Aliya Ali-Afzal

Aliya Ali-Afzal

Aliya Ali-Afzal

The Wimbledon author chats to us about her smash hit, Would I Lie To You? and how to pursue your dreams later in life…

For aspiring writers hoping to be published, Aliya Ali-Afzal’s story is one of those dream scenarios that will keep you going. Having worked as a life coach, she changed careers in her late-forties, had her debut novel published to much acclaim, and is now on her second book. She is also inspiring others – she appeared at Wimbledon BookFest, is a creative mentor and gave a talk to students at Putney High, where she was one a pupil.

Would I Lie To You? was a huge success and is out in paperback in January – complete with words of praise on the front from Adele Parks and Sophie Kinsella. The story is set in Wimbledon Village, and centres around the life of a mum, who turns to desperate measures to keep up with her wealthy friends.

How did you switch paths to become a writer?

Reading and writing have been my two favourite activities for as long as I remember. My mum still has poems and stories I wrote when I was six, and as I got older, I carried on writing stories for friends, family and then my children. My earliest memories are of getting a book from my parents every Saturday as a treat, and libraries were my second home when I was growing up. Despite these clues though, and despite my English teacher at Putney High telling me when I was 11 that I should be a writer, I never considered writing as a career. I didn’t know any writers and it just seemed like something too removed from my reality.

I went on to do a degree in Russian and German at UCL and was a stay-at-home mother for a few years before becoming an Executive MBA Career Coach. It was only as I reached my late 40s that the idea about writing a novel started to take shape. Perhaps after years of coaching my clients to pursue their goals, I somehow coached myself into going for my dream too! I still wasn’t sure that I could write though and decided to apply for a novel writing course first. I was shocked when I was picked for one of 15 places out of over 250 applicants. That moment gave me the confidence boost I needed and for the first time, I thought that maybe this was something I could do after all. Once I started writing, I absolutely loved it. It felt like coming home.

What advice do you have for other women wanting to take the plunge and pursue their dreams?

Give yourself permission to do it. Older women have often spent years attending to other people’s priorities, whether it is looking after children or parents, or supporting the family financially, and may not have had the opportunity to even think about their dreams, let alone the energy to focus on them. It requires a shift in your mindset to make yourself a priority after perhaps spending a lifetime prioritising other people.

Although I wish I had started writing when I was younger, being older had helped me navigate the emotional highs and lows of a creative life much better. Getting published is not easy. Literary agents get thousands of submissions a year and only sign a handful of clients. It seemed daunting but I reminded myself of all the difficult situations that I had dealt with in life and that I could deal with this too! By persevering, I signed on with my agent who gets over 5000 submissions a year and only takes on around ten clients. Age can also be a superpower!

Tell me about the locations you feature in the book…

Wimbledon Village seemed the perfect setting for my story about a mother who is living her dream life with her family and whose husband works in the City. I have lived in Wimbledon all my life and love it, so I also relished the opportunity to put it into my novel. The advantage of writing about a place you know very well, is that you also know the emotional landscape of a place and the social undercurrents, both of which are important factors in Would I Lie To You? Although I wanted to show the wonderful sense of community, the family-friendly environment, the beauty of the Common and the glamour of the Village, I was also able to write about some of the tensions and pressures that inevitably exist. I felt a real responsibility to write about the Village too though, and wanted to do it with care and affection.

The novel is also partly set in The City, which is a place that I fell in love with instantly. It is such a unique setting and one could spend years exploring the history, the quirky hidden alleys and squares and admiring the architecture; the grand old buildings and the stunning skyscrapers. I love the energy of the City and the sense of possibility as you walk along the pavements, yet of course there is a darker side as well, including the stresses that come along with success. I explore these in the novel, which is also based on my experience of working in the City, particularly as an older woman and a mother.

Do you draw on any other real-life experiences in the novel?

My experience as a career coach meant that people often opened up to me about issues that they would hide from friends, family and even partners. Often, these involved financial worries after perhaps a job loss. I realised that money was perhaps the last taboo these days, in an otherwise oversharing society and this was because money was never about just the figures in our bank statements. It represented so much on an emotional level too: freedom, independence, shame, pride, power, embarrassment. This was one of the key initial sparks for the novel.

How was your experience at Wimbledon BookFest?

I have been going to Wimbledon BookFest for years and loved sitting in the audience, listening to the authors, then queuing up to get my book signed. It was incredible to be on the stage myself this time, and read from my debut novel to a live audience. Fiona Razvi and everyone at Wimbledon BookFest have been very supportive and so welcoming to me.

Where are your favourite places in SW London?

Rushmere Pond is one of my favourite spots in the world, not just in SW London. The sky is beautiful there and as it is place where I have been coming since I was a child, it holds all my memories and thoughts. I used to go their with my friends when I was a teenager, then took my children there to feed the ducks or have picnics and then my children also went there with friends when they were teenagers.

I have always loved Wimbledon Common and when I walk there, it feels as if nothing has changed in the world, and nature continues as it always has. I love the river walks in Putney and in Richmond as well, and I would recommend the river taxi from Putney pier to the Embankment. It is one of my favourite things to do.

My favourite places to write are cafes and I have spent many hours in Gail’s in Northcote Road with my laptop. It can be dangerous to be there too too though as there is a branch of my favourite shop Whistles nearby and many other wonderful shops, so I could be led astray to reward myself after hitting my weekly word count!

I love going to The Pottery Café in Fulham by myself and especially around my birthday. I paint plates with all my dreams and wishes for the coming year. This really does work for me and the year I put my novel in the centre of the plate is the year I finally completed it!

I love too many restaurants locally to have a favourite but I do end up at Sticks & Sushi in Wimbledon on a very regular basis and love Dawat restaurant in Tooting for my biryani fix.