The first-time novelist shares news of her competition win.
In this blog, I’m going to celebrate the success of one of my long-time students, Niloufar Lamakan. Her first ever novel, Swiping at 60, won the Commendation Award at the prestigious CWIP (Comedy Women in Print) awards this week, and I’ve caught up with her, still in celebratory mood, to discuss her writing and the prize.
Q: First of all, congratulations! It’s so well-deserved. Like the judges, I love your story, Swiping at 60. Can tell us a little bit about it?
A: Sixty-year-old interior designer Sophia intends to grow old disgracefully, determined not to be ignored and invisible. She wants fiery passion and hot sex, not targeted ads for funeral plans. Despite vowing never to fall in love again, she accepts a challenge to go on one date every week for a year, hoping to experience mind-blowing sex with no complications. But will a series of unexpected and hilarious encounters change her mind?
Q: Writing a novel is a huge undertaking. What made you take the leap?
A: After doing a few short writing courses, I decided I wanted to write a family saga based on my childhood in Iran (where I lived until I was twelve). I have a large, extended family – there are lots of characters – and to do the story justice, I realised it would have to be a novel.
Q: How did you end up not writing a family saga but writing this funny novel about a woman dating and enjoying sex in her sixties?
A: By then, I’d joined your Friday morning writing class and in one of our sessions, we did poetry and I wrote some funny, naughty verses and everyone laughed, which made me think I should try writing a comedy. At the same time, I’d been on some dating websites and the two ideas meshed in my head. Some of the situations I found myself in whilst on-line dating were very funny and I wanted to explore the humour rather than focus on the serious and, sometimes, difficult side of dating.
Q: Were you at all daunted by the idea of writing a novel?
A: I’ve had various careers to date: IT, Project Manager, Interior Designer, Property Developer and I’d never planned on doing any of them. I sort of fell into each career and did well. So, in the same way, I felt: Why not give writing a novel a go? When I started writing Swiping at 60, I had no idea of the scale of what I was doing. I just kept going. Ignorance really is bliss. However, having you as my novel coach stopped me going down wrong paths and saved me so much time. I used what I learned in our coaching sessions and applied it as I went along. So at the beginning, my thoughts were not clear but as I went along and learnt how to structure a novel, the fog did lift.
Q: CWIP is a unique literary prize, celebrating funny women writers. How hard is it to be funny for 300 pages? How do you know if a comic scene you’ve written works?
A: Firstly, my book isn’t funny all the way through. It would be too much like hitting someone over the head for 300 pages. There are sad and poignant moments in Swiping at 60 and I think they make the comedy, when it comes, stronger. When it comes to knowing if something is funny, I’d say trust your instincts. Have the confidence to believe that what you think is funny will actually be funny for other people. When I was getting my first round of feedback for Swiping at 60, I did ask my beta readers to let me know what parts they found funny and what didn’t work so well, comedically.
Q: Most novelists write themselves into their first novel. How close to you is your protagonist, Sophia?
A: Way too close at the beginning. It took me a while to see her as her own person. Some of my life experiences are reflected in the book but I mixed them in with things I made up. I think, as you go along, you learn that it’s more satisfying to create a whole character, someone outside yourself. And it’s one of the joys of writing – bringing someone to life.
Q: How important was it that your novel featured a woman in her 60s?
A: It was very important. Romantic movies, TV shows and books seem to ignore women over 40. That doesn’t reflect life. Women in their 60s fall in love. They have lovers. They have a lot going on. When amazing actresses like Michelle Yeoh and Jennifer Coolidge win major awards, as they did this year, it underlines what we older woman already know as true: older woman are amazingly accomplished.
Q: How would you describe your CWIP journey?
A: A roller-coaster. Being longlisted was so exciting but then the wait to see if I was shortlisted made me really anxious. I was quite emotional when I found out I’d made the shortlist and extremely excited when I found out I’d won a commendation. To be recognised in any way by the well-known comedian Helen Lederer [who created this prize] and by everyone associated with CWIP, was just amazing. Hopefully, my win will help me find an agent.
Q: Are you sticking with comedy for your next novel?
A: I toyed with writing something more serious but after getting this award – feeling I might be good at comedy – I’ve decided to stick with it.
Q: What advice would you give to anyone writing their first novel?
A: Just get it down on the page. Don’t worry about the details. You can get stuck on certain points. Get the whole story on the page and then go back and work on the quality of the writing.
Q: Can you give us a hint of what your next novel will be about?
A: It’s going to be set in the world of dance – another love of mine.
Find out more: www.niloufarlamakan.com
© Deana Luchia
Photo by Mark Sepple