Aliya Ali-Afzal on her latest novel

Aliya Ali-Afzal on her latest novel

The Wimbledon author tells us about her new book, ‘The Big Day’, and what inspired the story…

Since the wildly successful release of her first novel, Would I Lie to You? in 2022, Aliya Ali-Afzal quickly began working on her next project. Her newest book, The Big Day, is published on 6 June and follows the story of a mother and daughter whose relationship is put to the test when the mother becomes too overly involved in planning the daughter’s wedding.

Tell us what inspired your new book?

Aliya: I always wanted to get married in Hawaii, on top of a mountain, wearing a grass skirt and flowers in my hair. In the end though, I gave in to family pressure and social conventions and had a big fat Asian wedding, with hundreds of guests, and dressed in traditional desi bridal wear.

Years later, I realised that letting my parents make these decisions was also due to a lack of confidence in using my voice, not just for the wedding, but in other areas of my life too. I also didn’t want my mum and dad to be unhappy. I wanted to explore this push and pull we often feel between living an authentic life for ourselves, while also trying to make our parents happy and proud. I wondered if the bride in my novel would fight for the wedding of her dreams, the way I wish I had!

Organising a wedding can be an emotional roller-coaster, with high relationships stakes and the countdown to the big day can be tense but also funny. It was the perfect setting to explore the fireworks that go off when a loving mother-daughter relationship is put to the test.

How did you develop the characters? Can you relate to any of them?

Aliya: The Big Day explores the relationship between Noor, a millennial Londoner, and her Gen X mum Leena. Noor is the only child of a single mum and although they are very different, they are every close- until they start planning the wedding!

The characters in my novels appear inside my head like new people I have met. I knew two things about Noor when I ‘met’ her. She was a successful City lawyer but was happiest when gardening as a volunteer in Richmond Park and in nature. I also knew that she had always felt responsible for her mum’s happiness from a young age. Then it was a process of getting to know her and the people around her, which is how I ‘met’ the other characters. I realised that she was about to defy her mum for the first time when it came to the wedding and had a lot of guilt around this. That’s when I started to understand her better and wanted to know what would happen next.

As a Gen X mum of both millennial and Gen Z children, I could absolutely relate to the differences in world view and how this can often cause frustration on both sides. It’s important, but so hard for us to see each other’s perspectives. I think on the whole, my generation is still better at this than our own parents.

In my books, and in my life, I am fascinated by how the past can affect our future. The wedding makes Noor think about her mysterious father who died when she was a child and this missing piece of her past. Despite being excited to marry her fiancé Dan, Noor can’t help dwelling on her mother’s two divorces, especially as her mum refuses to tell her what went wrong. I wanted to see how Noor would navigate this emotional legacy as she plans her own wedding to Dan, who she loves deeply, which led to me developing a lot of Noor’s inner world as well.

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Do you feature any local locations?

Aliya: Yes! Noor volunteers in Richmond Park, her favourite place in the world, and Pembroke Lodge is also her dream wedding venue. Richmond Park has always had a magical feel for me too, and I wrote a lot of The Big Day in the café there, sometimes spotting weddings taking place as I sat at my laptop, which made the experience of witing this book extra special.

Noor grew up on an estate in Colliers Wood and then she and her mum moved to Tooting, where they still live. I love the way Tooting has remained authentic in many ways, with the same Asian grocery shops I used to go to as a child with my parents. In other ways, the influx of City-career millennials, who love the easy access to work on the Northern Line, has made Tooting more diverse, and opened it up to new demographics, which is great, as you can in local restaurants and in the grocery shops, the market and pubs.

What fascinates you about the mother/daughter relationship, particularly when it comes to weddings?

Aliya: The mother-daughter bond is unique because as women, both will go through the same experiences in life: the intense friendships and fallouts, falling in love from a woman’s perspective, the complex relationship we have with our bodies and the physical experiences we share, such as having periods, PMS, menopause, or pregnancy.

This ‘relatability’ between mothers and daughters is both good and bad. A mother may think that she knows what’s best for her daughter, as she has already been through all the same life milestones , but this can be frustrating for the daughter, whose experiences are never going to be exactly the same. And even as a daughter tries to break away and establish her own identity, she still craves her mother’s approval. This relationship is complex, compelling, beautiful and potentially toxic. Of course I had to write about it! I think The Big Day is a great mother-daughter buddy read anytime, but especially before planning a wedding!

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What is the message in the story you’d like readers to take away?

Aliya: Firstly, I hope to entertain and provide an escape for the reader. But I hope the book is also thought provoking and the messages will both resonate and stay. A reviewer summed up what I hope a reader experiences really well:  ‘The Big Day is a joyful, page-turning read tacking some big life questions.’

There are some recurring themes I find myself exploring in my books. I am intrigued by the way the past can have a hold over our future, particularly when it comes to generational scars. I hope this book explores how we can reclaim some agency for our lives and our actions, irrespective of what happened in our and our family’s past.

The intergenerational relationships between Noor, her mum Leena and the 80-year-old grandmother, Nani, show how each of the women can both learn from each other and teach each other too.

Above all, I hope readers see the importance of being true to yourself, which I think is the only route to happiness in life.

What was your wedding like?

Aliya: I had a traditional Pakistani wedding in a foggy, wintery Lahore: 5 full scale events, hundreds of guests, lavish feasts, pounding music, dancing and dressing up as a bride multiple times, in ornate wedding dresses that weighed more than me. Three of my friends flew out from London and it was wonderful to have them there but everything else was planned by my mum and mum-in-law.

The wedding is a blur and I felt quite disconnected to all that was happening around me, the ceremonies, the décor, the group photographs. What I do remember is being deliriously in love, dancing with my new husband to Rick Astley, the scent of roses in my hair and in the air, the way my new husband put his arm around me as we sat on the wedding stage, which shocked the aunties as it was not done in those days, but also made them smile, and holding hands with my husband in the car home, knowing that this was the person I was meant to be with.

What do you think would be the perfect wedding day?

Aliya: I would still love a destination wedding in Hawaii, although I may wear a silk maxi dress in hot pink and antique Pakistani jewellery, rather than a grass skirt! For a London wedding, I would do registry office and then a dinner for my close friends at my favourite restaurant, a bit like Carrie and Big’s wedding in Sex and The City. I also love the idea of running away to Gretna Green!

Do you think you’d be a good mother of the bride or groom?

Aliya: I think my children have quite different world views than mine. The key is though, that I understand why we think differently, unlike the mum in The Big Day.

I think I would make a brilliant mother of the bride or groom, if I manage to bite my tongue! I would need to override my maternal instinct to think that I could probably organise the wedding better and try to protect them from making costly mistake. It’s important  to let go of my own vision of my child’s big day and let them have the day that makes them happy.

I think often, overbearing mumzillas are that way, not just to be control freaks and annoy their child necessarily, but because they think they know how to plan a wedding better, due to age and experience.

I make a conscious effort to let my children choose their own paths and dreams and even choose their own mistakes, because I truly believe it is the only way to live a fulfilling life. This is something I have seen again and again in my work as a career coach in the last twenty years.

How did you feel about the success of your previous book?

Aliya: It felt surreal to see my book in shops, in magazines, from radio interviews to booksellers and even on TV. There were some moments that I could never have imagined, despite me being an avid manifester! I signed my books at the iconic Barnes and Noble on 5th Avenue, saw it displayed in the library at my old school when I went for a reunion. Some of my favourite writers, like Sophie Kinsella, Adele Parks and Clarie Macintosh praised my book – and of course, all the readers, complete strangers, who got in touch to say they loved my book. I love hearing from readers and connecting with them on Instagram. I am still so shocked and so grateful at the way Would I Lie To You was received.

I love the early reviews that are coming in for The Big Day from authors I admire, like Kate Sawyer, Cesca Major and Jesse Sutanto, and from readers and reviewers. It has given me a sense of excitement and reassures me that readers will enjoy my second book too!

Any lessons you learned from writing your first book?

Aliya: I realised how much I love writing and making things up for a living! It took me a long time to feel brave enough to pursue my dream, but I know that this is what I was meant to do and plan to do in future. There are so many ideas and themes I want to explore. I am excited by all the books I am yet to write!

I have also discovered that apparently, I’m funny, which my children constantly tell me I’m not! I never set out to write funny books, but humour has a way of creeping into life, even in the most serious of situations and it does in my books too. I was pleasantly shocked when reviewers consistently described The Big Day as’ funny, hilarious and full of laughter’, and Would I Lie To You was also described this way. I am finally beginning to believe this now and get great satisfaction from telling my kids that everyone else thinks mum is funny, even if they don’t!

What’s next for you?

Aliya: I’m planning my next novel. I have a couple of ideas that I cannot stop thinking about, which is a sign that I want to spend a year writing that story and getting to know this group of characters. I’m not sure which idea I will write first but this tome around I have a brilliant literary agent who I can discuss my ideas with and who can help me decide.

I can’t wait to get started!

The Big Day releases on 6 June 2024. Order it here.

Follow Aliya on Instagram: @aliyaaliafzalauthor