is a practicing attorney. But enough from me – read below to hear more about Syed, his writing process, and his inspiration for More Than Just a Pretty Face.

What was your initial inspiration for More Than Just a Pretty Face?

I was reading about the Bengal Famine when I came up with the concept for the book. Specifically, I was reading about Winston Churchill’s hand in the famine. It got me interested in the concept of forgiveness. Who gets forgiven and why? Why do we hold young people trying to find their way in the world to higher standards than we do those in power? It began from there.


Can you describe your writing process? Are you a pre-plotter or do you develop the plot as you write?

I just write. I take a blank page and just start putting words on it. It’s messy and inefficient, but it is the only thing that works for me. I’ve tried plotting, but if I do that it feels like the story has been told. I need to discover it as a I write. I want to know how things will turn out, which keeps me going. Hopefully, it keeps readers going too!

Your bio on your website says growing up you moved frequently. How has this influenced your writing?

It helped me realize that people are the same everywhere, which means that all characters are the same at their core. Human beings share the desire to be safe, to have food, to take care of their families, to be loved and to be happy.

Characters may define these things differently, and that can be a source of conflict, but it is imperative that a writer identify that soul of humanity in each of them. It is what is real in this world.

Danyal’s relationship with his family is so hilarious and heartfelt! Was the Jilani family dynamic inspired by your own and, if so, in what ways?


In some minor ways, but for the most part, no, I can’t say that it was. My parents and I disagreed on my career path. I wanted to get my PhD in English Literature. They were…unenthusiastic about that prospect. So that part of Danyal’s relationship with this father is loosely based on my own experience.

What was your first experience reading Muslim representation in a book, YA or otherwise? What would you like to see more of?

I read Mohsin Hamid in college, and he’s brilliant.

As for YA, the first Muslim character I ever encountered was in AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES by John Greene — the protagonist had a Muslim friend. That book came out in 2008, when I was 27.

I suppose one can debate if that is “representation” or not because sometimes the word is used in an #ownvoices sense. We can agree it was a depiction at the very least. Obviously, things have changed since then, and we have some brilliant Muslim authors writing for this age group.

I’d like to see a variety of Muslim experiences get the chance to be seen and heard. I’m acutely aware that I’m not capable of capturing the entire mosaic of what is a complex, diverse identity. I’m not trying to. I’m just telling the stories I feel I’m qualified to tell. But I hope, over time, as a greater number of Muslim authors get published, we’ll all get to see more of the whole picture.

Food is such an important (and mouth-watering) part of More Than Just a Pretty Face – what is your favorite food you featured in the book? Are there any foods you wished you could have included but got left out?

Biryani is my favorite food in the world. Danyal is having it when he first meets Bisma. I’m not sure if this is true, but I’ve heard that there are like 140 varieties out there. I’ve only had maybe 11? There is work to be done!

There is no Turkish food in the book, unfortunately. But that is an amazing cuisine! I wish I’d highlighted that in the book, but I truly discovered it after the manuscript was done. Also, food from Azerbaijan is amazing but doesn’t get a mention in the text either for the same reason.

It’s pretty rare in YA to have a male point of view – particularly in a romantic comedy. What were some of the challenges you faced writing from a male point of view, or did it just come naturally? Do you have any examples of other male POV romcoms that you looked to for inspiration?

I’m a huge fan of John Green’s work, so he’s always an inspiration. But honestly, it came pretty naturally to me. To some extent, it was a really good “write what you know” situation. I was very comfortable with Danyal’s voice. Some characters, you have to wrestle with. He was happy to work with me, which made my life a lot easier.

You’ve written a YA novel and an adult novel. Do you prefer writing for one audience over the other?

Not really. Each has its own charm. Being able to alternate between them was great, actually.

You can cut loose more with allusions and references with an adult audience. Speaking very generally, they have a broader range of experiences. If they don’t understand something, I expect them to look it up. In YA, as a writer, I think you have an obligation to try to make things a little easier for your reader. You have to be more considerate, more hospitable. At the same time, you get to tell brighter, shinier stories—at least I do. YA is the fiction of hope, because youth is hopeful. Adult fiction, on the other hand, is the often fiction of discontent. They’re very different, but I had fun with each. It was just a different experience.

Speaking of your adult book, The Bad Muslim Discount comes out in November while More Than Just a Pretty Face arrived in August! What is it like balancing two publication dates so close together?

It’s been an intense journey. I think for the last two years or so, there were many nights when I was sleeping three or four hours a night. There has been a lot of coffee. The best way I can explain it is to compare it to how tired you feel when you’ve had a couple of exams in a row in college. That’s what it was like, but it just went on and on. There is a cost to it.

But it is so worth it! I’m so proud of these books, and so lucky and privileged to have an amazing agent and two editors who should be the envy of the world. Also, my family, particularly, my spouse, has been incredible. The books would not have happened with out her. I knew my first book had to be dedicated to her. It was the very least I could do.

Would you ever consider writing another book with Danyal’s character? Nisha on our team requests a sequel!

As much as I like Danyal, I’m not sure I’ll get to spend any more time in his head. There are some other great characters around him who deserve to have their stories told. Most of the people who mention a sequel either want to see Suri, Bisma’s sister, as a protagonist or they want to learn more about Sohrab. Both of those could be interesting. Who knows? Maybe one day!

Can we get a peek at some of the Urdu poetry you wrote as a teenager?


Seriously though, no. I honestly don’t have it anymore. I’ve moved around so much that I lost my notebooks from back then. When my father passed away, I found that he’d saved some pages. That was super sweet of him. However, I can’t find those either.

It’s okay. We can all rest assured that the world isn’t any poorer for the loss of those verses.


What are some books you’ve been reading recently, or would recommend?

I actually finished an audiobook of this book I loved called MORE THAN JUST PRETTY FACE. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Seriously though, I just finished listening to the audio version of the book, and Ariyan Kassam did such an amazing job. I’m big into audiobooks and trusting someone else to read your words to the world…it’s difficult. The narrator totally did justice to it. I was so impressed.

One of my launch events was with Katie Henry, so I spent some time with her work again to prepare for our discussion. Then I couldn’t put it down. I’m currently re-listening to Katie Henry’s HERETICS ANONYMOUS after re-listening to LET’S CALL IT A DOOMSDAY. I had to force myself to take a break because my current project is in a difference tense and listening was messing with my head when revising. I actually cut back on reading when I’m revising or drafting for this exact reason. Can’t wait to get back to it though.

I’m also reading a biography of the Muhammad Ali (ALI by Jonathan Eig) and I’m also reading YOU’RE NEXT by Kylie Schachte and A PLACE AT THE TABLE by Laura Shovan and Saadia Faruqi.

What are you working on now? Any exciting ideas you can share?

I’m so excited for the world to meet Arsalan Nizami, the protagonist of my next YA novel. He was raised and homeschooled by his hundred-year-old great-grandfather for most of his life, but now he’s having to adjust to modern life because he’s attending high school. Arsalan ends up becoming the dance partner of a girl who confounds him entirely, and vice-versa. Look for it next year!